Uphill, Both Ways

I’m a naturally ungifted mechanic, but there was a time when I could do about anything that could be done by the side of the road to get running again.

Should I explain for the recently licensed? No matter how often you’ve heard “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” cars used to break down more than they do today. They vapor-locked, ate wheel bearings, the brakes faded. Pieces fell off.

They overheated. Before about 1975, all of mine overheated. It may have had something to do with my choice of vehicles—anybody who bought an MG expected to spend time next to the road—but it wasn’t unique to sports cars.

Many significant climbs in California, where I grew up, had pullouts where natural springs were directed into troughs so drivers could refill seething radiators. Signs warned to remove the cap carefully and add water slowly.

This wasn’t on interstates, which were rare anyway. But it was, for example, on California Highway 120, then as now a main route into Yosemite National Park. On any summer afternoon, you’d see three or four cars, hoods up, occupants wandering through the poison oak, waiting for cooldown.

What brings this to mind is a recent rash of what I think of as minor car problems—that are no longer minor.

They’re issues I’ve dealt with by the side of the road or in my garage, but cars are very different now, with computers and mysterious elements and precise interactions no ordinary person can understand.

I’m not calling for a return to the old ways. Cars are better in every respect than they were. Just for fun, though, here’s a list of stuff I used to do and have recently paid somebody else to do:

Replace headlight, 1969 Fiat: $7, about 10 minutes.

Same job on my wife’s Mazda: $318, plus labor (I installed it myself because nobody’s going to pay me $120 an hour except me).

Replace clutch slave cylinder on a ’79 Toyota: $25 and half an hour.

Same job on my pickup: living with the bad one. The slave is inside the transmission, estimate $450.

Replace fuel pump on a ’65 Impala: $17, took a couple of hours because I was lying under the car in Sacramento.

Same job last month on the pickup: $1,230 (that’s including computerized diagnosis).
New radiator for that same Fiat: Don’t remember the price at the pick ‘n’ pull—$30?—but it took an hour to install. It lasted 60,000 miles, longer than almost anything else on the car except the lug nuts.

New radiator for the pickup: $700 and change. That also includes diagnosis, which raises another point.

Cars are much more complicated than when I understood them, and some things require diagnosis. A holed radiator, I’d think, isn’t among them. Yet the shop won’t turn a wrench without hooking up the computer.

I mentioned this to a friend, a mechanic whose daily driver is a Toyota Prius. He loves the car, never touches it with a tool and hopes the trend to relatively trouble-free electric cars fizzles out fast.

“What?” he said.

“You think I shouldn’t afford a nice boat?”

Senior contributing editor Cory Farley is available on a per-hour basis for your car repair needs. No computer.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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