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car maintenance

There once was a time when car maintenance was simple and (usually) men spent their weekends in the garage, under their car. People were fixing some issue, tuning their twin-chokes, adding the latest gadget or just polishing until they could see themselves in their labour of love. Workshop manuals sold like hot cakes.

Broken headlight bulb? Find the replacement, poke round the back of the lamp and swap out the bulb. Soggy brakes? Open bonnet (aka hood), top up the reservoir and have someone pump the brake pedal while you loosen the nipple and drain via a tube into a bottle – or pressurise the brakes with air in the tyres to save that leg work.

Even checking the timing was a comparative breeze with a set of feeler gauges, and a torch – better if you had a timing light and dwell meter, which I got immediately after burning out an exhaust valve because of a timing error. You really don’t want to drive 100 miles at 20mph on three cylinders sounding like a machine gun and praying nothing fell of the car!

There were exceptions.

Open top MGB. Lovely car, a classic. Shame about the car maintenance. Changing the clutch was a complete engine and gearbox out job with 8 hours on the ticket, and that’s trained mechanic’s time.

The Morris Minor was a classic – the first British car to sell a million. I learnt to drive on one. But changing the master cylinder clutch seals meant dismantling the off-side front torsion bar suspension because some clown used the suspension bolts to hold the cylinder in place inside the box member.

It probably saved 2/6d (12.5p to you) in manufacturing costs but meant a good extra hour in the garage or afternoon spent under the vehicle trying not to annoy the neighbours by swearing too loudly while hoping it wouldn’t rain.

No doubt there are many other stupidities.

Nowadays cars are just commodity items like washing machines and refrigerators. Apart from being rather boring, with the games console beckoning, repairs are not so simple for three reasons:

  1. While total cost of ownership – including repairs reflected in insurance costs – is an important factor in deciding which car to buy, the purchase price plays a big role. Cars are frequently sold at almost no profit, particularly to the mass company and leasing markets. The business model depends on maintenance and spare parts.

Quality has improved enormously over the past 20 years so service intervals have increased while failures have reduced. Maintenance costs have therefore become less crucial to the total cost of ownership. If it is easier to assemble a car in one way rather than another, the manufacturer will choose the quicker and cheaper way to deliver a cheaper product.

  1. The increased sophistication of cars and better component quality control means that ‘servicing’ is frequently a case of replacing whole assemblies rather than taking things apart, changing a spring, washer or seal, and reassembling. With the pervasive use of on-board electronics and computers, it is impossible for service centres to do anything else.

When our car went into the garage for its first annual service a few months ago (it’s a new vehicle), the ‘maintenance’ really consisted of some basic mechanical checks, fluid changes and topups and upgrading software. When the airbag software upgrade failed, the solution was to get a new airbag computer.

  1. As space has become critical – smaller cars are lighter, more economical and easier to park – everything gets crammed in. The original Mini is to blame for this but it has become a mania these days. So there really is no room under the bonnet (hood) anyway to get your fingers, let alone arms.

You now need to remove the whole headlamp assembly to change a bulb and don’t get me started on simple things like changing spark plugs, hidden under the engine management system because they were put into the engine before the engine was put into the car.

So it’s no longer a matter of reaching down with a plug spanner and hoping that the engine has cooled down so you don’t burn your wrist. No, it’s either a special tool that you will never use again or it’s unscrew this, that and the other and lift the EMS out before you can get to the plugs.

Perhaps we shouldn’t complain as this is why cars have become cheaper in real terms while giving many more miles to the gallon, being so much more reliable and lasting a lot longer. Maybe topping up the oil, water and brake fluid is still simple but the argument is that even these need checking less and less frequently.

Nowadays cars in the UK (and in many other countries) need a regular check by law, called here an MOT certificate. Running a car without a valid MOT is not only illegal, it also invalidates any insurance you have in force. So it is essential to maintain the vehicle – just because it doesn’t go wrong doesn’t mean it is in tip-top condition! An inefficient car uses more fuel which is very expensive.

The question is – where to go? Who to trust when you want your car maintained? You can go to the main dealer where in theory they know all about the car and have parts in stock. And they may convince you that the warranty is invalid if anyone else touches it (I don’t think this is true in the EU any more).

But sometimes it is worthwhile using an independent dealer, particularly if you have more than one car from a different manufacturer. In the old days when I ran a Saab 96, the best Saab garage in the UK was a little place in the back streets of Macclesfield near where I worked. So that’s where I went for close on 8 years.

You have to take your hat off to the Cubans for keeping their many 1950’s American cruisers on the road, showing considerable ingenuity. These old Cadillacs and the like have become a nostalgia trip for many Americans and Europeans.

I doubt if the same could happen today if some country were similarly isolated from the spares and repairs industry that surrounds car manufacturing. New cars would just be left to rot when they went wrong, like abandoned cars in the Saudi desert when they ran out of petrol – although that story is probably apocryphal.

No wonder restoration of old and vintage cars is such a big industry – they are much more interesting to work on, apart from the nostalgia value!

It is a pity that a generation of people who grew up taking cars to pieces, understanding how a camshaft or differential worked, drifting out first motion shaft bearings in a noisy gearbox, is being replaced by the new generation which confines itself to the bedroom playing computer games online, not even learning to program!

Oh well, my age is clearly showing. Roll on the revolution!

photo credit: hz536n/George Thomas via photopin cc