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Why Are Older Cars Easier to Work On?

What’s more frustrating than trying to work on a modern car? There are tight spaces with fragile pieces and it feels like you can’t move without breaking something. On top of that, you basically need an electrical degree just to understand how the dang thing works.

Older cars were essentially built with the DIY car repairman in mind. The engine bay is more spacious, the mechanisms are simpler, and the cars can be easily understood with some mechanical intuition. The lack of electronics also helps in more ways than one.

I’m a huge fan of working on older cars. If you’re not sure why don’t worry — in this article, I’ll explain why older cars are easier to work on.

How Do I Define an Older Car?

In my mind, anything pre-1990 will fall into this category. Many vehicles from that era fit the bill of simple driving machines without the added turbos and onboard computers that modern cars have.

What Type of Work Am I Talking About?

To make things easy, I’m going to take a very broad stance on the term “work on”. I’m looking at any form of wrench-turning on a car.

Anything from changing the oil to rebuilding an engine and everything in-between falls into my definition of “working on a car”.

As a result, the ideas I’ll talk about later will be more general.

Why Are Older Cars Easier to Work On? 

The answer is much more than just a single-sentence answer. There are some complexities that go into why older cars are easier to work on versus newer cars.

I think anyone who’s worked on an old and a new car already knows what I’m about to say.

They’re Simpler

The first (and biggest) point is how simple older cars are. The ’80s didn’t have all the new technology that we have today, and the cars are subsequently simpler.

Mercedes-Benz 300TD – Station Wagon

For example, look at the gas pedal. An older car has a wire that goes right from the pedal into the carburetor. In a modern car, the gas pedal will hook into a sensor that feeds a control box that distributes the signal. A lot harder to understand.

This simplicity helps a lot when you troubleshoot and work on a car. You can trace the problem area and highlight exactly which components might be the culprit. You can also disassemble and reassemble parts quicker since the system is simpler.

Lack of Electronics

Electronics are typically a big headache when it comes to fixing a vehicle. There are so many problems that can come up with a typical electronic piece.

One of the big problems is that they can just wear out and die over time with no real symptoms. With a modern car, you have to break the troubleshooting into two systems: the electronic and the mechanical systems.

Mechanical Intuition Is All You Need

Playing off my first point, you can get really far in a car repair on an older vehicle with just some mechanical intuition. You can follow a car part and easily identify where it goes and what it does.

1996 Mazda Miata NA Engine Bay

If you have a general idea of how a fuel pump works, you’ll know how to troubleshoot and repair the fuel pump on your older vehicle.

You might think that the same prowess will work equally well on modern cars. The problem is that the addition of all these electronics and programming makes it hard. Going back to the gas pedal example, there’s no way to logic your way through that process with just mechanical intuition, you need electronics experience too.

Fewer Parts (Less that Can Go Wrong)

My parents used to always harp on how wonderful a simple product is. When I’d show them a cool new feature on my modern car, their response would always be, “great, just something else to break”.

I’m starting to realize just how meaningful that idea is. Older cars have much fewer parts than modern cars, which means there’s a lot less that can go wrong.

They don’t have a million sensors and little computers. That makes our lives easier when it comes to working on an older car.

No Sensors or Computers in the Way

Not only can sensors break, but they also get in the way. The worst thing when it comes to working on a car is trying to squeeze between all the sensors and make sure you’re not breaking those fragile little guys.

In an older car, you can flail around your wrench and won’t end up with hundreds of dollars worth of broken sensors.

More Spacious (Typically)

In general, older cars have more space under the hood for you and your tools. Clearly, old-timey engineers were claustrophobic and wanted to do their repairs without squeezing through tiny gaps.

BMW E30 Interior

I think it’s a universal idea that having more space to work on an engine is always a good thing. Part of this is the fact that there were fewer parts and simpler systems, but another idea is that they were built for workability.

They Were Built for Workability

Back then, working on your car was just a way of life. Because of this idea, car designers would make things as easy as possible to work for.

This meant adding more space but also using parts that are simpler to replace or repair. Now, it seems like components are flimsier and it takes less to break something.

Things That Are Harder About Working on Older Cars

However, it’s important to understand that there are some downsides to working on older cars. They don’t outweigh the positives, which is why I still say that older cars are easier to work on. Still, they’re worth mentioning.

More Rust and Aging

Older parts are going to be harder to remove due to rusting and aging —byproducts of older vehicles. There are times where a modern bolt will quickly unthread in a new car and an older car has a rusted-over bolt that requires a lot more attention.

Depending on how the vehicle was stored, you might find a lot of components that are more difficult to work on or remove.

Old Mercedes car with rust

Finding the Right Replacement Parts

After removing a tough part, you’ll have to replace it with a comparable one. With older vehicles, it’s a lot harder to find the right replacement parts. After all, we’re talking about parts that were manufactured more than 30 years ago.

Comparatively, you could waltz into a scrapyard and find tons of mint-condition parts for a newer Honda Civic.

Fewer Online Tutorials and Instructionals

It’s also going to be harder to get DIY help with your vehicle. There’s a lot of online content for newer cars, especially YouTube videos that just walk you through the full process.

With older cars, it’s a more niche market and there is less information available. This isn’t a huge problem for a lot of people since older cars are simpler and you can use your mechanical intuition to solve the issues.

Harder to Diagnose

Finally, older cars are a lot harder to diagnose in certain situations. With a modern car, you can just use a modern car scan tool. This will report back whatever issues the onboard computer notices.

Older cars don’t have the ability to use this tool. Instead, you’ll have to manually go through the car and find out what issues you have. Again, not the end of the world since the mechanical systems are so straightforward.

Can You Work on Older Cars on Your Own?

I often discuss whether you should take your car to a mechanic or do the work yourself. However, my opinion is always from the perspective of an owner of a newer car.

When it comes to older cars, there aren’t many reasons why I would go to a shop. After all, it’s so much easier to work on older cars.

DIY Wrenching

Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but I was turning wrenches on old cars when I was just a kid. As I mentioned, the systems are easy to understand and there aren’t fragile electronics that you have to watch out for.

As a result, it’s a perfectly friendly environment for someone to learn how to work on cars. Not only is it possible for you to work on your older car on your own, but I’d highly suggest it.

Working on an older car gives you great exposure to working on vehicles in the best possible way.

Conclusion

I’m a huge fan of working on older cars since they’re so much easier to work on and it’s more rewarding. If you’re in the same boat, let me know in the comments below. As always, you can check out my blog for more car opinions, tutorials, and guides. Check out my list of recommended car products as well.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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