The Spechtacle

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Category: Cars (page 1 of 5)

Talk about your rides…

The VW Diagnostic Computer – 1973

In 1973, I went to work as a fledgling mechanic in a nearby VW dealer, Hassan Motors, in Norwood Ohio. I had just got back from the war a year before, and after goofing off for a year was finally ready to start some sort of career. Before I was drafted, I went to a local community college to learn about computers, but everything I had learned had disappeared by the time I got back, and it was time to start over. I should have found some way to get back into computers, as even then it was obvious that it was going to be big. However, my love for mechanical objects (cars) was overwhelming, so off to work I went.

Computers were shortly to take over the car business, and into my first year on learning to repair cars, I came face to face with the VW Diagnostic Computer, a machine introduced to dealers in 1973 as mostly a marketing gimmick, but did show the way forward.

plug1

The computer took up a whole bay, and plugged into the diagnostic socket in the engine bay. It couldn’t really do much, mostly would tell you how much the alternator was charging, but people got the readout and really thought they had something. VW had just released their electronic fuel injection on the squareback models just a few years prior. These were simple things, and if you took the control units apart, could practically build them yourself. They weren’t very sophisticated, and could run better, but most cars then were having trouble with the new emission laws, and they could all run better. The saying at the time was, “We can make them run clean, or we can make them run good, which do you want?” We even had a serial Luddite in Cincinnati that was killing these cars. In a VW squareback, the control unit sat close inside the left rear fender, next to the engine’s air vent. Someone who knew where the control unit was was driving something similar to an icepick through the fender and into the control unit. I don’t remember how many of these cars we fixed, but it was a significant number.

1973beetle
In the end, the VW Diagnostic Computer was deemed irrevelant, and the machine was sold to the dealer for one dollar, and they could dispose of it any way they wanted. I kept a few boards out of it for years, hanging them on my garage wall. Kind of a picture into the future. Every car has a diagnostic socket today, with the laptop taking the place of the behemoth of the early seventies…

Image of diagnostic plug from Speedy Jim’s homepage
Image of Diagnostic Computer from PaintRef.com
Image of a computer printout at this page

New Years rant on new cars

Cars are better than they’ve ever been. They can go thousands of miles with little or no maintenance and are marvels of engineering science. The littlest economy car is safer to crash than the biggest 10 year old sedan. Gas mileage keeps going up and pollution levels keep going down. What’s not to like?

Kia Space Shuttle, picture from NRMA Motoring and Services


Cars are designed to be easy to manufacture. Nowhere in the manual does it say anything about ease of repair. The first time you want to remove a hose clamp, you notice that it was obviously installed when the motor was out of the car. You can only hope to get a tool on it. Then you want to remove an electrical connector. Good Luck. Every one is double and triple locked, and each one is unique. By the time you figure out how it comes off, you’ve already broken it because, after all, it is only plastic. And getting a new one from a parts guy is difficult also, as there are thousands of them on a car, and he’ll be searching forever to get the right one, which he won’t have, and it you order it, it is guaranteed to be the wrong one when it comes in.

Parts are subassemblies. To decrease the burden of stocking thousands of parts, subassemblies have become popular. To buy a fuel pump for a pre-millenium car, you bought a fuel pump. Now you get a giant box that is almost as big as the fuel tank, with numerous plastic hoses, valves, sensors and what not. Buried deep in all this mess is the tiny fuel pump, now just a miniature version of it’s previous self. Granted things are more complex now, but still….

