Editorial Comment
September 13, 2001

I once had problems with a car radio and tried to remove it from the dashboard for repair. However, there seemed to be no logical way to reach it, so I referred to a shop manual. It said that to remove the radio, first remove the glove compartment. I was surprised to find that a job, which should have been simple, was made quite complicated thanks to an absolute disregard for maintenance by the designers of the dashboard.

This was my rude awakening to the fact that automobile companies seem unconcerned about the occasional maintenance needs of their cars and trucks. This disregard is so bad it has become legendary. Perhaps the worst example is the case where spark plugs in one model could be replaced only if the engine was unbolted from its mounts and raised away from the frame. In another case, the shop manual for a car said that to repair the heater, an access hole had to be cut in the fender liner.

Compounding the problem are aftermarket service manuals that often are carelessly incomplete. Once when I was immersed in the job of adjusting mechanical valve lifters and faithfully following a manual, I realized that a standard wrench couldn't reach one of the adjustment nuts. It turned out that a special tool was needed, but no mention of this was made in the manual. On another occasion, I gave up trying to install a timing belt because I couldn't reach the pulleys, then found out later that the manual omitted some necessary disassembly steps.

The defining moment in ending my career as a mechanic came when I tried to replace a burned-out headlight on my mother's car. Headlight replacement is normally routine, and I had done it many times. But on this occasion I was stumped. When I broke down and finally took the car to a mechanic, he explained that a large piece of the grill had to be removed to get at the headlight. After that, I vowed to stop doing maintenance on cars.

That brings me to the seat-belt retractor in my wife's 1986 Buick. Recently it locked in the retracted position. Going back on my vow, I tried to fix the problem, but a large molding covered the mechanism as well as the front and rear doorsills. To make matters worse, some of the screws that had to be taken out to remove the molding were almost impossible to reach because the front seat didn't allow enough clearance for a screwdriver.

So I took the Buick to a shop, where the mechanic had nothing but bad news. He said that although this type of failure is common, retractors normally can't be repaired, and replacements are no longer available for 1986 models. He would have to call junkyards to find one, and that would take a while if, indeed, he could locate one at all.

It became obvious that the only solution had to be a drastic one. Resorting to my electric saber saw, I cut through the molding to get to the retractor. Then I found it was in a plastic housing with no apparent means of disassembly. So I continued cutting away until I reached the mechanism. That let me unlock a jammed pawl and unwind the belt so it could be used again. This left the car with a large gash in the interior trim, but you have to do what you have to do.

All of this points up how car designs are dictated at every turn by minimum-cost construction that makes repairs difficult. Automobile companies pursue this cost reduction relentlessly year in and year out, and in the process, the problem keeps getting worse.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor