Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mods, revisited

Sometimes it is just best to leave well enough alone.

In a recent article in Sport Aviation, maintenance guru Mike Busch discusses problems he had with a client who had a highly modified Cessna Skyhawk.   The airplane belonged to a flying club, and apparently, the club had the "need for speed" and added one engine mod on top of another, trying to get the plane to go faster.   The end result was, as Busch concluded, not legal and likely not safe to fly.

The article reminded me of my last article about car "mods" and beggared the same question:  If you want to go that much faster, why not simply sell the Skyhawk and buy a faster airplane?

People who think in terms of monthly payments and not overall costs would say, "Well, it's cheaper to 'mod' the Skyhawk to go faster than it is to buy a faster airplane!"

Wrong - on all counts.

This situation reminds me of the plethora of young men who take low-level automobiles and try to make them "go faster" with mods.    They spend more money that they would have buying a faster car, and moreover the overall cost is far higher.

For example, Joe has an old BMW E36 from 1992.   It has a four-cylinder 318 motor and while it handles OK, it is by no means a high-performance car.   Joe decides to "modify" his BMW by installing a turbocharger kit, along with a number of "mods" to the suspension, body, and drivetrain.   He spends thousands of dollars on this process and the end result is a car that has twitchy and unsafe handling, and an engine that is a hand-grenade waiting to go off.

While the companies selling all these add-on parts tell you they are more reliable and safe to use, the reality is, small parts companies don't have the R&D budget to really research this stuff.  Their handling and horsepower gains are guesstimates as best - which is why their literature is somewhat vague when it comes to actual claims.

Within a few years, the turbo blows up the motor (running too lean) and the car is pretty well trashed.  Joe sells it for little more than junk value.  No one wants to buy an old BMW 4-banger that was ridden hard by a kid and "modded" with questionable "improvements".

Like I said, if you add up the cost of all Joe spent on the car plus the "mods", he spent more than he would have buying a six-cylinder 325i.

But wait, it gets worse.

Joe could have decided instead to polish up and sell the old BMW 4-banger as a used car, and used that money to make a substantial down payment on a much faster (and more collectible) BMW M3 of the same vintage.    By then, such cars were coming down in price, and since they were factory "motorsport" cars - and not modded boy-racers - they would hold their value much more.

At the end of the day, the resale value on a well-maintained used M3 is far higher than the scrap value on a ratted-out "modded" 318i.  The overall cost of owning the M3 ends up being less than the cost of trying to "mod your way up" from a 318i to M territory.

And yet Joe fails to see that.   Each "mod" cost a small amount of money on his credit card (except the turbo, which cost a LOT).   So he doesn't see the costs of all this bolt-on junk as being excessive - and he doesn't see the cumulative costs.   Moreover, he fails to appreciate that each mod ends up devaluing the resale value of his BMW, not increasing it.   By the time he is done "modding" a pedestrian BMW, it has little or no resale value at all - no one wants someone's used boy-racer.

They make faster cars.  They make faster airplanes.   If you want a faster car, just go out and buy one.   It is a lot cheaper and more cost-effective than trying to "make" a faster car out of a slower one.

And with this flying club, the same would be true.  Rather than trying to "hop up" an old Skyhawk, they would have been better off just selling the plane (worth more in "plain jane" form than modded) and then using that money to buy a faster airplane.

And it would have been a heck of a lot safer, too!

Sadly, it is all too easy to fall into this game.   You buy a car or a plane or a boat and think, "Gee, this is a swell car/plane/boat but if only it had...." and you start shelling out money at the car store, the boat store, or the plane store, on some add-on doo-dad which will make your pedestrian ride "just like" the big boys.   But of course, it doesn't, so you go back to the well, hoping that "this time for sure" some add-on will "upgrade" your vehicle to the next level.   It doesn't, of course.

It is cheaper just to upgrade to the next level.

But it is even cheaper to just appreciate your vehicle for what it is.   The old 318i is a nice handling car and a reliable mode of transport.   Not fast, but precise.   The Skyhawk is no speed demon, nor was it meant to be.   But it is a nice plane to build time on and see the sights flying "low and slow".  It is one of the most popular airplanes made - the "general" in "General Aviation" - a flying Toyota Camry, if you will.  Trying to make it into a rocketship is just a waste of time and money.

Sometimes, leaving well enough alone is the best idea!