Cars are getting lighter, but tires are getting heavier. Tires have been growing in size every year, till now it’s almost common to see 18 and 19 inch tires on cars. The aluminum rims used to be lighter, but now are so big that you need to be the Incredible Hulk to change one. When I started working on cars, tires were usually 6.00 by 15 inch, and you didn’t even need a power machine to put a new tire on a rim. And those rims were steel also, but still lighter by a long way than modern tires.

picture of modern engine

This looks easy to work on…


Cars are incredibly sophisticated. The only modern machines that are more complex than cars are jet fighters. Mechanics are starting to need college educations to understand them. People that work on their own cars are increasingly fighting an uphill battle, not the least of which is access to information. Car Manufacturers consider any and all information that isn’t in the owner’s manual to be a state secret. Even the amount of money it takes for special tools and electronic scan tools can bankrupt a dealer, ,much less an individual that tries to figure out his own car.

I’m at a loss to think what you’ll be giving your kid to drive when he’s 16, a few years from now. Everyone can’t afford to put them in something brand new, and almost every 10 year old car will be as sophisticated as the space shuttle, will cost thousands of dollars to fix when it needs it, and you won’t be able to do it yourself to save a few bucks, even it you are handy. Cars from the 60’s were a lot easier to understand, and could be fixed by the average Joe. Older MG’s and Chevy’s have quite a following as parts are cheap and available, and the cars are simple to understand and repair. Car makers need to meet us in the middle somewhere.

picture of old MG

Anyone can fix this car…

Life after Saab

In 1994 GM had 1/2 interest in Saab, and soon owned the whole automotive division. They pushed the car upscale and eventually killed it, and now the corpse has now been hacked up, dismembered and parted out to a Swedish/Chinese/Japanese consortium with dreams of making an electric car. I’m not really sure, and I’m believe they aren’t sure either, but they might not get the name as Saab in Sweden is still a military-industrial complex and don’t want to dilute their good name.

As far as US Saab dealers go, they have gone out of business, or are in the process of reinventing themselves. For all the hoopla from Saab owners how they are going to bring the car back by demonstrations and such, they haven’t really supported the dealer network much, and have stayed away as long as they possibly could, not really wanting to spend any money on a dead horse. Parts have been really tough to get, and keys for Saab Sports Sedams have become a hot black market item. A late model 9-3 involved in a small fender bender was recently totaled because there were no front fenders in the country, and no prospects of any soon.

Empty Saab Shop

The shops generally remain empty. Some cars have to come back since they have bizarre German GM electrical systems, and no one else seems able to understand them, much less fix them. Mechanics have been pretty creative repairing parts instead of replacing them, something done routinely in the thirties, but not even done today. Other makes of cars are drifting in, but bringing in customers that are already going somewhere else is tough. Getting a different franchise is out of the question also. All the car makers have recently thinned out their dealer networks, and aren’t interested in any more.

As far as myself, I’m getting close to retirement anyway. So this whole thing doesn’t affect me as much as it could. But I’ve been working on Saabs since 1985, and will miss them, although they will still show up as orphaned cars at the shows, much like Edsels, Hudsons and the millions of other makes that have been abandoned.

I have been spoiled by Saab. They got good gas mileage, better than average performance, looked good and if you got them into the air on a bump in the road, they could land on all fours and still be in control. I tried that with an Oldsmobile once and almost got killed.

Update Nov 13, 2012
Well, life goes on. The cars are trickling back, I’m still working here, and we have 3 mechanics working. Wages for flat rate guys are still depressed, and the mechanics are struggling to pay their bills, but they have work. We’re not over the hump yet, but getting there.

picture of the shop

Griffin Up! New Saab commercial mashup

Swedish David Blumbeg wrote a song and put together a mashup of Saab commercials in support of finding a new buyer for Saab. Other enthusiasts have also responded with the website IwontbuyfromGM, looking to lean on the General. For more Saab news check out Saabs United.

greg

Requiem for a machine

I drove my Saab home last night. I could feel the oil and gasoline coursing through it’s veins. The news was bad. Saab may have reached the end of the line, no new offspring to carry on the name. Like an extinct species, Saab has reached the end of the line, mainly because some CEO saw a spot of red ink on his ledger.

“I’m gonna do something about that spot”, says he. “No red ink for me”!

