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Why so many ex-service stations?
February 23, 2010 11:54 PM   Subscribe

Did cars really used to need this much maintenance?

So in the old hometown, I have occasionally remarked on a stretch of Main Street that seems usually well-supplied with former service stations: in the space of just over one kilometer (or just under one mile) there are nine or ten former gas stations*. At least six of them have been service stations in my memory -- roughly since the mid-seventies -- but today none is. This seems an unusually high number for a part of the city that hasn't been the edge of town since the pre-automotive era. I asked my parents about it once upon a time and the answer I got was that cars used to need a lot more service. Fair enough, but cold the demand really support almost one station per block? Is this typical elsewhere? I do not see this frequency in other places, but many of these I know of only because I recall them being there in 1975 or something, and I didn't grow up in more than one city.




*For those who know the city of Hamilton ON: two at Main and Wentworth, one at Sanford, one at Burris, one at Holton, (possibly) one at St. Clair, one at Blake, one at Ashford, and two at Prospect. Rather a lot.
posted by ricochet biscuit to Technology (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, cars used to need an awful lot of maintenance. In addition, maintenance shops were usually smaller, and only with the complexity of modern cars demanding full/fuller dealer service have the manufacturer supported car service places been able to justify the investment in larger single-make places (with 15 or 20 car bays, sometimes).

Service used to be a larger requirement, and also more spread out. It's more that there used to be more (but smaller) service places that have now been priced/marketed out of profitability.
posted by Brockles at 12:05 AM on February 24, 2010


Gas stations with full time mechanics are few and far between these days. I think some of that can be attributed to recognizing a better business model. Running a mini-mart and a gas station makes more money than a gas station that does light repairs. Also, modern cars are more complex and real mechanics are hard to come by.

New cars are better though, most new cars need their oil changed, a brake job, shocks, maybe a timing belt and maybe a new clutch before a 100K. On top of that, a 60's era car would have had several tuneups, new spark plugs, points fairly regularly. Lots more incidental parts. Lights and batteries didn't last as long. You were pretty like to have carb trouble and/or vacuum leaks, radiator leaks, electrical problems were very common. So yeah, there was a lot more minor maintenance.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:28 AM on February 24, 2010


U.S. cars, of '50s and '60s vintage, used to need engine "tune-ups" about every 10,000 miles, when the mechanical distributors in ignition systems used mechanical "breaker points" to create low voltage interruptions to the high voltage ignition coil, that drove the spark plugs, through the distributor's high voltage mechanical rotor and cap. It was common to change the "points," and the distributor rotor and cap frequently, to maintain optimal spark plug energy, and to provide closely timed ignition spark, with proper "duration" or "dwell." Moreover, in those days, spark retardation and advance was vacuum controlled, so your mechanical carburetor, and all the vacuum hoses and fittings to your intake manifold, needed to be checked and adjusted, as needed, to maintain proper fuel mixture and spark retardation (or advance, depending on your car manufacturer's frame of reference for changing spark timing with increasing RPMs).

Oil changes at 2,000 or 3,000 miles were common. You greased your chassis fittings (suspension elements like ball joints, steering control arms, and idler arms) when you changed your oil. Shocks were usually good for 20,000, or maybe 30,000 miles. Front drum brakes needed to be inspected every 5,000 miles, and usually, relined every 10,000 miles. Rear brakes might go 20,000 miles between relinings. You rebuilt or replaced your brake cylinders at every brake service, and changed your brake fluid and bled your brakes every 12 months, regardless of mileage or brake wear. You cleaned and repacked your wheel bearings at 12,000 mile intervals, or whenever you did a brake reline. A set of bias ply tires lasted 20,000 to 25,000 miles, if you rotated them at 3,000 mile intervals, and paid attention to inflation pressure. A battery was good for 18 to 24 months, unless you lived in very cold or very hot climates, where you changed batteries every year.

Engine belts needed to be checked at every oil change, and replaced at 12,000 mile intervals. A starter motor was usually good for 2 years, if you kept your engine tuned, and didn't grind your starter a lot, trying to start your engine.

But anybody who wanted to learn to fix a car, could, back then. A lot of guys took care of their cars themselves, for the fun of it.

