Memoirs Of An Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World's Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin Three

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
memoirs of an independent auto repair shop owner world s most notorious automotive

Third in a series, the format of which I described in t he introductory remarks of Part One, this article will focus on specific modern technologies—not at all egregious in themselves—that have, in my opinion, been applied and utilized in a most egregious fashion in the modern automobile. One is a direct continuation from Part Two, although covering a new area. The other one is a component technology within one of the technological areas criticized in Part Two. Tally Ho—to THE BIN we go!!

The Plastic Exhaust Manifold

Don’t think for a minute that it hasn’t been considered, attempted… or had the proverbial towel thrown in on the idea, yet.

As with the overuse of the technologies already covered, the use of plastics in the construction of the automobile is not exempt from criticism.

Plastic, of course, has played a major role in component composition since back when Henry Ford got the ball rolling with the Soy-based “Bakelite”—developed as a light, durable, versatile and attractive alternative to other materials used up until that time.

Plastic has been used to excellent—sometimes surprisingly so—effect in ignition systems, fuel systems, exterior body panels and trim, and a wide variety of interior fitments.

While manufacturers have continued to push the development envelope of plastics, which is not unreasonable, they have also pushed the production envelope too. This has led to some noteworthy disasters in the past, and it continues to create problems for support networks, customers, and independent repair facilities.

A few of my faves:

  • Plastic FUEL INJECTION DISTRIBUTION RAILS, that leaked and caused fires (The same company, many years earlier, put plastic-bodied CARBURETORS into production. NOT surprisingly, they had durability issues, as well.).
  • Plastic-bodied STEERING BALL JOINTS. Do I need to say that I never saw a replacement part for these joints with plastic bodies?
  • Plastic composite INTAKE MANIFOLD GASKETS. I’m referring here to engine designs wherein the gasket has to seal major coolant passages.

From my experience, these gaskets last anywhere from 30 to 50,000 miles, whereupon the plastic media where the urethane seal is inserted, deteriorates to the point of causing internal and external coolant leaks. The gasket design these gaskets replaced would usually last at least as long as the entire engine!

Receiving dishonorable mentions:

Plastic Intake Manifolds, Valve Covers, Radiators (and other Cooling System components), Air Cleaner Housings—pretty much anything made of plastic and used in an environment where high heat and pressure are present.

It’s not that these parts don’t work for a while, just not nearly as long as the designs they replace; which doesn’t sound like progress in the right direction to me.

What’s a little more disconcerting is when it appears that plastic is the RIGHT choice for a particular component, but the WRONG compound is used, thereby fast-tracking the whole matter into the realm of the egregious.

A good example of this is the plastic used in underhood MULTI-PIN ELECTRICAL CONNECTORS. I have experienced that, after only a few short years of normal operation, these connectors just don’t want to separate when impressed to do so. No doubt, there are a few contributing factors to this phenomenon, but the ultimate “deal-killer” for a clean separation without damage are the prematurely aged and brittle plastic connector housings.

The “Self-Fusing” Electrical Connector: PLASTIC—NOT SO FANTASTIC!

The Flash Memory Computer Program

I’m not here referring to the way computerized systems are being programmed, although I do have not a few bones to pick in this area (think Traction Control operation on modern All-Wheel Drive vehicles with Throttle-By-Wire, and other such offenses). What I’m speaking of is the use of “Flashable Memory” Program Modules—Electronic Control Units that require the uploading of program information after assembly (and often after installation), as opposed to being assembled with Program “Read-Only” Modules, or PROM’s.

My gripes are thus: 1) There seem to be a lot more actual program failures with these units, 2) Diagnosis of this type of failure is more difficult for the independent repair shop, 3) requiring considerably more expensive equipment to successfully “Reflash” the program and effect a complete repair, and 4) is more costly, in terms of both time and money—especially if it’s a “Dealer Only” type of repair, and there are no dealers in the immediate area. That’s enough to qualify for “Egregious”, in my book!

In the days of the PROM, I don’t recall seeing very many computer failures actually involving a “corrupted” PROM. Sure, I saw failures involving over-voltage issues, which led to the destruction of other internal components within the ECU. I saw bad soldered connections, degradation of circuit boards, tweaked or otherwise damaged pins in the ECU’s multi-pin connector, or even water damage (which was often repairable by cleaning and drying the circuit board after removing the covers).

