It’s Not All Bad

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New cars can be insufferably naggy – “assisting” when you didn’t ask for it, turning themselves off when not appropriate – as at every red light,if equipped with ASS (automated stop/start). But there are some things about ‘em that are okay – and fair is fair.

Let’s acknowledge the good as well as the bad.

The good includes things like heated (and even massaging) seats – which are easy to get used to and hard to give up when the press car has to go back to the fleet and I go back to driving my almost-20-year-old truck that hasn’t got them.

There are some other things, too – and you may be surprised to know they have to do with maintenance, the thing that everyone knows was easier back in the day.

Right?

Not necessarily.

Let’s start with oil and filter changes. Especially the filter part.

They are becoming easier to get at – and remove. Sometimes, without even needing tools. Many new cars have their oil filters mounted topside rather than underside – or (worse) hanging off the side of the engine in an almost-impossible-to-reach place that requires such mechanical pilates as jacking up the car’s body so that you can snake your hand through the fender well to get at the thing.

For just this reason, even a “simple” oil change was often quite difficult for people not young enough or flexible enough or stubborn enough to perform the pilates – or who lacked a floor jack and other needful tools such as long extensions and special filter sockets.

It also made a mess – itself a deterrent.

Oil all over the floor and all over the engine, too – where it would then cook off after the work was done, providing a kind of industrial air freshener (or fouler) depending on how much or not you enjoyed the smell of burning oil. Which also sometimes burned you as it poured all over the place.

Well, after 100-something years, they finally figured out a better way. Mount the oil filter where you can reach it, right there on top of the engine. Or directly underneath, where it can be reached by hand and even removed without a tool, if it wasn’t installed over-tight by the last person who did an oil (and filter) change.

Some have a large hex-type head you can use an adjustable crescent wrench on. Easy! The filter itself is more and more inside the housing, too. Instead of tossing away the whole thing you replace the inside thing – the filter element.

Another thing that’s a lot easier – almost across the board, irrespective of make/model – is belt-changing as well as adjusting. Instead of dealing with individual belts, one for each accessory and so usually at least three (AC, alternator, power steering) you have just the serpentine one, which drives them all.

And which requires no adjustment at all.

You slip the old belt off  by relieving the tension on the tensioner/idler pulley – which can usually be done with a socket or a crescent wrench. Slip the new belt on – the hardest thing is keeping track of the way it goes around all the pulleys, so take a picture before you remove the old one – and then let the tensioner fall back into place.

It self-adjusts, automatically.

No awkward prying on brackets and pulleys or individually/manually turning in/out adjustment screws until you get it just right – for each belt.

Easy!

And nothing is easier than not having to do things at all – like changing spark plugs, for instance.

Or at least, not once a year or even once every several years – as used to be the drill. It is now general for spark plugs to not need changing for 75,000 or even 100,000 miles – which means you probably won’t need to change them more than once or twice over the life of the car.

You will never have to adjust the choke – because cars haven’t had them since the early ‘90s. The modern car’s fuel system is almost entirely maintenance-free. The main thing that needs changing once in awhile is the fuel filter – which can be a PITAS because it’s often located inside the fuel tank. But that is counterbalanced by its occasionality – as opposed to the regularity of carburetor cleaning/choke/adjustment and the general fiddling which used to be the drill.

So while there’s certainly plenty to complain about there is also some to be grateful about.

As the great stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius put it, balance in all things.

. . .

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34 COMMENTS

  1. My cars in the shop (finally died on me) so went and rented a VW golf. Quite well kitted out for what it is, though always found it quite annoying (brake before start, volume goes down when I reverse or even come close to another car, etc etc). Thought it was interesting but never got the point – till I had to just get out of bed and run out late on a cold night to get my brother from the train station. Remembered it had a button which I suspected were heated seats… was a real game changer for my Neanderthal ass (which is used to sitting and waiting basically the whole ride to town for my car to start blowing warm air)!!! Dont know how ill ever go back to a cold seat now!!!

  2. Here comes your covited 19 nervous breakDawayawnnnnn dibida dibida muthers little helpers, hell turd littel shell pers seem different today that Masked Jaeger allegedly heard me say, I Kant get no critique of purr Reaction. . , , ?

