By on September 18, 2010

Ur-Turn is your weekly opportunity to contribute to TTAC. Every Saturday we select a different piece submitted to our contact form, and publish it as a showcase for the diverse perspectives of TTAC’s readers. Today’s contribution is a a meditation on the coming classic car crisis, from reader Matthew Betts.

Classic cars have been part of American car culture since the 1950s, when rat rods roamed the evening streets and gas contained heavy metal. As years have passed, those classics have given way to the over-restored muscle car and the garage queen time capsule. Those cars have held the spotlight for quite some time, probably because the kids of the 80s lusted after the cars of the 60s, much like their parents. The next step in the progression of the classic car will be Japanese and turbocharged group from the early 90s. This new wave can already be found creeping into auctions with prices on the rise.

After this wave passes, what will be next, if anything at all? While this may seem like a crazy question at first glance, there are several drastic differences between the cars of the last 10 years and the cars of yore that will make long-term car of them a nearly impossible goal. Some of these differences strike at the very core of classic car culture.


Mechanical complexity is not that big a deal to a classic car lover. Some relish in the clockwork symphony of multiple carbs, or the sublime cacophony coming from a multi-cam, high-revving engine. Modern engines, while only moderately more complex mechanically, are vastly more difficult to maintain in the long term due to the control systems used. Can you imagine trying to resolve a software fault in a modern car in 10 years by yourself, without the required 10k dealer-only computer or any software documentation?


Previously, virtually all cars were able to be maintained using a fairly fixed spectrum of tools. Sure, there were specialty tools to make life easier, but they were shortcuts, not requirements. The biggest change here is with the aforementioned dealer computers. In the early-to-late 90s, the specialty computer was used primarily as a diagnostic device, rather than a vital tool. Modern cars cannot be serviced without these computers, as the computers are used to fix software problems directly that cannot be remedied any other way.


One of the core concepts in classic car ownership is customization, making it your car. This used to be relatively easy to do, as each system was independent. Changing the drivetrain just changed the drivetrain. In a modern car, however, every system is interconnected. As an example, a BMW 335i owner recently found out the hard way that changing the radio prevented him from having his transmission serviced. How are these systems related? They aren’t, except the chassis computer wouldn’t let the transmission software be updated unless all systems were validated first. Lacking the original radio, that system couldn’t be validated, so the car couldn’t be fixed. Eventually, the owner found the original radio in a closet, but otherwise, he would have had to buy a new OEM radio to the tune of 700$. He couldn’t use another used OEM radio because the OEM radio had to be uniquely paired to the car first, an operation that could only be performed once. When changing something as basic as the radio prevents major systems from functioning, that makes the car a single unit, rather than a collection of modular systems.

So how will the kid of today get their dream Jaguar XF in 20+ years? Some of the more technologically-advanced classic cars are showing the way: specialization. As the dealers move on to the next generation computer and tool set, they liquidate the old stock, which is required to fix the old cars. Some of these units will be picked up by independent shops. Even fewer of these shops eventually become known as the “gurus” of that particular car in a particular geographic area. They remain the sole people actually able to fix the car as it was originally meant to be fixed, as they alone will have the skills and tools to do so. Current examples of this include the BMW E9 coupes, the Volvo P1800, vintage Mercedes, and vintage Porsches. These cars often have one or two shops in the entire US dedicated to just that car type. They have all the original tools, original documentation, and the contacts to find all the NLA parts nobody else seems to find, or they make them in-house.

While specialization will ensure the cars will live on, there is a dark side: cost. Being the only gig in town (or the country) gives the shop the ability to call the shots in a way most indys could only dream of. This drives up the cost of restoration to the point of being well outside the capabilities of most Americans. Gone will be the stories of a kid and their dad bringing a car back to life, as dad won’t be able to buy a good used engine control computer without cutting into the kid’s college fund. A classic car will no longer be the result of blood, sweat, and copious swearing, but of shipping it to the other side of the country to the only shop that still has a working diagnostic/interface computer. Classic cars will no longer be testaments to the owner’s mechanical acumen, but of the size of their pocketbooks. This key change is the killing blow against the very core of the original car culture, who customized what they could afford with their own two hands, making the best of what they had.

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76 Comments on “Ur-Turn: On The Death Of The Classic Car...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Sadly you’re probably right.  But then necessity tends to be the mother of invention.

  • avatar

    That’s a pretty bleak outlook, but all is not lost. For example, for ~$100, I got a OBD scanner and I can read codes on just about anything electronic. So my 1989 Chevy Truck might just live forever. Once it hits 25 years of age, I’m free to yank the throttle body and put a true 4 barrel intake and carb, headers, dual out the exhaust, and another hot rod is born.

    Almost any mustang from 1965 through 2005 can be modded. As it’s the most popular hot rod car out there, you don’t need a specialty shop, just open up any online catalog and order the hp you want.

    The BMW reference sounds extreme, but on anything more popular I’m sure there’s a 19 year old kid out there waiting to re-flash the computer.

    No, the real death of the hot rod culture is over-crowded streets, $1000 speeding tickets, maniac cops, cameras, bumper to bumper driving, and onboard nannies whose job it is to make driving not fun.

