Sunday, February 9, 2020

Parts is Parts

You can rebuild an engine - a few times, anyway.

I was in Lowe's the other day - or was it Home Depot - and some old timer was blathering on to his companion about "the good old days" and how back then you could actually fix things, like your car.  Today, he said, "it's just about replacing parts" and I just smiled and walked on, because the man was a fool, of course.

Yes, back in the day, you could "tune up" your old car by removing the spark plugs and cleaning them and gapping them.   You could clean your "points" with an Emory board and gap them using a worn Roosevelt dime as a feeler gauge.  You could adjust your carburetor and clean it.    But for the most part, the car still ran like shit - compared to today's fuel-injected cars - and in 12,000 miles you'd have to do it all over again, if not before.  They called it a "Spring Tuneup" for a reason.

Today, well, tuneups don't exist.  No points, no spark plug wires even.  High energy ignition and cleaner burning cars mean 100,000 mile spark plug changes - if they don't last the life of the car.   The only thing to do is fluid changes, and those are few and far between.  Oil changes are extended to 5,000 miles, sometimes as much as 10,000 or more, with synthetics.   Antifreeze?  No longer an annual thing - some are indeed "permanent" or at least last half the life of the car, if not more.   We are so used to turn-the-key-and-go and would not tolerate the frequent breakdowns, adjustments, and repairs that older cars needed, constantly.

But yes, this means when one of your ignition coils (one per cylinder - no spark plug wires!) goes bad, the only thing you can do is replace it.  They cost $25.  They take 10 minutes to install.   And they tend to last 150,000 miles or more, perhaps the life of the car.   It does require you have a diagnostic tool ($50) to read the code which tells you which cylinder is misfiring.   But for the most part, this stuff works pretty seamlessly and is a lot less hassle.

Wheel bearings are a case in point.  When I worked at New Departure, we were transitioning from old-style tapered roller bearings to "integrated spindle assemblies".   At first, I thought this was a bad idea, and indeed, the early integrated spindles left a lot to be desired.   But then you realize that in the old days, one of those annual or biannual maintenance chores was to removed your wheel bearings, repack them, and then reinstall them and adjust the bearing end play.   Since your brake "shoes" (in the days of drum brakes) only lasted about two years between brake jobs, this was usually done at the same time.

Today, most cars have these integrated assemblies, adjusted and lubricated for life - life of the bearing, not the car or you.   But often they last the life of the car - 150,000 miles or more.  And when they go bad, they aren't too expensive to replace, and easy to replace.  Unbolt the wheel, unbolt the bearing, put in the new one, tighten all the bolts.   It can be more complicated that that on a drive axle (you'll need a 32mm socket and a breaker bar) but that's pretty much it.

Our RV has the old-style tapered roller bearings which need to be lubricated and adjusted periodically.  If you remove the bearings, this means replacing the inner seal. Some axles have a zerk fitting and you are supposed to just squeezer more grease in.  But often, the grease is then forced out through the inner seal and all over the brakes, which is a mess.   Some RVs and boat trailers have gone to integrated assemblies - bolt-on hubs that can be readily replaced in a matter of minutes, with no grease, no mess, and no adjustment. Works great on boat trailers which are immersed in water.  Bear in mind if you mess up the adjustment on the old-style bearings, you can wreck the bearing in short order.

Now of course, these integrated spindle assemblies cost more than the old tapered roller bearings, a can of grease, and an inner seal.  But on the other hand, you don't have to adjust them and grease them annually (as some do) or biannually (as I did).  The cost of labor trumps the cost of parts.  In today's economy, labor rates - even your own labor - are fairly high.  It isn't worth spending hours screwing around with jacking up your car or trailer, getting grease all over the place, and then reassembling the whole deal (and of course driving to the store to get the grease, seals, and whatnot).  The integrated spindle may last a decade with no service whatsoever and even if it fails then, the cost of the replacement part is likely less than the added-up cost of all that grease and seals and tapered roller bearings you bought over the years.   Throw in the labor cost and you come out ahead with "just replacing parts".

This is progress, not regression.   But the way some people see it, they would rather have a piece of machinery that breaks down often, but can be fixed with a paper clip.   As one of my BMW friends put it, after selling his E36 coupe and buying a Maxima - "I got tired of having a car that required my constant intervention" - which pretty much describes owning an older BMW.   Yes, you can take them apart and put them back together again and again.   Sadly, you have to, if you want to drive it any distance.

A reader writes - right after my experience at Home Depot - asking about a video where someone is machining the head of a Willys "Go-Devil" flathead four.  His question was, how can you remove material from the head like that and still maintain tolerances?  And the answer is, well, you can't, at least not much.   Some folks do this (or plane the block) not just to eliminate warpage but to increase the compression ratio.  But you can't mill the head like that over and over again - eventually you run out of material.  Just as you can't keep reboring an engine when it loses compression, before you run out of engine block.   Nothing lasts forever, even in the good old days.