    I’m on a Mexican packeto radio, doo du doo do doe Wall brick in ya Voodoo wish I was eating Tijuana street cart Iguana. Can’t understand jus’ wut duzz zhee say ? ? ?

    Do you pheel lique eye doux. X! X! X ! ! !

  3. Not to tangentally toot my Narcissus Horns here, but has anyone thrown a bucket of lion pee in a zoo like in this Skoon commercial I’m watching.

    Did they really not tear you to shredds for being a 2 legs bad assholiean human.

    Out shopping for a friend. . .

  4. One thing about the 100k spark plugs I’ve noticed is that while that may be true in a strict sense, meaning the engine can adjust as the plugs wear down and being iridium and platinum they wear slowly. Leaving them in 100,000 miles pretty much guarantees they’ll be there forever. So even though it’s not a strictly necessary item it’s still not a terrible idea to replace them sooner if you plan to keep the car 200k or 300k (remembering that the OEM by recommending 100k is just assuming that’s when you’ll be trading it in). Or if you don’t actually replace them at perhaps 50k at least take the time to pull them out a couple of times in that 100k span to make sure the threads of the plug and head don’t become one. If you do leave them untouched for 100k make sure to get a thread-insert kit with your plugs because at least one will be seized.

    • Good advice anonymous. I pulled the plugs on the wife’s Honda at about 60k, put some anti sieze compound on the threads and put ‘em back in. Was going to just put new ones in, but those suckers are 30 bucks apiece! By my math, 30 dollars times 6 cylinders equals holy crap!

    • As a Pollock who identifies as a Master Race Shylock, would it be less consumery to take da plugs out ev’ry 20,000 miles and ethically cleanse both male &female ends of da ol’sparkies and the blitzkrieg em back in as a final free to me price?

      Or as Homo Consumerae therefore we izzle, musteth we never miss an opportunity to add new dog parts to old machine tricks?

      • Are you asking whether you should just replace them instead of remove and inspect? If the plugs for your engine are $30 a piece and you got a V6 I’d do like Floriduh.

        That being pull them out, check there’s no obvious damage, check their gap, put a touch of anti-seize and reinstall. Repeat periodically until there’s a sign of obvious damage or the gap hits the upper limit.

        My truck is old enough that it still just uses plain old plugs and I spend $15 and about an hour on it every 30,000 miles like the olden days. Simple and straightforward.

      • BTW, if you’re not a long time mechanic I should mention that when you install a spark plug there’s a washer that distorts (cleverly called a crush washer). That means when you remove and reuse a plug you need to be careful not to over torque and strip or break the plug.

    • As long as they’re not eroded nor the center insulator chipped or cracked, they should work just fine once re-gapped. DO NOT sand-blast iridum or platinum plugs! If they have oil fouling or soot on them, either there’s a compression issue, an oil “pumping” issue (bad rings, valve guides and/or stem seals), and you’re in for some serious fixing on that engine.

      Fortunately, most plugs come in at under $10 apiece, and more and more engines are four-bangers, so it’s often just best to not screw with ’em, just replace at 50K to 60K miles (do the coolant flush and refill thing at the same time, and don’t be a cheap bastard, unless you put all those miles on in just two years, REPLACE the heater and radiator hoses as well). Check the serpentine belt CAREFULLY…if it looks FLAWLESS…and only IF…let it go, but grab a spare when the gettin’s good..(sale), and be prepared to replace it once it starts to squeal or you seen signs the belt is going…better at your convenience than on the side of the road! Also examine the tensioner and idler pulley thoroughly, and if any of them are bad, replace ALL of it, the few extra bucks is well-spent for the peace of mind. Give all the valve cover screws, oil pan screws, plenum screws, and so on a check, use a in-lbs range torque wrench where the “Manuel” gives a spec. Needless to say, this car should be on its third or fourth air filter by this time, again,this is not the place to be a cheap bastard.

  5. Well written article Eric. Amazing how I just dropped a Marcus Aurelius quote in my last comment to you.

    In case you’re inundated by comments, I just wrote one I thing is pretty good on some ways to help spring your mom from the jail. I hope you read it.

