25 things vanishing in America, part 2: The shade tree mechanic

In the world of auto repair, most of us have been privileged to know someone who was able to fix our cars on their driveway. These shade tree mechanics would take on auto repair jobs as simple as changing motor oil, or as complex as replacing an entire engine. They often charged reasonable and negotiable rates for their work. Sometimes, a couple cans of beer and a little camaraderie was enough to get the job done. Cars were easy to work on a couple decades ago. All you needed were the basic tools and a little bit of greasy palmed bravado.

I myself did some of these amateur mechanic jobs. One time, I even accomplished a complete engine, electrical harness, and interior transplant. Using just basic mechanic's tools and a rented engine hoist, I transplanted all the elemental systems of a 1972 Buick Skylark in to the abandoned hulk of a 1970 Skylark. It took a good deal of time, but it was simple. Everything just bolted right up.

Times have changed however, and so have our cars and trucks. Gone are the days when you could slide under a vehicle with two wrenches and then slide back out ten minutes later with a starter motor in you hands. Today's motor vehicles are carefully engineered puzzles of sensors, relays, circuits, and space age connectors which demand tools and knowledge not always readily available to Joe average. People I know, who still have the inclination to work on vehicles at home, tell me horror stories about basic engine repairs which are nearly impossible to reach, and tools which they've never before even heard of.

There are multiple reasons for today's vehicle engineering changes. It is up to the individual to decide if these changes are all good. Many, if not most of today's vehicular design dynamics are born of efficiency and emission considerations. Robotic manufacturing processes, shipping constraints, material strength, and profitability all figure into the equation also. However, all of the changes in elemental vehicle ingredients have worked in concert to slowly displace our back yard, shade tree mechanics. In the end analysis, this changeover time has probably not been in the best interest of all the people involved.

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