Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

8 Reasons Why The Good Old Automotive Days Weren't That Good

7 posts in this topic


The Globe and Mail

Thursday, Nov. 08 2012

Repressed Memory Syndrome is a mental safety valve that allows us to bury recollections we’d rather not deal with. It’s most commonly associated with abuse cases, but it has its place in the world of cars, too.

I thought of this the other day when a friend started talking about the good old days of driving. For a moment, I was with him, lost in a reverie of summer nights, Shelby Cobras and air-cooled Porsches. Then the unwanted automotive memories came flooding back: flame-spitting carburetors, terminal rust and ignition systems that drifted like Clint Eastwood at a Republican convention.

Today, we take it for granted that our cars will start each morning, keep running if the temperature goes up or down, stop when we hit the brake pedal, and last at least a few years before succumbing to terminal rust. The good old days were filled with challenge. I recalled a drive through the mountains of British Columbia in an early-1960s VW van where the brake pedal suddenly went straight to the floor – the van had a single master cylinder, which meant that a leak anywhere in the system killed all four brakes.

Design flaw was once the order of the day. I got a flat tire in one of my Beetles, only to discover that the spare tire had been drained of its air by the windshield washer system, which used the spare as a source of pneumatic power. This triggered a further memory – a 1965 trip that left our family stranded in Northern Ontario when an intake valve snapped on my parent’s two-year-old Mercury Comet. Then there was the day back in the 1980s when a faulty fuel system sparked an engine-compartment fire in a friend’s Hyundai Pony. By the time fire crews arrived, the Pony was a gutted, blackened hulk on the side of Highway 401.

I had to admit it: the good old days weren’t that good.

Modern cars may lack character, but they’re better machines than the vehicles of yore. Fuel injection and electronic ignition make reliable starting a given. You can go years without a tune-up. If you crash, crumple zones and air bags maximize your chances of survival.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the late 1960s, many cars were built with solid steering columns that impaled the driver in a front-end collision. Starting a carbureted car on a cold morning called for the skills of a surgeon, with a touch of sorcery thrown in. Your right foot played the throttle while your hands juggled the choke lever and ignition key. With luck, you hit the perfect combination of fuel, air and spark before the battery died.

The carburetor is a metaphor for the imprecision that once ruled the world of automotive manufacture. When I worked as a mechanic back in the 1970s, I dealt with a long list of problems that were built into countless new cars – improperly machined cylinder heads, carburetors that shook themselves loose and bodies that began rusting even before they left the factory. (This was all great for the repair business, needless to say.)

On numerous occasions, I encountered replacement parts that wouldn’t fit on the vehicle they were built for (the chances of this occurring increased dramatically if the car was made in England). Back then, even the finest cars were built with methods that allowed for wide variation from vehicle to vehicle, and even within a single car. A friend told me about a restorer who bought a new door for a classic Ferrari, only to discover that it didn’t fit. He quickly realized that each car was a one-off, hand-shaped by craftsmen. (The left and right doors weren’t symmetrical, either.)

Today, even economy cars have parts that fit and systems that work. This got me thinking about what makes current cars so much better than the ones of days gone by. Here are some of the reasons:

Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) manufacturing: CNC equipment allows engineers to create machined parts that fit exactly as designed by eliminating the vagaries of human input. (To see why this is important, try working on an 1960s English car, or a 1970s Detroit model built on the first day after a long weekend.)

Robotic assembly: Humans are great at design, but robots do a better job when it comes to repetitive tasks like assembling a car. Unlike humans, robots do not forget bolts or seek vengeance against their employer by welding Coke bottles into closed body compartments to create a clunk that can never be fixed.

Disc brakes: Until discs came along, the automotive standard was the drum brake. Drums didn’t work well if they got wet, and lost their braking power when they got hot (like when you used them to stop the car).

