You know, they say the best conversations a man can ever have are in the pub or down the barbers – and it’s 100% true. Some of the best Politicians, Engineers, Police Chief Superintendents or Heads of State that never were earn their wedge by cutting hair and putting the world to rights.
I am quite lucky as my barber is a gentleman and a petrolhead – never mind that he drives a Toyota Auris (a wife and kids altered his buying policy), he knows a thing or three about cars. Anyway, sitting there waiting while pawing through a copy of Auto Express, a sorry looking Escort van plastered with mud and sporting a roof-mounted amber beacon bar clatters onto the forecourt of the barber’s emporium – sounding as smooth as a mower running over shale.
An equally tired and mucky looking chap about my vintage enters the shop and plonks his weary derrière beside me before grabbing another motoring magazine and awaiting his barnet to be barbered. My barber knows everyone by name and he quips that he needs a new van but the chap snorts back that there’s loads of life left in his steed having just knocked up an amazing 280,000 miles.
This is no mean feat by any standards – the Endura 1.8 Ford diesel has nothing in the form of power or torque but they certainly run and run and run seemingly forever when given a little TLC but 280K? That’s damn impressive. Sadly, not as impressive is his workmate’s Renault Kangoo DCi which has just had its third engine fitted at less than half the Escort’s mileage and is under three years old.
Recycling isn’t new
Once upon a time, in not so distant past, it was not unheard of for a diesel heart actually to outlast the carcass it was fitted in, hundreds of life-expired Maestro and Montego diesels provided a transplant for drivers of Land Rover 90s looking to add a bit more oomph. A good few canal barges also saw their worn-out Lister engines swapped over to the same hardy Perkins/Rover Prima MDi too as they were known for being utterly robust and bomb proof even if a little smokey, especially in turbo format. On the subject of the Prima, I read in a Perkins newsletter once about a courier driver hitting 350,000 miles in his diesel Maestro. If I recall, they bought him a new van – and a pair of the latest hearing aids (ahem sniff).
The modern diesel is a far cry from say 10-15 years ago – ultra thrifty, they now may be but it seems the original USP for choosing diesel – longevity, seems to be distant memory like record players or Texan bars. Manufacturers still charge that added premium for a car that uses the black pump yet the life expectancy of said engine quite often fails to match its petrol sibling. Audi and Volkswagen models which dine out on their fangled dual vane turbochargers or GM 1.9 CDTi engines blowing head gaskets are just a soupçon of silly and unacceptable problems as the makers squeeze and wring every last blip of power from engines of ever decreasing capacities.
Progress – at what cost
How about the PSA Group HDi engines, though? Go like the clappers they may do compared to the XUD of old, but as for fuel system and engine-related electrical faults – they are simply unable to hold a candle to an old 406 TD LX. It’s kind of comparable to mobile phones – my old Ericsson 638 had a battery life you could count in seasons unlike my HTC which needs to be defibrilated into life every evening. There seems to be too many electronics in the engine bay where once a diesel was simplicity itself. Dr. Rudolph surely never envisaged his ultra-simple, ultra-efficient idea to be surrounded by a cacophony of senders sensors and ECUs when he invented his heavy fuel engine all those years ago.
Take my mate’s wife’s Zafira 120 CDTi for example, she works as a child minder ferrying Suffolk’s baby boom around. I’ve lost count now how many times the engine management light came on owing to the ultra low mileage the car actually does. The family have now cottoned on to the fact that an occasional spanking on the M11 is all that’s required to avoid the dreaded yellow glow but, as my friend often says to me, ‘why should I?’
He is, of course, right to a degree. Why should you adopt a different style of driving to avoid an expensive plug in job at the Vauxhall Dealer? The service manager will probably tell you that’s a small price to pay for progress. However, what about stop-start technology then, crawling in traffic with this function is both tedious and frustrating in my opinion.
Turbo-diesel cars used to be torquey and gutsy, too. Our current 1.6 TDi Golf, for example, has a powerband as wide as your little finger – let the revs drop below 1500rpm and it’s almost like there’s no engine there at all. Compare that to my old company Civic iCDTi with its hulking great 2.2-litre engine which had so much torque that when you planted your foot, the Earth would rotate backwards. As the Actress said to the Bishop ‘there’s no substitute for size’ – look what happened when Peugeot introduced a 1.5 yes! 1.5-litre HDi plant in the 407 range, they subsequently went on to sell so few that you virtually count the total sales on the fingers of Abu Hamza’s right hand.
Reductions in reliability
Engine failures in modern diesels are so common place today but it does not stop with just cars and light commercials either. Once a Cummins NTA 14-litre would punch out 350bhp and colossal torque in an average British truck and give up to a million kilometres of trouble free life but, today, that level of horsepower can be gained with just 8-litres though with drastically reduced life expectancy.
A local resident to me just happens to be a workshop manager for a local HGV dealership and tells me engine changes inside warranty 10 years ago virtually never happened, but today? They change an engine once or twice a month. Modern telematics may make a truck more efficient, but it does not make them any more reliable – quite the reverse in fact.
Even modern buses have a similar problem. Your average full-length single-decker would once happily burble around the metropolis armed with a 10-litre engine that never even so much as broke into a sweat. That’s a far cry from today where a 12m service bus can be fitted with a 6-litre power unit that just screams all day at 2000+ rpm with its hydraulic cooling fan acting and sounding like a mobile vacuum cleaner. The average life expectancy of a city bus engine has dropped from eight years down to a miserable three putting thousands of pounds onto ever tightening engineering budgets.
Counting the environmental cost – long term
What about the environment, then? Granted, toxins and particulates of new vehicles are impressively low but, once out of warranty and the servicing is skimped, they soon start to clatter clank and smoke like an old locomotive – has anyone ever suffered the misery of following a Laguna DCi or Focus TDCi with a failed EGR valve whilst grinding up Corley bank on the M6? And on the bigger stuff, a Gardner-powered Leyland double-decker would return around just over ten mpg in service whereas a modern Volvo equivalent struggles to top seven. Look at the total life costings and I’ll bet the old Leyland is kinder the the trees than the Swede.
Okay then, what about economy? Well, the old Montego diesel introduced in 1989 was capable of well in excess of 65mpg – even in estate form – and the current Mondeo diesel without stop start trickery manages around the same. So have we progressed and have we really reduced the carbon footprint? Probably, yes in the short term but to what extent is the carbon offset if so many diesel cars and commercials are suffering from premature engine failure thus requiring brand new lumps?
A sobering thought when you think that my fellow customer’s van has an original old-school diesel engine cast from Pig iron a million years ago… and still delivers the goods!
So much for progress, indeed.