The motoring world has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. OK, I confess to being trained in the old school where I maintained my own cars and when necessary rebuilt engines and gearboxes and anything else that needed repair such as alternators, starter motors, windscreen wiper motors, CV joints, bearings etc. During these years I held the power in my hands!
So I instinctively resent these modern vehicles where, when you open the bonnet, the sight of smartly moulded plastic hits you, instead of a real engine, and where problems can only be diagnosed by plugging into a computer. Here the pronouncements of the 'authorised dealer' or workshop manager are taken as gospel, high costs to boot! This is the height of disempowerment for the car owner. Maybe I'm being unfair and negative, for good dealerships do exist, but I'm afraid that too many exploitative entities are having a field day.
The positive side is that today's cars need less maintenance, are more reliable, are more fuel efficient, are quieter, faster and more powerful (bhp for litre) than ever before. But the power has been taken out of the hands of the owner, especially that breed who enjoys tinkering and maintaining his own vehicle. This mechanically literate owner now reluctantly hands over his vehicle to the workshop of the authorised dealer, often with disappointing, costly results. Apart from modern cars being virtually tinker-proof, if an owner does his own maintenance he risks invalidating the motor plan.
I know several mechanics at the top of their game, and they won't touch many of these high technology vehicles. I suspect we've entered the era of what I term the 'hi-tech con'. It may sound a little unfair and cynical, but here are some down-sides of today's vehicles.
Cost wise, a luxury car today costs as much as a home. In some cases a luxury home. Maintenance-wise it may be true that modern cars are more reliable. However, this claim holds good only for a certain mileage. The higher the mileage the more unreliable the vehicle becomes ... call it mechanical entropy if you will. This is why modern cars often come with maintenance contracts or the motor plan. It may be a cynical view, but such a plan covers the vehicle during its early life cycle operation, the phase in which the vehicle has undergone the lowest amount of wear and tear, and consequently the lowest number of problems.
Every time a car starts and runs, wear and tear is taking place. This can be minimised by intelligent driving and care, but deterioration is inevitable. This is why many owners sell their cars before the motor plan ends, and then buy another one. Through many discussions I've had with workshop managers and mechanics, I also cast doubt on the mechanical or financial effectiveness of these arrangements, or the ethical manner in which motor plans are managed if not exploited. But that's another discussion in itself.
After the motor plan
Let's assume your maintenance contract has expired. Extending the contract is invariably a costly affair, and you could arguably invest your money better elsewhere. The question is, do you have to get rid of what could still prove to be a viable investment? What risks do you face if you decide to keep the vehicle and entrust its maintenance to a competent, honest mechanic?
Often you hear owners say "I'll just keep the car and run it into the ground". Not so simple. The truth is the car will simply cost you more and more until it hurts. But good, intelligent maintenance can minimise this pain.
Let's first look at what components wear out and can cause problems after expiry of the motor plan. Provided intelligent and proactive maintenance is practised, the reliability factor will generally remain good to high. Expensive components in modern cars such as engines, gearboxes, steering systems are pretty good for hundreds of thousands of kilometres. But inevitably things deteriorate over time and this is where proactive or preventative maintenance comes in.
The authorised dealer will usually stock most of the necessary parts. But besides the dealer there are superb spares outlets in SA today where one can buy virtually any quality spare part for virtually any car at rates far more competitive than the authorised dealer. Proactive maintenance means to replace certain components before they fail! Remember reliability is also security in this day and age, so you want to prevent a breakdown at all costs.
Let's start with rubber, rubber belts, rubber tyres and rubber hoses. Tyres are simple enough to monitor and maintain, and if you take the trouble to shop around, you can generally replace tyres cost-effectively. But rubber's worst enemy is heat and oil. So after a few years in a hot, sometimes oily engine compartment, rubber hoses and belts will deteriorate and should be replaced before they fail. These include radiator, heater, vacuum, fuel hoses, cam-belts or normal fan belts. Cost to replace all belts and hoses, including labour, is relatively low for a small car ... probably well under a thousand rand with a competent mechanic. This is well worth the investment, for if hoses are allowed to deteriorate until they swell and perish then a blow-out will inevitably occur.
Result? An over-heated, seized-up engine.
Swollen radiator hose
Cam-belts also should be replaced after around 100 thousand kilometres, for if these fail the result can often be bent valves and a costly cylinder head overhaul.
I still don't understand why a large red light and loud buzzer is not fitted to all cars, so when the engine runs too hot, or runs low on oil, a loud alarm goes off. If the driver stops let's say after a radiator hose has burst, thousands of rands of serious damage can be prevented. Compare the cost of replacing rubber hoses to the cost of an engine rebuild which can, on average, cost six to sixty thousand rand depending on make and model.
Pumps also give problems and when high mileages are reached, say over 150 000km plus, then (costs permitting) these should also be rebuilt or renewed. These include water pumps, power steering pumps, fuel pumps and the aircon compressor. I do quite a bit of road travel in my '91 BMW 318i, and I certainly don't want a breakdown in the middle of the Karoo. To prevent this I recently replaced my water pump and my fuel pump. The new electric fuel pump cost a thousand rand and I fitted it in a relaxed 30 minutes, sipping coffee and listening to good music. And now I keep the used one in my boot, just in case! We live in an imperfect world and although rare, even new components can fail. OK it may not be necessary to overhaul all these pumps before they fail, but critical ones such as fuel pump and water pump are relatively inexpensive to replace and enhance overall reliability.
From disempowerment to empowerment
I feel the pain of many helpless souls who are charged disproportionately high dealership fees they can ill afford, and where workmanship is wanting, often necessitating many returns to the 'authorised workshop'. These repairs can invariably be done to a higher standard at a lower cost by a competent private mechanic. I have come across many competent, honest and even compassionate mechanics and may they continue to flourish! But they're in the minority. Just ask around and you're sure to find a good mechanic that comes highly recommended.
So here's the bottom line, when your motor plan runs out, keep your trusty car, find a good mechanic who talks sense, keep your eye and ear on the vehicle at all times and it will continue to give you many years of pleasure at relatively low cost.
Now that's taking the power back into your own hands!
Roger Metcalfe is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, technology and medicine. He is an ex-diplomat, and produces promotional films for the corporate sector. He is currently a partner in his own solar energy business "Solar Connect" and is reading for his Masters in Communication. He can be contacted at +27 (0) 82 456 4233 or at .
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