RAY STAPLEY December 16 1961


RAY STAPLEY December 16 1961


1 METAL FATIGUE: The mysterious brittleness that can afflict any part of older cars. It may break down vital components at any time and is the cause of many otherwise inexplicable accidents.

2 EXHAUST SYSTEM: Leaky manifolds, pipes and mufflers cause many unexplained fatal crashes. Carbon monoxide gently puts everybody in the car to sleep— including the dHver.

3 TIRES: Any tire, at any age can become dangerous from heat, friction and impact, even when it seems outwardly sound. All tires should be taken off rims and thoroughly inspected at least once a year.

BRAKE DRUMS: These are much abused; they are frequently burned and scored. Under stress, they may crack, even explode, causing loss of all braking power.

LEAKING OIL SEALS: This seemingly innocuous fault can unexpectedly cause a wheel to lock when the brakes are applied at any speed. It can spin a car off course at high speed. Very prevalent in old cars.

6 HYDRAULIC BRAKE LINES: These connect masterbrake cylinder and wheel cylinders. They may burst under pressure after years of vibration and exposure to weather. When they go, brakes go.

7 MASTER BRAKE CYLINDER: This is the heart of the braking system and it can fail suddenly from wear if neglected or poorly serviced for years. The wheel brake cylinders it feeds are equally vulnerable.

8 STEERING BOX: Repeated vibration and twisting can crack the gears in the box, causing loose pieces of metal to jam the gears and “freeze” the steering. This almost always causes an accident.

9 TIE RODS: These are vital units in the steering system and are prone to breakage without warning on all old cars, resulting in loss of all steering.

til SUSPENSION SYSTEM: A dozen points are vulnerable JLtl here, including bushings and kingpins, springs and shackles. The failure of any one part due to wear or “fatigue” can bring disaster.



Franklin Russell

LAST SUMMER, I decided to quit driving my car on week ends on Ontario highways. The reason was cowardice — or prudence. I had become obsessed with the thought that I would be killed in a collision with an old car, which, in my imagination, swerved from the approaching lane of traffic and crashed into me head on.

My obsession sprang from two things. From May through July, 1 had three narrow escapes from accidents with old cars. One time, crossing with a green light, I narrowly missed an old wreck of a car grinding into my path with its brakes smoking. Another old car, half out of control on a curve, started to skid into me, then recovered in the nick of time. A third car, eleven years old, plowed into my rear end at a stop light.

But mostly, my obsession came from the fact that I am a professional car repairer, having handled 50,000 cars in the last twentysix years. 1 see the intestines of old cars every day in my garage. 1 don't like what 1 see. i believe fifty percent of all 1954 cars are mechanically dangerous, perhaps ninety percent of all 1950s. 1 believe we should junk all cars seven years or older unless they pass a rigorous mechanical test. By the time a car is ten years old it's not w'orth keeping and should

be thrown away before it kills somebody.

How dangerous arc old cars? Nobody in the world knows for sure, but the Ontario Department of Transport does keep comprehensive records of the ages of cars in fatal accidents. These figures are revealing.

In the first nine months of 1961. 884 people w'ere killed on Ontario roads. As we might expect, cars manufactured in 1954 and later were most frequently involved—more than 600 of them. But 170 cars built between 1946 and 1953 w'ere in fatal accidents. If my garage records are accurate, these cars make up only a very small fraction ot all cars on the road, yet they get into nearly one fatal accident in four. Even more interesting is the fact that while pre-1950 cars are very rare in Ontario, twenty-five of them managed to get into fatal accidents.

Last summer, 1 saw' the aftermath of six accidents. In every instance an old car was involved with a nearly new car. Coincidence? I don't know’.

Mechanical failure is low' on the list of official causes given for accidents (about nine percent), but this is mainly because we have

no way of accurately assessing the situation. About ninety-five percent of all accident reports in Canada are the sole responsibility of policemen on the spot. Rarely are laboratory experts called in to check wrecked cars. Insurance companies rely largely on police reports.

As an auto mechanic, I can state positively that unless an expert examination is done after an accident, there is small chance of ever finding out whether mechanical failure contributed to the accident. 1 can be equally positive in saying it's time w'e faced some chilling facts.

Modern cars are much bigger, heavier and faster than ten-year-old cars and many tenyear-olds can easily hit ninety. This, I believe, has helped create the modern phenomenon of terrifying, multiple-death accidents which occur. for no apparent reason, in daylight, in good weather, on highways without curves. The victims are usually all dead and the cause is invariably recorded as '"the car went out of control."

Fortunately, I am not the only person fearful of old-car dangers. The city of Vancouver insists that every car in the city — 125,000 of them — go through a compulsory mechanical check-up twice a year. Some auto experts wonder whether twice a year is frequent enough to maintain safety on all cars. Andrew J. White, a New Hampshire auto expert, says that to be safe, a driver must have his brakes tested once a year for the first two years of his car’s life, twice in the third year and four times a year thereafter. But most motorists only get checks of their brakes when the brakes begin to give trouble, usually once every two. three or four years, or after some accident.