Besides, who wants to rebuild a 60HP flathead engine?  I mean, if you are doing a period-accurate restoration of an old Jeep, and you want it to be "correct" that makes sense.  Such vehicles are not driven very far.   What a lot of people do - and the previous owner of my '48 Willys did - was just drop in a small block Chevy from a wrecked car.   A lot cheaper and a lot more horsepower.   They also chucked the "points" for an electronic ignition out of a later model Camaro.  Rednecks ain't stupid.

So that's the other problem with "fixin' things" - things become outdated and outmoded.   You see this today with cell phones and computers.  I threw $50 at my laptop to put in a new hard drive and a new keyboard, expanded memory, and a new battery.   If the motherboard dies, I'm tossing it, though.   You can buy far newer computers for only a few hundred dollars.  The same is true with cars.   Using any car older than, say, 1980, as a daily driver is problematic.   Early cars smelled like gas all the time, rode like crap, had uncomfortable bench seats, AM radios, and just a generally crappy feel to them.  As Jay Leno pointed out, a "sport" model of any small economy car today can out-accelerate, out-brake, and out-handle even a Ferrari of the 1960's.   Compared to the "muscle" cars, it is no contest.

So many of these "restored" cars you see at car shows are fun to look at, but of course, their owners rarely drive them.  Driving them ruins the value of course, but beyond that, they just are not all that fun to drive.

So obsolescence is the other factor to consider.  And no, "planned obsolescence" is not some conspiracy of the big automakers and oil companies or whatever - it is just good basic Engineering with a capital E.  You build a product to a price point with a design life in mind.   You can make a vehicle "last forever" (well, at least a long time) but it may end up costing more than people are willing to pay.  My old Mercedes W123 was a 300,000 mile car, to be sure, but it cost more than three Chevrolet Impalas of the era, which were 100,000 mile cars, at least.   So yea, they lasted a long time - with maintenance, which wasn't cheap.  But even those reach an end game - when the transmission or engine needs overhaul.   They just aren't worth that much or are that interesting to throw money at.

The video above is from a fellow I really like.  He reminds me of a guy I used to go drinking with after work - his cadence is the same.   And he hops up old slant-6 engines, too, which I find kind of fascinating.   The video above was interesting, as he illustrates how trying to "fix" something ends up breaking it.  Someone honed the cylinder wall to get rid of the "ridge" left by the piston rings and ended up tapering the bore!  I was always told this ridge had to be removed, but he seems less concerned - after all, it is located at a point in the cylinder which, by definition, the rings don't meet.

But as he illustrates in the video, you can only bore an engine block so many times, and each time, you remove material and arguably weaken the block.   I like his laissez-faire attitude about things - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Could a machine be made to run for 100 years?   Perhaps.  My old Ford tractor was over 70 years old when I sold it.  It had never been taken apart over the years, but "maintained".  I did have to pull the head to replace the bakelite timing gear - probably the first time it had been done since 1941.  And that was not an anomaly - you see old Ford Tractors sitting out in a field for years.  Put a new 6V battery in it, some fresh gas, and they start right up.  Of course, that doesn't mean they are ready to plow the back 40.   In fact, one reason they were parked in the field by many farmers was that they were not that great a tractor.  Larger and heavier tractors that could pull bigger implements quickly replaced the old 9N.   Arguably, Ford over-built those tractors, as today they survive as hobby toys and lawn ornaments.  I used mine to mow the lawn which is all a Ford (or New Holland) tractor is good for.

Yes, the "good old days" are gone.  You can no longer crib together a new gasket for your carburetor by cutting a piece of material from your hatband, as Kurt Vonnegut claimed in Player Piano.   But trust me, electronic fuel inject is a far, far better thing - more reliable, more efficient, and more powerful.  Oh, and it doesn't reek of gas or pollute the planet as much.

Pining for the good old days is never a profitable enterprise.   The good old days weren't all that good, to begin with - things are indeed better today.  But even assuming things were "better back then" - which they weren't - you can't go back in time to that period.   It is physically impossible to do.

As my Cuban friend would say, "So, what's your point?"

These are the good old days.

UPDATE:  Parts are why some older vehicles (or even vehicles not that old!) are worth almost nothing.   I was able to fix my friend's Honda scooter because they made them for 20 years and a lot were made.  Being a Honda, people felt it was worth fixing.  As a result, parts are plentiful and cheap.

Compared this to my friend who bought a Chinese-made scooter (with an Italian name) and found out that when it broke, parts were simply not available at any price.   A scooter only a few years old, ready for the trash.   That's wasteful.'

It is like the four-wheeler I saw being barged off really rich people's island a year or so back. It looked OK to me, but apparently the engine needed some parts, and it was a cheap Chinese-made look-alike of a more popular four-wheeler.   No parts available, no way to fix it.  The owner thought he was saving money buying it, but since it only lasted a few years, the savings may have been illusory.

Unless, of course, it was so cheap that buying disposable vehicles is cheaper than fixable ones!