    • 0 avatar

      “No, the real death of the hot rod culture is over-crowded streets, $1000 speeding tickets, maniac cops, cameras, bumper to bumper driving, and onboard nannies whose job it is to make driving not fun.”
      It’s not the death of hotrodder culture, but it has transformed it from being largely performance-oriented to being almost exclusively about cosmetics. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago that a Porsche 911 Turbo could do 0-60 in 6 seconds flat, and we were all mightily impressed. Today your mom’s box stock grocery getter might be able to do that, so perhaps the performance aspect of hotrodder culture has simply become obsolete.

    • 0 avatar

       “the real death of the hot rod culture is over-crowded streets, $1000 speeding tickets, maniac cops, cameras, bumper to bumper driving, and onboard nannies whose job it is to make driving not fun.”
      How sad but so true. In my neck of the woods, if you’re over by 30mph, not only do they scoop your drivers license, they also take your car. On the spot!!

      As for ‘classics’, I personally reserve that designation for mostly pre ’70s. The exotics are and always have been, to my mind. in their own class, old or new.

  • avatar

    I swear, everytime I see that comparison photo of the old/new Challenger, I marvel at how much better looking and attractive the old, fuselage-styled car is in comparison to the bloated and fat new one.

    • 0 avatar

      +1  The older version even looks lighter and faster. The newer model is based on the same platform as the 300 and Charger, so there wasn’t much that could be done. They weren’t about to  built a custom chassis for such a limited production car.

    • 0 avatar

      Rudlinger, I could not agree with you more. It really is kind of sad.

      Lorenzo, that may be the case, but I would think that smaller wheels and a lower rear roof line would still be possible, even with modern safety systems.

    • 0 avatar

      I may add that the every increasing diameter wheels have now become clownish looking.  It that suppose to be a car or a Conestoga wagon?  I actually prefer the rims on the original.

    • 0 avatar

      At first glance I thought the big numbers were MPG… LOL!

  • avatar

    I have a possible future solution: Software AND Hardware Emulation. Those super-expensive, super-complicated, specialized dealership diagnostic computers could probably be emulated by your average PC 10 years from now much like a Pac-Man arcade cabinet is emulated by your average PC nowadays. Could anyone imagine emulating an arcade cabinet 20 years ago? It is pretty commonplace today. All you need is ONE original to make the copy and distribute it to everyone who could possibly find a need for it.

    • 0 avatar

      That will likely be the future solution, I think. A small netbook or cheap laptop with an interface cable can will be as useful and common as a socket wrench a toolbox. If the following for a particular car or manufacturer is big enough, an entrepreneurial software engineer, shop or company, can create their own software for it, ala VAG-COM.

  • avatar

    There are a lot of smart programmers in the world and most of them don’t work for automobile manufacturers or their major suppliers. Just as small independents developed aftermarket parts for older, purely mechanical cars, independent programmers will develop aftermarket software for computer controlled ones.
    Customization will actually be easier for the end user. Instead of having to disassemble part of your car to install a new component, you will just plug in a cable and download the new software from your laptop.
    Anything on the car that is controlled by a computer is open to reprogramming. Don’t like your car’s top speed limiter? Download a software patch that bypasses it. Does the stability control system intervene too soon? Download new control software that isn’t as aggressive.

    • 0 avatar

      I like where you’re going with this.
      … Don’t like your car’s transmission computer because it doesn’t play nice with your new radio?  Get an aftermarket computer.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d be really surprised if that’s not already out there.

      I’m sure there are copyright/ownership issues, but hey, what they don’t know…….;-)

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      In the real world, the software (firmware) that manufacturers use don’t come from programmers who work for them, either. It’s all contracted out. I’ve known more than a few of them, and they simply build it as they’re told.
      The integration described in the story — stupid nonsense like the factory stereo being a mandatory part of the transmission flash — is simply what you get when engineers design software systems, rather than software guys doing it.
      Kendahl’s fantasy-world of simply reflashing stuff to get what you want is probably how it should be, but it’s a far cry from how things work in the real world. Otherwise we wouldn’t all recognize names like MSD.

  • avatar

    This is all well-reasoned, but it presupposes that anyone decades from now will want to restore (or maintain in original or restored condition) a contemporary car; it’s also possible that no one will care.
    On the other hand, someone who wants to modify a car (exterior, mechanicals, or both) will still have a supply of older cars to work with for a long time to come; even today relatively intact cars from the 1950s are seen and their photos appear in such magazines as Collectible Automobile. The same is true for someone who wants to restore (rather than modify) an older car that’s less complex than the examples cited above; that will remain possible, and the results can still be rewarding.
    As for the aging European cars that may soon (or already) require “gurus” to maintain: Finding a shop in the U.S. with the expertise to correctly maintain vintage Porsches, for example, was also difficult when those cars were new, wasn’t it?

  • avatar

    Nothing new here, low volume and high dollar vehicles have always required specialized repair procedures and dedicated shops. You can’t get the Ferraris built in the sixties (or even the Fiats of that time) serviced in general repair shops. Pointing to a few high dollar models today and stating that this dynamic applies to all cars currently produced GREATLY overstates the situation. In other words, I agree that your BMW example is true, but I disagree that it carries over to all current vehcile designs.

