Electronic Design

What's All This Dead Car Stuff, Anyhow?

Every year, in January, I compile a list of all the Dead Cars I've seen along the highways over the last calendar year. If you want to see a copy, send an SASE and I'll mail it. This year will be the 22nd annual list, going back to when I lived in Massachusetts in 1969. It lists every car according to their manufacturer, and sometimes by type.

For example, I try to keep the GMC cars separate from the Fords or the Chryslers, but I can't possibly segregate the Chevys from the Buicks - for all I know, they have the same engine anyhow.

I do separate the Volkswagens from the Saabs, which was my original intention. Back in 1969, I was trying to show some of my buddies that the Saabs of that era were less reliable than VWs, even though the Saab engines had "only 7 moving parts." I found that there were lots of dead or abandoned Volkswagens along the roads, but there were also quite a few dead Saabs. It seemed that there were more Saabs than one would expect from the number of Saabs on the road. Over the years, I kept on listing all of the cars I saw, dead or abandoned, foreign or domestic.

Now, what's the significance of these lists? Do they prove that one car is more reliable than another? No, not really, because even though you could tell how many cars are registered in any state, that doesn't tell you the number being driven. But I have had a lot of fun keeping notes on the Dead Cars. And my friends find it amusing to look at these lists.

Just the other day, I was writing down the data for one dead Mercedes Benz and one abandoned Ford with a flat tire. My passenger asked, "You mean, every time you see an abandoned car, you write down a note?" I replied, "Sure... doesn't everybody?..."

In the last five years, I began to keep a list of the cars I saw with no brake lights. I carry an envelope that I can hold up to warn a driver, "YOU HAVE NO BRAKE LIGHTS." I really don't like to see cars driving around with no brake lights.

It's all too easy for them to collect an innocent car on their rear when they hit their brakes and the following driver can't make this out all that well. So an accident can happen, and in my neighborhood, insurance rates go up even though many of us have had no accidents at all.

On the other side of the placard it says "YOU HAVE ONLY ONE BRAKE LIGHT." After one brake light burns out, what happens next? The other one burns out, and the car is left with none. So I like to warn these guys to get their brake lights fixed. In 1990, I notified 69 cars that they had no brake lights, and 144 cars that they had only one brake light.

There were about six guys with no brake lights that got away - sometimes they turn off in traffic before I can catch up with them, or sometimes a light changes against me. I hate to let a car with no brake lights get away. Still, I think I'm doing something useful, even though my wife sometimes gripes that I beep my horn too much just to tell a guy he has only one brake light.

But think about this: A guy has only a right brake light. He starts to signal for a right turn. Then he hits his brakes. In many cars, the brake light and the blinkers are connected to the same bulb, so when he hits the brakes, no change occurs. In some cases, one brake light burned out is as bad as no brake lights at all.

What do I do about brake lights? On each of my four cars, I've rigged extra brake lights up high so that they're really noticeable to the drivers behind me. If 1 or 2 bulbs burn out, I still have a couple left. Best of all, I can look in my mirror and see if the extra bulbs light up when I hit the brakes, so I can tell if the brakes' pressure-switch is working. Now, with a broad pen and a blank envelope, or a piece of paper taped to an envelope, you, too, will be able to warn drivers: "YOU HAVE NO BRAKE LIGHTS" and "YOU HAVE ONLY ONE BRAKE LIGHT."

Just what kind of car do you drive, Pease, to get good reliability? Ah, yes, I drive a car with exactly the right amount of modern electronic, computerized equipment - a 1968 VW Beetle (my wife drives a newer car, a 1969 Beetle).

Now, as an engineer, I suppose I should say good things about all of the fancy electronic fuel injection and spark computers and diagnostic computers and Lambda sensors. But I get 31 mpg and the car goes just as fast as I want, and that's good enough for me. The bottom line is that I prefer a car that has proven itself by running reliably for 244,000 miles (now up to 336k). In fact, until a couple months ago, it was still running on the original engine, and the original crank and pistons and cylinders (though it's true I had replaced the cylinder heads).

Sometimes I do connect a Heathkit electronic ignition system to minimize wear and tear on the breaker points. But right now it's on the blink, so I just went back to the old conventional (Kettering) ignition system, points and coil and distributor and "condenser." I set my own timing and I adjust my own valves. That's one good thing about old, simple cars - if something does go wrong (which is rarely) you can fix it yourself.

Do you ever count your own car, Pease, when it's dead? Yes, but that's not very often. One time my coil burned out. One time my distributor got loose and lifted out of its spigot, and it took me a full hour to figure out that when the engine turned, there had to be a reason why the distributor and its rotor did not. Another time a fuel hose fell off, but I fixed that and got going quickly, so I only counted it as 1/2.

There are several cases where I count a car as 1/2. For example, if a guy with a Volvo is talking to a guy with a Datsun, and they both have their hoods up, I may count 1/2 Datsun, 1/2 Volvo, 1 Helper. I count people who are obviously helping out as a Helper, not as a Dead Car. If I'm not sure it's a Rabbit on the other side of the road on a rainy night, I may count 1/2 Rabbit and 1/2 Modern Boxy Car (1/2 Modbox). If I can't even tell if it was probably foreign or U.S.-made, it gets scored as "1 car."

Do I think that electronics systems are going to improve the reliability of vehicles? Well, maybe. I recall the story of one of the first trucks that had an anti-lock brake system. They were driving innocently down the road when a nearby driver keyed the transmitter on his CB radio and the truck immediately locked up all its brakes. It turned out somebody had decided it would hurt the reliability to add bypass capacitors across all of the sensors and the inputs of the sensor amplifiers.

That's what you learn from MILHDBK-217 ... remember? So when the transmitter went on, all of the amplifiers went berserk. Oh, the amplifiers were perfectly "reliable," but the system had not been engineered properly. It was a miracle that nobody was behind the truck when it locked up all its brakes.

Are the new electronic system better for the environment? Maybe so. Maybe a new sedan can travel down the road emitting even less smog and emissions than my VW, so long as its computer is working right. But in 10 years, what happens when you can't get parts for the computerized systems? My car will still be running just fine. I think I'll stand pat.

After all, I have all of the tools and techniques I need to keep old VWs running forever. Forever? Well, there are old VWs around here that are over 35 years old, and if I can keep my good new beetles running 35 more years, they may outlive me. You would not want to bet that I can't keep them running. Meanwhile, if I see another VW broken down along the road, I stop and see if I can help.

Sometimes I have a tool or a gallon of gas, or the spare part they're in need of - a fan belt, or some points, or a clamp for a fuel hose. So I try to help solve their problem. If we can't figure out what's wrong, I leave them a SASE so they can write to me and explain what was the problem once they find out.

For example, one guy sent me a letter stating that the 1969 bus he had just bought was merely out of gas. The gas gauge was broken, but the previous owner, of course, had not warned him about that.

So, when I see a dead, abandoned or broken-down car along the freeway, I score it. I categorize and count it. Now, if a guy is just changing a tire, or pouring in a spare gallon of gas, I list that problem, but I don't count the car as dead or abandoned. In 1990, I saw 24 people that ran out of gas, 139 with a flat tire, 211 pulled over by a cop, and 16 with a broken drive shaft (remember, none of my cars has a drive shaft). I counted 293.5 GMC cars, 146 VWs, and one Citroen. What are the corresponding totals for 1991? I'll let you know as soon as I have them all added up.

Comments invited! / RAP
Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Originally published in Electronic Design February 6, 1992.

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