Just seen an item in USA Today that claims about 10 percent of all vehicles on the road have a check-engine light showing. And here’s the thing: In half of them, according to the report, the light has been showing for three months or more.
Okay, it could be just an electronic glitch. But you’d think folks would get it checked out. Even if it was only to get rid of the glowing gargoyle on the instrument panel.
This item reminds me once again just how bulletproof today’s automobiles really are. The good old days weren’t really that good. Most engines needed a valve grind and decoke every 60,000 miles — or less, in the case of many of the crappy British engines my dad worked on — and you had to change the oil religiously every 3000 miles.
I remember relining brakes, repacking wheel bearings, and crawling under the car with a grease gun in hand to lube the chassis (do they even make grease guns anymore?). In terms of maintenance, my first car, a 1968 Mini — six years old, with 68,000 miles on the clock when I bought it — was a permanent work in progress. It was like having the Golden Gate Bridge parked in my driveway.
By contrast, my youngest son’s 12-year-old Toyota Corolla — which has now covered more than 161,000 miles — demands only a weekly fill of gas and an occasional top up of oil. It’s grungy, faded, and one of the engine mounts has seen better days, sending a zinging vibration back through the cabin at idle. But if there’s ever a nuclear attack on California, all the cockroaches will be driving Corollas. It’s indestructible.
Newer automobiles even think about the maintenance for you. The BMW 7 Series I ran a couple of years back went nearly 18,000 miles before its first oil change. The car told me when it needed new oil, just like it told me when it needed new brake pads, when the windshield washer bottle needed filling, and when it needed air in the tires. It used to be a weekly ritual of mine to check the oil, and the fluids, and the tires. No more.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps modern automobiles have become — mostly — so self-reliant we’re no longer awed by the miracle of motion. So now we just get in, turn the key, and expect our automobiles to go, without a second thought. Even when the check engine light is on.