Opinion : Where did all the good ones go?

Engineering workshop

Skilled mechanic? Words that conjure up visions of men in brown coats bent over lathes, holding some obscure blued piece of steel to the light, whilst stinking of mineral oil. Ah, nostalgia etc… the thing is: have you seen one recently?

The days of oily mechanics rubbing their hands together at the thought of walloping a set of sills on a 1100 are today replaced with a mumbled ‘Not really something we do any more.’

Sure you can get an MoT-friendly six-inch square patch but, if you can actually find somebody with a skill, you have to join the back of the queue for their workshop.

The age of the Technician

The Engineer and the Skilled Mechanic have been replaced by the Technician – good on training courses and computers and fantastic at like for like replacement but useless for delving shoulder deep into the back of a big black workbench and extracting some mystery spring/grommet/bolt that you can have.

The days of having several old knackers parked out the back to raid are vanishing – if something breaks we trade up to something newer and more desirable.

Is it a shame? I guess its evolution really. The price of scrap and the value of brown field property (such as asbestos roofed Nissen Huts) are making the species extinct so, if you have a local man, use him, recommend him and allow him to stay in business – because he’s only available while stocks last.

Andrew Elphick
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  1. The problem is a really a combination of events. Firstly is cars have become more reliable, they are less of a rust bucket since the 90s due to better rust proofing and more electronics in the engine bay, means the motor engineer role has changed. Also insurance companies prefer to write off damaged cars than repair them, so there is less call for skilled “bashers” (my old man’s phrase for himself!).

  2. I tried, but the ‘you will get me unobtainable parts at knock down prices overnight, and mates rates on all labour or I’ll piss and whinge all over social media’ did me in.

    I personally think you’ll find that most of the good ones got sick of the generational change from older, wiser customers who knew, or at least had half an idea of what was involved in a job, to the new breed of absolute muppet who has bought a car they know nothing about, want you to drop everything and fix it immediately because ‘it won’t need much’, must have everything right now for shiny pics and likes on the Insta, and doesn’t care who’s toes they step on or who they piss off to get their way.

    Then the next time they need something and you can’t/won’t help due to the bad experience you had dealing with said muppet last time, they’re all over social media trying to badmouth.

    The world has gotten too expansive for the likes of an independent specialist/engineer who could beaver away for a small, select number of clientele in good quality jobs knowing he’ll get paid. Every second customer through my door wanted a discount on parts and labour because they deemed the cost was too high, even after pricing had been conveyed prior.

    The other muppet group that wore me down were the ones screaming that they don’t have the money to do the job properly, they ‘just want to get it on classic rego’ (a permit based registration system in Australia) and immediately hit you with a ‘what’s it going to be worth when it’s finished?’

    You just know they’re doing the sums in the head to flip it as you speak to them, then it’s blood from a stone after the 2nd or 3rd work instalment. It’s not a pleasant game to be in anymore.

    • That fully justified comment would have been worthy of George Ambrose’s Dirty Wheels column in Wheels magazine decades ago. The muppets were around then but they didn’t have soschul meejah.

  3. Your nostalgia is totally incorrect. Engineers do not work on lathes! They are the ones that designed your engine so that it converts liquid fuel into mechanical energy. They do calculations to ensure that the suspension does what you think it should do. This is the reason why after an engineering career, with engineering responsibility I am not a member of the I mech E.

    The I mech E has done nothing to educate people that think like you! Can you imagine if we assumed that anybody that worked in a hospital was a doctor!

    And we wonder why people don’t want an engineering career! Most of the country don’t know what one does……….

  4. The “Jobbing mechanic”, corner-garage-and-village-blacksmith type places died out because cars became more reliable. And rust-resistant. And complicated.

    I remember cars from the 60s and 70s which needed subframes, strut-tops, sills welding and wings replaced after 5 years/60,000 miles. That just doesn’t happen these days, nor do you need the engine rebored after the same sort of mileage. In the past replacing the exhaust every 3 years was normal – now with the coming of aluminized steel plenty of cars go to the scrapheap with their original factory-fitted exhaust still in place.

    I’ve not had a car need welding since about 1990.

