By on June 30, 2012

Now that I’ve gotten the memory-bile of “Notorious Technologies”— implemented during my ever-progressing automotive maintenance and repair career — somewhat further out of my system, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on some of the technological “bright spots” I’ve come to be acquainted with and appreciate during that same period. Some of these highlights were coming into widespread acceptance way back in the early days of my High School Auto Shop training, while others came considerably later.

In any event, these technologies not only gained widespread acceptance among auto manufacturers then, but they are all still being used by these manufacturers today, a couple of them in a considerably evolved format.

I’ll be listing them in their order of appearance on the scene.


The Disc Brake:

If you’ve read my diatribe directed at the Drum Brake (Phil’s Bin of Automotive Egregiousness—Part One), you know that the Disc Brake is pretty much the polar opposite of that technology.

With its simplicity, stopping power, resistance to fade, durability, reliability and serviceability, it’s no wonder that the disc brake’s tenure is under no threat of termination. This design, augmented by tremendous advances in materials technology, is still being used at the highest levels of motor racing.

In the early days of my mechanical schooling, I remember seeing disc-braking systems mostly on European, English and some Japanese cars, many of which sported non-vented (solid) rotors. They worked excellently, considering the relatively low mass of these cars and the generally modest (by today’s standards) speeds they were capable of generating.

U.S. manufacturers followed suit a couple years after the overseas manufacturers, so by the time I was actually repairing automobiles for pay, many of them had at least vented disc brakes on the front.

Sure, there have been a few developmental dead ends that we techs had to endure. A long-standing example had to be front rotors on rear-drive vehicles where the wheel hub was cast with the rotor. This meant that every time the rotor was serviced or replaced, the wheel bearings had to be serviced, too, whether they needed it or not. Replacement costs for these units has risen with the price of metals, so thankfully, the “composite” rotor has become the standard design today.

The composite design has separate rotor and hub assemblies, with the hub bearings now being a non-serviceable part of the hub unit. In the early days of the composite rotor, some auto manufacturers, apparently wanting to leave some room for further developmental improvements, created the “captive rotor” design, wherein the composite rotor BOLTS to the INSIDE of the hub (usually on the driven hubs), for your servicing convenience. Fortunately, most brake rotors on modern automobiles mount on the other side of the hub, where replacement is usually only one easy step removed from a basic pad replacement. Pure? Most definitely.


The Electronic Ignition:

A once-famous automotive tune-up chain was founded on the constant need for servicing the ignition distributor contact points and condenser.

If the automotive ignition system had started with breakerless (contactless) electronic coil triggering technology, that business niche would not have existed. In fact, with continued advances in electronic ignition technology, including computerized distributorless systems, that once famous business is all but ancient history.

During my schooling years, most vehicles did have contact-style ignition coil triggering, but by the mid-‘70’s — with a few exceptions — virtually all vehicles had some form of electronic ignition systems. By the end of the ‘70’s, I don’t believe any manufacturer was still using contact points systems.

I really haven’t MISSED the old contact points systems.

I will, however, never FORGET having to service some of the more exotic vehicles these systems were featured in. I remember the early Lotus Esprit’s, where the distributor was mounted horizontally, in line with and at the front of the engine, under the intake manifold. It had to be removed by techs with some athletic ability — as the engine was mounted amidships — just to service the contact points and condenser!!


The Catalytic Converter:

Along with a couple of technologies I’ll be covering in one of the next parts of this series, the Catalytic Converter has to be the single most significant emissions control component for automobiles EVER introduced.

A few other technologies had to be developed in order to implement the use of the “CAT”, most of which also had a desired effect in other areas.

A cat wouldn’t work using the leaded fuel available at that time, so unleaded fuel had to be developed. Performance fans bristled at the loss of the few Octane Points that tetraethyl lead had added to their favorite “Hi-Test” or “Ethyl” fuel. Eventually though, manufacturers found a way to exceed the performance boundaries of that time using unleaded fuel of a considerably lower octane rating.

Engine durability issues had to be confronted also, as the lead in the fuel had provided needed lubrication to internal parts, such as piston rings and valve seats.