There's nothing fun about keeping up a modern automobile, so thank God! there is a lot less regular upkeep to do...
posted by paulsc at 12:30 AM on February 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


A lot of gas stations have old underground tanks that have developed leaks which preclude the land being used as gas stations or for anything until the contamination is cleaned up and/or new tanks installed. Which is expensive. Often they are simply abandoned or tied up in litigation as cities try to track down the owners and get them to pay up. New gas stations are not built on the old sites because whoever buys the land would have to pay for the cleanup and it's impossible to say how extensive it is. There are a lot of abandoned gas stations all over the US too.
posted by fshgrl at 12:42 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not only did they require more routine maintenance, they also broke down much, much more frequently; many of my parents anecdotes from when they were teenagers feature broken down cars and motorbikes in some form. A lot of people over 50 can do a surprising amount of car maintenance and repair on their own, unlike many younger people - or they used to be able to, before cars turned into rolling computers.
posted by dflock at 1:19 AM on February 24, 2010


Everybody likes to rail against modern technology when they're faced with paying $1500 to replace an engine control unit but what they forget is that before everything was electronically controlled and fuel injected, engines needed a LOT of tweaking. As paulsc said you'd have points that needed adjusting; carburetors that would get gummed up and needed cleaning; carburetors whose mixtures were too rich or lean and in need of adjustment, which lead to plugs getting fowled more frequently, necessitating that they be removed and cleaned or replaced more often; manual chokes that were set wrong for the time of year which led to hard starting; fan belts instead of electric fan motors which meant another regular belt to replace; poorer seals and piston rings which meant oil was constantly leaking or being burned and thus in need of topoffs. Less precise metering meant dirtier combustion which meant more crap entering the oil which when combined with poorer filtration also meant oil changes were more frequent. And brake pads didn't last as long due to advances in materials technology, and on and on. Just in general stuff wasn't as reliable.

It used to be that every time you bought gas, someone -- either you or the attendant -- would look over the engine and take care of these sorts of things. That meant that most gas stations required a mechanic of some kind because not everyone knew how to do these things.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:48 AM on February 24, 2010


There was a guy from Consumer Reports on NPR today talking about (among other things) how new cars need an order of magnitude less servicing than cars from the 1980's and before.

And just an anecdote - my childhood was full of broken down cars, it was a constant thing for my family and our friends, cars were always needing something done. My Chevy Malibu hasn't broken down, or been urgently in the shop in its almost six year life (touch wood).
posted by crabintheocean at 1:51 AM on February 24, 2010


Also, it was once possible to work on and maintain one's own car.
posted by telstar at 2:05 AM on February 24, 2010


Older cars certainly did need more maintenance to keep them in proper condition, modern cars less so. However older cars, if maintained properly, also lasted longer than new cars as they weren't designed to, essentially, well, fail, after a certain amount of time ... forcing the purchase of a replacement automobile. I am a VW Bug fan, and they are a great example, requiring a 3000 mile service (which was every 3 months for me) and taking me a "lazy day" to complete. The bug I am thinking of was a 1958, older than my parents, and mostly had the same parts as it came with from the factory ... sure the engine had been rebuilt a few times by past owners, and some parts had been replaced, some even upgraded (12v alternator to replace a 6v generator) but it was substantially the same car, at the time it was sold considered a "cheap car option". How many cheap cars manufactured to day d you think will still be running in 20 or 40 years? with substantially the same parts and still safe?
posted by jannw at 2:17 AM on February 24, 2010


I'm sorry, I love old cars but no car built in 1958 is as safe as the cheapest new car that you can buy in the US or Europe today.
posted by atrazine at 3:28 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


How many cheap cars manufactured to day d you think will still be running in 20 or 40 years? with substantially the same parts and still safe?

Agree with atrazine. There's nothing safe about a 1958 car other than maybe 'the wheels won't fall off for the next few months' kind of safe (after checking the car properly). Fatigue and corrosion issues pretty much preclude any other accurate statements.
posted by Brockles at 3:40 AM on February 24, 2010


Continuing this thought about safe cars -- the VW Bug from 1958 had no crumple zones. Modern cars are engineered to save your life in a crash. Old cars were just a frame of dumb steel intended to support the engine and the seats. The 1958 car also did not have air bags, and probably didn't come with seat belts. (I had to install them on my 1965 Mustang.)
posted by musofire at 4:00 AM on February 24, 2010


However older cars, if maintained properly, also lasted longer than new cars as they weren't designed to, essentially, well, fail, after a certain amount of time ... forcing the purchase of a replacement automobile.