    Fuel injection and electronic ignition arrived, so no need for points replqacement or carburettor adjustments every 6000 miles. Cars start first time every time so batteries can last ten years… 100,000 miles to a clutch is normal.

    So lots of the low-level stuff that village mechanics made their living from just disappeared. Equally, increased complexity… old cars would yield up the reason for their unwellness to listening, feeling, sniffing – and maybe a poke with a simple testmeter. These days it’s OBD-II everywhere, and manufacturer-specific software. Your corner-garage can’t cope with that at a sensible price.

    Finally, repair-costs. If a ten-year-old 150,000 mile banger worth £1500 needs four new tyres, new discs, a couple of new CV joints and a replacement catalyst – all sorts of things the small garage _could_ do, the parts alone could e touching on £1000 and then there’s several hours labour – if you’re charging less than £40/hour you’re a fool. So the car is beyond sensibly-economical repair and rather than the corner-garage getting the job it gets either weighed-in for scrap or taken to one of these places that give a guaranteed £1500 trade-in when you take out a four-year lease on a new Kia.

    So there’s really no need for the old-style corner-garage any more, any more than there’s a need for knife-sharpeners, umbrella-repairers or shoe-menders.

    Life moves on.

  5. I would like to reitterate what Martin Halliwell has already mentioned, the misuse here and in society of the word Engineer.
    There are many Good Engineers out there all designing away across many disciplines. Mechanical Engineers, Civil Engineers, Software Engineers, Electronic Engineers, Electrical Engineers (yes, Electrical and Electronic Engineers are very different!), Material Engineers, Chemical Engineers, and many more.
    We are the ones that know how to design and build new innovative things from scratch.
    I’m an Electronic Engineer and member of the IET.

  6. Agreed with what Martin and James said; indeed in many countries [Germany and the Netherlands being the two examples I have the closest knowledge of, “Engineer” is a legally protected, professional qualification like Doctor, Solicitor, Surgeon, Dentist, Architect, and woe betide anyone who uses the term without having a Dipl.Ing or similar qualification under their belt.

    Your typical garage-worker/proprietor is a Technician, Fitter, Mechanic… but not an Engineer.

    [I could have become C.Eng MInstMC but decided to become a statistician instead].

    • It is true. I worked for an engineering college and the amount of people who applied who wanted motor engineering (which is the technical name that covers all mechanics, technicians and body repairers) and didn’t understand that what they wanted was not Mechanical Engineering. Problem is engineering covers Fabrication Engineering, HVAC, Electrical, Electronics (yes they are different!) and Engineering design.

  7. Another thing that could hit places like garages is the switch away from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles. By 2050, cars with internal combustion engines will be very rare and there will be far less demand for repairs to engines and service functions such as replacing oil and filters. Also companies like Kwikfit will see the exhaust side of their business dry up.

    • I haven’t replaced an exhaust on a car since the mid-nineties. They seem to be much more durable than they used to be.I remember paying extra for a “higher quality” item at Smillies when I had my Nova GTE. This had a lifetime guarantee which meant free replacement for as long as you owned the car. I must have had it replaced about four times in the nine years that I owned that car. So the quality wasn’t all that high.

  8. Alec Issi had no time for what he called book engineers, real engineers had learnt by getting their hands dirty.

    • He must have had an interesting relationship with Leonard Lord, who used to boast of growing up with swarf in his shoes!

  9. Cars don’t break down as much, rust as quickly or need servicing as often as they did in the seventies. Even a car over five years old these days, so long as it’s serviced once a year, won’t give much trouble and rust won’t appear until the car is ten years ago as bodywork is so much better these days. Also most modern cars are designed to be too complex for self employed or home mechanics to work on and have to go to a dealer or a chain of repairers.

  10. The service intervals on my Focus is 1 year or 12,500 miles. In the early 80s on my Datsun Cherry’s the intervals were 6,000 miles. Also there is a lot more plastic / polycarbonate on car bodywork & bumpers, so no rust there (plus plastic wheel arches on crossovers)

    These days, most Garages call mechanics “vehicle technicians”. I would be interested in learning what an annual service on an EV costs. Is there such a service?

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