Too Clever By Half

by John Mayhead
21 February 2020 5 min read
Too Clever By Half
1993 Mercedes-Benz E36 AMG RM Sothebys

Most of the time, I’m a supporter of advances in motoring technology. I was very, very glad that I was in a relatively modern Toyota last March when a guy driving a 2019 Vauxhall Insignia drove in to the back of me at 50mph while I was stationary at a junction. Both cars were written off, but he and I, and my three kids who were in the back seat, all mercifully walked away. If we’d been in our 1970 VW Campmobile, things would almost certainly have been different.

I’m also aware that long journeys are now a lot more comfortable, and a lot more predictable that those I remember undergoing as a child in my dad’s Cortina. Then, it was touch-and-go whether we’d have to take a break at the side of the A303, bonnet up, waiting for the radiator’s kettle impression to end. Then there were the red-hot vinyl seats, the asthmatic window ‘heater’ vents, the dodgy brakes, the porridge-stirrer gearchange and the steering wheels that you could move a quarter of a turn without changing road position. Those were the days.

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But… and it’s a big but… there’s a point at which technological advances just aren’t helpful to the one person they should be there to serve: the driver. Some modern cars are just too damn clever for their own good, and it’s to the detriment of motoring.

Take my 2015 Volvo V40 for example. In R-Design, Lux spec it’s a very comfortable car and drives well on long journeys. At first, I only had one niggle – there’s nowhere to put your phone – but I quickly realised that the satnav was awful, so the phone sits neatly on the shelf in front of the screen with Google maps displayed. Then, a few months after I bought it from a main dealer with a fresh service, it told me the oil was low.

I mostly work from home so this isn’t a car that had stacked up the motorway miles. I’ll admit to my shame that I hadn’t checked the oil, but just assumed that a modern 2-Litre petrol engine with 30k on the clock wouldn’t be a burner. Anyway, I opened the bonnet to see the level for myself. No dipstick.

Now, I’m a motoring journalist. I’ve rebuilt engines that worked afterwards, rewired entire looms and even fixed the digital clock on my Porsche 944. Granted, most of the cars I drive are as old as I am, but I’m not a mechanical fool. So, imagine my frustration when I just couldn’t work out how to check the digital oil gauge.

The manual was useless. ‘Move the selector wheel to access menu functions’ it said. I moved the wheel by my thumb on the steering wheel that changed the functions on the central console. Despite searching every menu, there was no oil level option. I went online, and realised they meant another wheel on the indicator stalk. I found the oil level indicator… which was greyed out. I checked the manual again: I had to set it to ‘Key position II’. Now, it’s a key-in-the-dash kind of car, so ‘Position II’ wasn’t obvious and wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the literature. I tried key in, ignition on, key in, ignition off, key out ignition out. Nothing made any difference. Eventually, to my shame, I rang the dealer and they told me how to do it. I had to put the key in, without touching the clutch/brake pedals, press the start key for approximately two seconds. Obviously.

I can imagine the meeting in Volvo’s Gothenburg HQ back when these were first designed. ‘Hey, we have a great idea,’ says Bjorn, head of Clever Engineering. ‘We’ll put in this clever oil level system and we can save €1.50 on a dip stick!’. No matter that you’ll ruin the afternoon of every owner who just wants to have a). an engine that doesn’t burn oil and b). if it does, you can check the level quickly with a dipstick.

Oh, and the other thing Bjorn forgot to mention is that even if you do all of that, fill it up with oil, then go to check the level again, it won’t work. Apparently, you have to drive 30 miles then turn the engine off for a further five minutes before the correct level will be shown. Give me strength.

It’s not just Volvo. I also have a 2012 diesel VW Sharan which has an Adblue delivery system. One day before Christmas, it told me the Adblue was low (it was full) and then started a 600-mile doomsday countdown until ‘NO START’. What followed was an expensive voyage of discovery where my very capable local garage replaced sensors and reprogrammed the SCR system until the fault finally cleared. At no point was anything wrong with the engine, or anything awry with the Adblue system, nor were the emissions any worse that normal. On an old car, there wouldn’t have been a problem to fix. Now, since the emissions scandal, VW are so petrified of being ‘How Dare You’d’ by Greta Thunberg that they make the engine stop working if you don’t follow their exact instructions.

What’s the answer? Maybe there’s a technology sweet spot. My Porsche 944 was built in 1988. The heating, lighting, ABS brakes, gearbox, power steering and electric windows are as efficient as a modern car’s, and more so than many vehicles on the road. The engine is solid and reliable, and the handling is legendary. But it’s not a modern car: look under the bonnet and you see alloy cam covers, a distributor and… joy of joys… a dipstick.