I'd be interested in learning more about this - what is the source of this information?
posted by Mike1024 at 5:13 AM on February 24, 2010


Something else to consider: it's true that cars do need more maintenance, but just because you see a section of town that has a defunct service station on every corner doesn't actually mean that they were all open at the same time. Small businesses come and go, and we're looking at a thirty or forty year period when a lot of these things could have been operating. Even higher demand than today doesn't guarantee that any of these things are going to be viable from year to year. So if one ran from 1953 to 1965 and another from 1962 to 1977, in 2010 it would look as if there were twice as many service stations operating as there actually were most of the time.
posted by valkyryn at 5:26 AM on February 24, 2010


However older cars, if maintained properly, also lasted longer than new cars as they weren't designed to, essentially, well, fail, after a certain amount of time ... forcing the purchase of a replacement automobile.

Of course they were. Planned obsolescence was huge in the 50s. You just happened to own one of the Beetles that didn't, and even that took by your own admission several engine rebuilds, each of which probably cost more than the car was worth at the time.

How many cheap cars manufactured to day d you think will still be running in 20 or 40 years? with substantially the same parts and still safe?

How many cheap cars from 1990 are running around now? Lots.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:31 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The one thing I notice about Hamilton versus Toronto is that it is a lot easier to find a gas station as it is more of a car town.

In addition to the dying off of indie mechanics shops, a lot of franchise comanies bought up the indie service stations and closed them down after a year to increase the market share of a local gas station franchise.

And yeah, my childhood in the seventies seemed to have all taken place in the Canadian Tire parking lot as my dad replaced a pantyhose belt with a real one. Except for oil changes and a blown tire I haven't been to a mechanic in four years.
posted by saucysault at 6:16 AM on February 24, 2010


One major difference between 1960 and now is tires. 1960 tire tech was complete crap compared to what we have now and service stations did a lot more work changing defective tires than they do now.

Also I don't know how it worked out in 1950 but since at least the early 80s no one is making money at the retail level selling gas. If you are lucky your pumps cover your costs. It's the store that makes a profit and gas is basically an incentive to get you to stop.
posted by Mitheral at 6:37 AM on February 24, 2010


Another simple example is oil changes. The oil change interval on a recent BMW is once every 15k miles. That means that before your car reaches 100k miles, you only need 6 oil changes as opposed to at least 33 for those old cars that required a change every 3000 miles.

http://www.savagebmw.com/Service/content_service_Intervals.htm
posted by kenliu at 7:00 AM on February 24, 2010


However older cars, if maintained properly, also lasted longer than new cars as they weren't designed to, essentially, well, fail, after a certain amount of time ... forcing the purchase of a replacement automobile.

This is true. While there may have been some element of planned obsolescence, it was only intended, rather than designed. With increased material and production sophistication came the ability to design closer to the limit with components. As engineering (especially in cars) has progressed from 'nice safety margin, but won't last for ever' to 'product intended life + x-percent'. The intended obsolescence had a much wider tolerance band than now, so a greater proportion of vehicles stayed on the road past this point. These required maintenance and repairs, hence the infrastructure to support these cars.

Older cars (up to about the 70's for European cars, I don't know about US) were built better and used better material than required - as proven by the cost cutting elements of the mid 70's/80's that utterly ballsed-up English motor production. Too much cost cutting at once produced British Leyland type cars that were utter poop.
posted by Brockles at 7:45 AM on February 24, 2010


There are a lot of abandoned gas stations all over the US too.

Oh, I'd be misleading people if I suggested the ones I am talking about were all abandoned: In order, these lots are currently a donut shop, a variety store, a tiny strip mall, a car dealership, a sandwich place, (the possible one) a KFC, an abandoned gas station, a 7-11, a donut shop and a car wash. And the actual abandoned gas station in this list closed maybe a year or two ago. I think the land is too valuable to let the lots stand empty for decades.