    To measure the current situation, hop on a Mustang or Camaro enthusiast’s blog. Folks there are talking about modifying multiple systems on their current vehicles using home garages, and talking about reprogramming their vehicle computers to match personal needs. Reprogramming only became a topic on these blogs ten or fifteen years ago, and like every technology on the car, the knowledge base continues to evolve and grow. 

    Twenty years from now the kids who have grew up with PCs in their bedrooms and wrote apps for their personal phones will joke about how easy it is to hack into Dad’s old Mustang. They will deal with vehicle restoration the way we do today- By sorting out multiple aftermarket options using the internet for information, and balancing repair costs against the quality of each manufacturers part offerings.

  • avatar

    I think the BMW is an outlier, and hopefully will remain that way. That said, I’m willing to bet there will be more early 1990’s era cars on the road in 30 years than cars from this decade. At some point you pass the “complexity that builds reliability” and enter “complexity that builds weakness”.
    I do think that people will hack these computer systems at some point; the problem is that it will be a hack – the manufacturer no doubt holds the rights to everything and will keep that as tightly as publishers and copyrights (which is why you can’t buy Hemingway new for $1 but can buy Jane Austen new that cheaply – and this is why I’ve read more Checkov and Jane Austen than Hemingway). So shops will do it but will probably advertise very carefully.

  • avatar

    With all the environmental responsibility going on, classic cars may be on their way out indeed, due to the perception of them being gas hogs from another era.
    Unless there’s EV retrofitting in the works. I know, you’ll lose that V8 rumble, but then again, aren’t most classics just used for showing off and cruising?

  • avatar

    The Vette folks seem to have their stuff figured out so far. The cars that have a sufficiently large enthusiast base — Mustangs, SRT products, anything with an LS engine, Zs, Porsches, BMW M cars — won’t have too much trouble. But I agree that the other ones will induce some serious headaches… good luck trying to restore, say, an STS-V 30 years from now…

  • avatar

    I sure hope this isn’t the case and I don’t think it will be. The author makes a solid and interesting point about today’s cars being a single unit but I think as the aftermarket matures, grows and gains more knowledge they’ll find ways around these problems, especially if the particular car or brand has a huge enthusiast base. My personal experience with Hondas supports this. Obviously the Honda vehicles of the 90’s aren’t as complicated as today’s BMW’s but I would suggest they’re more closely related to them than they are cars of the 60’s and 70’s. Fifteen years ago, when I was just starting to get the bug, a simple engine swap was pretty cutting edge stuff. As the enthusiast community gained more knowledge and experience you started seeing more extreme, more complicated and more competent setups. A head from one car on the block of another, FI setups, extreme NA tuning, non-VTEC to VTEC conversions, etc. Now there are standalone systems and guys capable of programming them from the ground up and it’s not particularly specialized. Sure, some do it better than others but there’s a good chance you can find a competent tuner somewhere in your state, if not closer. The size and strength of the enthusiast community will determine what’s supported in the future, just like it has in the past.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. “These modern cars will be unfixable by the home mechanic” has been the cry for the last 15 (maybe more?) years but still the DIYer can get hold of parts and carry out the work… provided one can figure out how to remove the plastic covers ;)
      Technical data/information/manuals are easy to come by today and this wealth of available knowledge has counterbalanced increasing complexity fairly equivalently in terms of the home mechanic being able to ply his Sunday-afternoon trade.

    • 0 avatar

      I used to say “These modern cars will be unfixable by the home mechanic” during the 90’s.  After having maintained a 90’s Toyota and now an 03 Mazda, I know better.

    • 0 avatar

      Google Megasquirt. If parts become unavailable – people will adapt. Same for energy sources – liquid or electrical.

  • avatar

    To replace the battery on a modern BMW, it has to be coded to the car, making replacement a dealer only proposition. WTF? A battery? Really? It’s true. This is the reason I have not purchased, nor will I purchase a BMW newer than my E46. The manufacturers think they are slick, forcing you to go back to the dealer for service, but I sense a rebellion coming. People vote with their wallets, and there is a fine line between acceptable, and no friggin way. I see older cars becoming much more valuable for just this reason. No way I’m going to spend 50K on a car, and have the dealer tell me that I am tied to them for the rest of the cars life. Are you listening Munich?

    • 0 avatar

      I wish you were right but, most people who buy new BMWs are buying the badge, not DIY-ability.

    • 0 avatar

      An encoded battery in theory would be easy to workaround. If there is a chip somewhere on the battery that has a separate connector, it should be just a matter of cutting the old chip out of the old battery and attaching it to the new battery and plugging it back in. I’ve never seen one of these, so I’m only speculating.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not just BMW.  Mercedes Benz also need their battery coded as well.  I guess my 330Ci ZHP will be with me for a looong time!

    • 0 avatar


      While this scenario may be limited to BMWs or similar high-end vehicles at the moment, given time it will filter down to the mass-market cars as technology tends to do.