  6. Always a little good mixed in with the bad.

    If you like heated seats, Amazon has ones that clip to your seats and plugs into the cigarette lighter. I have them in my old Pontiacs. Years of heavy weight lifting means I use them year round for my back. A great upgrade, imo.

  7. You dont really grease the chassis anymore….every oil change, I have to grease 10 grease fittings, that is a mess, but supposedly your u joints, steering joints, and ball joints last longer if you do it yourself. Still, not greasing them at all for 10+ years if the joint was made for that recently is not bad

    • I wonder if easy access to the oil filter is because of people not doing their own oil changes. If it’s a PITA to get to the filter for you, it’s also a waste of time and humans for the dealer’s service department. One of the selling “features” over the last few years was a number of free oil changes from the dealer. Taking a 45 minute job down to 15 minutes by relocating the filter is something that would be demanded by the dealers, especially if other manufacturers already did it. “My VW service guys take 10 minutes to change the oil, while my Ford guys take 45 minutes.” can carry a lot of weight with the number scrunchers at headquarters.

  8. Eric, I got rid of my 2014 Focus once the settlement for its bum “dual-clutch” tranny came through, and using that and a down payment I’d saved up, got a 2020 Fusion, which is a tad larger and more comfy. The filter is simpler to get to, I don’t have to fvck with that bottom engine plastic tray. I have it done by Midas, even though the “Midas Touch” involves MY gold, as that keeps an infallible record during the power train warranty…the incremental cost is worth not potentially having to squabble with Ford in case something bad happens.

    As for the oil filter in a top cannister with a replaceable element…ever work on an old Chevy “stovebolt” Six, or a Mopar flathead Six? That’s exactly the approach these venerated engines used! So what was “old” is “NEW”…AGAIN! FWIW, though I loved every Mopar that I’ve had with a Slant Six, one thing I never cared for was the upside-down filter, which you had to be careful in placing the drain pan under to catch the spilling oil once you spun it off, and have to wipe down the torsion bar and the filter mount on the oil pump. Worse, unlike oil filters like on a Mopar LA engine, which at least went into the right side of the block at a 45 degree angle, you could only “pre-oil” the filter with a little bit, which made for a dryer start-up once you fired up the engine. My solution was to put the transmission in neutral or park and short across the solenoid terminals, cranking the engine w/o starting to “pre-oil” it, and thus at least avoid the mains or rod bearings being starved under a normal start. The g/f of the time (later my first wife) would confirm by watching the oil pressure gauge bounce up.

      • I’d forgotten about the venerable Nash flathead six. As I recall, in the old Ramblers, they went to an OHV Six which was based on the flathead (same crank, pistons, and rods), but brought the flathead BACK for a few years (until about ’63, I think) in the “economy” models. An interesting thing that I note: the carb is mounted on the HEAD, which for most flatheads was just a lid with some cooling passages through it and maybe a fitting for a thermostat elbow. My guess, since I don’t see any manifold passages (the Ford OHV sixes that had the manifolds on the driver’s side, for all but full-sized cars and pickups, had the head and intake manifolds cast as a unit (also done on Chevy Sixes after ’74, from what I’ve read), is that somehow the’re passages in block instead of a separate intake manifold. So obviously there’s a passage hole through the head for the intake. Interesting setup.

        • Yes, the Nash/Rambler flathead engine debuted in the 1941 Nash “600” so it was basically a pre-war 1930s design. No intake or exhaust manifolds. As you surmised the intake passages are cast into the head with the carb mounted right on top and the passages feed into the block. In that photo you can see that the exhaust pipe bolts right up to the side of the block, capped on the end with cutouts for the exhaust ports. The oil filter is a partial-flow type fed by external oil lines, originally optional.

          That engine was adapted for overhead valves in 1956, I think, but the flathead was used as the base engine in the Rambler American through the end of the 1965 model year. (As far as I know the last flathead engine in a production U.S. automobile.) In the early 1960s there was also a version of the OHV engine with a die-cast aluminum block but not surprisingly those didn’t work out very well.

