JOHNSTON: Today’s high-tech cars leaves little work for home mechanics |


Every once in a while some old-timer will shake his head and declare, “They sure don’t make cars like they used to.”

That person is, of course, expecting me to agree with him in a negative manner and he is not prepared when I reply, “They sure don’t. They make them better.”

Automobiles are much more complicated than they were in the 1960s, and that’s what older guys complain about. You can’t work on your car in the driveway like many teenage boys did back in the day.

Almost every part on today’s cars and trucks is controlled in one way or another by a computer chip, and the average guy can’t troubleshoot problems without sophisticated diagnostic equipment.

That fact irks many home mechanics, but computers and other innovations are what make vehicles much more reliable and gives them a longer life.

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The engines of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s had a realistic life expectancy of about 100,000 miles. After that, you started thinking about getting a new engine or rebuilding the old one because, by then, the old one was likely burning oil.

Very few people bother to check their oil today because newer cars don’t burn oil. Half the car owners in America probably couldn’t even find the dipstick on their engine. Some don’t even know how to raise the hood.

In the 1960s, you could change your oil every 3,000 miles and still need to add a quart or two now and then. Today, most cars go 10,000 miles between oil changes and the amount that is drained is almost equal to the amount that was put in initially.

Of course, oil is better today than it was then. Synthetic oil gives owners more miles between changes.

With regular oil changes, most of today’s vehicles will require very little maintenance for 200,000 miles. Many engines last 300,000 or even 400,000 miles. A few even make it to 500,000. Such mileage was unheard of 60 years ago.

Heavy-duty plastic has replaced metal in many parts of a car’s body and this makes the vehicle lighter and more fuel efficient. I had a relative who lived 12 miles from town, and he used to complain that he burned a tank of gas every time he went to the grocery store in his old 1962 Ford station wagon.

He was exaggerating, of course, but in reality he probably didn’t get more than 10 miles a gallon in that heavy vehicle. Today you can get 30 miles per gallon with most cars.

And despite the lack of steel, most new cars are safer because of seatbelts, airbags and other required features. Some will even warn you when you are too close to the vehicle in front of you or are crossing the center line.

As far as comfort is concerned, there is no comparison. If you look back at car advertisements from the late 1940s and early 1950s, you will see that a “radio and heater” were often extras. As for air-conditioning, well, only the rich folks could afford cars with that luxury. Most vehicles were air-conditioned by rolling down the windows and angling those small window vents (they are no longer made) to direct air into the car.

One bad aspect of today’s vehicles, especially if you’re a teenager, is that they have bucket seats. Those old cars had one long seat that would allow your best girl to slide over close enough to whisper in your ear. That move is much more difficult with bucket seats.

Of course, drive-in movies and lonely back roads have become things of the past, too.

Cars may not be as conducive to love as they once were, but they are safer, more economical and last longer than they did in the past. Yes, they cost more, but the average person is making much more money than he did in the 1950s and ’60s.

I guess what bothers people, especially guys, most is that you can’t work on your own car anymore. But that’s the price you pay for better quality.

What bothers me most is that I can’t get my best girl close enough to whisper in my ear!