We were on line at the hot dog truck in the vast parking lot of the Swap Meet slash car show, and the two guys in front of us were deep in conversation. One guy was in coveralls with more than a little gray hair. The other guy was in his twenties wearing shorts, and the only gray was his t-shirt.
“Nobody knows how to fix anything anymore, they just swap parts till the problem goes away.” Coveralls said with contempt.
“That would be ok if they actually fixed the problem. It ticks me off to pay and then still have the car break a few miles from the shop.” Said Shorts.
“it’s the same problem, no ability to think, so even the parts swappers get it wrong half the time.” Coveralls looked off into some distant past when that was not the case.
“what we need is that star trek scanner thing for old cars and some old-looking parts with new stuff inside that doesn’t break.” Shorts was serious.
“what we neeeeeeed, are people with a basic understanding of how stuff works, and common sense.” Coveralls said emphatically.
“we have them, they are all in banking and technology making millions, and then paying you to fix their Barrett-Jackson purchases.” Shorts retorted.
“yes, but who will they pay when I retire ?”
“robots who don’t bitch and moan all the time like you do..”
The duo got their lunch and headed back to the show.
It got me thinking about the maintenance of old cars and bikes. I do a lot of my own work, but there are very few places that I would (and do) take my machine if it needs repair. More importantly, those few places have an old veteran turning wrenches that know his way around old stuff and worked on it back when it was new. It is relatively rare to find a young guy or gal that likes the old stuff or even a shop that will work on old stuff. When you do, it is becoming pretty expensive and they charge by the hour for as long as it takes. Is the future a place full of broken classics from today that nobody can fix (or afford to fix) as Coveralls suggests, or will we spit out authentic looking parts from 3D printers with super reliable technology inside hidden from view ? Will a new generation of craftsmen emerge ?
All of the classic vehicles I like come from an era when labor was cheap, and parts were relatively expensive. It just made sense to hand craft things and to produce a vehicle with a labor-intensive valve adjustment process that required the removal of the engine and hand rubbing of shims while chanting mystic incantations. Labor was cheap and true craftsmen were abundant. Finite analysis, water jets, and computer-aided design were not part of producing the average sports car. When things broke or required maintenance, you did it yourself or you found a competent mechanic. And that brings up another big difference. Part of owning a performance machine was learning how it worked and being prepared to do some light wrenching. Plugs fouled, points wore out, and oil needed to be added. Your hands got dirty, or you used the disposable glove provided in the toolkit. If this was not your cup of tea, then you would not own such a vehicle even if you could afford one.
Because things needed attention, and because they broke without it, the average owner was forced to understand his machine (at least on a basic level) and to employ basic diagnostic skills periodically. Today diagnostics are often limited to interpreting the icon that just lit up on the dashboard so that you know whether it is about to dispense a latte into the heated cupholder, or if the factory sent out a new module waiting for you at the next exit (with a latte while you wait). Many would argue that this is progress and in part I would agree. Today’s coffee-based beverages are far better than the swill served in prior decades.
While i am certainly more Coveralls than Shorts, i am no purist. There is a crane ignition module in the BMW 2002tii, gel batteries in the 911, and LED driving lights on the R100GS. I work on my own stuff, but i don’t take apart relays or rewind my own coils. Perhaps the satisfaction of owning machines that are 40 to 60 years old is related to the fact that i can fix them. It is also interesting and challenging (for me at least) to track down the root cause of some malady and heal the machine. The vehicles need me as much as i need them. Although, I have to admit that the star trek tricorder would be great to have sometimes. After all, it did come with a grumpy old school curmudgeon of a diagnostician named Bones…..