          • Good info on the venerable Nash Six that the penny-pinching Mormon CEO, George Romney (too bad about son, Mitt, but that’s for another thread…) kept for years on the Rambler Americans and similar. I would have been a rug rat at the time, but in the early 60s, those Ramblers were actually the per-eminent “import fighter”, and sold more than the early Valiants (it’s OWN Chrysler Corp. brand in ’60 and ’61, go figure), Dodge Lancers, Ford Falcons, and Chevy Corvairs (a quite UN-Detroit vehicle for its time) and “Deuces”, later branded “Nova” (and until they got a small-block V8, like in “espanol”, they DIDN’T ‘go’). I dunno what possessed AMC to kept building flatheads until ’65, my guess would be that they were going to sell off the tooling, or move it to their Mexican subsidiary, VAM, and that fell through…). BTW, that VAM 282 Six, IF you mill the head (it was designed for the lower-octane PetroMex gas) and, while you’re at it, put in the stellite valves and keep the VAM 2 barrel manifold, or install an aftermarket 4 bbl, you’ve got a mill that will out-torque most comparable small-block V8s and if built right, should run forever!

            FWIW, Mopar ALSO put out in the early ’60s an aluminum version of the Slant Six; that’s one of the reasons it’s built that “stout”. I wonder if AMC’s issues with casting aluminum engine blocks and heads were similar to Chrysler’s; as not only was there a quality control issue (something on the order of 30% of blocks didn’t pass the QC tests and had to be scrapped and melted back down!), but buyers didn’t see the value of the lighter engine, so it wasn’t a hot seller! According to online proprietor “Uncle Tony”, the “short-stroke” version of the Slant Six, which came from the factory only as a 170 cube (2.8 liter) version, was the “perfect” design for the intended application, the “compact” (of the time) Mopars Valiants and Lancers. It’s 101 hp was still as much as most similar powerplants put out, and as Tony relates, America was still fairly much in a “fifty-miles-an-hour” world, as most of the Interstates we’ve all grown up with were just being built). Chrysler designed that engine’s configuration, including the famed 30-degree slant towards the passenger side, to keep the Valiant’s hood line as low as practical, hence also the offset water pump. One advantage of that particular engine was that the intake runners were fairly even, so the problem of uneven air/fuel distribution inherent in inline engines, especially the vintage “straight eights”, were all but done away with. FWIW, the engineers at Mopar’s Mound Engine plant had fooled around with several alternatives, including a four-banger “hacked off” from a 383 “B” block, very much like what Pontiac did with their 389 that resulted in that unique “slant four” they installed as the base engine for the compact Tempest. The engineers built versions with and without a “jackshaft”, and found that the auxiliary shaft was absolutely necessary to keep engine vibration tolerable. Though the engine w/jackshaft actually performed well (a two-barrelled version put out 130 ponies on the dyno, and 210 ft-lbs of torque, at 9.0 to 1 compression, on regular gas!), the bean-counters were not enamored of the higher estimated production cost, back when an extra twenty bucks a unit was sufficient to doom it!

            That 170 Slant Six did endure for a decade as the base engine for compact Mopars, but since a taller block with a stroked crank could be readily produced at the Mound Engine plant, but used the same pistons, rods, head, valves and rocker shaft, and manifolds, the bean-counters blessed THAT engine, the 225, which became the dominant Slant Six (it could BARELY move a full-size Mopar passenger car or a pickup) we all knew, and, after 1974, the ONLY one, as the design struggled even to move “A” and later “F” bodies Mopars, strangled by emissions. By 1975, the Slant Six got hydraulic lifters and an aluminum intake manifold, which welded the cast sections together with a very innovative, for the time, “electron-beam” method, and FINALLY a two-barreled “Super Six”, as had been available all along in exports (Mopar didn’t want the more potent Six to ace out small-block optional V8s in the US market). For the model years 1970 to 1974, Mopar dropped the ‘170’, and used just a 198 cube version with the taller block, with a crank de-stroked by 1/2 inch. “Uncle Tony” derides this as a “bean-counter” engine, as its purpose was to allow the discontinuation of TWO different blocks in the Six, instead just forging a unique connecting rod for that size, else, the 198 and the 225 are almost identical. For whatever reason, Mopar used the same “dual block” approach to their famed “B” block engines, hence the “low” B engines available as the 361, the famed 383, and in the 70s, 400 cube versions, while the taller “big block” came as 413, 426, and the famed 440 cube versions.

