New Cars Are Sometimes Easier To Fix . . .

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The conventional wisdom is that new cars are a maintenance nightmare – tough even for professional mechanics with all the right tools to service. There is a lot of truth to that – chiefly because of much tighter “packaging” than was common decades ago and also because of the shift away from rear-drive layouts (with the engine mounted front to back) to front wheel drive-based layouts in which the engine is mounted sideways  . . . which means that if the engine is a V-6, half the engine will be snugged up against the firewall and things like spark plugs can be extremely challenging to get at.DIY 1

However, all is not woe. There are some things about new cars that make them easier to service. Let’s walk through a few:

* Less clutter -

Pop the hood of a car built from circa the late 1960s through the 1980s and what you will often see is a bird’s next (or spaghetti plate) of loose wires and small hoses snaking through, around and over what you need to get at. They built ‘em sloppy Back in the Day and figuring out what went where could be as challenging as lining up a Rubik’s Cube only harder because unlike the actual Rubik’s Cube – which went together exactly one way – each car was thrown together however the guys on the line decided to throw it together that day. There was often no particular rhyme or reason to the routing of hoses and wires. You had to guess – and improvise. Vacuum leaks were common – as were problems related to poor connections. It could be exasperating tracing down each hose/line until you finally found the problem.camry engine pic

Modern cars’ engine bays are much improved in this respect. The harnesses and hoses are routed cleanly and coherently. The car’s engine bay actually does conform to the service manual’s descriptions. There are also – in general – fewer hoses and while there are more wires, they are usually located in such a way that they do not interfere as much with access as was the case in the past. One good example is modern car ignition systems. Instead of a distributor with a wire for each cylinder snaking around the engine compartment, most modern cars have “coil on plug” ignition – with a short wire connecting the coil pack for that cylinder to its adjacent spark plug. And of course, the plugs in a modern car are almost maintenance-free. As a rule, they don’t even need to be looked at for 100,000 miles. In the old days – which were not so long ago – plugs had to be replaced once every 30,000 miles. Or sooner.

* Fewer parts -serpentine 1

One of the most heinous chores that used to be a routine chore was adjusting and replacing drive belts. The typical car had a belt for each accessory, such as air conditioning and power steering. Now add the water pump and alternator and the typical car had at least three individual drive belts, each one requiring adjustment about once a year or so and replacement about every third or fourth year. It was a major job – because usually to get at one belt you had to remove another first – and the tensioning procedure was a gymnastic exercise of leveraging pulleys and brackets until you got it just right, then trying to tighten the usually hard-to-reach bolts while maintaining the correct tension. Now times that times however many individual belts the car had.

Almost all new cars have a single serpentine belt driving all accessories. The belt and pulley system looks intimidating, but replacing the belt is usually very easy – and tensioning it correctly virtually idiot proof. Typically, there is a single “idler” pulley that you leverage with a wrench to take the tension off the belt, at which point you simply slide the old belt off the pulleys. The new belt is routed around the pulleys, the final step being to slip it around the idler. Release the idler – and the belt is automatically tensioned exactly correctly and – you’re done. Serpentine belts also last much longer – often going 75,000 miles or more before they finally snap. The one downside to serpentine belts is that if it does snap, you will lose all your belt-driven accessories instead of just one as in the old days.old engine pic

* More considerate location of things like oil filters -

I work on a lot of cars and have found that there is a trend toward making at least some routine servicing easier, especially for the home mechanic. For awhile, it was the opposite. It seemed as though cars were designed by a perverse genie – one employed by car dealers  – whose charge was to make even the most basic service so daunting that most people would give up and turn the car over to the dealer for service instead. For instance, my father-in-law’s circa 1990s-era Cadillac. The oil filter was mounted in the valley of the “v” of the V-8 engine and almost impossible to get at. If the person who installed it previously had installed it more than hand tight, getting it loose was hopeless. And even if you could get it loose, it was mounted upside down – assuring a mess.BMW filter

More and more of the new cars I work on have accessible oil filters – sometimes, they are even mounted in such a way that you don’t even need tools to get at or remove/replace them. Increasingly, I find they are mounted to facilitate draining without spillage, too.

Of a piece: Most new car radiators have accessible – and easy to loosen/tighten – drain plugs, making it a lot easier to do a basic flush and fill. And air filter housings now tend to have tool-free snaps that hold the top in place, making it almost as easy to get at the air filter as it was back in the old days when air filter tops were held in place with a wingnut. Routine brake work such as replacing pads is also more DIY-friendly these days. And the almost complete fade-away of drum brakes (which have many more small parts and require more fine adjustment) has also made routine service simpler.

But probably the greatest contributor to less work/less hassle is that modern cars simply need less attention less often. The occasional lemon excepted, most of them will require next to nothing from you beyond basic (and easily done DIY) fluid/filter changes for the first 100,000-plus miles.

