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Drivers may yearn for their old Volkswagen Beetles but the little Bugs were fraught with problems. (iStockphoto)
Drivers may yearn for their old Volkswagen Beetles but the little Bugs were fraught with problems. (iStockphoto)

Road Rush

8 reasons why the good old automotive days weren't that good Add to ...

Repressed Memory Syndrome is a mental safety valve that allows us to bury recollections we’d rather not deal with. It’s most commonly associated with abuse cases, but it has its place in the world of cars, too.

I thought of this the other day when a friend started talking about the good old days of driving. For a moment, I was with him, lost in a reverie of summer nights, Shelby Cobras and air-cooled Porsches. Then the unwanted automotive memories came flooding back: flame-spitting carburetors, terminal rust and ignition systems that drifted like Clint Eastwood at a Republican convention.

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Today, we take it for granted that our cars will start each morning, keep running if the temperature goes up or down, stop when we hit the brake pedal, and last at least a few years before succumbing to terminal rust. The good old days were filled with challenge. I recalled a drive through the mountains of British Columbia in an early-1960s VW van where the brake pedal suddenly went straight to the floor – the van had a single master cylinder, which meant that a leak anywhere in the system killed all four brakes.

Design flaw was once the order of the day. I got a flat tire in one of my Beetles, only to discover that the spare tire had been drained of its air by the windshield washer system, which used the spare as a source of pneumatic power. This triggered a further memory – a 1965 trip that left our family stranded in Northern Ontario when an intake valve snapped on my parent’s two-year-old Mercury Comet. Then there was the day back in the 1980s when a faulty fuel system sparked an engine-compartment fire in a friend’s Hyundai Pony. By the time fire crews arrived, the Pony was a gutted, blackened hulk on the side of Highway 401.

I had to admit it: the good old days weren’t that good.

Modern cars may lack character, but they’re better machines than the vehicles of yore. Fuel injection and electronic ignition make reliable starting a given. You can go years without a tune-up. If you crash, crumple zones and air bags maximize your chances of survival.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the late 1960s, many cars were built with solid steering columns that impaled the driver in a front-end collision. Starting a carbureted car on a cold morning called for the skills of a surgeon, with a touch of sorcery thrown in. Your right foot played the throttle while your hands juggled the choke lever and ignition key. With luck, you hit the perfect combination of fuel, air and spark before the battery died.

The carburetor is a metaphor for the imprecision that once ruled the world of automotive manufacture. When I worked as a mechanic back in the 1970s, I dealt with a long list of problems that were built into countless new cars – improperly machined cylinder heads, carburetors that shook themselves loose and bodies that began rusting even before they left the factory. (This was all great for the repair business, needless to say.)

On numerous occasions, I encountered replacement parts that wouldn’t fit on the vehicle they were built for (the chances of this occurring increased dramatically if the car was made in England). Back then, even the finest cars were built with methods that allowed for wide variation from vehicle to vehicle, and even within a single car. A friend told me about a restorer who bought a new door for a classic Ferrari, only to discover that it didn’t fit. He quickly realized that each car was a one-off, hand-shaped by craftsmen. (The left and right doors weren’t symmetrical, either.)

Today, even economy cars have parts that fit and systems that work. This got me thinking about what makes current cars so much better than the ones of days gone by. Here are some of the reasons:

Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) manufacturing: CNC equipment allows engineers to create machined parts that fit exactly as designed by eliminating the vagaries of human input. (To see why this is important, try working on an 1960s English car, or a 1970s Detroit model built on the first day after a long weekend.)

Robotic assembly: Humans are great at design, but robots do a better job when it comes to repetitive tasks like assembling a car. Unlike humans, robots do not forget bolts or seek vengeance against their employer by welding Coke bottles into closed body compartments to create a clunk that can never be fixed.

Disc brakes: Until discs came along, the automotive standard was the drum brake. Drums didn’t work well if they got wet, and lost their braking power when they got hot (like when you used them to stop the car).

Electronic ignition: Today, we take it for granted that our ignition systems will deliver a hot spark at the appropriate moment. Back in the days of the traditional, points-based ignition system, you rode on a set of wandering adjustments that could kill your engine at any moment. Setting the timing was more art than science: you hooked up a strobe light and rotated the distributor, aiming the ignition point like a hunter leading a fast-moving mallard. This adjustment would begin to degrade as soon as you finished, and within a few months (or sometimes within minutes) the ignition would be out of whack again, killing performance.

Fuel injection: The carburetor, which once ruled the world of cars, was a simple yet infernal device that mixed air and fuel. Setting a carburetor was like tuning a finicky trombone – you adjusted it for a specific set of temperature, altitude and engine parameters, all of which changed as soon as the car left the shop. Comparing a carburetor to a modern fuel injection system is like comparing an iPhone to a pair of tin cans with a string pulled between them. (Even NASCAR has converted to fuel injection, which tells you something.)

Corrosion control: In the days before government-legislated anti-perforation warranties, many cars began rusting as soon as they were built. In the late 1970s, I once saw a brand-new car on a dealer’s lot with its front fenders already rusted through. This was not uncommon – one of my early Hondas was ready for its last rites after less than five years on the road. According to urban myth, manufacturers used to design cars to rust so drivers would have to replace them more often. I suspect that there may have been some truth to this.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC): After watching a driver die in front of me on a Nova Scotia highway when she over-corrected for a minor swerve, I saw the value of ESC, which can apply the brake to individual wheels in a strategic sequence to straighten a car. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believe that 33 per cent of all fatal accidents could have been prevented by the technology.

Shoulder belts, airbags and crumple zones: Although some scoffed, these technologies have revolutionized automotive safety by reducing the forces experienced in a crash. The effectiveness of these systems was demonstrated a couple of years ago when a driver whose wife had left him tried to commit suicide by plunging off a 30-metre cliff outside Chattanooga in his new Mercedes. Had he been driving an older car (or left off his seatbelts), it would probably have worked. Instead, he was pulled out of the woods with minor injuries.

There are plenty more reasons why new cars are better, but this will get the discussion started. Let’s hear your thoughts.

For more from Peter Cheney, go tofacebook.com/cheneydrive(No login required!)

Twitter:Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail:pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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