Today’s engines are smaller and far more efficient, reliable, and complex than anything mechanics had to deal with in decades past, and as time marched on the technicians that keep our cars safely functioning had to change their approach to turning wrenches and pick up a computer instead. From electronic control modules to engine diagnostic OBD2 scanners, the modern mechanic is becoming less greasy than ever before, as mechanical failures give way to software glitches and electronic headaches.
With the world’s first coast-to-coast self-driven Delphi Audi showing us what the future holds, things are looking even more “techy” for today’s mechanic. And as times change so do the training sessions deemed necessary for ASE certified technicians, with computer diagnostic training at the forefront.
But suspension components still remain metallic and mechanical, catalytic converters still clog over time, and rotors still warp, toasting pads as they waver in the face of a complete stop. So there will always be some sort of need for socket sets, pry bars, and all manner of toil beneath the bonnet, as many find that the old school tactics used by the veterans of the industry can still be applied to today’s automobiles.
Schweitzer’s Garage may not look like much from the outside, but that 116 year-old carriage house in the northern suburb of Cincinnati is home to more than just a mechanic and his tools. It remains one of the city’s longest lasting family-owned service shops, originally founded by Lee Schweitzer in 1955. The garage began as nothing more than a downtown Texaco service station with an outside lift, but the current shop was obtained in 1960 and its operations were transferred over to Lee’s two sons, Tom and John, and that is when things began to get interesting.
Over fifty years later, it is the latter of the two sons who spoke with us here at Autos Cheat Sheet, as he has seen the automotive industry move from carburetors to fuel injection and direct injection, has worked on European imports to rusted-out Cadillacs, and offers more interesting stories than anyone else you will meet in a repair shop. With his mischievous blue eyes a-twinkle, old man Schweitzer answers our questions, giving us reason to believe that the old way of doing things is often the right way still.
1. The simple string alignment trick
Electronic alignment machines are an amazing advancement, but most people don’t know that race car owners and pit crews have been aligning cars for decades with little more than a ball of string, some jack stands, a tape measure, and a plumb bob — and it works, really, really well. Commonly known as “stringing a car,” this technique is easy for anyone to understand if they can handle basic geometry and have a healthy amount of patience. The more detail oriented the aligner is, the more precise that suspension will be, and this “outdated” style of aligning a car can be done by virtually anyone, as this YouTube instructional video gives you a pretty good idea as to what all is involved. While there are more complex ways of going about this, the approach in the video is easily the simplest and most popular way of doing it and can be used on virtually any car, regardless of how old or new it may be.
2. The engine-saving oil change
The repair manual in the glovebox says you should change your oil every 10,000 miles or so, and that synthetic oils will keep deposits at bay, regardless of what mileage may be on the car. While this may be what the manufacturer feels works best for a certain vehicle, mechanics like Schweitzer, who have completed extensive training seminars on engine lubricants, viscosities, and molecular breakdown, say to do this at your own risk. Changing your oil every 10,000 miles prior to the 100,000 mile-mark may not be a bad thing at first, but as an engine ages its seals, internal components, and reliability begin to fade, and the last thing anyone wants to do is need to swap in a fresh motor. Remember, a fresh filter and a few quarts of oil are a hell of a lot cheaper than a new engine, so play it safe guys, and change that oil every 3,000-5,000 miles.
3. Prematurely busted brakes are 100% preventable
Hitting the brakes is an unavoidable occurrence in an automobile, and eventually everyone’s car is going to need a fresh set of rotors and pads, or if you are unfortunate enough to own a car with drums in the rear, shoes and hardware. So to better protect those precious stopping components, Schweitzer recommends two-second braking periods at high speeds and avoiding riding the brakes until the vehicle dips below 35 miles per hour. You can hit that pedal as many times as you wish, just know that you’ll cook your brakes if you ride them too long. Modern vented rotors will cool extremely quickly at high speeds, so a two second on/off approach is best when taking that off-ramp, with the only exception being for wealthy individuals who can afford titanium and carbon-ceramic brakes.
4. Your brake fluid actually needs replacing
Here is an overlooked necessity that almost no one does anymore, and it is damn confounding as to why this is, because it’s easy and inexpensive and provides an added piece of mind when driving. Brake fluid is not just exposed to lots of heat, it also comes into contact with all forms of corrosion and dirt within the system as it pushes its way to the wheels. Letting those caliper bleeder screws open up and drain until the fluid runs clean is something you never see anymore, and as long as that reservoir stays topped-off there is no need to fret: Any air in the lines and impurities are being replaced with fresh fluid. Much like the engine oil change, this one is inexpensive and is an excellent added level of insurance to anyone wanting better brakes.
5. If you love it, lube it
Lubing suspension components is something no one seems to do anymore, and while the parts themselves come packed with grease and last longer than ever before, Schweitzer says it still is a commonly skipped step that is designed to keep that car on the road for years to come. Another often overlooked area of the car that deserves some lubing are key components like door locks, hinges, props, and latches. Once a mandatory part of any routine service stop, this vital procedure is now a long-lost form of preventative maintenance.
With many modern cars utilizing keyless entry methods, and only sporting a key hole on the driver’s side, there has been little need for the lubrication of locks in the past decade. But when the battery dies in your key fob, and you realize that the key won’t fit in the lock because it’s corroded, you are going to be asking yourself why you didn’t listen to old man Schweitzer. The same thing goes for door latches — there’s no worse feeling than realizing your door won’t open because it’s stuck shut and won’t budge. So don’t be shy, and go buy some silicone lube and hit every latching, pivoting, and locking component you find on that modern machine.