Electronic ignition: Today, we take it for granted that our ignition systems will deliver a hot spark at the appropriate moment. Back in the days of the traditional, points-based ignition system, you rode on a set of wandering adjustments that could kill your engine at any moment. Setting the timing was more art than science: you hooked up a strobe light and rotated the distributor, aiming the ignition point like a hunter leading a fast-moving mallard. This adjustment would begin to degrade as soon as you finished, and within a few months (or sometimes within minutes) the ignition would be out of whack again, killing performance.

Fuel injection: The carburetor, which once ruled the world of cars, was a simple yet infernal device that mixed air and fuel. Setting a carburetor was like tuning a finicky trombone – you adjusted it for a specific set of temperature, altitude and engine parameters, all of which changed as soon as the car left the shop. Comparing a carburetor to a modern fuel injection system is like comparing an iPhone to a pair of tin cans with a string pulled between them. (Even NASCAR has converted to fuel injection, which tells you something.)

Corrosion control: In the days before government-legislated anti-perforation warranties, many cars began rusting as soon as they were built. In the late 1970s, I once saw a brand-new car on a dealer’s lot with its front fenders already rusted through. This was not uncommon – one of my early Hondas was ready for its last rites after less than five years on the road. According to urban myth, manufacturers used to design cars to rust so drivers would have to replace them more often. I suspect that there may have been some truth to this.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC): After watching a driver die in front of me on a Nova Scotia highway when she over-corrected for a minor swerve, I saw the value of ESC, which can apply the brake to individual wheels in a strategic sequence to straighten a car. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believe that 33 per cent of all fatal accidents could have been prevented by the technology.

Shoulder belts, airbags and crumple zones: Although some scoffed, these technologies have revolutionized automotive safety by reducing the forces experienced in a crash. The effectiveness of these systems was demonstrated a couple of years ago when a driver whose wife had left him tried to commit suicide by plunging off a 30-metre cliff outside Chattanooga in his new Mercedes. Had he been driving an older car (or left off his seatbelts), it would probably have worked. Instead, he was pulled out of the woods with minor injuries.

There are plenty more reasons why new cars are better, but this will get the discussion started. Let’s hear your thoughts.



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Some cars of yore have fuel injection....But the general thrust of this argument is fair. Though I still don't trust electrons.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Throttle body fuel injection was a great advance, 'tis true. A single (4 cyl) or two (V6 or V8) injector situated where the carb would be. My old truck had 308K on it without the engine or fuel system being touched when I passed it on, and is still alive today, gotta be over 400K by now. Injector was in a cool clean location, and could last forever.Newer fuel injection systems with multiple injectors in the head or the even newer direct injection into the cylinder like a diesel are a lot more troublesome and expensive. Injectors run hot, downstream of the EGR and are prone to carboning up, also many DI engines have had valve gumming problems due to not getting washed by fuel.I agree with Mike, the general tone is mostly correct. New cars tend to be a lot less trouble for the first 200K, but after that look out!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

....fair enough and all true.But when my VW Westfalia bus quits at the side of the road I'm fairly certain I can 1) figure out what's wrong, and 2) repair it in situ (at least to get home) with a minimal set of tools.I sometimes think that "tinkering" is a lost art. What's wrong with knowing how the points, condensor, plugs, etc. interact and being able to "get by" with an engine that has all of 2 connections to the chassis? Sure it's difficult getting dual carb's synchronized just right but there's a certain satisfaction in getting it right.....when my '05 cabrio wouldn't start in the driveway, it required a tow to the dealer to figure out which electronic component was the culprit....just my $0.02 worth.MZ

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree that most of the article was good, but not all things mentioned in it were quite accurate.

- Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) manufacturing: I totally agree with.

- Robotic assembly: Again, I agree. Hand built vehicles have their advantages, but they are far outweighed by the disadvantages

- Disc brakes: Disc brakes are also suseptible to the affects of water, but not to the same extent as drum brakes.

- Electronic ignition: Although today's elecrontics are generally reliable, if something goes south in that department, you are stuck at the side of the road until a tow truck comes along. With the old points and distributor system, if electric supply to the spark plugs was interrupted for some reason, an emery board, nail file or a can of WD-40 to clean up the points or whisk away water from the distributor might be enough to get you home.

