Broken, battered and bruised

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Buying your first car is a rite of passage so it seemed fitting that Dad came with me to help me make a sensible choice. I don’t know why this made so much sense at the time because all of Dad’s cars came from that twilight zone between bangerdom and the crusher. Every crap car from British Leyland and Ford had broken down with us in it, usually during the journey to or from our holiday destination. Nevertheless, armed with a thousand of my own hard borrowed pounds, we made the pilgrimage round the classifieds in search of the perfect vehicle.

Car after car didn’t make the grade as Dad carefully looked over them. A superb looking Mini Clubman with sporty spotlights was dismissed as too sporty. Another car went because there was more rust than car. Some cars were too big. None were too small. At the end of our trail, we found the Goldilocks car, a white Renault 5. It was the rock bottom, bargain basement, base model. It didn’t even have the most essential item of equipment in it, a stereo. It had an 850cc engine which had just about enough power to make the thing move and it cornered on its wing mirrors (or it would if it had any wing mirrors).

An awful lot happened in that car. A few weeks after I bought it, I drove along a residential street. I wasn’t going very fast because the Renault didn’t do fast. From in between two parked cars out came a football bouncing into the road. In the time it took my brain to make the connection that it might be followed by a child, a terrified boy appeared spread-eagled on my bonnet before he bounced off. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever hurt anyone. After the police disappeared and the boy went off in an ambulance, I got back in my car, shaking like a leaf. Before I drove off, I noted with sadness that the child’s mates were still playing football in the road despite the earlier accident and the fact that a football field lay on the other side of the road.

Various bits fell off the car and just about everything failed. The brakes failed when I came down Midland Hill once. The car in front of me braked and came to a stop, indicating to turn off. I braked and my car didn’t stop at all. In the end, I had to drive up the bank at the side of the road. The clutch failed when I went to college. I dropped it over at the clutch garage one September morning and made my way to college. That was the day that the hurricane hit the UK. Late afternoon, I gave them a call to see if it would be ready to take me home.

“Errr… we’ve been having a few problems today mate. Was it the Renault?”

His use of the past tense alarmed me.

“You see, the roof’s fallen on it and we’re still digging it out.”

I really appreciated all the time my Dad took to help me choose the right car, but when I bought my second car, I went alone.

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The mobile supercomputer

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Maybe it’s my fading memory, but I seem to remember that winters were much colder during my school years. It could be that I spent a lot more time standing around in the snow waiting for buses, but the cold used to seep up through my shoes and into my bones. You didn’t need to look out of the window to see whether it was a cold and frosty morning. The starter motors of the reluctant cars made a characteristic whining noise in a gradually slowing rhythm as the last dying remnants of the battery was eaten away.

In the early 1980s, the ignition systems in cars were mechanical in nature. This meant they had the annoying habit of wearing out at the most inconvenient moments. Not only that, but there wasn’t much adjustment available. It didn’t matter whether it was 30 degrees and sunny or -20 degrees with inches of snow on the ground, the components in the ignition system worked (or rather didn’t) in exactly the same way.

The only tool available to the driver was a little knob called a choke which pulled out of the dashboard and controlled the strength of the fuel mixture. On a cold and frosty morning a richer mixture was required. As the engine heated up, the choke could be pushed gradually back in returning the mixture to normal.

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electronics were not the only reason cars were unreliable. The assembly lines on which they were produced had not advanced significantly since Henry Ford came up with the idea. Although many parts were pressed out of steel using a massive die, almost everything was assembled by hand which meant that fit and finish were inconsistent. Some cars were more reliable than others and there was a suspicion that quality of assembly went significantly downhill towards the end of the working week. If you were unlucky enough to have bought an unreliable car, people would refer to it as a “Friday afternoon car”. The metals used in car construction were nowhere near the quality of those used today. In addition, galvanisation had yet to take off and few car manufacturers used sufficient rust protection. Even if your pride and joy was in fine fettle, the dreaded tinworm could have nibbled its way through crucial parts of your car’s anatomy.

Construction techniques have advanced and cars have undoubtedly made massive leaps forward in terms of comfort, reliability, efficiency and safety but the basic form factor has remained the same for about a hundred years. The biggest leap forward has been in terms of the sophistication of the electronic control systems watching over the engine, brakes and suspension. It is not uncommon for a premium car to have 20 – 30 micro controllers and 100 million lines of code buried under the considerable bonnet (or hood if you’re American).

Just to put those numbers in perspective,  according to the Mythical Man Month (required reading for anyone in software) it is estimated that developers on average produce 10 lines of code per working day. I’m assuming that car manufacturers must find more productive programmers otherwise writing the software for a car would take approximately 50,000 man years. Of course not everything is written from scratch and the same code must get reused between different components and different cars. Still, it’s an incredible amount of software and not only that, the quality seems very high which is a comfort when you stamp your feet on the brake pedal in the rain.

I’m just glad I don’t have to listen to that infernal racket on a cold and frosty morning.