The joys of tech… or not?

Jemma Rochelle Hawtrey


AROnline’s regular readers will probably recall that I recently got my hands on that Bangernomics classic, a Renault Safrane 2.2, which was first registered on the 20th February, 1995 and an automatic no less. I’ve now done about 1000 miles the car has been faultless although it needed two new tyres and the usual sundry bits and pieces. The LED strip lights I’ve fitted actually provide more light than the original sidelights, but I digress.

I am one of those people who is an inveterate tinkerer. I like to mess around with things and see how they work – and usually manage to make it so they don’t work in short order. I did something similar the other day when I needed to sort out a dodgy connection on one of the sidelights.

The Safrane has a large airbox on the LH-side of the car – with various electronic gubbins attached to it – and I disconnected one of these little electronic boxes to get better access to what I was doing. I finished everything and went to start the engine to check the lights (having previously learned the hard way that pushing a Humber Sceptre doesn’t do anything for your back) and nothing. Nada. Not even a attempt to start. All I got was an irate voice informing me stentoriously that there was a problem with the fuel injection system and I should consult the handbook – that got me to thinking…

Recently a well-known company resurrected a famous name from the past with an amazing technical tour de force sports car that looks and costs (over) a million dollars. We, the dukes of Bangernomics, merely watch in wonder as the Bugatti Veyron is demonstrated ad nauseum on TV.

‘Lookee here, Bo, says here this ole girls’ got over a thousand horses…”

Now, ignoring the fact that anything on wheels with 1000bhp in this day and age is utterly pointless other that to prove it can be done (Merlin-engined SD1 anyone?), the problem that I have with it and  practically all modern cars is simply that they are unmaintainable in the long term.

In 1939 Rolls-Royce was busy building and testing engines. Some were already in production like the Kestrel and Merlin, some were never destined to be produced like the interesting turbocharged two stroke Crecy (when it was running it could make 2500hp, the problem was keeping it running without it becoming an external combustion engine). Early production versions of the Merlin were rated at 1050 take off horsepower but required quite a complicated start procedure..

(i) Set:
Both fuel cock levers        ON
Throttle                               ½ Inch open
Mixture control                 RICH
Airscrew speed control    Fully back DH 20º
Rotol 35º Propeller           Lever fully forward
Radiator shutter                OPEN

(ii) Operate the priming pump to prime the suction and delivery pipes. This may be judged by a sudden increase in resistance of the plunger.

(iii) Prime the engine, the number of strokes required being as follows:
Air temperature ºC:    +30    +20    +10    0    -10    -20
Normal fuel:                     3         4          7    13
High volatility fuel:                                        4      8       15

(iv) Switch ON ignition and pull out the priming pump handle.

(v) Press the starter push-button and at the same time give one stroke of the priming pump. This push-button also switches on the booster coil and should be kept depressed until the engine is firing evenly.

Note: If the engine fails to start on the first cartridge, no more priming should be carried out before firing the second, but another stroke should be given as the second cartridge is fired.

(vi) As soon as the engine is running evenly, screw down the priming pump.

Now try doing that lot in less than two minutes while you are being bombed… and that’s not the half of it.

It has to be said that this is not much more complicated than starting my old Humber Sceptre – the procedure in that instance for those who are interested was:-

i.    Check selector neutral, handbrake on
ii.    mixture rich (choke out), ignition to run position
iii.    prime carburettor three times (push accelerator to floor and release)
iv.    engage starter until engine fires and release
v.    set mixture to ½ rich position and lean as engine warms up.

Now most people would probably say that there is little to compare between a world famous fighter aircraft and a long forgotten executive saloon. In a lot of ways they are correct in that assumption. However, in one important respect they are not.

If it comes down to it – every part on both a Rolls Royce Merlin engine and a Rootes 1592cc I4 can be re-manufactured using fairly simple tools (yes, even Miss Shillings Orifice…). Provided you’ve done it right and everything is in the right place at the right time, that motor will run – quite simply it’s not rocket science, it bears more resemblance to Fred Dibnah’s world than it does the modern day.

Provided you have the tools, patterns and materials to make a required part, those engines and the machinery they powered are to all intents and purposes immortal.

Now take a look at our modern shiny metal. Each one of them has more computing power in their air conditioning system than was to be had in an entire airforce a mere few decades ago. All of them are based on the same basic technology, all of them use the same principles but are now so ‘intelligent’ that they can tell themselves they won’t work without even making the attempt.

Back in the day, if you dropped a cylinder you could get home – it sounded awful and went worse, but it would get you home. Nowadays, if you disconnect a single lead the whole thing goes on strike faster than an Allegro production line (Allegro – the only thing ‘fast and lively’ about it is the rust).

I have owned a few cars in my life and of all of them my favourites are probably a tie between the Sceptre and the Safrane. I like the SD1, don’t get me wrong, but mine was a real dog to drive and dumped me in a ditch after some idiot thought the road was a good place to drop diesel. The experience in driving all three of them is worlds apart and so is the ethos behind the designs.

I know which will survive the test of time, though.

When the spare parts run out for a Sceptre you get more made up, a case in point are the 10.3” brake discs (who on earth thought up that diameter I would like to know) that have been recently manufactured.

When the Safrane needs an engine computer in 15 years time who are you going to turn to? You can’t manufacture that with a lathe, a flat cap, and a few hours.

It sounds odd to say it but it’s nonsensical and upsetting to me that a piece of equipment that has been designed to do a job and do it well has been designed also to be unmaintainable. We go on and on about the environment and how important it is not to waste energy and materials and, in one of the biggest defining purchases most people will ever make, we allow manufacturers to design the product to breakdown!

