Drum brakes, windup windows and other technical heresies

With Ontario suffering from blackouts, B.C. from fire, and the rest of the country mired in economic stagnation, you’d think there would be better things to talk about than drum brakes. There are, but I’m going to use this space to get something off my chest: I think drum brakes are better than discs. And crank-operated windows are better than electric. Also on my list of good things: throttle-body injection, rear-wheel-drive (preferably with a solid axle) and manual transmissions with cable-operated clutches. Oh yeah, and mechanical gauges, including oil pressure. Before you techs under 30 turn the page, work with me on this, or at least hear me out. Jim’s theory of automotive engineering goes like this: Simple things are better than complex things. If a function can be done with a simple mechanism, it should be. If the guys down at marketing claim they need a new gadget to sell the product, find a new marketing team.

None of this is new, but when I think of the number of stories I’ve heard of intermittents, phantom problems and customer stupefaction at what it costs to fix a modern vehicle, I wonder why consumers buy into the complexity in the first place. Take drum brakes. They’re great because they combine a huge surface area with simple hydraulics, and do it with one machined surface. And when was the last time that your customer complained of brake fade? It’s the same with electric window lifts. While I don’t recall being upset at turning a crank, how about making side “glass” out of polycarbonate (like Lexan) so they’re light enough to lift up like a kitchen window with one hand? And I liked EGR technology where I could operate the valve with my finger, check the diaphragm by sucking through a tube, and clean it by banging it against my workbench.

Engine systems are getting cleaner, so they have to be more complex. O.K., I like clean air too. But even the cheapest new cars are relatively loaded compared to machines of twenty years ago, and for no good reason. I don’t understand electric door locks on a two-door subcompact narrow enough to reach across the seats without undoing your belt. And if you have a family, the stripper Biscayne/Laurentian/Fury/Monaco/Ford/Meteor just doesn’t exist anymore. Air bags on a Jeep TJ? Would you take a delete option and replace them with four-point harnesses and a roll cage? I would. And when did it become a brilliant idea to use microprocessors to control defrost airflow over my feet? Pseudo-Luddites like me won one with the apparent retreat of digital dashboards, but I think in the long run it’s a losing battle. Maybe it all works better, and yes, cars do seem to last longer, but there’s something comforting about taking an International Harvester Scout deep into the bush in Northern Ontario and knowing that the spare five-dollar points in the glovebox will get you home no matter what. The techs coming up will never experience setting points with a matchbook cover, or gravity feeding a gas can into a carburetor to limp home with a broken fuel pump. It might be progress, but I sure see a lot of shop owners living on Rolaids these days.

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