Technician’s Update : DIY servicing – enjoy it while you can

Mike Humble

Rover 75 001

So many times have I moaned about the difficulty in service/repair of cars. This is probably why my own 75 1.8 scores so highly in my books as it’s the only petrol R40 offering that doesn’t make you curse or swear when it comes to periodic servicing. It seems a far cry from the days of three simple spring clips to remove the air filter from your 2.0 Montego or when a timing belt on a 1.6 S-Series required a flick through a Haynes, three tools and a Kit-Kat.

A contact called Nigel has just recently bought (against recommendation I may add) a pretty and well loaded 2.0 KV6 powered Rover 45. Initially, a few texts came by lauding its Church like refinement, leather trim and sprinkling of burr walnut. But the texts have now turned into one or two phone calls which by the tone of his voice, rather than actually saying, have become more like ‘oh God, what have I done’. It’s fair to say that the only making plans for Nigel, will be to sell it on again.

Bought privately from the stereotypical mature gentleman with half decent postcode, the only fly in the ointment was the fact needed a good service after a lengthy time off the road. Don’t get me wrong – the 2.0 V6 Rover 45 is a lovely thing to spank along the road in even if only offered in slaughtermatic option only, but you do needs your wits and patience along with some old fashioned skill when it comes to routine fettling.

Circumnavigating the engine bay of an 825 or 75/ZT can be challenging enough for the faint-hearted but with the cozy confined bay of the HH-R derived 45 – its takes a turn for the worse. Of course, with a K-Series of any size with the exception of a TF, everything is tickety boo – even the timing belt tends to be a mornings work and nothing more. In the case of the aforementioned 45, it proves the time old saying that there’s no such thing as a cheap car.

In the current climate of every speck of information being a click away, researching a new or potential car for vulnerabilities or owner experience requires as much effort as sleeping. But there again, it’s also true of the phrase every car has its owner. Going back a few years, I used to enjoy nothing more than going to an independent car auction to watch the useless and feckless buffoons blow their money on the most sinister purchases.

I remember standing alongside a rather dim witted chap who was there to buy a sensible four door family saloon for around the £2000 mark. Easily achievable of course but you should have seen his face light up like a fruit machine at the sight of an XJ40 for similar money. He was either with a friend or his brother and he remarked on what his wife would say if he rolled up in said big Cat – I’m not sure if I wanted to be present on that occasion.

Said dunderhead bought the car and brought it back to sell again around two months later – probably owing to the £5 of fuel wasted just by nipping to the paper shop and back. Of course, its lovely to have a purring huge engine up front but its all rather expensive if you can’t get a fag paper between the inner wing and the drive belts. Even fixings and fittings are no longer as simple as they used to be under the bonnet of your average new smoker.

It’s all about splines and torx nowadays – not long before our old friend the 13mm combination spanner will become one of those through the ages exhibits you find behind glass in the London Science Museum. The days of servicing your own car are dwindling as manufacturers do their utmost to ensure your car remains in their care – use the trolley jack and your old washing up bowl while you have the chance to do so.

This is why I actually enjoy a K series, simple to work on and enjoyable too and the only special tools you really need are the cam locking tool for the timing belt and a sturdy E14 socket for those ten head bolts. Big engines are fab in big cars but somewhat challenging in smaller vehicles, though it’s nice to have the power there when you need it. Sadly, we have moved away from the days of Haynes, feeler blades and a Gunsons Colour Tune – even OBD is slowly becoming obsolete.

Bring back the days when a Cavalier 1600 clutch could be knocked out inside and hour or when a 1.6 Montego timing belt required just a few tools and 30 minutes of your time. This is probably the main reason why I`m such a fan of the 1.8 Rover 75 – its the only model in the range that’s 100% DIY friendly. Take a look around your local breakers yard and have a look-see at what you find and wonder why the landscape has changed so much.

