Even after twenty-odd years fixing cars, I still think it’s a blast. I enjoy the challenge, which is a good thing because cars have evolved with increasing complexity.
So are older cars easier to work on? Yes, older cars are easier to work on. However, the introduction of self diagnosed fault codes have made some aspects of modern car fault finding easier.
In this post I’ll outline what it’s like as a mechanic working on old cars and modern cars and the different skills you’ll need for each.
Mechanic Or Auto Tech?
When I was serving my apprenticeship, I was known as a mechanic, and somewhere along the way we became known as auto technicians.
Often I’m met with a look of confusion when I answer, ” I’m an auto technician”. So I just roll with a mechanic, everybody knows what he does.
So is there a difference anyway? Yes, there’s a difference, an auto mechanic traditionally maintains and repairs all the mechanical components of a car.
But during the ’80s cars started to get way more complex and required mechanics to have a wider set of skills, such as electrical diagnostic testing, control unit interrogation, and problem-solving skills (more on that later).
At that time some mechanics (mostly the younger ones) branched off and specialized in these new areas, they became known as auto technicians.
Many of the older mechanics were hit hard, they were good guys but didn’t want to learn a whole new skill set. The days of the humble mechanic were numbered, they soon found themselves obsolete, they really became fitters.
The technician diagnosed the problem and condemned a failed component, the mechanic took over and replaced the faulty part.
The modern auto technician (me) then evolved into the everything guy, so we diagnose, condemn, and make the repair.
What’s It Like To Work On Old Cars?
The first thing you’ll notice when working on older cars is how much space you have to swing wrenches, really we were spoiled!
Suspension, steering, brakes, are all simple to work on. The engines were front fitted with rear-drive (FR), this was the most common and the easiest layout to work on.
Depending on the year of car and where it was made, fasteners could be Standard or Metric and if the car was English could be a mix of both, they liked to keep us on our toes!
And a mechanic of the day was expected to keep a toolbox with both Standard and Metric sizes in wrenches and sockets.
Older engines were durable, but depending on the vintage, gave head-gasket, valve issues, and bearings. And because of their simplicity and acres of access could be knocked out in less than a day, easy!
An old school mechanic had to be pretty handy, a skill that would be particularly useful was the ability to problem solve carburetors, tuning, and balancing, not an easy job, it took experience and skill.
Electrical faults were epidemic, water leaks were common too, and sometimes one caused the other. A mechanic chasing a misfiring engine was a daily occurrence, so you quickly got good at it.
Cars pre computers, in some ways were more difficult to fault find. Fine if a component just stopped working, but intermittent problems could be challenging. Experience, especially with a particular brand was a real asset.
On-board computers became common in the ’80s and ’90s, early versions were basic and reliable, they didn’t require any maintenance.
Bosch was amongst the first to market a computerized system. Known as Jetronic, it was fitted to many cars in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, initially running the fuel system, they soon mushroomed in number and complexity.
Welding was an everyday activity, a mechanic would use an oxygen-acetylene plant or electric welder to repair exhausts, make tools, and repairs on the fly.
Older cars do require a dept of knowledge and those older mechanics whose knowledge and skills were once redundant are now in demand as these old cars are now collectible and valuable. Is this the circle of life?
What’s It Like To Work On New Cars?
I’ve worked on many cars over the years, I worked most recently for General Motors in Canada. Working on new cars is always a steep learning curve, manufacturers are on a constant drive to have the latest accessories as they try to outsell their competitors.
The auto tech on the ground will need constant product training. Without this he won’t be effective, the systems in cars are so diverse and technical. Tech won’t be able to perform without the use of the manufacturer’s web-based portal.
After complexity, access to modern cars is the tech’s next challenge to overcome. Most modern car engines are transverse setups, which means the engine and transmission are placed sideways under the hood.
This layout offers many advantages for the designers and owners but not so much for the tech. The transverse set-up leaves real estate tight under the hood. On some six cylinder transverse models, performing even some relatively straight forward repairs will require removing the engine and transmission.
Most modern cars are reliable and major failures are rare, although recalls for rectification repairs are commonplace.
Most of the work will be fault-finding, and on modern cars that begins by verifying the issue. Next, the tech interrogates the onboard computers. Modern cars, as you know have many control units, they all communicate with each other over a network known as CAN (Controller Area Network).
If any of these controllers or their communication with each other fails, the fault, logged with a unique code, will be stored in the on-board computers memory.
The tech will read all the codes, and at the main dealership will have access to a library of technical bulletins. Since they are repairing thousands of like model cars, the particular symptoms, fault, and repair procedure is likely documented.
The tech will be presented with a set of tests to confirm this fault and it will need to be performed under a set time frame if the vehicle is covered under warranty.
After the fault is confirmed and the cost of the repair sanctioned by the owner, the tech begins the repair procedure.
It doesn’t always work out like this, but most manufacturers will train their tech to follow this line of diagnostics.
Working on modern cars will require lots of skills, the most important include:
- An ability to problem solve
- Self motivator
- Ability to digest a lot information quickly
- Great hand skills
Do older cars break down more? Yes, not surprisingly older cars will break down more often than new cars. However, an old car that’s well maintained will be reliable.
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.