- Fuel injection: I have to admit that fuel injection is a good thing, but the following quotes from the article are silly.

"Starting a carbureted car on a cold morning called for the skills of a surgeon, with a touch of sorcery thrown in."


"With luck, you hit the perfect combination of fuel, air and spark before the battery died."

I owned a 1971 Austin Mini with a manual choke. I drove that car for 6 years with no cold or wet weather issues. It never failed to start in over 105,000 miles that I put on it. The Mini never required any more than a quick turn of the key to bring it to life. It was the original battery in it when it finally went to another person to enjoy. The wife's 1968 Sunbeam was the same way. My '89 Civic was the first car I owned with fuel injection. It has caused no problems, but i still miss the choke.

- Corrosion control: Of all the new cars I have purchased over the years, the only one to come to me "pre-rusted" was a Ford. Even my Mini was still rust free after 6 years. All of this with no aftermarket rust control. Currently, my '89 Honda Civic (23 years old last week) has no sign of rust, but it has had rust protection.

- Electronic Stability Control (ESC): I agree that this has saved many lives. That said, I don't feel the need for it in my old Honda, because I know the limits of the car and drive within them.

- Shoulder belts, airbags and crumple zones: Crumple zones, yes. Good idea. Air bags, also yes. Shoulder belts? Not so much. The standard belts in almost all street legal cars these days are too narrow and can cause as much damage to the body as they prevent. You would never find such belts in track-performance cars. They have much wider belts and are a 5-point harness instead of a 3-point. Some people will argue that the speeds in a crash in a normal car or van is much lower that that of a race car, but only if they are not involved in a head-on collision. Since race cars all go in the same direction at approximately the same speed, the chance of a head-on collision is negligible. The views on the shoulder belts are my opinion only, taken from personal experience in a street collision.

To extend the discussion a bit, newer tires are far superior to the older bias-ply tires. On the subject of tires (I know I am going to get a lot of nay-sayers here) the currently available winter tires have their good and bad points.

- The good: On cold, dry pavement or ice, the new winter tires do what they are designed to do. When in deep snow, you get the same results from all-season tires and the all-seasons last longer.

- The bad: When it comes to "real" snow (several cms. or inches deep) they are terrible compared to "real" SNOW tires of days gone by. You know, ones with an agressive tread that has such an open pattern that it actually hums on dry pavement. I had a vehicle fitted first with "real" snow tires and later on, winter tires. The difference was night and day. Bring back SNOW tires!

Electonics (as mzeeb mentioned) can be a real pain. FIXING something is almost a thing of the past with a few exceptions. These days, if a problem develops, the whole unit is replaced at a cost that is usually more than 20 times (literally) more than the cost of having a knowledgeable person repair it.

My 2₵ worth too

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

My Peugeot 404s all had mechanical fuel injection and it's multipoint of course, it was totally bulletproof and brilliant. My 404 started a couple of months ago after 6 years sitting, and on the first turn of the key. When something goes wrong on a 404 I know exactly what it is and how to fix it. That's a lost art, with moderns.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

He obviously never a good car "back in the day" like a Mercedes diesel, if you could push start it it would run on pretty much anything for fuel, no battery even required! They just did not break down. Diesels are not like they used to be...sad. Engines used to be made of metal and all the parts around it, now everything is plastic with a very limited life span.I completely disagree about the rust issues, I see rust being more of a problem again on modern cars with electronics (wiring under carpets, computers/relays) and salt use is way higher then it used to be. sure the cars looks last longer but not the car-many are missing structural parts after 6 years like rockers on minivans.I also diagree about the safety equipement, cars are too heavy now, NOBODY needs airbags or crumple zones just common sense and law enforcement of the rules. If every driver knew how to control their car nobody would have problems...

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

    You don't have permission to chat.
    Load More