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A quick safety check: jam the brake pedal to the floor with both feet. Maybe something will snap

It takes about seven years (sometimes much less) for salt corrosion to eat deeply into the average hydraulic brake line. The motorist is then in constant danger of the line bursting when he hits the brake pedal hard. This means he instantly loses all braking. In ten years, this has happened to me nine times testing old cars.

Salt also eats into the stop-light switch housing which, in some cars, is in a veryexposed position under the vehicle. Sometimes. in cars only five years old, the

driver jams on his brakes but the pressure explodes the whole corroded switch away from the brake line. Result: no brakes. One year ago. I swung a 1956 car out of my garage, braked to avoid a truck, and the brake switch popped. Damage to the car: $330.

Wear and simple age can make a dozen other things go wrong with brakes. Wheel and master cylinders can become scored or their rubber seals can perish. Obstructions in the brake lines can cause the brakes to fail one moment: they may work perfectly the next. You can’t estimate hazard in old equipment without ripping the whole system to pieces. One w'ay to do a quick safety check is to put both feet on the brake pedal and force it down with all your strength. If there’s weakness in the system, you may reveal it by breaking something.

More insidious is the old-or-worn-tire menace. I would venture to say that any car more than three years old invariably has at least one defective tire. 1 ires can withstand incredible use, but mounting curbs, running underinflated at high speeds, or with faulty alignment, destroys them, perhaps within hours. A customer of mine drove to Bangor. Maine, recently after unwittingly ruining his front wheel alignment by knocking one front wheel against the curb outside his house. The tire lost all its tread on the way to Bangor, blew out near

the city, and threw' him and his family in the path of a semitrailer bound for New York. Fortunately, the truck jackknifed into a ditch and nobody was hurt.

I don’t know whether steering equipment is more or less dangerous than bad tires and brakes on all cars, but it is frequently lethal, mostly because of poor maintenance and sheer age. Tie rods can

break through metallic "fatigue" or stress any time after four years. Four or five types of pins can snap off through wear or strain after five or six years. One customer, who owned a three-year-old, $3.500 car. brought it to me for a lubrication job. One of my mechanics stuck a pry bar into his suspension in a routine check for loose fittings. The customer was astounded when

a ball-joint housing snapped, sending one of his wheels flat to the floor. Two hours later, he took the car to a dealer and traded it. a very frightened man.

Such incidents are rare with late model cars but they occur with rapidly increasing frequency as cars age. Wheels get out of line and impose greater strains on springs, shock absorbers and the frame. It takes seven to ten years for gas tanks to rust through. Then gasoline may drop on the tailpipe and cause an explosion.

One customer who had a one-year-old car kept complaining of headaches last year. He spent $50 on medical examinations before Í found a tiny exhaust leak in his engine. Cars that have been around ten times as long are at least ten times as apt to develop leaks, and carbon monoxide from them undoubtedly causes many ‘ inexplicable” accidents.

But all these dangers probably don’t equal the strange puzzle of metal fatigue.

I honestly don’t know how you can protect yourself against it. 1 had a four-year-old luxury limousine in my shop recently, the owner of which — a stockbroker — had broken a rod in the steering when turning out of a parking lot. When we checked the rod. we found it had been breaking, in fractions of an inch, for a year or more. A test of the car’s steering showed that the rod actually bent slightly every time the wheel was turned. This was a design fault, a surprising one in an expensive car. In an even older car. metal fatigue can strike anywhere — axles, steering, brakes, door

handles, pistons, crankshafts. The only sure way I know to avoid its obvious dangers is not to drive old cars.

Alarmingly, a growing practice in our society is the buying of a $100 car "for the little woman.” These cars are bought without much regard for their condition because, as husbands reason it, they will only be running around the city.

F.arly last summer, soon after a customer of mine bought his wife an old car. she was entering a main street from a side road. The car was sluggish because the clutch was slipping slightly, but she thought

she could easily accelerate ahead of a fastapproaching car. To her horror, hard acceleration had little effect. The oncoming car hit broadside, smashed her pelvis and broke her leg in three places. She is still limping and will do so until a steel plate is taken from her right leg.

Modern traffic demands good mechanical condition in all automobiles. For this reason, roadside safety checks by police are all but useless. A car may even pass the most searching scrutiny at the Department of Transport’s vehicle inspection garage in Toronto, get a clean bill of health, yet still be dubiously safe.

To illustrate, I took a 1955 car that had passed rigorous safety checking recently, and put it through a test designed to check its performance under emergency conditions. The first test was high speed cornering, typical of many Ontario two-lane rural road conditions. The car cornered reasonably well at sixty, leaning a little more than was comfortable (a sign of w-orn shock absorbers), and with a slight tendency to "plow”—that is. for the front of the car not to follow exactly the wheel direction. This is fairly common in heavyengined, high horsepower vehicles.

1 had placed a can in the middle of the road where the highway straightened out. The driver had instructions not to brake until he saw the can. He braked when he saw it. but the heavy car’s momentum was so great that all its aging components reacted badly. It heeled sharply. The driver could have coped with that but the front end heaviness suddenly became a skid. In a moment, he was on the shoulder. He saved himself by accelerating hard, skidding all along the shoulder, swerving back onto the highway and crushing the can. Later we repeated the experiment with a new car. It stopped easily within twenty feet of the can. Age. it was clear, can have alarming effects on cars.

We tried a braking test on the same 1955 car even though the brakes seemed excellent. They worked fair;y well in fast routine stops from fifty. Then we took the car up to ninety and did a panic stop. From ninety to seventy the brakes took hold fiercely with the tires screaming. At seventy "fade" began. The brake pedal mysteriously sank toward the floor and the braking efficiency fell steeply. The driver had both feet on the pedal but could no longer make the tires scream. At fifty, despite frantic pumping on the pedal he couldn't stop the pedal from hitting the floor. When he got the car stopped, the brake linings were smoking. We then measured the stopping distance. It was nearly half a mile.

All old cars aren't dangerous. 1 know (although, as I’ve shown, what’s nearly impossible to tell is which are safe enough and which aren't). But I know from personal experience that ninety percent of the people who drive old cars are unable, or unwilling, to spend money keeping them in shape. In most provinces, there is no way of knowing who these people are. But Ontario has one good clue. Of the province's 2,300.000 drivers. 200.000 have refused to buy any insurance. They are charged five dollars a year which goes into the Unsatisfied Judgment Fund, itself insurance for people hurt by uninsured drivers.

“May you never meet me!”

Having isolated these drivers, Ontario now has a priceless chance to get them off the road. 1 am willing to bet my last dollar that these 200.000 are driving some of the worst old cars on the roads. If Ontario demanded certificates of roadworthiness from them, or stipulated that all cars more than seven years old must have safety certification. 1 am sure we would see a sudden decline in our death and accident toll on the highways.

At ten. these old cars simply would not be worth repairing. They would end up in the junk yards and every car dealer in town would heave a sigh of relief. No longer would they have to accept them as trades, or resell them to recover their cost. No longer would fellows like me have to try and service them.

But are old cars really that dangerous? Lacking scientific evidence we cannot be positive. But let's consider this fact. England has a high incidence of old cars, many of them in poor mechanical condition. Her accident rate is double that of Canada. Australia has scores of thousands of prewar cars on the roads in indifferent mechanical condition. Its accident rate is more than double ours.

Our own accident rate per thousand vehicles in 1929 was nearly triple what it is today, which must surely be the leastpublicized statistic on record. Perhaps I don’t need to say that circa 1929 was also a period of notoriously unreliable brakes and tires. Malaya saw a sensational rise in accidents after 1945, when Malays, Chinese and Indians enthusiastically hurtled the country’s old prewar motorcars into action.

Finally, the Malayan government took the kind of action I’m advocating here: it made it mandatory to junk all cars older than ten. Here, there might be some right of appeal for collectors who rebuild antique cars.

I think also that the owner of a car older than seven years should be forced to justify its continued use on the road. In the U. S., this is partially solved by the high mortality of older cars. They begin going to the wreckers from about six years onward. Here, it’s closer to ten years before the wreckers get at them, and our accident rate is higher.

We need a program to put the onus of safety squarely on the shoulders of the driver. It would need to be a rigorous test

program, no holds barred. Garage tests with the most expensive equipment are fine, but they can't give a picture of the car's total safety the way a tough road test can.

When Ontario Attorney General Kelso Roberts was asked recently about Ontario adopting a compulsory check of all cars, he said the people must be encouraged to protect themselves from danger. However, you can't do much to protect yourself against the other fellow. 1 spent twenty minutes last summer trying to pass an old pickup truck on a rural highway. It was

lurching three feet from side to side, had wheel wobble and was belching blue smoke. I had to pass it, but Ld have rather stayed home.

If we can't get legislation, you can increase your own safety even if you persist in driving an old car. You should have all your brake lines replaced, along with the master and wheel cylinders. Cost: may be more than $100. You should at least have your tie-rod ends stripped of grease and oil and checked visually for cracks, or, better still, have them taken off and sent to ;t lab for scientific checking. Cost: about

$30. You must have your front axles removed and checked for metal fatigue, it might be cheaper just to replace them. Cost: about $70. In other words, unless you have kept your old car in first-rate condition, it won't be worth spending so much money on it.

I would humbly suggest that if you can't afford this sort of maintenance, you cannot afford to drive.

But if you choose to forge on in your old heap, may you never meet me on the highway when I am driving with my wife and five kids, ft