Old-Time Car Maintenance

A short comment in the previous posting reminded me of what was required to maintain my first cars.  I did it myself principally to save money, but also for convenience.  It was just easier to do it at home rather than spend all Saturday morning waiting for it to be done at a gas station.  Like most families in those early days, my wife and I only had one car, so we could not drop it off and come back later to pick it up.

I got the crankcase oil in bulk at a nearby Sears-Roebuck (it had both names then).  You brought your own container and they measured out how many quarts you wanted.  The old, used oil just got poured down the drain (yes, yes, I know better now).  I don’t remember replacing the oil filter—I don’t think the cars had them then, and neither was there an air filter.

All of the ball joints had to be greased at the time of the oil change.  I had a Sears grease gun and occasionally bought a grease cartridge for it.  There were, as I recollect, three points at each wheel.  The grease gun snapped onto the fittings and you pumped until you saw grease ooze out of the joint.  You couldn’t miss it because you were under the car with your nose only inches from the ooze.  I used to do this while the car was parked in the street with one side up on the curb.  Getting those few extra inches clearance made up for crawling in the gutter.  Did one side, then turned the car around and did the other.

At the beginning of each summer, I flushed the antifreeze out of the radiator (pronounced RAD-ee-ator, not RAID-ee-ator).  This was done by opening the petcocks at the bottom of the radiator and the engine block, sticking a garden hose in the top opening, and letting the water run until the stream flowing down the gutter looked clear.  This was also a good time to remove the thermostat at the bottom of the radiator for the summer.  This was not absolutely necessary, but it allowed the water to circulate more freely and, like a wife, a cool engine is a happy engine.

Only once or twice did I repack the wheel bearings.  This was more involved.  Each wheel had to be removed, the bearings taken out and washed in kerosene, packed with grease, and replaced with just the right torque on the lock nut.  Either too tight or too loose would ruin the expensive bearing and could even throw you up onto someone’s lawn.

I still do my own maintenance on my 1990 Mazda pickup, even though I could leave it at a Pep Boys only a block away.   I buy the oil at Pep Boys in plastic jugs and return the used oil to them for recycling.  They also have the proper oil and air filters for my almost-antique pickup.  The need for greasing went out long ago, and the antifreeze stays in year around because it helps the cooling in summer.  My wife’s Prius has free maintenance for life, so she takes it to the dealer.

Without the greasing, I no longer have to crawl under the car, just reach in far enough to open the oil drain plug.  Replacing the old, dirty oil filter with a brand new shiny one right out of the box is messy, but satisfying.  I often return the used oil on my nightly walk after Pep Boys has closed and there is always a collection already waiting by their service door in a variety of milk bottles and detergent jugs.  Evidently, I am not the only one who still does car maintenance.

If this sort of stuff interests you, you can read the excellent Owner’s Manual for a 1926 Model T Ford at http://www.mtfca.com/books/1926Inst.htm.  The manual describes how everything works and gives detailed instructions on repairs, such as grinding the valves and even removing the engine.  There was no shift lever.  Gears were changed by pressing the clutch different distances which must have been tricky to learn.  Some minor oiling had to be done each day.  The crankcase oil was changed every 750 miles.  The wheel bearings were repacked every three or four months.

The 1911 manual, also available at the same site, gives the following practical driving advice:

Your Ford car will climb any climbable grade. Do not, in your anxiety to prove it to every one, climb everything in sight. A good rule is, if you crave the fame, climb the steepest grade in your neighborhood once, and let others take your word for it, or the word of those who witnessed the performance, for the deed thereafter.
Extraordinary conditions must be met when they present themselves— they should not be made a part of the everyday routine.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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