Old cars – essential skills

I’m no mechanic, which will surprise very few people, but I do know my way around an old car. That’s because it’s vital to understand what you drive.

Take the 2CV for instance. Unless you happen to break down very near one of the very few 2CV specialists, repairs can be traumatic. Most garages haven’t got a clue how they work, which means that you, as the driver, really need to. In over 100,000 miles and almost 14 years of ownership, the 2CV has needed the breakdown services only three times – and two of those were alternator failure in the first few years of ownership. Most recently, it needed a tow home after a cooling fan failed. If I’d had a spare and tools, I would have made it home just fine. Preparation is everything!

Roadside tinkering in Switzlerland

Roadside tinkering in Switzerland (ignore the legs)

That’s not to say that it has been entirely faultless. I’ve had many battles with electronic ignition, have had a points-assisted system get problematic, had the brake lights pack up and quite a few times had the idle jet in the carburettor get clogged, preventing it from ticking over. I also once had the alternator seize entirely.

But these faults could largely be cured/ignored roadside. When the 2CV refused to start due to a duff 123 electronic ignition unit, I discovered that it would still bump start happily. That said, on one occasion, it took ages to catch, then blew up the exhaust crossbox when it did. I had to drive home with a VERY loud exhaust. When the points-assisted ignition suffered a heat sink-related failure, I increased air flow by removing the engine bay side panels. When the carb jets got blocked, I cleared them by slapping my hand on top of the carb with the engine revving to suck the muck out. When the alternator seized and stalled the engine, I simply removed the alternator and drove home. When the brake lights packed up, I wired them up to the light switch.

The joy of old cars is that you CAN do these things. I’d like to see how far  you’d get in a modern car with no alternator fitted. You probably can’t even do it as the belts usually drive many other things. Yes, perhaps it is a downside when you HAVE to do these things, but it’s all part of the bonding process with an older car. You learn where you went wrong and move on. For instance, I stopped buying second-hand alternators and coughed up for a brand new one.

The BXs are similar. You really have to understand the technology, because you’ll struggle to find a qualified mechanic who understands the quirks and dangers of the hydraulic system. Fortunately, things aren’t as scary as you’d think – just different. I seem to recall having an alternator fail on a BX too. I had no tools with me other than a knife, so I cut the alternator belt off and drove home. Sometimes, you have to think on your feet. Old school diesels will drive a VERY long way with no alternator. I managed more than 60 miles that time as I recall.

Essential party preparation. Rear brake overhaul

Trying to identify a brake issue while visiting my sister

Diagnosis is another key requirement. Is that knocking noise something terminal or not? When the 2CV’s cooling fan fell to pieces, the engine didn’t ‘feel’ right, so I stopped, pulled over and found the problem before it destroyed the engine. If I’d carried on, I would have been left searching for a new engine. In the shot above, I was trying to find a fault with the rear brakes on the Golf. It made a horrible squealing sound. I didn’t get to the bottom of it here, but did improve things sufficiently for the drive home to be far more pleasant!

Old cars are, by their very nature, old. That means they’ll have problems that younger, lower-mileage cars won’t. I’m having to drive around a weak third gear synchromesh in the Daihatsu Sirion for instance and a worn engine mounting in the BX. One of those is an easy fix at least! But I am aware of the problems, even if there’s nothing I can immediately do to remedy them.

So, get to know your old cars. It could save you a lot of waiting around roadside, and it’s bloomin’ marvellous when you defeat an issue!

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