When these were addressed, engine longevity increased, partly from the use of harder critical component materials, and partly just because of the absence of the lead. Being a solid, the lead tended to accumulate in and around these components — and even more critically on spark plugs — causing what was referred to as “lead fouling”. Typically, spark plugs would only last ten to fifteen thousand miles, and part of their longevity equation had to do with lead accumulation on the plug.

Techs didn’t mind — though I doubt we appreciated it fully at the time — having to handle fuel that didn’t have lead in it, especially since we didn’t have the use of thin Nitrile gloves, as we do now.

Does anybody remember the “Smog Alerts” publicized by local air quality management agencies in urban areas, across the U.S.A?

They weren’t some sort of bureaucratic overreaction boondoggle —t he air was really THAT hazardous! I remember going outside to play in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood during one of these alerts, and within a couple of hours I was almost overcome by a severe tightness in my chest. Once the brown was gone from the air, I never experienced that sensation again!

Largely due to the implementation of the catalytic converter and supporting technologies, those alerts are a thing of the past in many urban areas.

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

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39 Comments on “Phil’s Podium Of The Automotive Pure: Ten Trick Technologies That Changed the Automotive Maintenance & Repair Scene — Part One...”

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    As someone who has worked on engines for five decades I tend to believe that todays longer engine life is more directly related to EFi and wasted spark ignitions burning fuel more completely than the poisons concoctions in fuel today.
    Lead as an anti knock additive worked well .In the 70’s you only had to run a car on ‘standard’ fuel to hear the difference it made.
    With a carbureted engine you always have too much fuel and and poor atomization compared with EFi. This poorly atomized fuel would wash lube from the bore and valve stems leading to rapid wear. Today I only see this sort of wear in engines that were kept running with dirty air filters and faulty injectors.
    The low quality fuel today is possible because almost all engines have built in knock sensors to adjust the engines timing to counteract it. So todays motorists ,in the main, will never experience pinging,pinking or what ever the name you want to give the death rattle of preignition is.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three. Will cover EFI and another technology that I feel is the BIG reason for the modern automobile engine’s enhanced longevity.

  • avatar

    > Performance fans bristled at the loss of the few Octane Points

    > Largely due to the implementation of the catalytic converter and
    > supporting technologies, those alerts are a thing of the past in
    > many urban areas.

    Now explain the same to mentally badly retarded human beings who are the customers of this:

  • avatar

    How about cheap-ass manufacturers who make the rotors so thin that there’s no chance of turning them or re-using them? You basically have to replace the rotor with every pad change. My wife’s Dodge Intrepid had rotors that looked like disposable pie pans. Still a fan of disks, but geez, put some meat on them.

    Also, for those few of us still working with point ignition, it’s damn near impossible to buy quality components anymore. The last two sets of points came from china and wouldn’t hold up to anything over 4000 rpm. I had to clean up an old old set (yeah, I save them, so what?) and re-use them just to keep it running.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Still a fan of disks, but geez, put some meat on them.

      ^THIS. Although my 1982 Chevy Celebrity had a habit of eating front brake pads at least they were thick enough to get turned twice before disposal.

    • 0 avatar

      Aftermarket rotors are made in China and the alloy composition is crap. High-end brand names like Brembo are also crap.

  • avatar

    The 1st generation catcons were pretty bad with high restriction and backpressure. Todays converters are better. Removing the converter on an OBD-II vehicle (1996 and later) will only cause the ECU to go into open loop mode and make the engine run worse than if the converter is left on. I see tuners and rez rockets around here try this.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I had a cat back dual exhaust installed on my F150 here at a local shop in Gallup. The shop also offers catalitic converter replacements for plugged and damaged cats, but there was a sign prominently displayed at the cash register.

      “Don’t ask me to remove your cat and I won’t ask you to pay the $2500 fine.”

      For a min I thought I had been transported back to the 70s. I didn’t know people were still attempting that on street vehicles.