Every now and then, I’d get a vehicle with some annoying, if not somewhat transient driveability problem that I could, after checking for PROM updates, solve by replacing the PROM with the updated unit. Just remove the ECU, remove an access panel on the ECU, and carefully unplug the old PROM and plug in the new one! But never a really serious issue caused by a “Failed” PROM.

With the Flash Memory Program Module, it has been a different story.

A classic example involved an ’02 RAM (its funny how even the name has taken on a “Computer-Age” meaning) Pickup.

All of my diagnostic information told me the problem was in the Park-Neutral Switch—now installed deep within the bowels of the transmission, for technician and customer “convenience”. Impressing my trusted transmission shop experts for a second opinion, my findings could not be confirmed. Apparently, their findings varied enough that they could not be certain of WHAT the actual problem was.

We both concluded that it was a programming issue, which neither of us had the capability to correct. We sent the customer to the dealer, where the Engine/Transmission management ECU was reflashed with an updated program, and VOILA: everything back to normal! What a profit-less hassle!

We’ve all had to come to terms with program updates for our personal computerized devices. While keeping them updated and running can be a hassle, the manufacturers have been able to keep the cost-to-benefit ratio within somewhat acceptable tolerances. The fact that the individual owner can affect most of this process while online in their own home or office, without additional gear or expense, is one of the main factors keeping it all tolerable.

Wish I could say the same for our modern Automobiles.

Stay tuned for Part Four…

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.

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2 of 36 comments
  • Pistachiojoe Pistachiojoe on Jun 23, 2012

    Wow! It's like you are writing about my 2001 Malibu while protecting the guilty. I had to get rid of it after the 4th intake manifold gasket was beginning to leak 2,000 miles in. The BCM was equally buggy with the passlock "security" leaving you on the side of the road randomly. Great article.

  • Underhood plastic not spec'ed to the conditions: My 2000 Audi 1.8t has destroyed 2 oil dipsticks. The dipstick itself is metal, but has an orange plastic handle, and is guided into the block via an orange plastic tube. The plastic becomes brittle with heat (and oil?) and breaks into little gravel-sized pills. Oh, and the soft-feel coating on interior plastic parts (door panels and shifter surround) peels off (VW, too). The damped ashtray linkage has snapped (was handy for holding change) and the passenger side headrest can't be adusted. The plastic adjuster button broke off inside. Oh, and the "airbag" warning light has been lit for many years because the plastic electrical connecter underneath the passenger seat traps water inside and the contacts grow a layer of electrolytic fuzz which interrupts the warning circuit. Sigh.

  • Kat Laneaux Agree with Michael500, we wasted all that money just to bail out GM and they are developing these cars in China and other countries. What the heck. I understand the cheap labor but that is just another foothold the government has on their citizens and they already treat them like crap. That is pretty disgusting to go forward to put other peoples health and mental stability on a crazy crazed, control freak, leader, who is in bed with Russia. Thought about getting a buick but that just shot that one out of the park. All of this for the greed. They get what they lay in bed with. Disgusting.
  • Michael500 Good thing Obama used $50 billion of taxpayer money to bail them out and give unions a big stake. GM is headed to BK again with their Hail Mary hope of EVs. Hopefully a Republican in office will let them go BK the next time, and it's coming. The US economy is not related/dependent on GM and their Chinese made Buicks.
  • MaintenanceCosts "Rural areas hardly noticed COVID at all."I very much doubt that is true in places like the Navajo Nation or the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, some of which lost 2% or more of their population to COVID.No city had a death rate in the same order of magnitude.Low-density living is a very modern invention. Before cars, people, even in agricultural areas, needed to live densely to survive.
  • Wjtinfwb Always liked these MN12 cars and the subsequent Lincoln variant. But Ford, apparently strapped for resources or cash, introduced these half-baked. Very sophisticated chassis and styling, let down but antiquated old pushrod engines and cheap interiors. The 4.6L Modular V8 helped a bit, no faster than the 5.0 but extremely smooth and quiet. The interior came next, nicer wrap-around dash, airbags instead of the mouse belts and refined exterior styling. The Supercharged 3.8L V6 was potent, but kind of crude and had an appetite for head gaskets early on. Most were bolted to the AOD automatic, a sturdy but slow shifting gearbox made much better with electronic controls in the later days. Nice cars that in the right color, evoked the 6 series BMW, at least the Thunderbird did. Could have been great cars and maybe should have been a swoopy CLS style sedan. Pretty hard to find a decent one these days.
  • Inside Looking Out You should care. With GM will die America. All signs are there. How about the Arsenal of Democracy? Toyota?