Run­ning a car was once a more hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence than it is to­day


Grease points. De­cokes. Car­bu­ret­tor dash­pot top­ups. If you bought a new car at any point from 1928 right through to the 1970s, you would be tak­ing on a main­te­nance pro­gramme to ri­val that of a frac­tious diva. And while spend­ing al­most as many hours main­tain­ing your mo­tor car as you would driv­ing it – or pay­ing a dealer to do it – the struc­tural core of your in­vest­ment would con­tin­u­ously be at­tempt­ing to change its state from ro­bustly solid steel to crum­bling f lakes of rust.

The op­er­a­tion man­ual of a Mor­ris Mi­nor from the early 1950s pro­vides a clue to the scale and re­lent­less­ness of main­te­nance re­quired. At 500 miles, six steer­ing gear grease nip­ples re­quired three or four strokes of a gun. At 1000 miles, the gear­box and back axle oil lev­els needed check­ing, along with the brake mas­ter cylin­der, as did the SU car­bu­ret­tor’s dash­pot. And the pro­pel­ler shaft joints needed greas­ing. Ev­ery 3000 miles came an en­gine oil change, lu­bri­ca­tion of the dis­trib­u­tor and dy­namo, light greas­ing of the con­tact breaker’s rocker arm pivot and check­ing the points in the elec­tric fuel pump. In ad­di­tion to all this, there was yet more at 6000 and 12,000 miles. So the in­cen­tive for driv­ers to do their own main­te­nance was con­sid­er­able. There were plenty of mag­a­zines pro­vid­ing ad­vice, and car main­te­nance evening classes were com­mon.

The rise of elec­tron­ics, how­ever, has closed DIY ser­vic­ing off to most own­ers to­day. Now a lap­top, the man­u­fac­turer’s di­ag­nos­tic in­ter­ro­ga­tion soft­ware and a ca­ble into the on-board di­ag­nos­tics socket are the mod­ern way to find faults and, for the most part, fix them.

And they wouldn’t tell you how to weld in a new sill, or bodge a rusty one with news­pa­per and Iso­pon filler, as many did to de­ceive. Un­til 30 years ago, and in the case of some mod­els more re­cently than that, rust would be the num­ber one killer of cars, with de­cayed struc­tural mem­bers ren­der­ing them un­eco­nomic to re­pair. So as well as the me­chan­i­cal main­te­nance, you would also need to lie on the floor, scrap­ing and sand­ing sills for a re­paint, or worse, pay­ing some­body to weld new ones on. Dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s, an en­tire cot­tage in­dus­try of un­der-the-arches welders grew up, re-en­gi­neer­ing the sills and rear sub­frame mount­ings of BMC Mi­nis and 1100s and the Macpher­son strut tow­ers of Fords and Hill­mans. Visit scrap­yards in those days and most cars would have no more than 70,000-80,000 miles on the clock, their lives fin­ished by crum­bling body­work and, quite likely, en­gines that burned oil and syn­chro that no longer meshed.

Ad­vances in met­al­lurgy, in high­pre­ci­sion ma­chin­ing and the greater ef­fec­tive­ness of oils have given

en­gines, gear­boxes, dif­fer­en­tials and drive­shafts dura­bil­ity that the own­ers of 1950s cars could barely dream of. The same ap­plies to body­work. In 1928, vir­tu­ally ev­ery car on British roads had a sep­a­rate chas­sis to which body­work made from steel, alu­minium, wood and even fab­ric was at­tached. Mud, rain and road salt would at­tack not only the chas­sis but also the wood. The ar­rival of pressed steel mono­coque bodies might have re­duced the ma­te­rial types used, but the onset of rust in welded seams could be still more dev­as­tat­ing. It’s only in the past 30 years that most car mak­ers have mas­tered the art of cor­ro­sion proof­ing body­work.

Yet de­spite th­ese pit­falls, mil­lions of eager would-be car own­ers have will­ingly in­debted them­selves to get be­hind the wheel, the man­u­fac­tur­ers and money-lenders dream­ing up new ways to ease the fi­nan­cial pain (or at least to de­lay it) of ac­quir­ing what was usu­ally the sec­ond-mos­t­ex­pen­sive item in one’s life af­ter a house. The avail­abil­ity of credit – or buy­ing on the never-never, or on tick, as it was once called – mas­sively boosted new car mar­kets, with staged pay­ments mak­ing cars avail­able for mil­lions more than the few who could af­ford to buy out­right.

To­day, more than 80% of pri­vate UK buy­ers use a per­sonal con­tract pur­chase (PCP), this boun­ti­ful ar­range­ment al­low­ing the wide-eyed shop­per to ac­quire a more ex­pen­sive ma­chine be­cause they only pay for part of it over the term. At the end, they ei­ther hand the car back or, more likely, take out a new PCP. En­abling pun­ters to af­ford the un­af­ford­able has been fun­da­men­tal to the in­dus­try’s growth, be­sides al­low­ing us to savour its fruits.

Which have at least come within closer reach since 1928, when we tested that Austin Seven Eng­land Sun­shine Sa­loon. It cost £128 then, rep­re­sent­ing 67% of the av­er­age wage in 1934. To­day, its dis­tant descen­dant, a ba­sic three-door Mini One, costs £15,905, or 58% of to­day’s £27,271 av­er­age salary.

What comes af­ter you leave the show­room with your new car has changed too. The rise of con­sumer rights, in­creas­ing me­chan­i­cal re­li­a­bil­ity and the com­pet­i­tive­ness of man­u­fac­tur­ers have mas­sively im­proved the guar­an­tees that come with cars. Dur­ing the 1970s and be­fore, the ex­cited ac­quirer would typ­i­cally get no more than a six­month man­u­fac­turer’s war­ranty, lim­ited to 6000 miles and with no guar­an­tee against cor­ro­sion. The process of com­mit­ting your­self has in­evitably changed, too, although not as much as one might ex­pect, with most new car sales oc­cur­ring on the premises of a fran­chised dealer. Buy­ers might carry out most of their re­search on­line, both into the car it­self and fi­nance, but they still like to see and feel the metal be­fore sign­ing, and to talk to a hu­man while do­ing it. Some things, it seems, do not change.

Car own­ers be­came com­pe­tent DIY me­chan­ics out of ne­ces­sity rather than de­sire

It wasn’t un­til the mid-1980s that most cars were prop­erly rust­proof. Some of the most rust-prone mod­els emerged from Italy and Ja­pan dur­ing the 1970s, among the worst be­ing the no­to­ri­ously self-de­struc­t­ing Alfa Romeo Al­fa­sud.

Right up to the late 1970s, cars needed plenty of reg­u­lar main­te­nance. They were im­mea­sur­ably less com­plex than to­day, how­ever, and im­pe­cu­nious own­ers did their own ser­vic­ing. Mor­ris Mi­nors were pop­u­lar, be­ing par­tic­u­larly easy to work on.

Then, as now, the Au­to­car road test was un­able to ad­dress long-term re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues

Key com­po­nents needed reg­u­lar checks

Im­proved oils en­hanced en­gine re­li­a­bil­ity

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.