As much as I appreciate the character and personality of older cars – especially pre-computer/pre-fuel injection cars – the truth is that they required more hand-holding than today’s cars. That’s fun when it’s a hobby. Not so much when you need the thing to get you from A to B without hassles.

The Good Old Days were good – but they weren’t perfect.

And today isn’t all bad, either.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  23 comments for “New Cars Are Sometimes Easier To Fix . . .

  1. anchar
    January 27, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    My recent brake job on my ’86 blazer: remove manual hub screws, remove press ring, remove clip washer, remove lockout mechanism, remove outer spindle nut, remove locking spindle nut washer,remove brake caliper, remove inner spindle nut, get slide hammer to remove rotor from spindle, cut and remove old brake hoses, have rotor turned and pads replaced- and that is just half the job- then bearings and races were replaced, as well as bearing seals, all items cleaned of old grease, new grease applied. The whole point of this was to get to the front u joints which were so bad they lost their needle bearings. Shop was going to charge me close to $2k for this

  2. justin
    January 27, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Change the headlight bulbs on a new Chevy Malibu

    you have to remove both front wheels, the inner fenders, and the front bumper,
    just to get at the light bulb.

    • eric
      January 28, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Hi Justin,

      I’ve heard this; if true, it’s among the most egregious examples of poor design I’ve ever heard of.

      On the other hand, getting at the passenger side rear spark plug on a ’79 Trans-Am 400 is a knuckle busting nightmare – and not for the timid or impatient!

      • Phillip the Bruce
        January 28, 2014 at 2:38 pm

        A friend had a mid-70′s Nova with 350 V-8. To change some of the spark plugs you had to jack up the car, drop the wheel and go through the wheel well.

        • eric
          January 28, 2014 at 3:26 pm

          Hi Phillip,

          Oh yeah! I did that job myself on that very car, back in the day (’80s).

          But for real fun, try wrenching on a V-8 (305/267) equipped Chevy Monza!

        • michael.white
          January 31, 2014 at 10:54 am

          I had a’79 turbo-charged Buick Century where I had to grease my arm to get it to fit between the turbo charger and exhaust manifolds to get to two of the six sparkplugs, and I was pretty slim at the time.

          I hated that car….

          • eric
            January 31, 2014 at 10:57 am

            Ach!

            I worked on one of those – owned by a friend – back in the day. Got-damn was it a pain in the ass!

            But, I know of a worse one… a much worse one:

            1980-’81 Turbo Trans Am.

            The trauma I endured is probably what has made me leery of turbo’d cars to this very day.

          • michael.white
            January 31, 2014 at 11:13 am

            Eric – It was that car that caused me to switch to Japanese cars.

          • eric
            January 31, 2014 at 11:19 am

            Ha!

            I swore a lot at the Turbo Trans-Am, but maintained a liking for the thing somehow. I really like the looks – especially the Pace Cars, which were striking. And I’ve always felt a little sad about the fate of this, the very last Pontiac-powered Trans-Am. It had potential – and “coulda been a contender.” But GM strangled it in the crib.

            The ’79 turbo Buick was a mess, too – but by the mid’80s (with fuel injection and other upgrades) it had become one of the most formidable performance engines of the era. The apogee was the Regal GNX – which was capable of mid-high 4 second runs to 60 and 12 second quarter miles in nearly stock condition.

            That holds up well, even today.

  3. Eric_G
    January 27, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    All’s not fantastic in VW world though. The oil drain plug has a compressed gasket that can’t be reused, so part of the cost of an oil change is a new drain plug.

    • PanarchistamericanHelot
      January 28, 2014 at 12:41 am

      Eric G. wrote, “The oil drain plug has a compressed gasket that can’t be reused, so part of the cost of an oil change is a new drain plug.”

      Da fuck! Somebody hasn’t figured out a work around for that yet?
      Pardon me, I haven’t worked on a VW, but wouldn’t a copper washer from a Ford work? Or some kind of grab-off from a spark plug?
      Crap! Gimme the J.B. Weld!? Ha.

      I can just hear some guys somewhere saying, “Got-damn M.F.!” With a grunt thrown in, as if it mattered.

      And, mang, justin. Sometimes I wonder if replacing a headlight that way isn’t easier than dealing with a tiny rusted stripped out screw or two and a mangled headlight chrome what-the-fuck-do-they-call-it, s.o.b. that costs a lot to replace?

      Just bend the inner fender well without taking it off and… can you work your hand in without removing the bumper?

      Anyway, I found no flaws in this article. The descriptions of working with the vacume hoses was especially compelling and precise. Brang back shit tons of costly and time consuming nightmares, TYVM.

    • eric
      January 28, 2014 at 7:39 am

      Hi Eric,

      Really? The drain plug itself has to be replaced? Not just the copper gasket?

      I don’t see how the plug can deform or be “one use only.” Unless the plug is made of plastic.

