Fix it or ditch it?

  • Picture by James Westman
  • Alternators and starters can get pricey. Instead, replace the voltage regulator and brushes, clean up the slip rings and grease the bearings. Pop a new Bendix gear into the starter in minutes.
  • Plastic-and-aluminium radiators are usually a throwaway. Copper radiators, especially if they"â„¢re for an antique, can almost always be repaired.
Date:30 November 2008 Tags:, ,

Sometimes it’s better to simply replace a part rather than repair it. A sharp saturday mechanic will know when it’s smart to invest time in the old and when it’s best to buy something new.

We live in a throwaway society. A generation ago, if your starter motor, brakes or even engine became tired and worn out, the local mechanic would remove the offending part and fix it. And every garage mechanic knew how to fix pretty much everything on your car.

Times change. Most mechanics today find it more economical to simply exchange a faulty part for a new or rebuilt one. The parts are readily available and the prices are reasonable. This practice means they can get your car back into service sooner, and the cost to the consumer is the same or even less. The remanufactured-parts business has boomed. And economies of scale mean these parts are often the equal of brand-new parts, at sometimes substantially reduced cost. Everybody wins – sort of.

As cars became more complicated, and the systems more complex, slotting in a new part almost always made more sense than figuring out how the old one was supposed to work, spending a couple of hours tweaking it while the repair bay was tied up, and then hoping that the time- consuming repair was done correctly.

This may sound like a relatively tidy tale, but there have been some casualties. The job of the neighbourhood mechanic has changed as a result of the remanufactured-parts boom. He doesn’t need to be a jack-of-all-trades any more. And he doesn’t need to keep as many specialised tools in his shop. For instance, it’s often necessary to use a lathe to lightly machine the commutator on a starter motor (and other motors) to restore the commutator or the slip rings to their original roundness. Have you seen a lathe of any sort at your local garage? We’d bet not. Out-of-round wear is normal on high-mileage parts, and a rebuilt part will have had its concentricity restored as a matter of course.

I’ve long advocated spending the money on a new part for those who repair their own cars. Parts used to be so cheap that it didn’t make sense to rebuild stuff like a brake calliper. The cost of two calliper rebuild kits and a set of pads was nearly as much as the price of a pair of callipers with pads already installed, right from the factory.

But the tide is shifting. Although professional mechanics often install new parts, you may be able to save some money – maybe lots of money – by rebuilding certain systems yourself. That goes double for offbeat, antique or performance vehicles. And it may sound odd coming from someone whose racing history has consumed and destroyed a lot of parts (as the pile of Porsche engine cases behind my shop proves), but there’s some satisfaction to be had in rescuing a good part and Saving the Planet, one piston at a time. So here’s the lowdown on when to fi x and when to ditch that broken part. An alternate reality

The 42-amp alternator that was original equipment on a 1968 Mustang (which used an external voltage regulator) can be bought, completely rebuilt, for less than 50 bucks in the States. So why would you bother to take one apart and fi x it? Here are a couple of reasons.

It’s reasonable to assume your local car accessory shop won’t have this rare alternator in stock, so in terms of waiting time, it’s a no-go; you really don’t want to get involved with shipping charges, customs duties and other nasties. However, if you’re restoring that Mustang, popping in a set of brushes and needle bearings makes sense. It only takes about 10 minutes, and your handiwork will leave you with an authentic part, not some no-name knockoff that any Mustang afi cionado will spot from across the parking lot.

If you’ve got an oddball part, say that Bosch starter on your converted-to-12- volt Volkswagen beach buggy, availability could pose a challenge. A common 12-volt VW starter won’t physically fit on to the 6 volt-spec transmission, but Bosch does make one specifically for this application. That’s great, but try to find one while you’re stranded on the sand in Atlantis. Popping in a new solenoid and a pair of brushes will ensure you’ll have sand in your molars again within the hour.

