The Crystal Ball by Peter Brock

A couple of weekends ago Gayle (my wife) was working on her beloved 1974 BMW tii, replacing a turn light bulb and had a friend remove the inner panel of the passenger door as the slide for the window had bound up and needed some lubrication. I watched as she “loved” on the car, cleaning the back of the turn light lens cover, putting some polish on a rag and wiping down the underside of the hood. By contrast, as I drove to work today I saw a Tesla truck in a neighbor’s driveway, reminded of the seemingly unrealistic EV quotas the government recently announced, all while saying how they’re successfully reducing inflation and working to make things more affordable. I wonder if the truck will even exist some 50 years from now, let alone have someone loving on it.


Occasionally I go back and read some of my previous editorials to see how they’ve stood the test of time. I thought this Classic Motorsports piece rather poignant, even more so than when I wrote it originally 13 years ago.

The Crystal Ball
by Peter Brock
Classic Motorsports magazine, May 2011

As traditional, old school car guys, passionately devoted to almost anything mechanical, historical, esthetically wonderful, or even just plain rare that permits us to stand in wonder, or better yet propel ourselves faster than ever imagined back in the day, we’re always being asked, Why? Our value system for old cars and their mystique doesn’t align well with our rapidly changing world, and yet the value of what we squirrel away somehow seems to keep rising; Rarity has its price, but for how long? And then there are those continual other questions concerning worth, as opposed to value, as if it were the money that really mattered. Automotive treasure never seems to make any sense to people without passion. It’s never been easy to explain to your next door neighbor who wonders what it is you do out there night after night all alone in your garage. Wives or girlfriends either get it, learn and join in, or eventually drift away…maybe even to the guy next door.

Trying to peer into the future is always fraught with peril; one risks getting blindsided by some emerging technology you didn’t even know existed when asked to comment on what we might expect somewhere down the line.

Practical electronics have been around since the early days of the telegraph. Back then pundits in the local saloon were earnestly trying to convince those who would listen that breeding faster horses for the pony express was the way to go. That’s always been a problem with becoming too expert in any specific field of interest. Just when you think you’ve got those Webers really dialed in and even your friends are asking you to tune theirs, some kid shows up with something called fuel injection.

Electronics have gradually changed everything we know, or think we understand about almost everything, but most importantly, at least to us gear-heads, is the fact that infinite streams of precisely measured electrons have had an incalculable impact on our automobiles. Everything we do to evaluate, change or improve the focus of our attention is now somehow more effectively measured by an electronic device. In some ways this constant eradication of mystery by electronic analysis makes life easier, faster and sometimes even less frustrating, but it’s also eliminated the pace of human discovery that made analyzing the source of a high speed miss or stumble so interesting and even pleasurable to share with those who value the intellectual exchange of ideas.

That much slower verbal interchange of past experiences is part of what we value in messing with old iron. Having the chance to talk with the people who were actually involved in some manner with these old icons makes the experience of working on them even sweeter, as the historical context is every bit as important as their mechanical attributes. Those grizzled vintage racers of yesteryear couldn’t rely on electronics but instead usually had faster, far more practical methods for solving problems. I once asked Smokey Yunick why the headers on his race cars each had a tiny hole drilled just past the flange on his exhaust headers. He just looked at me as if the answer was so obvious that I must have been retarded. “If the car comes into the pit with a dead cylinder all you need to do is look at the color in the hole to know which plug needs changing.” As time goes by and that simple, practical black magic called experience fades and is replaced by modern data control systems that are faster and more practical, but sometimes not as interesting, fun or even personally satisfying as doing it the old way, we lose much of the purpose of collecting and working on history. At the present ever-increasing rate of change, interest in things automotive could fade away entirely. That’s why it’s important to preserve old cars.

Consider now the ever increasing application of electronics and microcomputers in modern automobiles. The technology for these new models advances so quickly that by the time the first owner is ready to sell, the state of the art will have moved on so rapidly that any electronic spare parts to effect a repair will have already become obsolete in terms of the manufacturer’s next generation. By the time this present model is ten years old the teams of engineers who designed its electronic technology will have retired or moved on so far that they will have forgotten how it was originally conceived! The design of the present electronic components will be considered so out of date that service facilities too will have moved on to equipment matching the more modern systems and technicians will have little in the way of expertise or hardware to repair the vehicle. Want to add in some new instruments? Not possible as the central control unit won’t permit an addition that wasn’t programmed in from the start. Carburetors? Points-type ignitions? You’ve got to be kidding.

Today’s vehicles might be repaired in ten years with used replacement parts scrounged from a wrecking yard but the cost of doing so will exceed the value of the car. In short a modern vehicle’s useable lifetime will soon match that of a contemporary computer. It’ll be simpler, faster and cheaper to buy a new one than repair something that doesn’t match the sophistication of the latest offering. Doesn’t exactly sound appealing to today’s old car enthusiast does it?

So take good care of your old iron. Its value is that it’s simply understood and can be repaired or modified right there in your garage. Better yet it’s something to be savored between friends, like a fine wine. The advantage being that it won’t disappear after the moment but will always be there until it’s passed along to another who understands its value.

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