      I still have the ’14 Passat. If it’s not to inhumanely cold out today, I will crawl underneath, have a look – and report back!

      • Doug
        January 30, 2014 at 1:59 pm

        I have never replaced the drain plug/washer on my 1,8 Audi S3 and the oil has been changed once each year since 2001. My 2003 A2 has the same plug as does my 2013 A1 and my Mother’s 2003 Golf TDI. All have the original drain plugs, all have always used synthetic oil and none has ever leaked.

        • eric
          January 30, 2014 at 3:22 pm

          I figured that, Doug!

          The only reason I left the door open to the possibility is that I’ve seen some really strange stuff over the years… and learned never to say never unless I know for sure it’s the case!

  4. Bryce
    January 28, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Amen on the vacuum hoses, Eric! I have some interesting experiences with vacuum hoses:

    #1: My ’68 Olds Delta 88: My air conditioning went out on me on a really hot, sticky summer day. I replaced almost every component on the system (as it turned out, there were a lot of bad parts in there), but I didn’t get it working until I replaced the vacuum hose that supplied vacuum to a diaphragm for louvers on the plenum for the evaporator, so the cold air was happening, it just wasn’t being let into the cabin because the louvers weren’t getting vacuum from a leaking hose. (And when that AC kicked on, the car shuddered a bit!)

    #2: My now dearly departed Aunt Jacquie’s ’74 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron: This car had a parking brake that automatically released when you shifted out of Park. One day, she called my grandfather because her car was stuck in her driveway. She was about to have the car towed to a garage, when Pap asked Aunt Jacquie, “Do you know your car is making a hissing sound?” That hissing sound was coming from the vacuum hose that supplied the automatic release mechanism. Aunt Jacquie kicked it loose when setting the brake, and the hose was lying on the floor…The kicker? The parking brake came with a manual release lever for just such an occasion. Pap had the same mechanism on his ’78 Sedan De Ville, and that hose always got kicked loose…that’s how he knew to look for that. I think he disconnected the vacuum and just used the lever after one too many loose hoses.

    • eric
      January 28, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Great memories, Bryce!

      I know just what you mean about those old GM AC compressors. My TA has one – and even with that big 455, you can feel the load when the compressor clutch engages. In cars with low-powered small blocks (e.g., the Chevy 305) the car literally staggered when you engaged the AC!

      The upside was those old R-12 GM systems could really put out the cold.

      My TA’s system is capable of frosting the vents….

  5. Bryce
    January 28, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Thanks…My Olds had the 455 with a Quadrajet. Incidentally, Aunt Jacquie quit driving shortly after the parking brake incident. Her reason was “it’s just getting to be too much trouble to drive anymore, with cars so complicated and with gas so expensive.” (This was in or about 1985!)

    • eric
      January 28, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      The good ol’ 455 Rocket! One of the best street V-8s of that era. Like my Pontiac 455, it produced tremendous quantities of low-end torque – ideal for a heavy car with an automatic. But – cammed and set up right – they could also make very respectable (and streetable) horsepower, too.

      I’m also, by the way, one of those retro weirdos who reveres the Q-Jet. If set up properly, it gives almost EFI driveability – and superb performance. Once you’re “hip” to them, tearing them down and putting them back together (and tuning them) is pretty straightforward. And assuming your castings are ok, they can be kept in service for a very long time. My TA has its original carb – almost 40 years old now and still working like a Swiss watch….

  6. justin
    January 29, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    the official V W Beetle repair manual for replacing the alternator says,
    “begin by removing both front fenders…”

    • eric
      January 30, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Hi Justin,

      Again, some are better – others are worse. It’s not necessarily new is worse – and older is better. I’ve owned – and worked on – enough of both to find this out at firsthand!

  7. Jean
    January 30, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Please forgive me for spamming a little…

    Another article on police getting “Remote Stop” abilites for cars.
    While this is from the UK, and there’s nothing concrete yet, it highlights (underscores?) the wild-eyed conspiracy theories here, about how “THEY” will hack your car, track your car, and decide when (if) you can or cannot drive.

    We will become Borg if we aren’t careful – a collective, an example of non-individuality. (I wager the borg had more free will than clover, for example…)

    http://www.thedailysheeple.com/eu-considers-remote-car-stopping-device-to-assist-law-enforcement_012014

    • eric
      January 30, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      You’re not spamming, Jean.

      I keep an eye on what crops up in the UK, because the UK seems to be the place where they roll out these noxious little ideas (and technologies to implement them).

  8. michael.white
    January 31, 2014 at 11:04 am

    My wife had an ’01 BMW 540i and I had to change the water pump. The nicest part of the whole deal was the coolant lines – just pull a clip and they’re loose; twist a connector and drain the radiator. Lots of o-rings, which amazingly stayed in place during the whole process. Putting them back together was just as easy, and no visible leaks in the end (at least good enough to sell).

    I imagine BMW charges and arm and a leg for each one of those coolant lines…

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