America’s Car Culture

Four reasons it’s dead or dying.

Amen especially to number two. I was looking in the shop manual for what’s involved in tuning our BMW 323i, and I couldn’t see that there was anything I can do to it other than changing plugs. And there’s just no room to work under the hood. I remember when I was a kid, you could almost walk around in the engine compartments.

20 thoughts on “America’s Car Culture”

  1. You can’t even do much regular maintenance. On my car, the engine (a FWD V6) is so close to the firewall that you can’t access the rear bank of spark plugs directly. The standard estimate is it’s a 3.5 hour job costing about $350, because you have to remove the intake manifold. The only upside is the car takes fairly expensive platinum plugs ($10 each) that are rated for about 100K miles. I’ve been told most modern cars are like this. They’re so concerned with saving weight, apparently, that the free space in engine compartments has been reduced to the minimum possible.

  2. As far as his #1, I have mixed feelings. I understand wanting to be in tune with nature^Wthe car, but at the same time, stuff like ABS, traction control, and so on–the car’s reaction time is faster than me, so I don’t mind it trying to protect me.

  3. Tires popped constantly. You had to pour water into the radiator on a regular basis. They drank oil like Gen-Xers drink soda. They rusted before you got them off the sales lot. They got a third the fuel efficiency of modern cars. No airbags, leaded gas, no safety glass, rotten safety belts, no fuel injection, etc, etc.

    I’m not sure the trade-off in self-sufficiency was worth it, but I suspect that’s the case. Hell, same goes for electronics, TVs haven’t been worth repairing since the late Eighties.

  4. I still think there is a bit of a car culture, but it isn’t a big block muscle cars but small engine racers. You can see that enthusiasm with the Fast and Furious movies. I also probably see it more often than others, because I have two family members that work on their own cars. One rebuilds hotrods from the ground up. The other is a kid courting my daughter. He’s not as good in building from the ground up. However, he has replaced his cars engine himself, modified the exhaust system (sort of the gateway drug entry into gear heading these days), replaced various side moldings, and updated the interior electronics. And yes, he replaced the chip. This is from a kid who hasn’t gone to college yet. For people like him, it’s as enjoyable as others in his generation enjoy modifying their computers.

    It’s a shame many arrogant academics look down at such skills. Certianly number 3 plays a big part in discouraging many too. Its not just the commuting and parking menace, but the “carbon polluting” AGW nonsense as well.

  5. I’m not so sure about (4) – design. It’s common for complex systems like this to evolve to conformity because there are a limited number of ways to do things well. For instance, if rear spoilers give you an extra mile or two per gallon, then basically all cars are going to end up with them. Optimizing performance limits design creativity, it’s just how reality works.

    Look at any online gaming experience that has persistent characters – when first released you get all sorts of different build types, but over time you get cookie cutter builds because those are the optimal choices. Games that preserve diversity can do it only because the authors get to edit reality.

    1. Seriously?

      Then why then, even into the 60’s and 70’s after 50 years of innovation into much more complex systems than a Model T or Model A, did cars look different within a manufacturer and more so outside the manufacturers?

      You could look in the rear view mirror at night and guess with a high degree of accuracy what kind of car was on your 6. From 50 feet you could tell what kind of car “X” car was in a parking lot. As the article well states and I’ll expound, at noon on June 21st, on a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, at the Equator, they all look alike! At 15 feet if you can’t see the model name tag or manufacturers logo, good luck figuring out.

      This morning one of the networks was showing the ??? annual car show. The topic was VW’s new bug, and much like the old Who song said, Meet the new bug, Same as the old bug. It is actually looking closer to an old bug than anything we could buy here for a long, long time.

      But at 200 yards, it WOULD look like a bug!

  6. Some technologies take a long time to mature. Consider micro-processor technology – that used to be quite varied at the consumer level for decades, but now? And that is in a technology moving much faster than automotive.

  7. Ever tried changing the supercharger on a 1980s Lancia?

    While modern aerodynamic design makes it worse with all the curves, the European cars I’ve driven have had little room to access the engine for decades now. That didn’t stop the crazies stuffing 400hp engines into their Fiat X1/9. Someone’s probably done the same to a Fiat 500 by now.

  8. You could almost get in the cars without being a contortionist, too. (And I’m 5′ tall and weight about 100lbs. NOT exactly oversized.)

    Never mind accessing the engine, I’d like to access the seats without paying more for my car than my last house cost. (Oh, I’d like to be able to change the oil or battery or spark plugs…etc. , too. At least I can still get at the tires…But, first things first.)

    1. LOL, you should see me putting my 5’9″, over 300 lbs in my wife’s KIA Rio! It is NOT pretty.

  9. The reason most modern cars look alike is that aerodynamics requires it. Engineers using wind tunnels determined in the late ’70s that a “crushed omega” shape represented the best form factor for automobiles in terms of lowering the vehicle’s coefficient of drag (and improving fuel efficiency), and producing maximum downforce (= traction, thus more impulse per horsepower transmitted to road surface).

