Auto maintenance was once much more involved

One of the brake lights on my car burned out. I looked in the trunk for a way to pull out the old bulb and replace it, but I didn’t see any wires or sockets, so I left it up to the garage man to do the job.

That reminded me of the way it was 65 years ago when I began owning, driving and maintaining my own car. Changing light bulbs was only one of the many things drivers did routinely. My first car didn’t have a backup light, so I installed one. All it took was the light fixture, a switch and some wire. Of course, I had to remember to turn it on before backing up and to turn it off afterwards.

Just about every driver needed to learn how to patch an innertube and change a tire. You needed a jack, a lug wrench, two tire irons, a hand pump and a tire pressure gauge. I still have all but the patch kit.

An outing to places like Cedar Point or Euclid Beach was considered “good” if you made it with only one flat tire along the way.

Car batteries needed water to be added frequently. You were supposed to use distilled water, but most drivers didn’t. A battery tester that measured the density of the fluid in the battery was necessary to keep track of the charge and condition of the battery. It also helped to coat the battery terminals with Vaseline.

A driver also needed an antifreeze tester that looked like a battery tester but was much bigger. It measured the density of the car’s coolant, which used to be a mixture of alcohol and water. The alcohol evaporated easily and had to be replaced frequently and if you didn’t test the coolant you could easily end up with a frozen radiator in very cold weather. When “permanent” antifreeze was invented, it would leak out of radiators and hoses that did not leak alcohol. Draining, flushing and refilling radiators was an annual chore.

I haven’t heard of anyone needing to have brakes adjusted the way we did back then. I still have the little tool used for the job. You would jack up one wheel at a time, insert the tool into a slot and make the adjustment until you just barely heard or felt the shoe rubbing against the brake drum when you spun the wheel. I remember one time replacing brake shoes myself, even though it was difficult because I didn’t have the proper tools to remove some of the very strong springs.

Rust is not nearly as much of a problem now as it once was. New car fenders would start to rust in about two years and by the time a car was five years old, it would be full of patches. I remember using sandpaper, fiberglass clot and Bondo to repair rusted areas. That really didn’t do anything more than cover up the rust that kept right on devouring the car. The floor under the driver’s feet also rusted quickly, and was often replaced by pieces of wood or sheets of galvanized steel and old carpets.

One way to combat rust was to have the car undercoated. That became a fairly big business and it led to some differences of opinion. Was it cheaper to have the rustproofing done by the dealer, or by an independent supplier? Did the process actually keep water and salt away form the steel body parts, or did it trap the salty water under the coating and cause hidden rust and corrosion?

The upholstery of a new car could be protected by seat covers. An older car with stained or torn upholstery could be made to look better if the seats were covered with new seat covers, which were not very difficult to install. Steering wheel covers were also popular once upon a time.

Radios and clocks used to be optional equipment and many car owners bought and installed them using simple tools. I once helped a friend install a radio that came with a foot-operated switch that changed stations and maybe even turned the radio on and off, but I’m not sure of that.

Surely the most fun add-on for any of my cars was the doorbell. I mounted it right up front, just behind the grill in front of the radiator. To get attention, it wasn’t as loud and annoying as a horn. Sometimes, when waiting for traffic, or while parked, I’d ring the bell and pretend I didn’t do it or even hear it. The puzzled look on the faces of pedestrians was hilarious. They were sure they heard a doorbell, but could not figure out where it could possibly have come from.

Of course, every pretty girl walking by would get a ring and I’d always get a smile in return. Does that remind you of the horns that play a tune?

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