      Just few years ago you could take an engine computer from a junkyard car if it had the same options and plug it into your car to fix it. Nowadays, the computer has the VIN programmed into it and it’s often not re-writeable…a new, unprogrammed computer is the only solution.  

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t modern BMWs run a 48 volt system? I can’t imagine there being a lot of batteries for those available on the aftermarket either, aside from the “coding” requirement.

  • avatar

    Perhaps the love of things classic will evolve to express more of an attitude, a perspective, and a way of life. Perhaps this gen will change from collecting actual cars to embracing classic ideas. Take the new Mustang, Camaro, Toyobaru, Tc, Mini, and 5 series. Classic looks, classic layouts and symbolism, but modern engineering and innovations. I saw a 66 Mustang the other day, and it was similar in some ways to the New ones, but in many ways better. I had never seen one up close, it was more awesome than newer cars standing still that is. I like what I saw, so if I saw it in another car, I’d like it too. Things change and I need to move on, and make the best of it, atleast I get better suspensions.

  • avatar

    It saddens me to think you may be right. It doesn’t have to be this way. My mid ’90s Saab has about 20-30 “computers” throughout the car but, with the exception of a radio that doesn’t work without a 4 digit code, they really hadn’t yet figured out how to make life difficult for the DIY owner.
    On the positive side, I find it’s extremely rare for a computer to fail – I’ve owned several computerized cars, yet all repairs have been mechanical.

  • avatar
    George B

    I totally disagree about car software being a fundamental barrier.  It is much easier for a widely distributed group of fans of a particular model to swap information, including control software, than it is to get parts and hands-on experience with the more rare examples of hardware.  In contrast, working with even the most common small block Chevy carburetors was messy and difficult because every meat-head who could turn a screwdriver offered to help me.  Took lots of time to filter through bad advice and learn from mistakes.  Internet car enthusiast forums are much better because the geographic reach of mentors is so much greater and the filtering process is so much faster.
    In my opinion, the biggest threat to classic cars is cost reduction.  When engineering tools were more crude, engineers had to leave more margin in their designs to compensate for what they didn’t know.  Engines and transmissions of today have less excess strength available for power upgrades.
    Another threat to future classic cars is relatively fragile, model specific, interior plastic.  The sheet metal doesn’t rust through, but the plastic becomes brittle and cracks with age.  Not sure how one would repair or replace the acres of interior plastic decades into the future.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point on the plastic interiors.  Hopefully, the car is a barn find from Colorado or New Mexico.

    • 0 avatar

      Dude, plastic interiors are no different than the vinyl and fabric pieces of yore. You can literally build a brand new 1st gen Camaro out of brand new parts, from the body to the door handles. If there are enough people that love a car that car will live on forever, end of story.

    • 0 avatar

      If a car is popular somebody will start making aftermarket interiors. I’m thinking of Year One here. I’m even starting to see aftermarket OEM style interior components for 80s VW convertibles. Aircooled VWs have long had just about everything available for them.
      Interiors can be easy if a person wants to make fiberglass panels and then cover them with foam and vinyl. Not OEM but still presentable.

  • avatar

    Good points in the article, but predicting the future of the car hobby world is pretty hard. I don’t see how advances in car electronics will be much of a barrier to future classic car owners and buyers. Car guys are an ingenious lot, and when there’s a will – and enough demand – there’s a way to provide adequate support for future owners of now new, future ‘classics’.
    Of greater concern to me is the apparent waning interest in cars in general among the younger generations. There just doesn’t seem to be the interest or passion for all things cars among younger people to the extent there was in previous generations.
    Maybe this is only perception, and it is possible that there weren’t any more true ‘gearheads’ in my youth (I’m 50) than there are now. I know plenty of guys who never cared about cars in their younger years, only to discover their inner gearhead late in life, when financial wherewithal allowed them to indulge a new-found hobby.
    Look at the Mecum classic car auction on Discovery HD this weekend. Almost every buyer is an old white guy. Not hard to figure out why. 30-40 years hence it will probably about the same.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m afraid you are right. Most young people of today are too absorbed in the internet, and the next new gadget. In my old neighborhood, you used to see kids working on their cars almost every evening, and not just repairs, we were always trying to make them just a little bit faster. I don’t see much of that around here lately, although it seems to be alive and well out west. I guess cars are becoming a commodity, just like everything else these days. Why fix when you can throw it away, when you can buy new? Oh well, back to reality.

    • 0 avatar

      Dude you are looking in the wrong places I guess. I’m 26 years old and I could blueprint a 454 before I could legally drive. My father wouldn’t let me have a Mustang or Camaro when I got my license so I went asian, building my civic hatchback into a monster, You better believe he smiled when he saw it run 12’s all night long. That was eight years ago. Cars will be just fine. Maybe you don’t see buttheads turning screws in their driveways anymore and that’s okay. We’re doing just fine, and we’re probably using more ingenuity and are more enthusiastic than you and your brood ever were. This doomsday shit is a complete buzzkill.