      • 0 avatar

        I used to work with a guy who was an unapologetic redneck and he said that in the 70s and 80s they always “ran a broom handle” through the converter. I often wondered why manufactures began to weld connections and use offset pipes…

        We take for granted the cleanliness of today’s cars, and as long as you don’t harbor on the politics of what it took to get here, I can’t see why anybody would be complaining, We are well past the learning curve with this stuff. Anybody who does not remember what cars used to smell like need to go boating. Last week I was boating with some friends. 5 ski boats, all some variation of a Chevy V8, and all well maintained. The exhaust stunk no matter how you want to spin it. And anybody who grumbles about a check engine light for an evaporative leak, again hit the lake. The smell of gas fumes permeated the air. And the boats stink for one reason only: Nobody is making the industry do anything about it, either the customer or the government.

      • 0 avatar

        The emissions laws are just kicking in for boats they actually started with outboards first in 2005 now pretty much all outboards are ULEV fourstrokes or DI advanced two strokes and yes they are remarkably quieter and cleaner then the old ones Emissions laws on inboards just kicked in 2011 (I believe don’t quote me). But so few boats are being sold right now it will take a few years before a change is noticed. Of note there are no emission testing stations yet (CA said they might do it for trailer boats) but there are fines in place for removing the systems and I have heard of people being fined with modded outboards.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The interesting question about disc vs. drum, is how drum brakes ever got started in the first place, since — as you say — they are inferior in every respect.

    My guesses:

    (1) Model T vintage cars did not have hydraulic brake systems; they were cable actuated. Perhaps it’s hard to have a cable actuated disc brake (remembering that in any number of cars, the cable-actuated “parking brake” was actually a small drum brake on the rear.

    (2) As you noted, drum brakes are “self-actuating.” The bad side of this is that controlling braking action is a little tricky, especially with vacuum assisted brakes, which became widespread in the 1960s. The good side is that not a lot of pedal pressure was required to actuate the brakes, even without an assist. Some early disc brake cars (I recall specifically a TR4) were not vacuum assisted; and they required a good deal more pedal pressure.

    Truly, drum brakes were appropriate 1930s technology, for 1930s vehicle speeds (assuming one didn’t drive in the mountains). By the 1950s, they should have been abandoned.

    • 0 avatar

      There are cable actuated disc brake systems for bicycles, so it can be done.

      • 0 avatar

        Can be done, but maybe should not be done. Even on bikes, cable discs are considered the cheapskate’s way* (though a few riders choose them to avoid dealing with hydraulic systems, which have fussier (though usually lower-frequency) maintenance requirements than cables).

        I have cable-actuated discs on one of my bicycles, and it’s a second-best system. The core problem is they’re not self-adjusting like most hydraulic systems. Making a cable-actuated disc system that had dual-circuit redundancy, power boost, and could actuate discs on multiple wheels would be a pretty big mess of engineering problems.

        What might be possible is electric motors driving worm-gear pad actuators (the mechanism by which cable-actuated discs work on bikes), but the question is whether such a system would be cheaper or equivalently reliable compared to hydraulics at car scale.

        Scale really matters on braking systems: note that once you get just a little bit bigger than passenger cars, you switch over to air-driven systems and even revert to drum brakes, due to a new set of engineering issues.

        *Technically, normal caliper-rim brakes on bicycles are a form of disc brake (and there have even been hydraulic versions!), but for a lot of reasons are considered a separate animal from “real” disc brakes. It would be very hard to imagine why any vehicle heavier or faster than a bicycle would try to use the wheel rim as a consumable braking surface. Even on bicycles it is a maintenance and cost issue on high-use bikes, so high-use bikes are less likely to use them. Rim brakes persist because they are very light and can be built very cheaply (stamped steel V-brake designs) with acceptable performance.

    • 0 avatar

      From what I’ve read, early discs, like early fuel injection, was twitchy technology. If anything was not set just right they’d either lock up or not work at all. By the 70s the problems had been worked out, but they were still a $50-$100 option. A lot at the time, especially when you were asking someone to replace their brakes with, well, brakes.
      It wasn’t until they were standardized and packaged as a “free” luxury upgrade that people really began to accept them.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m guessing the very first vehicle brakes were “clasp drum” style, where brake pads were applied to the outside of a “drum” which might have actually been the wheel itself. Think Conestoga wagon. These were improved on locomotive application. The first cars were innovative by putting the brake pad inside the drum rather than outside. Several advantages of drums (via 5 minutes on wikipedia)

      1 – self-actuating as you already mentioned. Big bonus prior to power-boosted brakes.

