Dear Tom and Ray:
I am about to buy a car. I’ve been advised to buy a new or newer car so as to avoid breakdowns, but I’m running into one big problem: Everything on the market is computerized. I’d like to be able to look under my hood and actually know what is going on. With only one auto-shop class, I’m hardly an expert, but I’d like to learn. Are there any new or newer cars out there that are simple — cars that I could actually work on myself? I couldn’t care less about GPS, power windows, automatic transmission, Blackberry and all the tacky gadgets they put on cars these days. I just want to drive something that I can understand. — Malia
Tom: You’d like to look under the hood and actually know what’s going on? So would we.
Ray: I don’t know how old you are, Malia, but I remember when televisions were pretty simple. And when something went wrong that wouldn’t respond to a fist on the side of the box, you could take the back off the TV, remove the tubes, take them down to the repair shop and put them in a “tube tester.”
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Tom: If one of the tubes was bad, you’d buy a new one for a few bucks, put them all back in, turn on the TV and voila. You’d be watching “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” again in no time.
Ray: I wouldn’t even consider taking the back off my TV now. And I guess that’s a loss for humanity. But you know what? TVs are 1,000 times better today than they were 50 years ago. They almost never break now, they download movies, they display things in 3-D. Their pictures are brighter, sharper and more realistic, yet the sets are more energy-efficient. And most importantly, you don’t need to adjust the vertical hold every 15 minutes to keep from seeing Walter Cronkite’s forehead at the bottom of the screen and his chest at the top.
Tom: And the same is true of cars. They’re 1,000 times more complex, but they’re also 1,000 times better and more reliable than they used to be.
Ray: And much of that is attributable to the complicated technology that you and I can’t even begin to fix anymore. So it’s a trade-off, but it’s a trade-off that most of us are happy to make.
Tom: Because now our cars pollute a fraction as much, they’re more powerful, some of them go much farther on a gallon of gasoline (or a kilowatt of lithium-ion battery power), they’re safer, more comfortable, they last longer and, perhaps most importantly, they start pretty much every day. A lot of people forget what it was like to turn the key and pray whenever it was cold and rainy out.
Ray: And cars now routinely go 100,000 miles without needing any major repairs. In the old days, if you nursed a car to 100,000 miles, it was a cause for a party.
Tom: So, in order to get something that you can look under the hood of and easily tinker with yourself, you have to be willing to drive an unsafe, unreliable, pollution-belching rust bucket.
Ray: Which is what my brother drives. In fact, you can go car shopping on his front lawn, Malia. You’ll have a bunch of heaps that won’t start to choose from.
Tom: You really have to go back to the 1970s or earlier to go “pre-computer.” If you get a car of that vintage, you’ll be able to open the hood and recognize all the parts. That’s one thing I really like about my old cars.
Ray: Of course, the reason you’ll recognize all those parts is because you just replaced them a month ago! Don’t do it, Malia. Accept that the world changes. Embrace the change. Cars that start in the rain are a giant step for mankind.