I just want to travel from A to B in a reliable, functional car. Did the rot start with the introduction of a fuel gauge in the Volkswagen? Beetle fans had always managed perfectly well without one. Here, perhaps, was the earliest example of technology being added to a motor car without the motorist asking for it.
Technological warfare began for me not with the fuel gauge but with the automatic choke of a Sierra estate. Until then a car's fuel management system consisted of a single knob - in the olden days, a black knob with CHOKE etched on it in white - which was on the end of a wire.
The wire went to a thing called a butterfly, a simple metal disc pivoted across its diameter, which was the door through which air might or might not pass into the carburettor.
Then, on a dark day indeed, some nitwit in the design department thought of the automatic choke. It would be the same technology but no longer would the motorist have all this dreadfully tedious and fatiguing business of knob pulling. It would, as it were, pull itself in secret.
When you bought the car you were told 'Automatic choke]' as if this were a great boon well worth the fantastic amount of money they were asking, much more than for cars with labour-intensive knobs.
In reality, automatic choke was worse than manual. The butterfly got stuck without you knowing - that is, automatically - so you ran your engine on full choke without realising it. The plugs got oiled up and the car wouldn't start when you wanted to go home.
After this had happened a few times, and you had bought your own set of jump leads, you listened more carefully to the engine and could twig when the choke had stuck. You stopped the car, took the air filter off with the Phillips screwdriver carried in the glove compartment for the purpose, hit the butterfly with the handle of said screwdriver to free it, and Bob was your uncle. Technology? Pshaw and pooh] We can beat technology.
Not now we can't. On my Montego estate they have fitted central locking, which freezes up, causing large repair bills. They have fitted electric windows, which do the same, and an intermittent wiper with five different speeds, which broke the minute the warranty ran out and is too expensive to be worth repairing.
Worst of all, they have gone way beyond the good old choke to fuel injection, operated by a fuel management computer and a computer-controlled stepper motor. A stepper motor is a wonderful thing for only 60 quid. It fits into the fuel line and has a shiny rod inside with a smoothly conical end, on a spring, made to go in and out by its own little electric engine. Wires go from it to the computer, which issues commands - in, out or somewhere between - according to data received from various sensors that are fitted about the place.
When something goes wrong and the stepper motor sticks fully in, you get an idling speed of 4,000 revolutions per minute. The car will easily do 70mph in fifth on a mere 3,000 revs. Translate this thought into the nightmare of driving through a busy town, with traffic lights and queues, when your engine does 4,000rpm every time you put your foot on the clutch pedal. The only way you can drive is by using the brake as a sort of negative accelerator. Everybody turns to look. The noise is tremendous. You keep turning the engine off. It's awful.
Maybe all that key turning was what broke the ignition switch. You will know that in the ignition keyhole there is a spring. You start the car by turning the key against the spring, and then the key goes back to ordinary running position by itself - automatically, in fact.
I imagine the spring costs about 2p. When it breaks, the key doesn't return, but you don't notice. All the car's electrical power continues to surge through the starter. You drive the car, wondering perhaps why the electric windows won't work, and then find out in the morning that the starter won't work, either.
So your car must have its functions analysed by a computerised automobile psychologist because human mechanics can't tell why it won't start. Now you find that the dreaded fuel management system has had its brains blown out by the surge of electricity caused by the failure of a 2p spring.
The auto-psychological trolley tells the mechanic my car needs a new black box at the breathtaking price of pounds 330 plus VAT.
Who are these mad car designers? Trying to out-hi-tech each other, they produce cars that don't go from A to B except via the garage and are too sophisticated to be repaired by mortals. Where do they live? It must be halfway up the Big Rock Candy Mountain, because they certainly don't drive a Montego in Cumbria.
Ah me, and lack a day. But what about the stepper motor, you ask, which did all that revving? Well, I bought a new stepper motor because the garage, after testing all the circuits and computers with the aforementioned psychologist trolley, said I needed one.
Then, after the new one got stuck for the second time, just like the old one had, giving me 4,000 revs in the middle of Scarborough on a Saturday afternoon, I pulled its little wires off.
The car goes beautifully with it just in there, not working, acting simply as a part of the fuel pipe, screwed to the right position for an idling speed of about 700rpm.
Of course, you need to give the engine a bit of toe when you start off in the cold. You know, rev it up a bit so it doesn't stall. Which, I seem to remember, was what that knob on a wire used to do.Reuse content