    This is why most cars today look and sound different than those of earlier decades: the rounded “jellybean” shape not only improves fuel economy and produces greater downforce at speed, it reduces the amount of engine output wasted creating useless noise and vibration.

    The reason the “muscle cars” were called that is because they were heavy and blocky, with lots of drag due to large frontal area and the need for aerodynamic surfaces (e.g., air dams, tail wings) to push the tires against the road. They needed “muscular” big-displacement, turbocharged engines to produce enough horsepower to push all that air out of the way, and fat, draggy tires to keep the car on the ground. Modern cars, while ugly, produce similar performance using less fuel and smaller engines.

    That being said, modern cars are dull and uninspiring. Someday, when I hit the jackpot, I’m going to buy the biggest, shiniest two-tone ’58 Plymouth Belvedere convertible I can find and fit it out with a modern powerplant, brakes, and electronics. I shall call her… “Virgil Exner’s Revenge”.

    1. “The reason the “muscle cars” were called……..draggy tires to keep the car on the ground.”


      I have no idea what cars you’re talking about being ‘blocky’. In fact, many of the muscle cars had low, swept back windshields, sloped roofs and the manufacturers had those same models with smaller engines and auto transmissions for people who wanted the ‘look’ but who didn’t want the power or didn’t want the expense of the full blown models. The gas expense wasn’t something that mattered then. [ah, those were the days…]

      I personally owned a 1969 Challenger, that had a 3 on the tree with a slant 6, 225 cid. It was, even by muscle car standards / `1960’s cars in general, a real boat. And even with that 225 in it, that car would run over 100 mph ALL day long. It was as square as a muscle car got too. Prior to that we owned a 4 door, ’57 Chevy, and again slant 6, 3 speed, would run well over 100. Cars never got any more ‘boxy’ than that.

      They had those big engines because people WANTED the power. And many, many of the muscle cars were originally out of the factory with smaller engines and rebuilt, bored out or replaced with larger power plants by muscle car guys. But as far as those cars ‘needing’ the power to push the air out of the way, I ain’t buying it.

  10. The last several automobiles I’ve purchased have all undergone the same stripping process once I got them home.

    You remove a few of the plastic shields that surround the engine. You drive for a week or so to see if you have overheating problems. You then remove a few more shields.

    After several weeks, you begin to see that you do indeed have an engine down under all of that mess, and you notice that the engine looks remarkably similar to the engines you used to be able to see before the plastic shield era.

    And then, once you can see and reach things that you recognize, your inner Pit Crew Chief can start repairing. modifying, and improving, just as you used to do.

    (Most of the plastic shields are there for one reason only – to shield all of those complex, noisy, oily parts from view. Seems that, if car companies make it appear that a car works magically, fewer people are intimidated by it, and more people will buy it.)

  11. I consider it similar to the difference between basic Linux or DOS and Windows or Mac OS. You can hack the textual OS’s down to the core, and the form is generally quite apparent with a good manual. The GUIs are works of art and engineering, incredibly powerful and yet efficient where they need to be, but good luck getting into the kernel.

    What the new cars lack is a good hotfix/patch pathway. Most new cars are as much software as they are hardware. There is no reason why they are not continually and automatically upgraded and self-repaired like Windows, and able to alert the user when they are broken and instruct the user how to fix them for simple things like ordering and replacing a circuit board. Tesla seems to be leading the way in that area.

  12. Reason #2, No More Turning Wrenches In the Garage — Cars are Inaccessible to Mr. Fix-Its. is hooey. Hundreds of thousands of mechanically inclined amateurs surfing thousands of automobile repair forums tell a different story. The old “it’s too complicated” canard has probably been around since the introduction of hydraulic brakes in the 1920s. Owners repair their own, late-model cars all they time; it’s not rocket science, you just have to keep up with the technology.

    The story about taking two service techs 45 minutes to change the oil on the author’s Infiniti was laughable. Harry Homeowner could do the job in less than a half an hour lying on his back in his driveway. That plastic shield that has to removed weighs all of two pounds.

    1. Trust me, if it took 45 minutes to change the oil on an Infiniti, the local dealership wouldn’t charge me a meager $42 to have it done — not at $100+ per hour service rates. (And they’ll wash it, too.)

  13. Rand, it is worse than you know. The automatic spark advance and electric starter have corrupted our youth. And now we are hearing a lot of crazy talk about “disc brakes”, “synthetic motor oil” and other tomfoolery.

    We must not make light of this situation.

  14. Cars have become like Apple products. One no longer needs to be a mechanic because they just work. Imagine that…

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