Not that long ago, your average breakers yard would be full of ancient Allegro’s, corroded Cortina’s and knackered Nissans – all often as a result of accident damage, rust or being just plain life expired. Today, the common theme is “beyond economical” repair causing many perfectly usable clunkers to be bannished to the crusher owing to design touch rendering them beyond the scope of a competent DIY motorist. I personally know of one almost mint 2005 Vectra scrapped off all because of a juddering clutch.

By adding lengthy warranties that encourage owners to rely on the franchised dealer, car makers see more money going back into their coffers than in the days of the usual 12.000 mile / 12 month warranty whereby your Ford dealer would rarely ever see a Sierra back on the ramps after its 1st birthday. As a rule, unless the marque is presteige, very little, or sometimes no profit at all is made on the actual sale of the car – the big bucks are in the parts and servicing.

Its also had a knock on effect in the service bays too. Anyone born into the era of pushrods and contact breakers knew how to diagnose faults and rebuild components – but now, its all plug and play and throw away. New mechanics coming into the game know only about basic servicing and how to operate the hand held computer software. Clever all this tech stuff may be but personally I think its taking the life, soul and fun out of motoring – but there again I’m just an automotive Dinosour just like the cars I dream about.

Mike Humble


  1. mike my dad is from your era too, did his national service on vulcan bomber engines as he was a apprentice mechanic at a BMC dealer in winsford cheshire. he always says how everything then was repaired, no exchange units in those days!!! now as you say plug in and go. oh and he did set carbs by ear a lot!!! good days long gone..

  2. Amen Mr H. Whats even worse nowadays is we have a generation of car drivers who don’t even know how to change a wheel. Either they have no idea or consider it beneath them and they would rather sit at the roadside waiting for the AA than get their hands a bit dirty. We used to joke about women being this way inclined but it is frustrating and downright embarrassing that there are an increasing no of able bodied and minded men in the world these days. I wouldn’t expect all the under 25’s to know how to service their car but surely a little knowledge and understanding couldn’t hurt. It just shocks me how we have all apparently become so ” educated” but have no idea how the basics work and then cry blasphemy when something breaks or goes wrong because we didn’t have the faintest inkling that the car was trying to tell us something (unpleasant noises, smells, warning lights etc, etc

  3. @ kev so true…

    And a very good article mr Humble, I love cars that are simple to work on.
    allthough changing timing belt,balanceshaft belt and tensioner seems almost overly complicated on my “classic” 620 (Honda engine)atleast compared to a T or K series :/. I need to do it though some day soon.

    ps: im 17 and on my 3rd 620… 😀

  4. My motoring started with three MkII Consuls. I regularly travel down to SW France in my Rover 75 CDTi – 900 miles. Now the good old MkII had grease points that required attention every 1,000 miles. So it would mean getting the grease gun out soon after arriving.

    The fun of points especially with a slightly worn dizzy – no such problems with modern ignition, admittedly a bit more of a problem when it goes wrong but how often does it.

    And then there is the MPG of old cars v modern cars with their fuel injection and engine management systems.

    The fun of setting up carbs and the problems of changing float levels, blocked jets etc.

    The old uns might have been easier to service but their reliability was not so good.

  5. @Paul T – That’s a good point. When modern cars do go wrong it is usually some sort of catastrophic failure that does render them beyond economic repair once beyond a certain age. However, the roads are full of 10 – 15 year old cars though that still look virtually new. In the 60s, 70s and 80s few cars made it that far and would have looked like complete sheds at less than half that age so longevity is certainly much better. Also, until cars reach that catastrophic failure point they generally run faultlessly, starting on the button hot or cold. I cant remember the last time I needed to turn the key a second time to start. That would have been the norm even on a well maintained brand new car at one time.

  6. I remember about 5 years ago driving my Mini 30 auto to Northumberland, and sensing a slight misfire on the A697. This misfire became a gradual power loss, and eventual grind to a halt. Lifted the bonnet, noted that the piggy back spade connector with the LT lead and radio suppressor had started to break. Removed the LT lead spade from the piggy back, stuck in back on the distributor, turned the key and off we went.
    I also have a Wolseley Hornet and MG Midget 1500, all on points and carbs, and never had to go near a garage. I know it sounds sentimental and, I suppose, a bit rose-tinted but aside from a catastrophic failure of a major component I am fairly confident that I can sort out these cars should they become a bit poorly.
    Oh, and all still have manual chokes!