  • avatar

    Exotic hardware has always been a PIA to restore.  Today’s versions may not be restorable 20 to 30 years down the road.
    Poorer folks with time on their hands here are now restoring 70’s and 80’s GM pick ups.  The 5.7 / 350 V8 were built in the millions.  Parts for them are still relatively inexpensive and plentiful.  Need a tail light lens for a 82 Silverado or Cheyenne?  No problem.
    On the other side of the coin, I seen more than a few 50’s 60’s restos that have been updated to modern OBD II 350 V8s, modern disc brakes, power steering and air conditioning.  So, someone, somewhere is supplying modern wiring harnesses for these old cars.

  • avatar

    In the “old days” cars were designed to be serviceable over a theoretically infinite life. Nowadays they are designed to a finite-life concept and even have recycling codes stamped on parts.
    I agree with all the comments on how today’s kids who can’t remember before cell phones will find ways to hack systems us old time shade-tree wrenchers can’t dream of. I think it’s also possible that an aftermarket for transplants will develop where replacement power plants (diesel, electric, or ?) will be offered with their own software and a selection of adapters that plug into the wiring and computers of whatever they are being dropped into.

  • avatar

    ECUs very rarely fail. Usually some kind of interior module that goes, or some kind of electrical issue due to badly designed wiring, bad soldering, etc. If a car is ‘classic’ enough, there will eventually be plenty of resources for diagnosis to draw from and restoration or after-market parts available.
    I don’t agree that classic car culture is dead or dying, just changing. Can’t find a power window module for your classic GTI? If it’s a common problem, chances are there’ll be a pretty easy fix! Can’t find an electronic part? Buy a $30 open source programmable module and make do the same. Need to recondition the battery packs on your classic 2002 Honda Insight? No problem. Instead of father and son tuning the carburetor and setting the timing, it’ll be father in the passenger seat, hunched over a laptop watching what the ECU is doing, while son drives the car around the block so the ECU can “learn” it’s A/F targets under load.
    That’s the sort of direction I imagine classic car culture will move towards.
    Remember the article about the father and son who swapped a small block into an E30, and created meticulous documentation for the whole thing? It’ll be more like that.

  • avatar

    The author has some strong points. However I believe that obtaining the appropriate OBD SW will be the least problem.
    It simply will be the age of the vehicle that forces vital electronic components to fail.I can`t see customers willing to pay a small  fortune on new/remanufactured airbag controllers/ modules, ABS controllers, PCM`s, FCM`s etc- just to keep their ride going. Especially classic cars hardly see a constant use of operation which makes it tougher on all components.
    I already can hear some suggestions like who needs the Airbag, ABS etc functioning when I only take it out for a Sunday spin.
    Well more and more countries are attempting to tap into reading the vehciles faults during their mandatory safety inspection and once faults are present respectively the module is not responding- there goes your vehicle operating permit.
    Will the future classic car die- I tend to believe so.
    I know some people in the Triumph scene that yanked out their fuel injection system and replaced it with a carburator- the same on some late 70`s VW`s. They just where sick of all the system hickups that occured over time and replaced it with something more reliable.
    I´m afraid you can`t do that on a CAN vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      If you live in a state that does not require emissions testing then you can replace the fuel injection on a late 70’s / early 80’s air cooled VW with carburetors. Notice it’s carburetors, not carburetor.  Weber IDF’s run about $900 for the pair new and are not trivial to properly dial in or jet.  The dual IDF’s really wake up the 2 liter Type 4 engine.
      The center mount, single progressive route doesn’t work well on a Type 4 air cooler. You’ll be looking at an engine rebuild every 20 to 25 thousand miles.
      Folks where emissions testing occurs had better understand the ins and outs of the old K Jetronic or L Jetronic system – or – better yet update the system to Bosch Digifant, which is a C.A.R.B legal mod, provided you retain the proper catalytic converter.
      Unlike the Webers, the Digifant set up let’s you drive from sea level up to through the Rockies without running hog rich while climbing through the high passes.  Just be sure to carry a spare cylinder head temperature sensor – which is the weak link in the system.
      In a water cooled Vanagon, just do the Subie swap, which is not cheap and enjoy the 140 horsepower.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m doing exactly that with a Corvair powered ’78 VW van BUT I’m keeping all the OEM VW stuff (that worked) in case we get air pollution checks here and I had to go back to VW power. We have checks in all the largest cities around us so it could happen. The van would never pass the visuals even if I adapted a GM 3.1L fuel injection and a cat to the Corvair motor and made a cleaner vehicle out of the VW.
      Installed Dellorto carbs on my Type IV powered Beetle. Re-jetted, balanced and changed the venturi myself. Lots more fun and zippier with the 2.0L aircooled engine vs the original 1.2L engine. Carbs took alot of self-learning on my part but I eventually got there.

  • avatar

    I’m counting on Moore’s law and a bit of luck to solve this problem.
    I would imagine most engine/transmission control computers are more alike than they are different.  At the end of the day we are still combusting fuel and air and changing gears.
    I’m willing to bet, eventually, someone will create a programmable “generic” control module with all the necessary adapters to get you going.

  • avatar

    I hate to say it, but the author is right.

