The New vs. The Old

I got into a debate the other day with a reader about the future of the car hobby; about whether today’s cars are fundamentally disposable appliances that work great for a long time — their chief virtue — but when they do finally begin to wear out, the cost to replace their numerous complex systems (especially the electronics) will be so high that most people will simply throw the car away in favor of a new one.

Like cell phones, for instance.

Also, that the new stuff’s complexity is a turn-off to tinkering, especially for beginners — the new crop of the old car hobby. Teenagers who have yet to acquire the higher skills (and more expensive tools) needed to work on today’s cars.

And so — for the most part — do not.

I gave the example of my old muscle car from the ‘70s as a point of comparison, focusing on its fuel delivery system vs. that of a modern car.

It consists of a single major component — a carburetor — which is a “stand alone” mechanical device that mixes the air and fuel.

It is held in place by four bolts and can be removed from the car in 5 minutes or less.

It can be disassembled in about the same amount of time with basic hand tools — and is amenable to adjustment.

You can tinker with it.

This is appealing to beginners.

There is something tactile about turning mixture screws, changing out jets. It’s physical and hands-on. You can see what you’re doing. And you are doing something more than pulling and replacing non-repairable electrical stuff you can’t tinker with. And which requires both a fairly sophisticated knowledge of electrical things as well as more sophisticated tools, too.

There are no wires or harnesses connected to my car’s carburetor. No sensors that plug into it; no computer that controls it. The air-fuel ratio is determined by turning in and out mixture screws, replacing jets and metering rods… not code.

There is a physical cable connected to the accelerator pedal. You can work it back and forth by hand. See the throttle open and close.

Nothing electronic can go wrong with it because there are no electronics.

And carburetors last a very long time.

My car has its original factory carburetor. It has been mixing air and fuel for more than 40 years. Barring physical abuse (such as damaging the metal castings by over-tightening the mounting bolts) it will probably continue to do so for another 40 years.

It may at some point need to have its throttle shaft repaired; these do wear out eventually. And every four or five years or so I tear it down and give it a thorough cleaning, replacing wear parts like the float, the accelerator pump plunger, needle and seat, gaskets, etc.

These parts cost about $50.

In the Worst Case Scenario, the carb may at some point have to be replaced with a new one. At most, the cost will be about $400. Or buy a good (rebuildable) core for about $150.

Remember: You can rebuild carburetors.

And whether you rebuild or replace, that $150-$400 or so will be the total cost to renew the entire fuel-delivery system. There are no peripherals. No harnesses, no ECU, no sensors. And replacing a carburetor is something a teenage kid without much in the way of tools or experience can handle, easily. He can also afford a rebuild kit — and even the $400 or so for a brand-new carb (if necessary) is doable on a high school kid’s budget.

I think that’s why kids used to work on cars. They could afford to — and the cars of the pre-computer era were much more approachable if you were a kid. For instance, you could turn the idle up or down with a screwdriver. Cool!

Mixture adjustment was also easily made.

You bought a set of jets (less than $10) installed them and observed the results. Piddled with the secondaries’ spring tension to alter their opening rate. Cost? Zero.

Very gratifying when you are 16 or 17 … and just getting to know cars.

Now consider a modern car’s fuel injection system. There are many components — most of them electronic and not serviceable or tunable.

They work — or they don’t.

And you can’t tell by looking at them, manipulating them with your hands. There is nothing to see. Nothing you can get your hands on.

There is no tinkering to be done — unless plugging in a scan tool and reading OBD trouble codes counts.

There are individual injectors for each of the engine’s cylinders and these are not repairable/rebuildable. When they stop working, you throw them away and buy new parts. My reader friend’s 1997 Mustang has eight of these injectors. The lowest cost replacements I could find cost about $35 each (see here) or about $270 for the set. You’re already at more than 50 percent of the cost of a brand-new carburetor for my old Pontiac.

And you may — and at some point will — have to buy a mass airflow sensor and various other sensors, too. The computer that controls everything will also croak eventually.

It all costs money. Remember: These electrical components are not fixable. You throw them away. You buy new parts.

Now, most of these parts will last a long time; and they will not need to be replaced all at once. But they will not last forever and the cost to replace them will be much higher than a $50 rebuild kit for a carburetor.

Meanwhile, today’s teens face much higher costs for almost everything — not just cars.

Insurance especially has become obnoxious. It is hard to afford a car — any car — on a teenager’s means.

Most seem to spend whatever disposable cash they have on devices — iPhones and such. There is not much left for ECUs and MAF and MAP and 02 sensors.

And the waters are deeper, too.

I remember popping the hood, spinning off the air cleaner wing nut and looking at my first carburetor. It was right there. I could see the fuel squirt when I worked the throttle arm manually with my hand. You cannot see anything happening when dealing with electronic fuel injection. Just plastic boxes and things with wires coming out of them.

It’s not particularly enticing.

There’s not much to play with.

It works — or it doesn’t.

Which is what you want in an appliance.

Something you use for awhile — and then throw away.


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