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Spinning My Tires   is one man's view of the world of cars. Random thoughts, ideas and comments pop up here, all of them related to owning, driving and restoring cars. I've been doing this car thing as long as I can remember, and have enjoyed a great many car-related experiences, some of which I hope to share with you here. And I always have an opinion one way or another. Enjoy.

E-mails are welcomed--if you have thoughts of your own to share, please send them.

Additional Spinning My Tires editorials can be found on the Archives page.


In Defense of Electronics

There have been several times of late when I have been involved in on-line discussions of old cars VS. new cars, late-model design VS. the design of old, do-it-yourself VS. having to have a shop full of computers for repairs, things like that. I’m sure a lot of you reading this have very strong feelings that may sound something like this:

Cars today are plastic junk full of electronics that are impossible to fix and designed to
be disposable. The old cars were easy enough for the home mechanic to fix anything by himself.

Well let me tell you about my weekend. Thursday night, my father called on me to help him move his 1930 Model A Ford roadster from one side of town to the other for winter storage. It fired right up as it has for the past 31 years, and we started driving. About 15 minutes into the trip, the car utters an explosive backfire and dies. I convince him to leave it in a parking lot and to go home and relax—I’ll go home, get my tools, and effect a cure on it that night or the next day (being unemployed as I am, I explain to him that I have plenty of time on my hands to devote to the problem).

I come back an hour later, change the plugs, clean the points and inside of the distributor, and the car fires right up and runs strong. I drive it home, since I only live a mile or so away from the breakdown point, and park it in my garage. I figure we’ll finish the trip west tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes and the car won’t start. It cranks, but there is no spark at all. I have touched nothing since the night before. Now here’s where things get interesting: If it were a modern car, it would more than likely be able to tell me what was wrong. I could “pull codes” from the computer to get at least a general idea of what has gone awry. But on the Model A of course, there are no such abilities.

So I try a few other tests that are outlined in the manual with no luck: still no spark at the plugs. Eventually I motor down to New Springfield, Ohio to see the Model A experts at Snyder’s Antique Auto Parts, which is about an hour away from my house—how convenient. I buy a lot of new parts: coil, points, distributor cap & rotor, the brass strips that pass as spark plug wires on a Model A, and a carburetor rebuild kit (the old “as long as I’m at it” routine, I’m sure you know it).

I return from Snyder’s, install the new parts and figure the car will spring to life, cured of its maladies with this offering of new parts, any one of which could have been the culprit (some of these parts date to well before our ownership of the car, some 30-odd years). But it was not to be: still no spark. The gods of inductive energy and capacitive discharge are still angry at me.

Then it was Saturday. I got up early and started doing some more diagnostics outlined in the service manual. I traced wires, checked grounds, swapped coils (and swapped them back again), moved wires around and eventually re-wired the entire ignition system with new wires and connectors. I regapped the points and plugs, reindexed the distributor to the cam, set the timing, charged the battery and even polished the dashboard, thinking that perhaps the Lady A was simply angry at me. I found and repaired two broken wires, one of which was the armored cable from the ignition switch to the distributor (“A-ha!” I exclaimed loudly on that last one, absolutely certain it was the cause of my misery.).


So here’s where I start thinking about those discussions about how easy old cars are to diagnose and fix. I’ve got probably 15 hours in the ignition system of the Model A and still no spark. Ford Model As will practically run underwater with nothing more than spit and an old button from a farmer’s overalls holding them together. But here I am, a car guy with 20 years of car-type experience, having attended a well-regarded engineering school and having built dozens of high-performance cars and trucks, and I can’t get a historically reliable 1930 Model A Ford to run. For Pete’s sake, FrankenRanger, my 1997 Ford Ranger pickup, which had a fuel-injected and supercharged 5.0L Ford Cobra motor in it along with A/C, ABS brakes and a bunch of other electronic stuff, fired and ran perfectly the very first time I turned the key!

This Model A is the kindergarten of cars—and I’m flunking!

So I turn to my reliable and able friends on the Internet at the AACA message board, tell them about my troubles, and wait for some answers. I quickly get some very good responses, try them all, and still get no spark. Apparently, the black magic inside the Model A’s ignition system has escaped, and I’m not a good enough witch doctor to put it back in.

To me, this is extraordinarily frustrating. I’ve got almost two full days of my time invested, about $150 in new parts, the neighbor kid has learned a lot of exciting new words, and I’m still no closer to having a running, driving Model A.

So here’s the point: If this were a modern car, I could have pulled codes, found out where to start looking, bought a few similarly-priced parts, and had the car running in a fraction of the time. I know how electronic cars work. A sensor is designed to measure a very specific condition, which it converts to an electronic signal. It relays this signal to the computer, which then decides what to do based on that signal and a set list of choices in its program. If the data is faulty, the computer will make some bad decisions. The symptoms of this bad judgment are usually easy to diagnose, even without the computer’s assistance. Sure, the sensor itself usually cannot be repaired, but neither can the Model A’s coil or condenser, both of which I suspect are bad (though the A isn’t telling me this is the case as a modern car would). The sensors plug in and work. Or they don’t and you try the next one up the line. Eventually the problem is solved, and you know it because the computer tells you so. I’ve replaced everything on the A and still have the same problem, and the only real data I have is that I now believe everything I’ve done is suspect. Tell me again about how the locate-and-replace school of repairs on modern cars is inferior.

See, modern cars aren’t any more complex than old cars. The way they go about their business is vastly more complicated, but the diagnosis and repair work is a relative snap. Nobody’s asking you to reprogram 1.8 million lines of code inside the ECM, just find the broken part and replace it. Not complicated. And infinitely easier to understand and diagnose than the “bad juju” afflicting the Model A, with its myriad of adjustments, questionable parts and ancient designs.

So to you guys who say the older cars were easier to fix, I say, “Feh.” I am totally unconvinced. I am, however, certain that if this Model A had a computer, it would be on the road already. Instead, I have another full day of hit-or-miss diagnostic work ahead of me, with results that remain, at best, uncertain.

Maybe my father said it best: “The guys who really knew how this stuff worked are all dead.”

I bet I know why…

See you next month.

E-mail me at

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Last modified on 02/06/2005

Thanks, Fidget!