    Non-repairable electronics and circuit boards will sideline a lot of our current crop of cars as they age.  The real coup de grace will be scarce and incompatible replacement components of all types.  The practice of using the same part for four or five model years is history; nowadays, running changes take place from one month to the next.  Go ahead… 20 years from now, try to find that control module that was only made in Indonesia for a few months in spring of 2009… just-in-time manufacturing and ever-shorter model and component runs will not be your friends.

    Except for the very very few who will bother with hacking and modding their way through problems, the 21st century car will be more and more like consumer electronics for the average end user: when it craps out, toss it in the crusher, as even a masochist with cubic disposable bucks and lots of time on their hands will have a hard time reviving it.

  • avatar

    I’m going to have to politely disagree. Cars have been getting more complex since their invention and at no point has it killed the classic car culture. My dad used to complain to me in the 70s that he didn’t like OHC engines because he felt like they wouldn’t last and that they were too hard to work on. I head much the same about EFI in the 80s from various DIY enthusiasts. Yet everyone adapted and moved on and people continue to work on their own cars.
    I should also point out that cars require less maintenance than ever and are more reliable than ever. I do concede that luxury makes have embraced electronics as a way to differentiate themselves and have, as a consequence, introduced bugs and problems into their products. But the same can be said for any technology advance – ABS, ESP, OHC engines – all had initial problems but once they were mass market technologies they became more reliable and the DIY guys learned to accept them.

    • 0 avatar

      Nothing against your dad, but anytime I hear about newfangled OHC engines I wonder what those crazy engineers were thinking in World War I building those things at Mercedes, Packard, Cadillac, Ford, Hispano-Suiza…  When the auto company Lincoln was formed their first engine was an OHC design.

  • avatar
    Matt Betts

    While I do concur that the common cars (Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros) will likely be OK given their massive following, what about someone who wants something else? Car culture is all about individuality, and being able to restore any car was an important manifestation of this. Also, please remember that I am not talking about cars from the 90s, but cars available now, like a STi, Evo X, CTS-V, XF, M5, etc. These cars are driving computers, designed by a fleet of engineers, each of which had to write a manual on their particular component. The complexity is too great.
    As a rather uncommon example, think about a Prius. I know some of you would prefer they all perish in a conflagration, but someone 20 years down the line may want to restore one. The internet will help, as others are already hacking the many computers, but imagine trying to find that information 20 years from now. I already see expired hosting killing lone outlets of crucial information on 1980s D-Jet FI systems. Along the same lines, imagine trying to connect the computers in a Prius to the computers of 20 years hence. I’ve had to make connections work between a VAX terminal and a WinXP machine. It was no picnic, as I had to go down to the very basic forms of computer communication (pin pulsing) to make it work, in addition to fabbing up my own custom hardware connector. Legacy hardware is a pain, no matter where it is. That’s why I said specialist shops will rule the roost for anyone looking for a slightly different collector car, as nobody else will be able to make it work without a ton of research.
    In comparison, if someone wants to restore something odd but older, say a 1970s BMW Bavaria, (I know, I keep using the BMWs as examples, but they are what I know best, given my E9 experiences) they are able to do so because everything about the car is relatively direct. There are some car-specific foibles every now and then, but overall, it is like any other car from the 1960s. There is a general pool of automobile knowledge that applies. This is no longer the case with a newer car, as it is designed to be serviced by a parts-replacing tech, not someone that can tell when a particular transistor is blown. Those people get the parts the techs remove and sell them back as refurbished parts. So what happens in 20 years when nobody remembers how to fix the parts and no more are available? You can’t fab up a microprocessor in your basement and you won’t have access to the original programming to make a suitable replacement.
    I get the distinct feeling that early 90s cars will be the last general cars that can be restored in the future, and even that will only be as long as sufficient parts exist.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My 88 BMW 528es  are  soldiering  on. I have  enough  spares to  keep  them  going another decade. These  arent  toys,  they’re daily  drivers I  maintain  in my  driveway

  • avatar

    This issue is part of the reason why my future “classic” sitting in my garage is a low-miles 2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimted. It has a manual transmission and only two computers that I’m aware of – the engine computer and the airbag computer. With the support out there for Jeeps, I feel pretty confident in being able to keep it going for a long time, and a carbureted V-8 swap is always possible if it comes to that.

    Actually one of my bigger concerns is the availability of quality sensors and actuators down the road. If the vehicle manufacturer stops selling the part and their original production supplier never made the part for the aftermarket (and has no desire to do so), we are left with some of the more questionable companies that try to reverse-engineer the part as our only option. 

    I once bought an aftermarket IACV (Idle Air Control Valve) for a 1988 Scorpio I owned because the genuine Ford one was prohibitively expensive and I wasn’t as well paid back then. Never again – it didn’t run right on the first shakedown cruise after the repair, and I ended up having to buy the Ford part anyway. Even something as simple as a thermal fan switch is often beyond the capability of the aftermarket to produce and calibrate properly, as I can attest from a similar experience to the “Scorpio incident” on a ’78 Fiesta.

    Bottom line, based on those two experiences I’ve learned my lesson and have no faith in the aftermarket to produce switches/sensors/actuators that function the same as OEM parts for a given application. For those parts, I’ll always bite the bullet and go to the dealer, assuming it’s still available.   