  7. the latest big problem in modern diesel cars anyway is this DPF gizmo, ive heard of people all the time having nothing but trouble with it and at nearly £1900 on some bmws to replace i would say that modern diesels will have a very short life, problem is once its replaced its going to block up again unless you are doing hundreds of miles to keep it clear? no good round town..

  8. I learned to drive in a 1986 metro and my first car was a mini clubman and my second was a mk1 fiesta 1.1, these were the cars that I learned to do my own repairs and servicing, the good old days of setting the points and even bolting back the tappets on the fiesta after arriving at a pub one night.I like the feel of some modern cars but they would bore me if I cant do my own repairs or servicing.

  9. My Mk3 Cavalier has recently become “life expired” due to terminal rust sadly, and has been replaced by a Mk3 Mondeo (petrol I hasten to add!) Once the stupid “acoustic cover” is off the access around the lump doesn’t seem too bad, but it’ll be harder than than the Cav I’d imagine – that was a DIYers dream. Loads of free empty space around all sides of the engine and ‘box. Marvellous.

  10. Paul T and Paul without Surname make excellent points. Cars are so much more dependable these days and better protected from the elements. As much as it pains me to say it we can thank the Japanese for proving that cars could be reliable even in winter and without the Japanese we would still be paying extra for bootlights, cloth trim and radios. IIRC it was the Pacific rim cars that were the first with decent rust protection and extended warranties. For all our rose tinted reminiscence of our classics (and I do love my 1981 Austin Maxi) I am also glad that is not the pinnacle of car design although there are a number of modern equivalents that IMHO could take a leaf out of it’s book in terms of versatility, seat comfort and interior space , not to mention it’s ease to work on when it does need a little TLC.

    I am aware that if the interior appointments, driver appeal and reliability of cars had never improved to the point they are now then it says nothing of our desire to progress and evolve as a species. But, and it is a big but why have cars become so complicated ? As far as I can see there is nothing to justify why cars are so DIY unfriendly these days. If anything with the elimination of grease points, coil and distributor ignitions, manual choke carbs etc they should be simpler and less complex. At some point when they are a few years old and on their second or more owner they will need some TLC and certainly as far as I can see for the foreseeable future there will still be people like myself at least who take pride being able to carry out even basic maintenance like oil changes and bulb replacement rather than be one wholly of the new mindset who can navigate their way around the BMW IDrive system with smug techno wizardy but wouldn’t have a clue where the dipstick is (other than behind the wheel lol), what it’s purpose is or be afraid of collapsing due to stress because the windscreen washer bottle ran dry and the thought of popping open the bonnet deemed to be such an outrage that it is is tantamount to bringing on an anxiety attack. Extreme I know but such an increasing number of car drivers exist now . I would like to think we, the over 30’s (I’m 41)due to to the cars we gre up with and some could argue had to put up with can take pride in the fact that when and if something goes wrong with our cars we usually can have a good guess what it is and even effect a temporary get you home repair rather than sit there looking stupid playing candy crush on our smartphone waiting for the breakdown truck when 20 min with the jack, wheelbrace, spare wheel and a little bit of nounce for example would have us on our way again.

  11. There’s still room for inspired bodgery. My Jag window stopped almost all the way up on a Bank Holiday Monday night. The small tapered gap made a horrible screaming noise at 70. Luckily, we had some parcel tape in the boot, which sealed the gap until I could fix it properly, courtesy of a Google search for a DIY fix.
    Meanwhile, the bonnet on our backup vehicle can only be opened with the help of a small block of wood – I’ll leave that one to your imagination!

