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Modern Reliability with Our Classic Vehicles

Why do modern engines and vehicles last so long?

I was listing out the other day why cars from say 1990 last so many more miles than cars from say, cars built in 1940. I came up with three key points.

• Technology is key- but not 100%
• Distance driven.
• Road types/Conditions.

 

Technology.

Technology is key to our future. Every age has been able to state that as fact. We always stand on the shoulders of the last Generation. Matter fact, I think I stole that last line from a previous Generation!

When it comes to technology in our vehicles, there are so many directions to point out that this list would become the McMaster Carr or Of Mice and Men in smallish type with very thin pages to fit it into something that comes in less than 12 inch volumes that are too heavy for my 11 year old daughter to move from table to desk! To whittle the list down a bit, let's just talk about some basic technology found in your modern engine and why it's different from engines of years gone by…

How about we start with one a bit beyond my level- metallurgy. The types of materials they mix at the molecular level with modern engine blocks makes them thinner, lighter and even stronger. They don't weigh as much, should flex less (or at least have strength and capability to handle flex) and the wear properties are going in a better direction. While we're at it, the same could be said of pistons (Hyperutectic) and piston rings which are thinner- thus causing less wear on the cylinders, longer life for the rings, less drag on the cylinders which in turn increases efficiency and power.

Fuel injection, although not born purely from market requirements but also gov't demands due to energy (Petroleum) efficiency and 'green' initiatives, has made a positive impact (yes, even I can say this) on vehicles in ways that pay off in power, longevity, fuel efficiency and includes reliability including ease of starting, running and maintaining!

Add to your FI, your modern computer controlled ignition system that, between the two, hardly cause any wear on cylinder walls due to fuel washing off the film of oil constantly protecting the cylinder walls. Add to this virtually no preignition due to constant and precise adjustments to timing and fuel regulations hundres of times per second, that you see this in our society where machine shops that have become obsolete and closed down because there is less work to perform without these old ways- carb with a mechanical/vacuum advance distributor.

Continuing on with intake runner length, computer controlled cam timing and many other factors that may or may not come into play, the engines manufactured in the 1990's are a great leap forward to engines of the 1940's or even those of the 1970's. Engines of the year 2011 are, well, even better. That said, for aftermarket (Engine Conversion) reasons, they are complicated enough that the costs of using the absolute newest technology is going to be higher and currently, the support for some of this new stuff in the aftermarket is in its infancy leading to even higher installation/rebuild/conversion prices. To add to this, your engines of today will gain in most areas over an engine manufactured in say 1990 but at the current price of approximately 30-60% more with only a gain of around 5-35% you have to determine if that extra power is going to be worth the costs. In some cases yes and in others (dare I say Many others), probably not at this point in history.

The technology in the rest of the vehicles is amazing as well. Rubber on the rims that can last for 30,000 plus miles with only a bit of air refilled every 6 months. In 1910, heck, in 1960, they would have called you a Liar for giving such a blasphemous- albeit lovely idea!

 

Distance.

Cars of yesteryear were the same as today. If you had Grandma's 20,000 mile 1940 Chevrolet that was driven for 10 years, the seats may be in good shape and the body may be sound but the engine may just as well be shot. Why? Short trips. She only went back and forth 3 blocks to the store twice daily and never warmed the engine up. Choke on all the time and it was stop and go for all three blocks- engine revs up, comes down and revs up again. What about Dad's 1940 Chevrolet that has 50,000 miles on it in 1 year? The seats and body may be a little more beat up but he was traveling long distances, always warmed the car up and the type of use it received gave it different wear factors but the engine may actually have no more wear or Less due to the type of driving- if both drivers used their cars about as easy but in two different driving situations. What does this have to do with all the oil in the North Sea? Well, people have moved out of the cities and into suburban or more rural settings. The drive is longer but more pleasant. My current driver was purchased with 255,000 miles on it when it was 6 years old. Better 300,000 freeway miles in 5 years than 100,000 city only miles in the same amount of time, generically speaking of course. Now rolling back on what I just said (boy do I have a dizzying intellect! Paraphrased from 'The Princess Bride') Fuel injection does help in these short drives as it doesn't tend to allow as much destruction on the motors and other technology in the engine helps, but this is Still a factor that comes into play on even new vehicles.

