If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Headlights (update)

Having observed over several days, and determined that the problem of missing or maladjusted headlights is not a figment of my imagination (the percentages I noted in a previous post seem to be broadly accurate), I think I have found a possible reason for the problem.

It lies in the essential reliability of modern cars.

I first learned about mechanical things (an interest that has lasted through my life) from my Dad when I was quite young - probably about 6 or 7, in the last 1950s. I used to go outside with him at the weekends and we would 'do' the car. In those days, cars didn't just run themselves - they needed constant care and attention, and that mysterious thing called 'mechanical sympathy'. Engines needed regular decarbonising, clutches lasted two or three years, tyres only 12 months, and carrying spare bulbs, a fan belt, fuel, some oil and water, a jack, a starting handle or jump leads, a couple of pieces of old sacking (in the winter - we had snow then) and a few tools was considered a common sense precaution rather than the sign of an anal-obsessive that it is today. Dad had to know all this. His job took him round the Yorshire Dales at all times of day and night, winter and summer, and if he didn't know how to fix a simple problem, he could have been sleeping in the car for the night.

Cars were not expected to be perfect. They broke down, and you coped with it. You learned how to deal with the obvious stuff, and you joined the RAC or AA for the rest. Being a 'motorist' was regarded as a kind of skill, and people would do strange things like weekly checks for oil level, tyre pressures and so on. People knew how to do it, or there were Car Maintenance classes as the local Evening Institute if you didn't. If a bulb blew, someone would tell you, or you would find out for yourself very soon, and you could fix it. And you would fix it, because you felt it was your duty to everyone else on the road to be safe and with everything in good condition.

Nowadays, a car is a machine, like a television or a fridge. You buy it, it works, that's all. Quality and engineering have progressed beyond measure since the days I was talking about, and a good thing too. Cars are now very reliable, hardly ever go wrong, and the need for any mechanical knowledge is almost nil. Service intervals have been extended to 12,000 miles in many cases, which for many people represents a year's driving. So you buy the car, fill it with fuel as necessary, and once a year go back to the dealer for a service. That's it.

(Changing a headlight bulb on my Ford, by the way, is far from simple. You must take off a lot of the front trim and then remove the entire headlight unit before you can get access to the bulb. No wonder people don't do it. In the old days, it could usually be done from inside the engine compartment in twenty seconds with no tools. So it's not all the driver's fault.)

That's great. It means that you can spend more time doing the things you want, and it means that more people are able to own a car and use it than could before - the non-mechanical (trying not to be sexist here) have just as much access to the utility and freedom of a car as the guy with the dirty fingernails and the torque wrench in his hand. But it does have a downside. If something does go wrong (and bulbs still blow, no matter how good they are), then the owner:

a) may not realise, as the need for regular checks of the vehicle's health are no longer necessary, and

b) may not care, as long as the car still goes forward in the usual manner - after all, repairs are the garage's responsibility, aren't they? It will have to wait until the next service in a few months.

I can understand this. I own a car, but it doesn't really interest me. It goes, it's reasonably efficient, it carries the shopping and it tows the caravan. It does everything I ask it to, and in return I show no interest at all in its welfare. It's serviced and it's inspected, but it's not cherished or cossetted. It's a car - you don't take your fridge apart every week to do maintenance checks, do you?

Bikies are going the same way, but they are - crucially - lagging behind in many significant ways. Most bikes now have electronic ignition, so the days of adjusting points are long gone. Fuel injection is now also commonplace, so there is no need to clean the carbs or set the idle speed. But they do need servicing, and many owners love to do it for themselves. There isn't the 'sealed unit - no user maintenance' attitude that cars now have. Most motorcyclists love to be able to fiddle with something, even if it's only checking the oil. It's part of the involvement of ownership that makes bikes far more rewarding than cars.

(Aside: bikes are now remarkably reliable in the same way that cars are - they rarely go wrong, and when they do it is usually the result of neglect or faulty maintenance rather than poor design or materials. This is all the more amazing when you consider that the specific power output of many bikes is double that of most cars. It is not uncommon for bike engines to develop 150bhp/litre, whereas the average family car struggles to make 80bhp/litre, and even the latest hot-hatchery from Ford, the Focus RS, can only manage 120bhp/litre. But I digress.)

Ultimately, we will have cars that are sealed at the factory and do not require - and will not permit - any servicing or maintenance for 200,000 miles. This will be great from a utility point of view, but it will mean that yet more idiots are barreling along the A40 with only half the lights they should have, and wondering what is wrong.


  1. I'm not sure that you are entirely correct in your then and now analysis!
    My daughter recently took her car test and was required to identify certain under bonnet tasks.
    I agree with you about bulb changing - there ought to be requirement that any bulb can be changed within 2 minutes.

  2. You are right, and this is a welcome move. But what the test covers is vary basic:

    "These are basic safety checks that a driver should carry out to ensure the vehicle is safe for use. Although some checks may involve the candidate in opening the bonnet to identify where fluid levels would be checked, pupils will not be asked to touch a hot engine or physically check fluid levels."


    "Candidates will be asked two questions, one 'show me' and one 'tell me'. One or both questions answered incorrectly will result in one driving fault being recorded."


    That's one fault, even if they get both questions wrong, out of the 15 allowed before failure. Hardly make-or-break stuff. And, of course, knowing it for the test is not the same as practising it day-to-day. How many people can tell you what's in the Highway Code six months after passing their test?

    But it's better than nothing.


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