      2 – larger brake pad surface area equals more friction generated. Before all the advances in brake pad materials, brakes were generally asbestos material and largely the same. Stopping faster required more friction area, all else being equal. Drums had more friction area than single caliber disks.

      3 – early disk brakes suffered from fluid leaks and were difficult to maintain (based on hearsay on early model vettes). Internal drum hydraulic cylinders are smaller diameter than disk caliber cylinders, thus less area to have a leak at. Maybe? Total guess here.

      • 0 avatar

        I think I’d be willing to bet that the drum brake idea was an evolution of cinching-up a leather strap, later steel strap, that went around maybe 60% of a drum…

      • 0 avatar

        Also some early disk systems had problems with the pistons staying in the braked position, causing the pads to drag on the disk after the pedal was released and overheating the system. I think the Jaguar racers had problems with this in the 1950s, but I can’t confirm this. Anybody can?

    • 0 avatar

      1946 Luscombe 8A had mechanical disc brakes. I just examined a carcass of one a week ago. Should’ve taken a picture, in hindsight.

    • 0 avatar

      Model T’s had a brake in the transmission. A circular brake shoe clamped down on a drum in the transmission along with the reverse and low pedal drum. It sat in a oil pan that also oiled the engine and the transmission. The brakes you speak of is the emergency brake and in fact works very poorly as they are extemely small.

    • 0 avatar

      Automotive brakes pretty much followed aircraft tech. Mechanical drums, followed by hydraulic drums, then disc when the jets came along. Some race and exotic cars now have carbon composite rotors instead of iron, like a Boeing.

  • avatar

    “By the end of the ‘70’s, I don’t believe any manufacturer was still using contact points systems.”

    You Americans and your silly pointless ignitions and catalytic converters! We here in Progressive Green Europe got to enjoy carburettors, manual chokes, point ignitions and leaded fuel up to 1993-1994.

    • 0 avatar

      I still remember my dad dutifully, but unhappily taking off the distributor cap of his Envoy epic wagon after a heavy rain and drying it with care with paper towels so it would start.

      Later, my friend did the same on the Nova six, but he updated the routine with a hair blow drier.

      WD-40 made the problem quick to fix, but DEI made it go away.

      (Incidentally, what ever happened to the 42 volt system?)

    • 0 avatar

      Thought lead was not banned until 2000 in E.U., a full 10 years after the U.S.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      My KINGDOM for an OPEL Ascona!!

  • avatar

    Also a fan of cats. I’ll never forget my first time in the San Gabriel valley, and realizing that I could see the air between me and the other side of the street. Also a similar experience to Phil as kids playing out in Toronto one summer… came back and we were both wheezy with a weird sort of hiccup that wouldn’t go away.

  • avatar

    On most cars with drums on the rear, the cable for the parking brake was simply attached to the brake mechanism to manually engage the shoes to hold the car when the lever/pedal was raised/depressed when parking. Having changed out the rear shoes on several of my cars over the years.

    I have not looked at the rear brakes on my Mazda P5 as they are discs in the rear as well as up front (sadly, sans ABS though) so don’t know what methodology they used for the parking brake.

    I remember having to do the points and condenser, I know my old ’68 Chrysler Newport had it, and I think my ’74 Chevy Nova did as well as it was the base 250 i6. I think my ’78 Nova with the 305 V8 had electronic ignition and all of my cars since have had electronic ignition.

    Love fuel injection, my last 3 vehicles were fuel injected. The ’88 Honda Accord LX-i was the first car I owned with FI, the 92 Ranger was FI as is my Protege5 I drive now. So far I’ve had no issues with the Multi Port injection systems used on all three, in fact, my Ranger had distributor-less ignition and never had to replace a coil pack in nearly the 6 years I owned it. I did have to replace the wires and plugs on it twice though. They always started up reliably and without complaint, even if freezing outside, unlike carburetors that can get temperamental when cold out.

    My last car with a carb was my 83 Honda Civic that was as reliable as the day is long and most times would reliably start up, until near the end when it got a bit temperamental when performing a cold start, but thankfully, it was a brief hiccup on the first try and would always start up right after that and run fine.