  12. @Kev Sharp – But the reason younger drivers are not as mechanically savvy is because they don’t need to be. In the 60s and 70s if you didn’t know how to open the bonnet then most days you wouldn’t be going to work in the morning. Constant tinkering was an absolute pre-requisite if you wanted the damn thing to go. Like candle making and blacksmithing, DIY motor mechanics is a skill that’s just not needed anymore.

    • @Paul H: 70s cars needed constantl tinkering? I beg to differ. When I was a boy we had an Austin 1800 S and a 1300, both owned from new or nearly new – and like with all new(ish) cars they were serviced regularly in the main dealer. They were absolutely reliable and needed no additional tinkering apart from servicing, of course at shorter intervals than today’s cars. Of course cars are more reliable today and generally last longer. But mechanical un reliability was less an issue with cars from late 60s and 70s as was rust and keeping it in check. Quite irrelevant of the marque I would like to add.

  13. Paul H. I almost agree with everything you say . Cars have improved immeasurably in the dependability stakes over recent years and thank goodness for that. Even replacement components for older cars are better in most cases than what were available in previous years. Also no body wants to live in a street full of cars being repaired constantly.However Whilst I see your point about about fixing your own car being an obsolete concept (Not even the most ardent car nut wants to spend all his/her waking time out with the spanners) I do believe that when us men aren’t even capable of changing a wheel with a punctured tyre anymore ( and I know a few exactly like that) it’s a sad state of affairs. The downside with improved dependability ( and not just in cars) with everything though is that we are forgetting how things work and one day that may come home to roost with us as a species. What isn’t helping is we are not being taught basic “hands on” skills any more either by our parents or schools because it’s all about having a bit of paper saying you’ve done a course on something. Having a Masters Degree in Britney Spears studies might get you a nice job with your own office but it isn’t much help when you have to take your car to a garage for something basic and mundane as new windscreen wiper blades and then bitching about it in the trendy wine bar about how much the garage charged you. Or even worse being of the mindset that it’s some sort of bragging rights to tell everybody about how much money you’ve seemingly got to set fire set to.

  14. “What isn’t helping is we are not being taught basic “hands on” skills any more either by our parents or schools because it’s all about having a bit of paper saying you’ve done a course on something.”

    Don’t get me started on that…

  15. Well I’m just doing the water pump and cam belt on a 2000 Audi A6 V8. Looks daunting, until you get stuck in with the help of a service manual (Elsawin, easily available from Ebay). All the bolts were where they were supposed to be and the only hassle is that on a RHD Australian spec car there are some bolts that just are not accessible in the way described, so some imagination was required. Aslo got hold of a USB lead and software, so I can check fault codes, reset and change things, etc.
    Not the same as, say, swapping engines on an A40 Devon, or removing and rebuilding the engine of a Citroen L15, but not so hard either.

  16. You are goosed without the software nowadays, even the new Focus has to have the airbag spiral cable taught in, Merc throttle valves are VIN matched at the factory and need a teach in also.
    The block exemption is a help but you still have to pay pass_thru fee’s.

    “Corner modules” (bullshit for discs, pads and wheel bearings) will be the next thing you wont be able to do kerbside……

  17. As mentioned above it’s nearly impossible to do any sort of DIY mechanics without a laptop. The first hint of anything wrong and the car goes into limp home mode. Could be anything from a simple MAF sensor that’s on the frazzle to being seconds from a catastrophic engine implosion. But without the laptop you can’t find out what is wrong, or even if you’ve fixed it the car will often still think somethings wrong.

    I recently had an issue with my Astra (Mk5). It went into limp home mode (again, it does it often). I have my own cheap diagnostic software I got off eBay for about £30. Best £30 I’ve ever spent! Anyway, I digress. It went into limp home mode, I plug it in, lots of error codes show up, all of them ‘Unknown’. How does that help? Cleared them all. A few miles later, same thing happens again.

    Checked every sensor and connection under the bonnet that I could, all seems fine, nothing unplugged, no frayed wires, etc. Cleared all the codes, after a few miles it throws a strop again.

    In the end I just left the battery disconnected for a couple of hours, and it’s been fine since.

