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It’s not like it used to be.
Or so I’ve heard, I wasn’t there for it.
You used to have an even shot of common-sensing your way through auto repairs decades before I was ever born. In fact, the first check engine light was called an Idiot Light. As in, “something’s wrong. Gee, think so, idiot?”
Now a car runs on computers. That check engine like flicks orange, it can mean any number of countless problems. You open the hood, and there’s a big tangle of wires. Plastic veneer covers the key components you need to reach. Nothing looks wrong. Nothing looks accessible with typical screwdrivers or wrenches either. Sleek unassailable surfaces greet you.
Replacing a Headlight
But let’s pull back and talk about a simpler light. A headlight. Replacing a lightbulb is so easy that if you want to make a joke about how dumb somebody is, you ask how many of them it takes to change a lightbulb.
Surely you twist the old one out and twist the new bulb in before the cops pull you over.
A guy I know, a guy who knows more about cars than anybody wanted to replace the headlight on his girlfriend’s Volkswagen. He’s a guy who can restore and modify a 60s truck from the frame up. The headlight fix is almost, ALMOST beneath him.
He popped the hood and saw an absolutely unreachable socket behind the burnt out bulb. He opened the repair manual, and saw you had to remove the entire front end to reach the bulbs. It was a thirteen-step job per the manufacturer.
Well, now you can’t fix the issue for the price of a dollar fifty bulb. Now you can’t keep bulbs in your glove box and pop new ones in when they die. In fact, the manufacturer would like it very much if you took time out of your weekend or workday to bring the car in just to change a headlight.
Why is it Like this Now?
By the time you’ve researched and developed a car, paid engineers, designers, emissions counselors, marketers, shippers, manufacturers, regulation consultants, regulatory fees, crash test costs, and things you can’t imagine go into making a vehicle, your margin is slim.
This is even true on a car that’s $32,000 five years used. A great deal of money gets made in repairs. How do you squeeze a little more money out of your product? You design a car that needs plenty of repairs. Something that doesn’t threaten life and limb like a faulty brake but still gets you pulled over like a headlight makes a profitable problem to maximize.
The Less the Customer Can Do, the Better
That’s fine if you’re the car company, but now I’m the absolutely egg-faced chump bringing a car into shop for nothing but a burnt out lightbulb.
It’s other little things. Cars ride lower on average. They want it so you HAVE to lift it with a jack. You can’t just scoot under there. Does it bottom out more often? Good. That’s more repairs.
Want to change spark plugs? Change the oil? You need the proprietary wrenches. Is the wrench for sale? Is it worth your time and money to do all that arithmetic comparing buying new wrenches to bringing the vehicle into shop?
I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t grow up fixing cars.
That said, is is the story of my first project truck.
It’s a blue 1994 Ford F-150. It has 84 thousand miles, and that mileage is probably real given the decent condition of the upholstery and pedals.
If the dial had been reset, the upholstery would have been chafed to ratty rags by the long-term friction of the driver’s body. It’s got a manual four-wheel drive with a big joystick to engage it. Not one of those dinky plastic buttons they’re doing now.
I’ve got help from somebody great with vehicles, an engineer who grew up taking every machine you can think apart and putting it back together.
The to-do list:
- Replace rear left spring shackle
- Replace muffler
- Bypass smog pump
- Fresh tires
- Oil change
- Transmission fluid
I’m sure the list will only grow, but I’m looking forward to learning. There’s an ugly history with the auto giants of the world and the average American who would like to fix his own car. See, back in the day, the auto giants were lobbying to make it illegal to work on your own car. Illegal. Home repairs were eating the profit margin.
Ever seen that meme floating around about how Republicans were the party that lobbied against mandatory seatbelts? Reasonable laws like that were the headlining door keys to mandates that brought the cost of a brand new truck from $3,200 to $65,000.
A few red-faced red staters railed against this march of progress. The auto companies said, “just take out a six-year loan instead of three.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Yeah, the ballooned price of a vehicle loses the spotlight to student debt and the housing crisis but it’s there, and it’s not going to get any better.
What were your lofty aspirations when you were a kid? Forget astronaut, let’s just say you just want to do things for yourself because you like to. To that aim, I say, “good luck.” Big forces are machinating against you. On the other hand, if the role of spectator and consumer is all you’ll ever need, there’s a comfortable, comfortable future ahead of you.
When they couldn’t ram that no home repairs law through, the giants realized they could get the same effect through the power of technology. Now a new Toyota Corolla has more lines of computer code coursing through it than a supersonic fighter jet.
The engines are more efficient. A computerized engine can detect humidity, altitude, O2 levels, and countless other factors to optimize engine efficiency in a way a purely mechanical engine never could. Hooray. Our air isn’t as bad as China’s, where there are no emission’s laws. Again, hooray. Clean air is good, truly. I write that without irony, for people who need that clarified.
Still, it’s good to be able to do things for yourself. The more people like that there are, the better off everybody is. Having the option of doing a fix yourself will get you farther if you break down somewhere without cellphone service. I drive through places with no cell phone service often.
A headlight should not be something you need to bring the car to a mechanic for.
The Journey Starts
I got an OBD that pairs with my phone. That’s the scanner that your cop shop will plug in to read the error code. I used it to diagnose and replace my mass air flow sensor. First fix I ever did myself. That was on a Kia Sportage I don’t own anymore.
Now I’m going to repair this F-150 and drive it across country.
To be continued