Anyway, thanks all for your enlightening contributions.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:06 AM on February 24, 2010


However older cars, if maintained properly, also lasted longer than new cars as they weren't designed to, essentially, well, fail, after a certain amount of time

They may not have been designed to fail after a certain amount of time, but ask anyone who owned any Chrysler product made between 1955-1965 about the spectacularly poor build quality and lack of corrosion resistance, and you'll know all about unplanned obsolescence. Chrysler made some of the most durable engines and transmissions ever put into production, but weren't able toput them into cars that lasted much past 10 years, regardless of how much maintenance performed.
posted by motown missile at 1:03 PM on February 24, 2010


Something else to consider: it's true that cars do need more maintenance, but just because you see a section of town that has a defunct service station on every corner doesn't actually mean that they were all open at the same time.

Of the ten, at least seven were operating in the mid-seventies when I was growing up in the neighbourhood. By the early nineties maybe three of them were still kicking, and the last one shut its doors in 2008, plus or minus. A look on Google Street View shows the unfaded parts of the paint job above the doors where the word SUNOCO came down after decades.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:09 PM on February 24, 2010


A starter motor was usually good for 2 years, if you kept your engine tuned, and didn't grind your starter a lot, trying to start your engine.

Really?

I had a 1955 model car in the late 70's, and had to service the (original) starter. I replaced the brushes, and had the commutator trued on a lathe. It was still going strong when I sold it, I wouldn't be surprised if the starter outlasted the rest of the car.

A starter motor that lasts 2 years is not a starter motor - it's junk.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:32 PM on February 24, 2010


Not only did cars require more adjustment, checking, maintenance, and so on but back in the day, they were pretty similar. The amount of specialty tools and specialty training required was pretty minimal. As cars became more advanced, they also became more diverse in their design and technology. Also, the number of imported vehicles has continued to rise over the years, adding to the diversity in the field.

Thirty years ago, all you needed to diagnose a car was a spark tester, a compression gauge, a vacuum gauge, and test light.
Now, you'd need much more specific and specialized diagnostic equipment to even get by on a basic level. Techs with even a decent code reader or generic scanner and a volt meter flail around when diagnosing contemporary car. A scan tool with OE level access, bi-directional controls and actuation to command components and reset adaptations is required. And what used to be accomplished with a test light requires a lab scope. And, even if you're well equipped enough to operate a shop, you need to have a staff that's well trained enough to operate the equipment and understand the technology in todays vehicles. The tooling and training required to really fix cars today is what's thinning out the herd.

In some places, you'll see plenty of small shops but all they're doing is basic mechanical stuff. If it has visible physical problems, they're fixing it. If it has invisible electrical or computer problems, forget about it. Many will argue that the basics haven't changed, insofar as the engine requires air, fuel, and spark to run just as it always has. And that's correct to a degree. But the reality is that a car engine is more like a superadvanced fighter jet that, although it flies due to the basics of lift or whatever, it'll fall out of the sky without the computer monitoring and adjusting everything constantly. A wing is a wing and it all works the same, right? Well...

So, either a shop has kept up to date incrementally and has weathered this storm or it goes out of business when faced with the overwhelming challenge and expense of updating all at once. What we've seen take off is the larger Pep-Boys, Firestone, or Goodyear franchise that is pretty good at handling the basics. Tires, oil changes, brakes, and other routine mechanical nuts-and-bolts stuff are handled pretty effectively by these shops. And on the other hand, the trend in the smaller independent repair shops is to specialize, either in a system or in a brand. I know more and more technicians who'll specialize in Asian, Domestic, or European cars in order to reduce the amount of training and equipment required as well as increase their value to their customers. People expect the independent technician to be more focused and expert than the big-box franchise, and specializing is a good way to become an expert. Y'know, a jack of all trades and a master of none, right?
Also, in the past few years, the number of mobile diagnostic technicians, automotive electricians, and automotive security experts have increased. Having worked at several shops, I've seen managers rifle through their business cards to find the number for the guy who'll come to the shop and, with the specialized training and equipment he's invested in, diagnose an unfamiliar or problem vehicle for a fee. Automotive security has also become increasingly complex and a breed of subcontractor has grown to fill that service void. It's easier for many shops to sub that work out to a specialist rather that invest in all the equipment and training required to offer that service to all of their customers.

So, yeah. Cars used to need more maintenance. In addition, now they're much harder to fix. So, a successful shop can survive either by doing maintenance in a large volume (Pep Boys, etc) or by making the investment required to do the quality and costly repairs required by todays vehicles.
posted by Jon-o at 7:33 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


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