  • avatar

    Current examples of this include the BMW E9 coupes, the Volvo P1800, vintage Mercedes, and vintage Porsches. These cars often have one or two shops in the entire US dedicated to just that car type. They have all the original tools, original documentation, and the contacts to find all the NLA parts nobody else seems to find, or they make them in-house.
    Just like The Fiero Factory that Baruth profiled yesterday. Actually, old time Alfa, Mini, Lotus and Jeep Wagoneer enthusiasts, anyone with an orphaned or not widely available funny furren car have been dealing with specialists for decades.
    Still I’ve often wondered if today’s contemporary cars will be restorable. OTOH, there are companies making all sorts of licensed reproduction parts for cars as late as the 1970s, who knows?

  • avatar

    You can buy a Jeep and use a Jet computer with it. Vote with your dollars. The only problem with this is that the 3-rd party computers are just as closed as the OEM ones. The software is not typically open source on them.

  • avatar

    During the short period of time I was in the educational field I noticed aa distinct and obvious anti-blue-collar attitude among instructors and administration and how extremely few students were involved with cars/trucks in any way in regards to “hopping up” or repairing other than adding immensely loud stereos and even then the work was usually hired done.
    A few rich kids had “hi-po” cars but they were stock high-priced units or altered…… by a local “pro shop.”
    I believe that aspects of our society have shaped youth attitudes with a general pointing then towards college and professions while blue-collar trades have received short-shrift.
    Heck….. what with so many white collar folks out of work it may be the good wrench turners who are more apt to have steady employment or, at the least, can trade their skills for under-the-table pay per task performed or can work for food.

    • 0 avatar

      They killed off auto shop at most high schools, moving the few kids that weren’t on a college prep track to regional vocational ed schools. They think they’re too smart to waste time learning how things work.
      There was a time when many, if not most, American boys had to take some kind of shop class in high school, either wood, metal, or automotive, in order to graduate from junior and senior high schools. Girls had to take home economics. Home ec had to be killed to satisfy the godesses of feminism, and it became increasingly difficult for shop classes, perceived as a last redoubt of male privilege in the increasingly feminized education system, to even survive. Add budget restraints, the push to get everyone to go to college, and it’s easy to understand why auto shop is a quaint facet of history.
      Now, obviously, only a small fraction of the kids who took auto shop ended up being involved professionally with cars, but it introduced them to the basics and made them comfortable leaning over the fender of a car.

      Auto shop classes have become so rare that when a school district opens up a modern auto shop program, it’s considered newsworthy.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the time I took auto mechanics class back in high school circa 1983. We were working on 1950s-era engines festooned with literally nothing remotely resembling modern technology. When installed in an actual car these engines actually allowed you to see **lots** of the ground underneath the engine bay.

  • avatar

    All of you old assholes are harshing my buzz. Your end of days gospel is garbage. We’re doing more with less than you ever did. The culture is changing, of course, but the fundamentals are still there and they always will be. I would argue that there’s been more innovation and greater breakthroughs in car culture in the past ten years than there’s been in the previous thirty. Going fast, looking good… these are universal concepts and as long as we have keys we’ll turn on cars and figure out ways to make them go faster and look cooler.

    • 0 avatar

      And you young guys need to learn some manners. I was wrenching on cars when you were still in your daddys ballsack.

    • 0 avatar

      You have a LOT to learn, boy! GO clean your room…and BTW, Civics are what they use to get around campus at the girls school.

    • 0 avatar

      You may be able to plug a a computer into your Toyondissaru and add 20 horsepower with a custom fuel map, but lets see you replace the water pump.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t doubt that, BMWfan, but now I’m going faster. :)
      I came off entirely too cocksure here and I apologize. TTAC is a fantastic resource with a lot of great contributors and commenters that have been driving and working on cars, as BMWfan so aptly pointed out, since I was still in my “daddy’s ballsack”. I didn’t mean to discount or disregard that. My point is that car culture has evolved and continues to evolve so much it’s understandable that the older generations might think it’s “lost”. I’d argue that it’s not lost, it’s just changing, the same way it always has. So the things we’re doing might seem foreign, obscene and not “right” to the older generations but the principles are EXACTLY THE SAME. The technology is more advanced and there are more computers and wires in one car today than there were ten cars thirty years ago, but we’re all about the same thing! Going fast and looking cool… I’ve had the unique experience of growing up the son of a mechanic that lived to race big displacement American V8’s. My earliest car memory is “helping” him rebuild the 454 in his 74 Corvette. To this day, retired and living the good life, he still tinkers with his race car and is always trying to go faster. And as little he understood about the cars I was driving and racing as I grew up he was my most invaluable resource. SO no disrespect intended, just know that cars will be okay.
      @zbnutcase: They also run consistent 10.90’s and I would argue that that makes them cooler. Everybody expects a loud, snotty, RWD V8 to be fast but you shit your pants when I run faster.
      @wheeljack: Don’t embarrass yourself with your ignorance. I’m not talking about plugging a computer in, pressing a couple buttons and extracting 20hp. I’m talking about using the same principles, creativity and ingenuity car guys always have to build legitimately fast cars. You don’t have to like them but you will respect them. Don’t worry about my water pump, it was replaced with a brand new OEM Type-R unit when I was building the mill for the 10.90 car I alluded to earlier.