  18. “As mentioned above it’s nearly impossible to do any sort of DIY mechanics without a laptop. The first hint of anything wrong and the car goes into limp home mode.”

    But can you do a service without tools such as a socket set, screw-drivers or spanners? The diagnostic kit is just another tool – the additional reliability modern technology have given us easily covers the cost of diagnostic kit for most cars.

  19. I have been servcing/rebuilding my cars and motorbikes since I was first old enough to help my Dad with his car from the age of 14 back in the early seventies, My two step sons are 22 and 24 and didn’t even know how to check the oil level until I married their mum about 3 years ago.
    I have just trested my self to a series 1 Freelander with a 1.8L K series engine and can’t wait to get my overalls on, get the engine out and strip it down/refurb it.

    Can’t abide these new vehicles with their dealer only, throw away culture

  20. The days of your neighbour performing a sunday afternoon engine swap or the Capri up the street sitting on axle stands for a week are long gone.

    Though the days of a 10 year old car being beyond its prime are long gone too! A 2004 75 / X type etc. still looks respectable!

    I took a night course at the local technical college for DIY car maintenance, a very approachable mechanic took us practically through oil changes, brake pad changes, basic maintenance etc. – very useful.

    I feel that too many people see a car as a closed box. I know of one Audi driver who doesn’t check his tyre pressures – that is what “servicing is for”…
    And the amount of people I know who gun a car from startup, I reel from the noise of a screaming cold engine.

  21. The amount of people whom ring me up and say “how much oil do I put in, the oil lights on” astounds me. With all the electronic intervention in cars nowadays they seem to think there is no need for general checks.

    A lot of your prestige marques have no dipstick and relay a message.

    I would sooner have a dipstick!

  22. Not surprising that many people don’t know how to change a wheel- more often than not these days there is no spare wheel to fit, just a compressor and a bottle of goo sat in a vast amount of polystyrene tray where the spare would normally sit.

    Fat lot of good a can of goo is if you’ve had a mega-blowout and/ or lacerated the tyre beyond repair.

    I can understand why full-sized spares may not be carried anymore (given garden roller width tyres they’d take up half the boot space) but surely a lightweight space-saver is an acceptable compromise?

  23. Great article Mike and so true. I’m from the era of servicing minis, including doing up the brake adjusters almost daily! My son has just got his first car and hasn’t even looked to see if it has a spare wheel never mind doing any checks on the necessary, he just expects it to go.

  24. Given that my current car has a full service history, is it worth getting a garage service for that all important stamp?

    Or given that it will be coming up on 10 years old, does it really matter anymore?

  25. Mike,

    Given what you say about under bonnet access dealing with a KV6 R45, presumably, the same holds good when dealing with the probably much more ubiquitous MG ZS 180? I ask only because, I remain tempted to replace my ageing 1998 “S” Rover 400 (HHR) – eventually – with a ZS 180, and I hadn’t picked up that access could be such a pain…

  26. Indeed, there is becoming more and more dependency on “what the computer says” yet many electrical “faults” are down to water ingress, fatigue of wires, chafing etc, which is familiar to anyone who has chased gremlins. Unfortunately, most dealer technicians seem to start by replacing the most expensive modules first! Also, I recon, base don the history of an XK8 in the fleet, one specialist routinely changed ABS sensors even though only the cables had gone, especially as second hand sensors were used! Easy money.

    Another annoyance is the use of small headed bolts, say, a 15mm head on a 12mm bolt,(did not tend to be done in imperial days!) when rusted up a bit, there is very little land for a normal socket to grip, so impact sockets with the chamfer ground off the end to maximise bite need to be used.

    As for the ZS180, I have done the belts on mine and it is best combined with a thermostat change and plug change as the plenum should come off for access. Need to set aside a weekend though as some time needs to be allocated to back straightening and cursing.

    • Digital computers rarely fail, as you note, it is often corroded plugs and sockets in the harness, degraded earths etc, low cost devices such as ELM427 and an android application such as Torque can interrogate the OBDII port for
      diy diagnostics.

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