  9. Thank Toyota for that. Everyone who owned an early 80s Toyota used to rave about all they had to do was change the oil (and by the 1990s you didn’t really even have to do that either). Then everyone else had to up their games to match Toyota’s reliability. Japanese manufacturers were already in the race, but when they started exporting to the US they faced a tougher sell, along with Toyota and Honda already there. Low maintenance/ownership costs and reliability were the two major selling points. When the US manufactures finally started paying attention, they matched Toyota at a much cheaper price.

    Certainly never heard any crowing like that from European car owners. Yes, they’re incredible feats of engineering, but with extremely high maintenance costs and strict schedules that must be adhered to.

    • Where were you when the Toys were slugging up and blowing up? It seems the oil turned into molasses. How about the sticking gas pedal and the cars going out of control. I remember an entire family being killed when there ricer Lexus went full throttle taking the off a cliff. Oh, the very dependable Tacomas that rusted out and literally broke in half. My friend had one…Oh what feeling..Toyota. You guys crack me up.

      • I’ve driven a Toyota truck for 25 years now. Owning a 1990s Ford made me a Toyota convert. The 80s and 90s Toyotas were pretty simple and reliable. That Ford was a basket case. Now, yup, Toyota has lost ground and Ford has gained. I think there’s basically parity in the industry now, the differences are superficial and they all get built from the same pool of suppliers.

        The engine sludge was a legitimate design issue.

        Also the old 3.0L 3VZ-FE (V6 in 1998 to 1995 pickups and 4Runners) had a headgasket issue. That, BTW, was actually not completely their fault. It turned out that a government mandate to eliminate asbestos from head gaskets coupled with higher temperatures from being required to use EGR led to hotspots and HG failures. Eventually they figured out the right construction and materials MLS HGs to solve it and they issued a recall on all 3.0L engines. Once that was done those engines are still on the road today 25+ years later.

        My current truck is a potentially affected by frame rot Tacoma. The earliest ones (1995 to 2004) were definitely a clusterfuck. Some replacements, some buy-backs and in 2020 the ones on the road still are watch-and-wait since replacement frames are no longer available. SafeT Cap makes plates to replace 95-04 frames in their typical corrosion spots.

        I’ll say that as much as I was disappointed to receive notification that my 2008 still had the issue they did extend my corrosion warranty to 12 years and unlimited miles. They did that for all so-called cold weather states and will replace your frame if it develops any perforations 10mm or larger before 12 years. I knew the issue with frame rot and so when I bought mine I’ve gone pretty nuts about cleaning it, staying after rust bubbles that pop up and coating it with oil every fall. Mine still has factory wax marks under the Fluid Film goop so I’m hopeful I’m keeping rust at bay.

        While I wish they still made trucks with 3/16″ wall frames and would last 30 years that’s simply not the reality and I doubt any manufacturer is going to last better than Toyota at this point. Actually Dana (now Metalsa) made the frames for all Tacomas right next to Ford, who’s frames corrode just as badly but no one ever mentions it.

      • BTW, forgot to mention, the truck I got in 1999 was a used 1990 Toyota with a 4 cylinder, stick shift, manual everything. It got built up (dual transfer cases, very modified long travel suspension, two lockers, 33″ tires), hammered on, in couple of accidents. I was pretty good about maintenance but my pickups are tools to work and go skiing and camping (I live in the mountain west). It went 400,000 miles even being set on its side on the Rubicon and the body was pretty dented but it ran well enough that my buddy is still using it for a work truck in his landscaping business 5 years after selling it to him. I doubt my Tacoma will be 1/2 the truck that old one was but the reputation Toyotas got wasn’t completely bull. That little truck could take it.

  10. I covet that up-top oil filter! Our 2015 Ford Focus is the first vehicle I’ve owned in 50 years that gets its oil changed at the dealer. I don’t want to fight with the lower engine cover.
    That said, I think sometimes we forget just how badly gas cars used to run. In the 1980s, the newspaper I worked for ran a syndicated ask-the-car-guy column, and almost every question was the same: “Dear Dave, my [fill in any make and model] surges and stalls. What do you think is wrong?”
    “It’s a gas-burner,” I would chuckle. “Get a diesel.”