  • avatar

    Another big THANK YOU to the REAGAN REPUBLICANS AND BILL CLINTON.  NAFTA AND GATT have destroyed the car industry for America (and all other manufacturing).  Off-shoring jobs around the world rather than making and innovating here in America has killed the possibility of a Father and Son rebuilding a classic with just blood, sweat, tears, and a good junk yard.
    We can exact revenge by voting them all out of office.  For the love of cars, WE MUST.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Subaru STi’s are relatively uncomplicated cars. They share a lot of parts with more common Subarus, and aren’t overly electronicized. As a former Subaru owner, I don’t see any issues as long as spare parts (from official suppliers, OEMs, or parts cars) are available.
    The E60 M5 on the other hand, was characterized by Mike Miller (tech editor of the BMWCCA Roundel magazine and a contributor to Bimmer magazine) as essentially un-maintainable without dealer support. When the BMW dealers stop supporting these cars, good luck keeping them going. On the other hand, a pre 2006 3 series like an E46 is relatively uncomplicated and easy to maintain. BMW went over the top with electronic complexity on the E60 5 series (2004+) and E90 3 series (2006-7+).

  • avatar

    I don’t know how is going to be. But the seeds for solving some of the problems are already planted:
    Aftermarket and programmable ECUs. They exist, from dirt cheap DIY Megaskirt to über expensive Motec. And you can tune the car with a laptop, by yourself or professionaly on a dyno.
    ECUs, immobilizer, CAN, all that garbage can AND will be hacked. End of the story with “exclusive” rubbish.
    EFI is commonplace today. GDI in some years. Kids already know how to turbo anything, Geo Metros, Hayabusas, Civics, Camaros. If it has an engine, a turbo can be slapped. They can also swap EFI into an old motor.
    What worries me is availability of specific parts and the consequences of Lean in that. I would guess mechanical won’t be that much problem, since more and more will be shared, and it should relatively easy to source. Interior/body ones will be another story. But if the car is popular enough, the owner won’t have to worry that much.
    Government, emission controls and environment nazis in the future can surely kill all of this.

  • avatar

    I believe the common ‘hot-rodder’ of the 50’s were as baffled by OHC engines and ‘turbohydraulic’ transmissions 60 years ago , not to mention MCpherson struts and tri-carb setups, as some of us ‘older’ hot-rodders are baffled by computers and recyclable plastics today.
    And tbh, who can rechrome a 50’s Olds dash at home, or un-crack a Hemi block that has driven too many races. Not to mention set up a tricarb (did GM even know how to do that properly in the 50’s?)
    Car people will find a way, and even now they are finding ways, like mentioned by a lot of posters above here. Kids today can ‘unscramble’ ECU’s and Efi’s, and hand held OBDll readers are readily available on e-bay.
    What you should rather ask is, why would anyone want to restore an early 2000’s car 30 odd years from now?…

  • avatar

    Sorry, I think this is a very tired cliche fostered by folks who are stuck in a previous era. I got my start hot rodding Japanese imports before it was heard of. I tuned twin Mikuni’s, messed with points, timed cams etc, but also replaced points with electronics from other cars, dumped carbs for EFI and so forth. My daily driver is a turbocharged modern car I bought new, and modified the crap out of. It makes double its original HP without ever touching the internals, and 40k miles later, still is. I like old cars (especially the 20’s old), but no way is hot rodding dead – its better than ever. The past is gone, thank God! I’d never go back to carbs, points, dead batteries…. Notice there are no service stations anymore? For good reason. A computer is helpful, and it takes a bit more brains to mod today, but its not like the stuff was created by brain surgeons – read the service manuals, learn what stuff does what and mod on your own. Cars are mechanically simpler and more reliable than ever!

  • avatar

    If there is money to be made keeping classic cars on the road, then there will be a market and people ready to make that happen. What concerns me isn’t the fact that we may not be able to repair today’s cars tomorrow, but that we may see a Federal Government mandating the elimination of some kinds of vehicles determined for some reason to not meet a Federal Government mandate.

    How the Federal Government is currently believing that they can rule the road regarding what we do, drive and purchase may be the deathnell of classic cars.

  • avatar
    Richard B

    With information sharing on the internet, rapid prototyping, etc. oddball parts could possibly be easier to replace. It’s nothing for contemporary cars to be in very good condition with 150,000 miles on them, most of the older classic cars were pretty beat at that stage. California has the strictest smog laws but allows updating the engine. The Chevy E-Rod package is a brand new LS engine with everything needed. In the future more options will be available. It’s possible that the state may realize that emissions compliance is not that difficult with modern technology and allow more freedom with aftermarket fuel injection retrofits. As technology improves and the culture adapts cars of today will be classics of tomorrow. A 100% every part perfect restoration may be more elusive but better performance, fuel economy and emission compliance will become more readily available.

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