I think that is the thing that surprises me most thinking about it. 40 years ago we whined about Alfa Romeos and their propensity to dissolve in a light sea mist – now we just sit there and let the people who make our cars design them deliberately to have what is effectively a built-in self-destruct.

Yes, it’s true that these days all we have to do is turn the key and it starts, first time, every time… and that’s great… Right up until the time that it doesn’t and the nice receptionist says they cant get the part…

I wish someone would tell me why we are putting up with that?

Keith Adams


  1. The price of spare parts for new vehicles is a joke and on a par with a Wheel-clampers towaway charge or a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe.

    A friend of mine has a 6 year old Transit with 60k on the clock and the Bosch fuel pump failed. How about £800 second hand? That’s just to supply not fit!!! A replacement key for an Astra Van costs £350!!!

    Just remember that it was us taxpayers who bailed the UK’s car industry out with the costly Scrappage Scheme! It’s sad but loads of current/recent cars will soon disappear because they will become obsolete due to a bit of black plastic costing 2p to make but sold to the general public at a extortionate amount of money.

    All my cars are either low-tech or classic (Triumph GT6, 944, Land Rover Discovery 300 TDi and a couple of B** E30s) but, sadly, the vans for my business have to be new and are a constant worry.

  2. @Simon Woodward
    £800 for an injector pump got me sniffing around. Take a look at:-

    I’m a former Leyland/Marshall employee and so am pleased that the 4/98 gets a good mention.

    There’s got to be a business opportunity for anyone with contacts at those miraculous Third World garages in the middle of nowhere that can fix/bodge anything…

  3. @Chris Chapman
    Cheers Chris, that’s a really useful site, many thanks, Simon.

    I think Practical Classics produced a useful guide for interchangeable parts between various makes which would be a useful site feature. I’m sure that Practical Classics would donate the info. for a pint or two.

  4. I agree with Jemma. The savings obtained from higher mpg in a modern computer-controlled vehicle are as nothing compared to the savings gained from keeping an old vehicle on the road, rather than scrapping and replacing it.

  5. Jemma’s Safrane engine management system reader may already be on the way out.

    It used to be that a serial RS323 lead was connected to the ECU, the COM port of the machine and a DOS/Windows 3x / 9x program was executed to do the reading and tweaking.

    On a modern Windows 7 laptop you won’t have a serial port and DOS/Windows 3x compatibility is sketchy. Even using DOSBOX with a USB to serial adaptor is a bit hit and miss.

    This is how I justify my collection of redundant laptops :).

  6. Actually, the threat of cars becoming ‘brain dead’ is not as great as you may think.

    I’ve had a few ‘dead’ ECUs in the past and every time opening them up and examining the boards has revealed dry joints, normally on the power transistors that control the injectors, but occasionally elsewhere. Re-soldering these joints has, in my experience, worked every time!

    Mind you, the average garage is so allergic to soldering irons that they will always recommend a new ECU. Even when that is not an option, there are entire aftermarket engine management systems with excellent backup available that will get the car going again and which are made from discrete components that RS will supply probably forever!

    I reckon that a greater concern is the cost of bumper and lights – for older cars (really old ones now!) these parts were always very, very cheap and, in fact, still are, but a broken headlight on an otherwise perfect 5 year old Fiesta will result in it being written off. Is this, in anyway, right?

  7. Oh, I hate to say this, but pumping the throttle on a Sceptre (assuming it had its orginal Stromberg CD150 carbs) would achieve nothing as this only works on carbs with an accelerator pump, which the variable venturi Strombergs don’t have.

    However, if it had had the Weber 45 DCOE carbs from a Hunter GLS fitted – which I believe was a common mod, it would but, having pulled the choke, if it didn’t fire the first time, it would flood. It would, though, fire up in -100 dgrees C!!

  8. I’m sure there’s a good opportunity for a whole cottage industry replacing ECUs once the supply of secondhand spares dries up.

    Surely a good solution would be to replace most of the gubbins with an ‘FPGA’ – which is basically a computer chip that can be programmed to emulate any other chip and a whole bunch of other components besides. So long as somebody knows what the old ECU actually does, it can be recreated – at the end of the day it’s a bunch of inputs and outputs with some sort of logic in between.

    Likewise all the injection-moulded plastic bits – getting a new dashboard for your modern classic could also become quite difficult in 20 years time but they should, at least, be easy to replicate.

  9. Jemma’s piece echos my thoughts exactly. I’ve also come to the conclusion that, as technology gets more advanced, it inevitably gets less easy to maintain. Despite owning a one-year-old car, it’s actually made me hanker after the kind of old jalopy that can achieve controlled forward motion without the aid of any electronics more sophisticated than an alternator or, at most, an electronic ignition system.

    “So long as somebody knows what the old ECU actually does…” That’s a big “so long as”! I don’t suppose formal design specs of old ECUs are easy to come by and reverse engineering these systems is a bit of a “black art”.

  10. @ Stewart

    That information comes directly from the Humber Sceptre Owners Manual – for cars with a Solex Dual Downdraft carb that was the factory official cold-start procedure.. and it worked most of the time with the 2300 SD1 as well (the joys of that wonderful ‘automatic’ choke).

  11. Stewart

    A 1592cc Sceptre would be a Series 1, which had either a Solex or Zenith, twin choke downndraught carburettor, as did the 1725cc Series 2 model.

    Only the Series 3 Arrow based Sceptre used Stromberg carbs.

  12. My Series 1 Sceptre drove like a tractor. I wouldn’t mind anything Arrow based, apart from the unfortunate tendency for the steering box to fall off the inner wing – not stressed for those new-fangled radial tyres. Oh yes, and HGF; but it’s a pushrod engine.

  13. My Uncle owned anArrow based Sceptre (after two Chrysler 180 / 2 litres). Lovely car though it was the last Chrysler – Rootes product he owned.

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