Automobiles – their shortcomings



IT is inevitable that in every walk of life we at times become too complaisant, take success and convenience too much for granted, forgetful of the shortcomings of the past and the price which has had to be paid before comparative perfection has become possible. This is very true of motoring, for the modern car gives remarkably good service. Involuntary stops on the road are almost unknown and these days we are surrounded by service stations which relieve us of unpleasant maintenance jobs and keep our cars continually up to scratch. Consequently, any mention of unreliability is apt to suggest an age so long ago as before the last European war. Now, just to shake you out of this complaisant state of mind, we are going to recount a few shortcomings relating, not to early and forgotten cars, but to automobiles which were popular and even held in high esteem not much more than ten years ago, and which are in some instances with us still. Except where an unusual service happening is recounted because it is believed of interest, these shortcomings, as outlined to us by a service engineer well acquainted with the marques concerned, represent definite design peculiarities which were confirmed by cropping up, not once, not twice, but time and again in the particular make and model concerned. Something fiendish within us almost prompts us to quote the makes concerned, but prudence suggests otherwise; no doubt many enthusiasts will be able to lay responsibility on the correct shoulders in nearly every instance.

Well, there was the delightful case of a certain well-known French eight-cylinder, which always arrived in this country with the clutch inoperative. The London concessionaires tried everything without avail, until they found the perfect solution. This consisted of removing three out of the nine clutch springs, to do which they calmly cut away a body cross-member to get the gearbox down, owners subsequently finding the life of the imposing fabric bodywork of much briefer span than they had hoped when purchasing the car. It was this car, too, which had sixteen grease nipples grouped carefully round the brake servo gear, of which, alas, only one protruded through the floorboards in decent accessibility. We say “alas,” for application of the grease gun to this one amenable nipple promptly jammed the valve of the Dewandre servo, leaving only direct brake actuation, which was anything but good . . . ! As if this was not enough, it was impossible to fit new piston rings unless the complete engine was removed, because the cylinder bores extended into the deep crankcase, in which the pistons came flush with the top face at t.d.c., so that it was impossible to get one’s. hand in to compress the rings. Cylinder wear was promoted by the consequent high temperature of the bores, oil mist being quickly burnt off the walls. Mechanics putting on the bearing caps soon found that they cut their hands on the crankshaft webs, which were conveniently machined to a knife-edge, and bearing fitting was not uncommon, as the engine was prone to sling rods—always one of the last four, and invariably it smashed the crankcase. Yet another comic of this “eight ” was its frequent discarding of the entire water-pump, which was held by an easily corroded 10 inch bolt taking the thrust of the drive. Incidentally, as if to get its own back on irate fitters, this car had its front axle U-bolts so close to the beam that no spanner would engage the nuts, yet they were fitted in some unexplained way at the factory.

It might not come entirely as a surprise to learn that the four-cylinder of the same marque also had some peculiarities. To remove the exhaust manifold it was necessary to detach a heavy tray beneath the gearbox, entailing removal of floorboards, seat, etc. This was a pity, because flexing of the chassis on this tray pulled on the exhaust pipe which ran through the tray and blew the joint with considerable frequency. Then, the dynamo drive was quite devoid of proper lubrication, apart from any water which seeped in, and consequently the dynamo sprocket ball race used to chew-up, and the entire engine then had to be removed from the chassis to expose the timing case. The camshaft damper spring frequently broke and the noise was such that an unscrupulous garage could always charge the owner for re-metalling the big ends! The clutch backplate slid in splines in the flywheel rim and as there was no means of lubrication and no outlet for the gathering accumulation of fabric dust, the withdrawal action became very stiff and finally seized-up. The front water joint often had to be broken before the valve cover would come clear for routine tappet adjustment, and the rev.-counter drive was most tricky to re-fit after the valve cover was replaced. Yet this was otherwise an excellent car!

Dismantling can have its terrors, if a designer has not made provision for the errors of mechanics unacquainted with the peculiarities of their product. One British small car had its oil pump so set that when it was removed the long driving shaft fell out and the ignition timing was irretrievably lost. Even worse was a French sleeve-valve engine in which the camshaft operating the double-sleeves had six splines and detachable eccentrics actuating the sleeves. In all innocence a fitter would withdraw the camshaft endways from the crankcase, whereupon all the eccentrics and distance pieces would fall into the sump, and as everything was quite unmarked, retiming the sleeves was then a matter entirely for theory. Another Continental engine of repute had cylinder head holding-down studs which also served to retain the main bearing caps, and over-exuberance in the matter of tightening down would result as likely as not in breakage and the consequent need to dismantle the entire unit. It was this engine, too, which had an alloy head gasket with copper-ring inserts, which used to shrink, prompting water leaks which seriously distorted the head. Incidentally, on this engine it was usual to set the valve tappets with no clearance at all. One special chassis of the marque had a tubular backbone, and if the frame was jacked up for any reason, the rear wheels, suspended by a transverse spring, used to settle 45º out of the vertical and it took quite half-an-hour’s drive before they resumed normal position. The sad story is told of the apprentice who, in dismantling the transmission of this chassis, let the fabric coupling enter the chassis-tube. It became jammed in the centre bearing and, do what they might, the fitters could not release it and there was just no way of getting the propeller shaft in.

There was an early British “Nine” which literally bent its con-rods if at all excessive r.p.m. was indulged in, as you could easily observe as soon as the block was lifted, and the expensive 3-litre which invariably cracked its chassis by the hand-brake bracket and a “decoke” for which involved lifting the block and cost some £50.

A certain French car was devised with front brakes only, when there was a positive craze for f.w.b., these being operated by a mechanical servo, which, if it got really soaked, entirely ceased to operate the sole means of anchorage. An early commercial diesel had a habit of seizing its piston rings, which happening, if not observed, allowed such pressure to build up in the crankcase that the entire contents of the sump would blow-out within 15 miles. And there was the first “six” of a famous British sports marque which had such a small clearance between head and pistons, that if the head was tightened down without the valve timing being accurately set, the edges of the valves used to chew-up on the piston crowns. In any case, this engine was continually blowing gaskets, until the head was entirely redesigned, and the first one, used in a director’s personal car, was in a short while hurriedly replaced by one of the well-tried “fours.” Now, readers, you tell some!

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