The Saab 92

The Saab 92


Several suitors came and went. Finally the only solution left was to give it away. The Russians said they would take it, if the European Union also gave them 400 billion Euro’s. The EU also didn’t like that red spot of ink either, so Saab is relegated to the scrap heap.

Who would have thought that a guy could have made his living for his whole adult life on a quirky little car made in another country, and one not made in huge numbers, either. And quirky they were. The engineers from Saab, airplane guys, needed to come up with a car after WWII to diversify their company. They bought some old DKW’s in a junkyard to help design their car. The DKW’s had 2 stroke engines, hence Saab’s first cars did too.

I remember this old country boy I worked with. He did Dodge cars, as our dealership at the time had multiple car lines. He remembered some oddball neighbor of his that had an old 2 stroke Saab. “I used to blow past him so fast I ran him off the road”, he said proudly. He didn’t think much of quirky little foreign cars.

Greg and a 1958 93

Greg and a 1958 93


My first one was pretty pokey too, but when they started hanging turbochargers on them, fewer country boys could blow past them. They have quite a following also, by the numerous web sites and forums dedicated to the car.

On Friday the 11th of December, 2009, the CEO of GM announced that talks were over and they are going to close down Saab. The newspaper guys were hanging out at the shop, like sharks looking for a good story. Saab is heading for the history books, like the dinosaurs, Edsels, and analog tv. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone.

greg

More GM bankruptcy fallout…

Back here at our Saab dealership, certain cars have taken up what appears to be permanent residency. These cars are waiting for parts that are on serious backorder. I originally thought it was due to the economic slowdown where factories are shuttered till things began again, and that was the problem in the beginning. But now it’s because GM won’t or can’t pay it’s bills from being in bankruptcy court.

We went without fuel pumps for a couple of months.. now I have a car waiting on a switch for the brake vacuum pump, which is kind of a necessary part, for a month now. The supplier in Germany is still making the part, but not giving it up till GM pays for it. And GM isn’t paying for it. And Saab and GM is still paying for rental cars for people still in warranty. (You would think it would be cheaper to just pay for the part.) If you’re out of warranty, your on your own.

However the parts are out there. Sometimes the aftermarket parts are made by the same company, in the same packaging as the original factory supplied part. And they are a lot cheaper as they don’t have the franchise supported markup that dealers are famous for. However, in our case, we are forbidden by franchise rules to use these parts or any other parts not supplied by GM.

Granted, this is a unique situation we are living through, and I will be glad when things get back to normal. But that may be wishful thinking, as normal is probably dead and gone.

greg

2009 SHO, A Wolf that looks like a Taurus…

The New and Improved 2010 Taurus SHO is a hot rod. Much better than the earlier version that came out in 1989, it takes advantage of newer turbo and direct injection technology. It pumps out over 300 hp from a soon to be standard Ford V-6 eco boost block.

2010 Taurus SHO

2010 Taurus SHO

The design and quallity control is light years ahead of the old design. (As all cars are today.) The old car’s selling point, and it’s Achilles heel, was the motor. A 24 valve V-6 Yamaha derived engine, it had good power (220hp) and could get to 60 mph in under 7 seconds. However, it was an overly complicated exotic engine stuffed in a basic Ford sedan. (Kind of like the Chrysler TC, a standard Chysler mid sized car with a Maserati engine.) And it was replaced with an aluminum Cosworth V-8 with Yamaha heads and some poor production decisions led to some costly failures. But those problems are behind them now…

2010 Taurus Sedan

2010 Taurus Sedan

But that’s not the real problem. The problem is then, as now, the SHO looks like a standard box stock Taurus. That may have been a draw from the sleeper crowd, (those guys that stuff Corvette engines in old boxy Volvos) but most people do want a car that looks like it is something, even if it isn’t. Take the Mustang for example, a lot more people buy a slow Mustang that looks like a fast one, than there are people who buy a fast Taurus that looks like a slow one.