    Don’t miss the dirty air but DO remember the issues with the early smog systems though and its no wonder many people disliked them so. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason to NOT have emission controls on a vehicle due to the cleaner air we have today.

  • avatar

    Phil— have you ever changed the points on a pre 1949 Ford V-8? Probably compares with the Lotus.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Just to set the record straight, Model T Fords never used cable actuation for brakes. The primary brake was an external contracting band on one of the transmission drums (planetary gears, not unlike used in automatic trans). The parking brakes were rod actuated as were the brakes on many other cars in that time period.

    • 0 avatar

      My antique (enthusiast) friends advise me that Rocky Mountain brakes are a wise investment.

      (I like the Scurlock LSD too.)

  • avatar

    Concerning the statement that distributor-driven ignition disappeared in 1970s, I had a 1996 Galant with a conventional ignition distributor, which ran for 140k miles without any service, until I donated it. It’s some kind of Japanese magic. The car was built in Japan, before the Normal, IL plant started up.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Who said that? I said breaker-type ignition systems disappeared then. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a distributor on any late-model auto, though…

  • avatar

    As mentioned before cars with cats do leave less of a stink in the air. I was following a 1950s gas powered fire truck yesterday and you could tell it was old just by the smell. Someone mentioned boats as a matter of fact CATS were just introduced into boats (boats are my day job) I was in a meeting recently discussing the initial issues after the first year in the field. The trouble with boats is the enclosed space and cooling systems make it difficult for the CAT to heat up with out creating a fire hazard. They are also having premature failures due to back washing of salt spray into the Cats. My guess is much like cars of the 70’s after a few years they will figure it out in the meantime I can’t recommend buying a new gas inboard.

  • avatar

    Ah, this article has struck a couple of nerves. The “captive” front disc was a feature of a 1987 Mercury Tracer we owned. It has the distinction of being the second most unreliable car in my ownership history (’71 VW Type 2 the worst). Mechanically identical to a Mazda 323, effectively this was a Jap car. I used to buy the parts at the Mazda dealer. It had a carburetor. Nuff said. Worked OK until all the diaphragm operated pulling thingies developed leaks. The phrase “on back-order to Japan” or “unavailable” come to mind for these. The car had great handling and a nice shifter for the 5-Speed manual tranny. Those inside out front discs could only be disassembled with special tools by the dealer. Bad design. The car had rear disc brakes which were OK for the first 5 years, then rust set in. The emergency brake actuators on the calipers would bind and refuse to disengage. Rebuilding the calipers only produced temporary respite from this. I started doing them myself to save me from bankruptcy. The rear suspension had a particular talent for falling apart. The only car I have had that had the shock mount disintigrate, resulting in the shock rod bouncing free. More Mazda parts. I resorted to changing the rear shocks one at a time when they (frequently) failed. Curiously, the front struts lasted the life of the car.

    This problem now seems to be licked, but at at that time the enclosed structure of the drum brake did a better job of excluding salt from the brake. In the rear position, the brake receives much more spray than at the front, due to being in the line of the kick up from the front wheels. Saab used to supply deflectors for the rear brakes for this purpose, but nobody else did.

    The Tracer was my first and last Jap based car. Burned. The list of things that were wrong with the 323/Tracer design is so long…

    The engine and transmission were good. Unfortunately, the engine was designed to fit in a front engine-rear drive layout car. When turned in a front drive transverse layout, things like the alternator became inaccessible. The carburetor was so complicated as to be a nightmare. This and the tinworm working on the rear suspension attachments required killing the car.

  • avatar

    I never did dwell on the ins-and-outs of messing with points in the distributors of old.

  • avatar

    I was a teen during the 70’s and enjoyed a few years of shade tree mechanic work before that new fangled stuff came around. A guy that knew what he was doing (30 years auto shop teacher) taught me how to reassemble a Chevy small block 350, we did it one Saturday night and I was only 45 minutes late for my date! I haven’t planned on putting it together then, but when the talent says let’s do it, you do it and the girl friend can wait. Weird thing, we broke up before she ever rode in that 68 Chevelle I was rebuilding, it wasn’t the car…was it??????

  • avatar

    Its amazing to see how far technology has come. Remembered getting my hands dirty back in the day, now almost anything in the car can be fixed with just a computer.

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