    • Amen, Roland!

      Though – to be fair – part of the problem (much of the problem) with the cars from that era was the government-gimping via Band-Aid emissions controls and tuning performed on engines not designed to run “cleanly.”

      My ’76 TA may have stalled/bucked when it was new – and had a catastrophic converter, EGR valve and a carb/ignition tuned for government compliance. But it doesn’t stall or buck now – sans all of that!

      • Yep. I also blame the nannies for the gawd-awful but fuel-efficient “automatic manual” in the Focus. You wrote about the lawsuit over this thing a few years ago.
        The dealer replaced a clutch in ours and I suppose it is a little better. The only problem it has shown is that it jerks and shudders at very low speeds, like when going up our long, winding driveway or creeping along in city traffic. It can’t seem to make up its mind which gear it wants to be in.
        This is our Sunday car so it has few miles on it, but I’m guessing it has little resale value because of the crappy transmission. We’ve had several Foci, and this one is an entirely different car. Feels bigger and heavier.

        • I test drove a Ford Fiesta sedan that had that gearbox, only because the listing on the website said (incorrectly) that it was a manual. That transmission (along with having to dig through menus to turn off stability control) was the major thing that put me off the car. Technically, it responded very quickly to inputs, but the shifts were so slow and slurred that it frankly didn’t matter. I would have literally preferred a torque-converter automatic to that ridiculous “automated manual”.

      • Or there was just a lot of IGNORANCE by not only shade-tree mechanics but even many of the “Pros” as to how to properly tune these engines. It wasn’t helped by obfuscation by “Detroit”, as they were trying to keep service on these late model rides at the “stealership”. There were many an expensive computer (then housed in the AIR CLEANER, of all places) replaced on late 70s Mopars with than damned “Lean Burn” system, when in reality it was a factory mistake in the settings on the Carter Thermo-Quad, itself often wrongly blamed. The dealer “service” departments got the memos detailing the “fix”, and they did all they could to keep that knowledge from getting out. The result was so much poor starting and driveabilty, and poor fuel economy, of those Mopars that could have been easily remedied, which nearly doomed Ma Mopar so badly that Lee Iaccoca nearly threw in the towel several times, at least until Jimmy Carter paid off a political debt by giving a Federal guarantee for a loan that saved Chrysler from going under.

  11. The problem with auto engineers, especially the German variety, is they don’t know when to quit. Or, the Psychopaths In Charge won’t let them. I completely agree with you. Cars are generally MUCH easier to maintain than they were 40-50 years ago. Years ago, when I was looking at purchasing a car, usually used, if I was not intimately familiar with the make and/or model, the location and accessibility of the oil filter was one of the things I looked at. A major flaw in maintaining modern cars is, there is simply no room under the hood. It’s as if there were some engineering principal that required the space to be completely full. Which I suspect is why the oil filters are on top of some engines.

    • The German propensity to “over-engineer” is what hampered their otherwise excellent Panther and Tiger tanks…an informal method of dealing with the problem was, if a battalion of these “Cats” had a running chassis but not a working turret or main weapon to put on top of it, they rigged a winch and used it as a “schwerebergepanzer” (Heavy Armored Recovery Vehicle), which often saved a recoverable panzer from having to be blown up by its crew to avoid enemy capture. The damned beasts were GREAT…WHEN they ran! General Heinz Guderian, by this time effectively kept from a battle command as the Inspector-General of the Panzerwaffe (he did on occasion sneak up to the front to meet with tank commanders to see for himself how things REALLY were at the front, it wasn’t just BS from Nazi Party hacks, the Army had enough of its own bureaucratic in-fighting which “Schnell Heinz” was hep to..). He saw to it the heavy tank battalions and the Panther battalions in the Panzer divisions got priority for mechanics. Still wasn’t enough…all too many panzers, which, had they been issued to AMERICAN units, would have been repaired or at least used for spares to make a “runner” out of them, had to be destroyed by their own crews, often for simply being out of gas!

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