Likewise, as Hagerty recently reported, there’s been a real upsurge in post-1990 performance cars in recent months. The ‘Youngtimer’ collection at RM Sotheby’s London sale was full of 1990s AMG Mercedes-Benz models, and they flew out of the door. These early AMG cars are phenomenally powerful, comfortable, and they have that low-production number hand-built feel to them. Plus, the boxy W124 body is exceptionally cool: just look at the black C36 AMG estate that RM sold and tell me it doesn’t look amazing.

Then, for those of an Italian persuasion, there’s the Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Having owned a GT 3.2 V6 with the same engine, I know they’re delicate and things – oil coolers, rear head gaskets, electrics – can (do) go wrong, but find one that has been properly looked after and you’ll own an absolutely phenomenal car that can see off most other cars on the road. Just as importantly, when you open the bonnet you’ll be presented with the wonderful Busso V6: an audible and visual treat that even has real chrome intake trumpets. With even the best in the country leaving you with a lot of change from £20,000 it doesn’t get much better than that. Then there are the Ford Sierra Cosworths, the Lancia Delta Integrales, the Audi Quattros… They’ll all officially be historic vehicles in a few years.

Autonomous cars, clever technology, limits on petrol and diesel… these are already affecting the cars we drive, and it is only going one way.  Let’s all go back to the golden era before it’s too late.

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  • ox5 1lt says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Most post-Millenium cars are electronic nightmares. Slowly, we are all becoming their robots. And never an end in sight.

  • York says:

    I have 2 post 2000 cars – a Skoda Octavia Estate and a Jag XF which is a sort of computer on wheels. Both are wonderful in their own way but on both of them various Dashboard warning lights come on fairly often. So far the faults have all been computer faults. Would any manufacturer be brave enough to build a car which has only minimal electronic components? I guess a modern comfortable version of something along the lines of a Morris Minor might sell pretty well.

  • USA says:

    Last two new cars had sooo much electronics its 1.unsafe to tune the radio while driving for starters. 2. brakes at odd intervals forcing to gas it and lurching. 3. buy new a S Class and have a game boy IPad touch screen for cheesy gauges–is it too much for some old school looking or real VDO Gauges that say 160 mph? I have asked dealers to turn off about 1/2 of the safety features. It assumes you are sitting at a computer screen with nothing better to do than fiddle with it assuming you can figure out which station you want to get.. Today’s designers have NO industrial design savvy at all, just geek computer idiot culture as designers savvy. It’s just gameboy shit controls on a flatscreen. Woo Hoo I drive a Tesla, well la de da. Buy an old Fleetwood Cadillac with all the trim and copy the buttons and dials, that functioned well and was intuitive to touch –while driving 90 miles an hour, as you were unhooking your girlfriend’s brassiere on the Turnpike. You could change the station at least.

  • Newton Abbot, Devon says:

    I agree with the last paragraph. On my Fathers 1939 Rover 12 Sports it had a button on the Dashboard which when pressed showed the oil level on the fuel gauge! I am sure this was even better than a Dipstick.

  • UK says:

    Two things will prevent modern cars surviving like pre 1980 cars do Electronics–when they break on an old car you cannot remake a bit of electronics like you could a mechanical bit! Rubber weather seals–likewise, when they deteriorate and let the rain in, you’re stuffed and will not find any for 10 year old cars. Interesting to see how many 2020 cars are around in 2070–even electric ones!

  • Inner Hebrides says:

    We recently bought a used BMW 318T (2010, 35000 miles) and continue to run our 1989 635 CSi. The “new” car has been a pleasure and for 11 months performed very well. And I enjoyed scrolling through the diagnostics displays which invariably told us everything was OK until a month ago an engine management light came on. But the diagnostics said “nothing wrong”. So, on a rare trip to Glasgow (a ferry and a couple of mountain ranges) we arranged to visit the BMW agent which had serviced the car to ask them about the pesky light. The agent, whose premises had the ambience of a luxury hotel, with staff to match (polite, friendly, immaculately turned out) took charge of our little car. Within a few hours a message from the agent told us that our timing chain required replacement. I was stunned. Timing chains don’t get replaced unlike belts but how could we dispute this finding. So we agreed that the company should go ahead and fix it, and borrowed a good friend’s 2011 Fiesta to get back to our small island to sit out a succession of gales and wait for news. Soon the message came that the car was ready for collection and we got ourselves back to Glasgow and picked up the machine considerably poorer. A tyre had had to be replaced but the run flat system had not been properly reset and 50 miles out the little computer screen flashed the ominous message that there had been a loss of tyre pressure. A call to the agent told us how to reset the settings and all was well apart from our nervous systems. A week later, as we were about to board the ferry for the mainland, a very loud and insistent warning told us there was an engine fault, but that we could continue but there would be reduced power – an understatement. We limped into Oban where our trusty local garage plugged their up to date diagnostic wizzery into the car and told us that there were so many faults showing that we needed to get the machine back to Glasgow to the agent who had dealt with the car. Arranging a car transporter was easy but costly, and the BMW agent got in touch to say that the “DME” needed to be replaced, that the part had to come from Germany so it would not be possible to do a quick fix (and, of course, it would be hellish expensive). When word came that the car was ready we fired up our trusty 635 and zoomed into the big city, paid the huge bill, and returned, feeling quite bruised, to our home. The 318 worked fine but gone was the feeling of confidence that we had previously enjoyed. In the meantime we had entered into correspondence with both the BMW Glasgow agent and BMW HQs “down south” (as RUK is referred to in these parts). To theire credit the Glasgow company had also appealed to BMW HQs for some relief. (The basis of my plea was that this should not have happened). Clearly Glasgow agreed, and BMW HQs refunded the cost of the chain replacement and 50% of the labour which was a very significant relief. But what had actually gone wrong? I suspect that no-one has the faintest idea and that John Mayhead’s article is spot on. And my huge respect for the old 635 with its 6 in line motor, not to mention its head turning beauty, is even more firmly embedded.

  • London says:

    My SLK went in to mercs for sum work and they gave me a new top spec A class to drive it had a 1300 cc engine with a 7 speed gearbox it always seemed in the wrong gear (to high) and on gentle acceleration it droped 2 gears and took off also it put the brakes on when it suspected any car came to close (frightening) also who thinks a touch screen dash is a good idea.Very nice car but you can not turn the annoying aids off permanently only each time you start the car .Makers have gone to far and need to re evaluate when do aids become a distraction ?

  • Dorset says:

    Cruise control stopped working on my Qashqai. I did a few basic checks myself but with MOT looming and the MIL light now on I had to leave it with Nissan to sort out. What was the problem? – a faulty thermostat ! Are you sure I asked – how can a thermostat affect the cruise? Turns out this is an electronic unit ECU controlled with half a dozen water connections and buried at low level on the block. Car out of warranty so Nissan didn’t want to know about paying the £500 bill. Bring back the old waxstats on top of the block.

  • Eastbourne says:

    You might find that the driver of the car that rammed you was distracted as they altered a function on the Vauxhall’s centre display. They say that using a mobile phone is dangerous, and offenders will be prosecuted, yet new cars have large touch screens which distract the driver just the same, but the government will not alter the law as they probably receive ***** from the motor manufactures Just ask ” Back Hander Boris”.

  • Mayenne, France says:

    My local garage owner would agree with you that there was a sweet spot mid 80s to late 90s when car were so reliable that many small garages closed. He now reckons that they’re no more reliable now than in the 60s and 70s, just the problems are different.

  • Scotland says:

    It started with an Audi coupe owned by an uncle in 1970. He proudly pressed a little button on a stick and the windscreen washers jetted a burst of water onto the screen while the wipers simultaneously swept it away. He was as excited as we were until he realised that he could no longer flood the screen and soften the dirt before wiping it away. He’d lost control of the washing and wiping functions. Since then we’ve had self-operating headlamps, the joys of self-regulating engines, an endless cacophony of bells, whistles, bings, bongs, peeps and beeps, electric seats – was there ever anything as stupid as fitting a seat with a selection of heavy, expensive motors with a a working life of less than ten minutes? – and the crowning excrescence in the water pipe – the electric handbrake, loved only by my local garage man as he makes so much money replacing and repairing them. Not only does none of it help, but it actively divorces the driver from the driving experience: he is simply left to nod off while his car does it all, until he’s stranded at the roadside by a failure in one of pointless fripperies which festoon his car and do nothing except cost him money. I run fourteen cars, and rotate them regularly. None of the current selection is less 39 years old. I will never buy a new car, until the car companies ditch their stylists and electroniics geeks and employ actual designers in their stead. They’ve clearly got none working for them at present.

  • Bordeaux says:

    Is anyone else conflicted? I run a 1971 VW microbus. I love it and its simplicity. But can we excuse the ecological impact any longer? I’ve heard all the for and against arguments, problem is it’s hard to truly verify any claims. Are we being irresponsible running at 20mpg when it could be zero? Is the environmental impact of buying a newly manufactured vehicle outweighed by its green credentials ? I could go on….

  • Liverpool says:

    Hi A long-standing friend of mine who used to own a garage suggested to me that i should never buy any post 1992 vehicle as from that year the electronic developments on cars made them that much harder to fix- and I’m used to working on cars and have built a few over the years. Regards John

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