Keeping your cool

Radiators are always the weakest point of a cooling system. Between internal corrosion and physical damage, keeping the coolant inside, where it belongs, can be a challenge. Most older cars use coppe-rand- brass, tube-and-fin radiators. A small hole in one of those tubes can usually be soldered up, and even a major failure, like a spigot that’s broken its solder connection to the tank, can be repaired readily by a good radiator shop.

Heavy build-up of internal scale can block water flow and cause overheating. This problem can be cured by using a torch to remove the tanks from the core, rodding out the tubes, cleaning everything up in a hot tank and re-soldering it all back together again. But in all honesty, that’s quite a bit of work. It might be better to replace the entire assembly, especially if you need the vehicle to get to work and you can get a part the same day.

Again, if you’ve got a rare vehicle, it’s possible to re-do the original radiator, even to the point of replacing the entire core assembly and re-using just the tanks and spigots. However, this operation generally costs nearly as much as a new part.

Aluminium-and-plastic radiators are great. They’re far lighter than copper and exchange more heat, size for size. So they’ve become very common on modern cars. In theory, the end tanks can be individually replaced if they crack or if the O-ring seal fails. (I want to move to this “Theory” place – everything always works there.) I have never seen a plastic radiator tank replaced, so buy a new one. A minor leak from a tube can often be successfully patched with special adhesive.

Brake it down

It takes more time to eat a beef sandwich than it does to rebuild a brake calliper once it’s off the car and you’ve freed that invariably sticky bleeder bolt (okay, a mild exaggeration). Just clean up the internals, replace the O-rings and dust boots, and reassemble the whole deal. On the other hand, for most cars, you can buy a rebuilt calliper with new hardware and fresh pads for almost the same price. You’ll need to exchange the old calliper, so if you break off the bleeder bolt trying to loosen it, you’ll drive up the cost. Again, odd parts for odd cars may be hard to find – but most brakecalliper seals are generic. You might be able to pick up some seals and dust boots from the parts store instead of ordering them from a specialist.

Rebuild that carb

Carburettors rarely wear out. But they do get gummed up, especially if a vehicle has been in storage. The faint of heart may prefer to simply buy a new or rebuilt unit. I prefer to pick up an inexpensive rebuild kit and roll my own. I’ve got a carb dip bucket full of solvent, but a couple of cans of aerosol carb cleaner will get the job done. The only tricky part is setting the float height, which might require a little homework and some measuring.

The whole shebang

Here’s a tough place to be: let’s say the engine (or maybe it’s the transmission) is shot – spun bearings, bent valves, whatever. The conventional triage is: scrap the car, rebuild the original engine or install a new or rebuilt one. A cheap option is to find a used engine at a junkyard. The decision on whether to fix the car at all hinges largely on how the numbers play out.

Think: is the amount of money you would have to spend on this car roughly equal to the price of something of equal crepitude? If it is worth it to fix, I usually rebuild the engine myself. That not only saves money but provides a bald-faced excuse to port, polish, balance and generally blueprint the motor. Funny how the cost to hot rod an engine with the good stuff isn’t really that much more than the parts needed for a simple rebuild.

Juicing the system

Alternators and starters can get pricey. Instead, replace the voltage regulator and brushes, clean up the slip rings and grease the bearings. Pop a new Bendix gear into the starter in minutes.

The heat is on

Plastic-and-aluminium radiators are usually a throwaway. Copper radiators, especially if they’re for an antique, can almost always be repaired.

Broken brakes

It’s pretty simple to rebuild a brake calliper, but for most cars, you can exchange your old, worn-out calliper with a rebuilt one for not much more than the price of the rebuild kit.

Build it easy

Neglected carburettors can be rebuilt inexpensively. A worn-out carb with loose shafts or frozen adjustment screws might be worth replacing.

Ding, ding

Damaged alloy wheels can be very pricey to replace. Check to see if you can ship yours off for repair, refinishing or exchange.

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