James May

car surgery illustration

On the mend

Over the years, my local doctor has cured me of a number of minor ailments ranging from specific disorders of the bowels brought on by foreign travel to more obscure complaints such as general malaise. The only thing that has defeated her so far is my well-documented but largely unacknowledged tropical disease, which has yet to be formally recognised by medical science.

I quite like a visit to the doctor. She’s a bit of a car fan, and as well as her daily driver she owns a 1980s 911. Like most intelligent and interested people, she has a general understanding of how the thing works, but I’m pretty sure she’s never picked up a spanner.

This brings me to an idea I’ve had for an experiment. I need a basically sound car suffering from some sort of typical but indeterminate engine malfunction, and a bloke wracked with the ague, but not in any way in a critical condition. A slightly poorly car and a person feeling a bit out of sorts. Then I want to give the car to a GP and the patient to a mechanic from a mainstream car business, and see who comes up with the correct diagnosis. My money’s on the doctor.

And here’s why. Medical training equips doctors, even non specialists like GPs, with a scientific and analytical approach to identifying problems. Whatever training it is that car mechanics have, it doesn’t do this. Car mechanics generally seem to guess, and just keep on replacing bits until the problem goes away, if at all.

I think the car mechanic business is facing some sort of crisis, and the problem has been generated, to some extent, by the cars themselves. A car is no longer a complex machine of many parts: it’s now a collection of relatively simple machines bolted together. Sub assemblies are invariably sealed, like those computer printers with ‘no user serviceable parts inside’. If there’s a problem with battery charging, they’ll replace the whole alternator. And then the battery itself. And then perhaps the ECU computer and eventually the loom, or it might be the ignition switch. This wouldn’t work in medicine. You’d go into the consultation room with a runny nose and come out with a face transplant.

Many dealerships, I suspect, aren’t really interested in mending things at all. They’re in the business of routine servicing, which I reckon has turned into an elaborate form of insurance. While your new car is under warranty, it will be honoured provided you stick to the service schedule and hand over the cash. The servicing is really simple stuff like oil changing and brake pad replacement. Try taking a 10-year-old car with an unknown fault to a dealer, and watch them quake with terror.

“Car mechanics generally seem to guess, and just keep on replacing bits until the problem goes away, if at all” 

As many experts will tell you, once the warranty is out you’re better off with an independent, but even then you’re not safe. Let’s consider my good mate Colin, who has bought an old Mercedes which, obviously, went wrong within days. The man from his breakdown organisation said it was the fuel pump. The man from the local garage said it was a valve in the injection system. Someone else said it was an air leak. Eventually his wife suggested, correctly as it turned out, that there was so little fuel in the tank it wasn’t getting through consistently. But imagine if he’d listened to them instead of her. He’d almost have a new engine by now when all he needed was a tenner’s worth of unleaded.

Another example of this concerns my little plane, the tailwheel of which went wonky so it would only steer to the right when on the ground. The sensible solution would be to pay a man to sort it out, especially as it’s quite important. But hang on. The usual posse of pilots and amateur spannermen crowded round to say it needed packing with grease, that the links to the rudder pedal were too short (although they might be too long), that the retaining bolt was too tight/too loose/the wrong type, that the wheel was the wrong size... It was all bollocks, and at the end of the day visitors were still wondering why James May spent so much time taxying around the airfield perimeter instead of just parking. I was doing this for the very reason that you would take a circuitous route from your house to the shops if your car would only turn in one direction.

See what I mean? The culture of spannering has somehow not encouraged a logical approach to analysing the problem, with the result that there are socket sets whirling around all over the country taking things apart unnecessarily and a huge business in place selling spares that aren’t actually needed. And I know it worries people; people with classic cars, youths with ratty Peugeots misfiring, old dears with a Volvo they’ve had since new but that now won’t start properly. What the hell are these people supposed to do?

Well, I’ve discovered that the best spannermen in Britain aren’t actually in garages at all. They’re at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. I was there the other day, and while you may be familiar with the car collection itself, all shiny and beautifully laid out behind ropes, I am now in with the blokes in the workshop, who have to keep everything running.

Imagine what they’re up against. There’s over 100 years’ worth of cars here, ranging from early ’Benzes and Renaults with ridiculous tiller steering to grand prix cars of the modern era. They can sort all of them, and often without the aid of off-the-shelf spares. Halfords simply does not have anything for a De Dion Bouton. The Beaulieu mechanics have to be able to mend the whole history of the motor car.

I mentioned to one of them a problem I was having with the carbs on an old Honda motorcycle. He talked unassailable logic for about 10 minutes in the manner of a scholar of Socrates and eventually arrived at a component that I should remove, clean, and replace. I tried it when I got home and, bugger me, if he wasn’t absolutely spot on.

There’s a business opportunity for Lord Montagu here. Visit the National Motor Museum, and have your car fixed while you’re there. I’m wondering if they can do anything about my cold sweats.


James May, Column

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