Reader Question: Maintaining the Old Stuff?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Mark asks: I just caught your column about John Deere and “unrepairability – but am wondering about repairing the older stuff you mention. I’m 27 and have never worked on an old vehicle. They are as inscrutable to people my age as the new stuff is frustrating to older people your age.

My reply: I suppose that’s true! However, there is a big – and objective – difference. While the older stuff may be unfamiliar to you, you could make yourself familiar with it for (essentially) free. It is not necessary to buy a bevy of expensive diagnostic tools. A basic tools set – sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers and so on – is sufficient to perform most maintenance and repair on the older stuff (the stuff that’s mostly mechanical, with electrical stuff limited to the ignition system).

Mechanical systems are generally amenable to rebuilding (for next to nothing) while electronic systems generally work until they don’t and then have to be replaced  – often for a great deal more than next-to-nothing. I’l give you a specific example:

A carburetor is a mechanical thing that can be rebuilt several times to “good as new” for less than $100. And the carburetor is essentially the whole fuel delivery system (the fuel pump and lines comprising the rest of the system). So, you can rebuild an older car’s entire fuel delivery system for about $100.

The carb can be adjusted with a few simple non-electronic tools, such as screwdrivers. No specialized knowledge or equipment needed.

A port-fuel system has an injector for each cylinder, a fuel rail, multiple sensors – and so on. All tied to a computer. It cannot be rebuilt – and you need specialized diagnostic equipment to figure out what’s wrong with it. And when something does go wrong, it usually means it’s time to replace the component. A modern car’s PFI system consists of multiple components which together can easily involve $1,000-plus in parts replacement costs.

The above example is generally applicable to the old vs. the new. A person willing to read a repair manual and with the patience to proceed slowly  and carefully can, using basic hand tools, perform almost all necessary maintenance himself – on an older vehicle – while even a person with mechanical (and electrical) aptitude requires expensive diagnostic tools – and expensive electronic parts – to service the new stuff. That’s assuming the “codes” and so on aren’t locked-up and accessible only by the dealer!

. . .

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  1. A young man could always borrow his dad’s SAE tools. Metric is the key word to piss me off. I’ll never forget wanting to take the flywheel cover off my 77 Silverado and none of my wrenches fit the bolts. Good thing I had a Jap bike and those M word tools.

  2. I know Eric likes carburetors but if you are not mechanically inclined but want to work on ‘older’ vehicles, I suggest something from around 1996 to 2000. Something with Throttle Body Injection and an OBD2 port.

    Throttle body injection is just a slight step above a carburetor. Still simple and inexpensive but little less fiddly for the novice DIY person. OBD2 and a scanner will make diagnostics much easier than a 1995 or prior vehicle. Just be aware it is not always a perfect diagnostic tool.

      • The ’87 5.70 and ’94 4.3 with TBI were great. 20-25mpg(imp) most of the time and more than enough power.

        PFI is good too but the pressure required makes the pumps too expensive. My ’87 used a standard carb fuel pump at 7psi IIRC.

        • The 87, IIRC, wasn’t a 5.7. It was either a 350 or 305 and then the 4.3 or 262. Don’t remember what they called the first V 6 with TBI. I do recall it being more powerful than the carbed 305.

          FWIW, I used to have to kit a QJet every few to several years. I never had to do anything to a TBI.

          • Well 350ci=5.7l no?

            Anyway, bit more research and the ’95 4.3 was called a Vortec. But it had CPI not TBI. 200hp/260tq. ’96 got

            The ’94 ck1500 I have has a 4.3 Vortec as well but it is TBI.

            I sometimes wonder if GM just slapped Vortec on engines randomly back then. In four years they changed intake from TBI, CPI, SCPI, PFI.

              • I was speaking of 87 I think when they first entered the market as an 88 or maybe an 87. The 350 was rebadged as 5.7L in 96 and had a roller top end while the 350 had a flat tappet camshaft.

                I’ve seen 3 of the older 350’s go over half a million miles with no major parts replacement. Seems like the distributor was about the only part that makes the engine operate that would wear out. Of course water pumps wore out and that was a grueling 20 minute job to replace. LS water pump replacement is a whole nother thing.

              • eric, you’re correct they had a different head. Those were pretty decent heads. Now, it’s rare to find a head as good as an LS head. A couple companies make a hybrid engine with an old style block and new style heads. That would be my choice for a new engine. No variable valve timing and oil pump is a step up, not back in my view. Probably the best thing about the LS other than the heads is the diameter of the camshaft. The roller lifters and rockers will keep LS engines from the exceptional long life of the old iron black SBC.

    • I don’t think you’re going to find TBI and OBD-2 in the same vehicle ?????

      I do like the TBI but I never had any problems at all with a Q-Jet. The only one that I ever had rebuilt was the one I got from a junkyard to replace a damn Holley on a pickup I bought used. Chances are I could have just bolted it on and it would have worked fine but I hired a neighbor who was a state mechanic to rebuild it for me.

      • You may be right. Seems ’95 is the last year I can confirm TBI on GM trucks.

        ’95 had a bastardized OBD not quite 2. OBD1.5 or some other strangeness. ’96 got real OBD2.

        • Anon, the wife’s 95 Cutlass was OBD 1. I think 96 was the first year for OBD 2.

          I prefer the OBD nothing my Turbo Diesel has. No computer, but the spot where it could have had one was addressed years ago and now a “hidden” compartment, even if the vehicle came with it, is now a felony.

          One of the best things about that 93 Chevy was the “hidden compartment”. A large on each side of the back seat, 2 in the console and one behind the glove box.

  3. Gasoline engines run on four things: compression, gas vapor, air, and spark. They always have and they always will.

    There is nothing “inscrutable” about older vehicles compared to newer ones. In fact they are vastly simpler in most respects.


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