So come on Ford, dress that thing up a bit…

greg

Penske and the future of Saturn..

Roger Penske’s organization is bringing a new way to sell cars, according to USA Today. Everybody is excited about it. Except me, of course.

chinese-car

GM will probably insist that they use their chassis a certain number of years then Mr. Penske can shop around the world for his car. Penske (in this case is not a manufacturer, he is a retailer.) can contract with anybody for anything that rolls and put a Saturn badge on it. And there is nothing to say that this car will even remotely resemble (except for looks) the car that came before it. It could be a Chinese made car one year, and an Indian car the next.

We (at Saab) have been suffering for years with rebadged cars. We have Subarus and GM SUV’s that have Saab badges on them. There is no continuity between the systems in these cars and the Swedish Saabs. Absolutely none, but the grille’s all look alike. The same thing will happen to Saturn. When you open the hood any world engine at all could be in there.

Some people buy cars for a philosophy, or a feeling that they can buy into, like Saab. They were known as quirky cars, and have evolved to an upscale performance car, safe, and good on gas. The new Saturn, which in the beginning tried something new, a cult almost, will now evolve into the Walmart solution, the cheapest outsouced product available.

I wish Roger Penske luck. Our car industry is in big trouble, and obviously new solutions will need to be found. I just hope that our cars will be more than a can of beans at the local supermart.

greg

Manufacturers dirty war against DIY…

For some time now, all sorts of manufacturers have been conducting a secret dirty war against repairing anything. This is also aided by a jaded public who seems to be averse to even reading owners manuals, let alone try to fix something.

shredder

I just took apart our ailing Staples paper shredder. To it’s credit, this thing was built tough. No plastic parts in there. Also, no parts you can afford either. The rollers and plates and bearings that failed add up to more than the cost of a new one, so off to the landfill with the rest of it. It’s a shame too, as there is a certain joy or satisfaction gained from repairing something. Personally (much to the chagrin of my wife) I don’t let anything go till it’s reached it’s absolute bitter end. (She absolutely refused to drive that escort any longer, a shame really, it was a pretty good little car!)

The same thing is happening to cars too. Sure you can replace brake parts, rebuild engines and such, but after a car gets to be 10 years old, the manufacturers want to drop it like a hot rock. They also piddle around making parts available for them so that you are forced to look elsewhere it you want to keep it going. And where you really get into trouble is the cost of the failed subassemblies. Take your air conditioner in your car for example. The big failure rate includes compressors and evaporator assemblies. These things can be hugely expensive, and in the case of evaporators, aren’t built very well to start with. (You won’t get the manufacturers to admit it though.) Also, try and even buy a part for your home HVAC system, you won’t get many places to even sell you the parts.

But maybe this refrigerator mentality isn’t so bad. After all, it is spawning a huge recycling industry. On the other hand, the landfills around here are starting to look like little mountains. On a positive note, I fixed my toilet the other day, the handle wore out, and a replacement was actually available. Of course, the replacement was made out of plastic, and won’t last as long as the brass one I took out, but you take your victory’s when you can.

greg

2009 Suzuki GSX R-1000.. a beast in beasts clothing.

Pic from Bikeland.org

Pic from Bikeland.org

I really love motorcycles. I’ve been riding since 1976, and it’s the closest thing to flying without airplanes or drugs. It’s a blast. But, I think we’ve gone too far.

The new Suzuki is a hot rod. It’s about as refined as you can get in a scooter. Gobs of horsepower, revs up to the sky, computers to control all sort of power functions, great feedback from the chassis and on and on.

But, this thing gets to 60 mile an hour in 2 seconds. 2 SECONDS! Not only that but you can get to a hundred miles an hour in 1st gear! Cut it out. what ever happened to running these machines up and down the gears and working the gearbox? Looks like you only need one gear.

It looks to me that only race bike drivers will ever be able to control this thing. It’s too much. As humans, I think we are too good at what we build. We need to back off a little.

greg

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