 

Road types/Conditions.
Now it is no surprise to anyone that technology came in First but I bet second was an interesting item to most and few of you considered third to be road types!

The older you are, the more you should know this. You Younger Folks such as myself- STUDY YOUR HISTORY!!! Those of you that were born before say, 1960 and were driving by mid-1970's when I was born probably knew the township limits because the roads literally went unpaved with only freeways and highways connecting us by tarmac and cement.

Unpaved roads, or roads in poor shape may be a larger factor than most people realize or recall OR most likely have ever been exposed to. Now technology is a wonderful thing but start picturing your new Lincoln, Audi or Chevrolet racing against mile a minute Lewie back in the day or how about Barney Oldfield!? Nahh, don't tell me, you don't know who they are!
The further back you go, the more cobble stone roads you see that are unpleasantly rough or other road surfaces that were not sometimes what we think of when we get all that nostalgic-gooey feeling on the inside. Did I forget to mention that most cars had a track width that was equal to the width of the horse drawn carriages of the day so the wheels would stay equal with the Ruts in the road otherwise the stress would be great enough to unseat rubber tires or break wood spoke rims not to mention the constant driver correction…

Those modern unpaved roads are dirty but believe it or not, with class 5 or other regrind materials placed on modern dirt roads, not even dirt roads are well, DIRT anymore! When my wife and I moved onto the street we live on now, 15 years ago, it was a true dirt road. No class 5 road surface but the local sand that has been here for thousands of years. Lucky for us, it wasn't clay but it could still get pretty bad at certain times of the year. Not having the correct 'tyres' meant you did not drive that car or had to take a good running start to get out the road. What a change when our road was improved with Class 5 with some clay and crushed rock in it. Don't believe me about the rods being very dirty back then? Look at pictures of race car drivers from the 1930's and before. Unlike the road trials in England where you will see guys put their pre 1950 car in conditions that we no longer see except in some farm fields, American classic car owners stereotypically don't even like placing a 'tyre' on the grass. Get over it- Hershey and Pebble Beach are both on the green. Hershey I am told is more in the mud and rain however.

Hills. We just crossed Country from Minneapolis to Reno. I noticed along the way that a lot of the hills and Mountains and passes have been carved. You can see that over time, what once was an up and down roller coaster has been turned into gradual inclines, as much as humanly possible and where the Gov't has set its budget to for that year. I hear stories of hills that certain cars could not get over without overheating or starting to roll backwards. Not ONLY did vehicles have less power but they had more work to do than their modern counterparts. Vehicles were actually geared Lower because manufacturers had to take into account gaining speed on that hill or other slow moving obstacle.

Passing lanes, shoulders, modern flatter (no-so-crowned) roads. These make it possible to stick closer to a certain speed and not have to worry about 'trying' to pass a car (or Farmall or John Deere) in front of you for the next 8 miles. Engine speed is more constant and the entire car suspension, steering, brakes are less worked over.

Corners. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that driving in America is sooo terribly boring compared to the UK or other portion of the world they have been in because sometime since (as I understand it) the 1950's, a campaign to flatten the hills, straighten the curves… Oh wait, that’s part of the Dukes of Hazard theme song- but it's true! That plus cut the trees and brush out of the road right of ways to insure you have additional time to slow down when there is the loose cow or child on the road. Driving the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee I am told is the opposite of what we consider 'normal' American roads. Driving Mexican roads is also like driving American roads of what I would guess is somewhere between 1950 to 1970.

Road alterations are so much easier on our modern vehicles that it's a wonder that more people do not look at this as somewhat of a savings to their vehicle but then again, why should we when it is now the norm. We are certainly not Africa with holes in the roads so large that they swallow SUVs!

 

In years past, a 100,000 mile car was a Jalopy ready for the scrap heap. That was true to most people that I speak to but 30 years before myself, it was closer to 50-80,000 miles. In the 1980's and 1990's we spoke of cars that were manufactured in the 1970's and 1980's and commonly considered cars with 100,000 - 150,000 miles the pass down to the end users- teenagers and collage kids. With advances on car and more technology placed in cars (thus cost going up), less collage kids probably purchased new than previously and cars would make it to the 150K mark. Now, we speak of 1990's and later cars NOT going 200,000 miles as disappointing. I expect a well maintained modern vehicle to produce 200-250,000 miles or more. Just one more reason manufactures have a hard time getting enough cars sold. :-)