Facts or Fingers

When it comes to automotive repairs, 
what’s better, knowing how to make a repair 
or the ability to actually make the repair?  
I don’t think you can honestly answer that 
without taking into account which decade 
you’re referencing. There was a time when 
the neighborhood mechanic could learn 
his/her trade by merely being around it, 
and could pick up more skills the longer 
they stayed at it. Not to say there wasn’t 
a need for book smarts or a few 
engineering skills back then, there was.  
But, with a little basic mechanical knowledge 
and an aptitude for getting to a few hard to 
reach bolts and adjust a few screws you could make a living at it.  

Even then mechanics had to keep up with the facts to some degree. The systems we consider basic today were state of the art back then. Simple, yes, compared to today, but the era of simplicity also brought out the tinkerer in a lot of young lads, and gave them a chance to work with their hands and experiment with all things mechanical. Even today, the modern DIY’r, young and old, is still tinkering on their car just like they did back then. Although, most of the technology has far surpassed the contents of the average home tool box. 

The diversity between manufacturers even 50 years ago was just as varied as it is today, maybe not so much electrically, but with hydraulic or mechanical changes.  Even then, new systems were coming out all the time, although, the need for in-depth analysis or diagnostics time like we have today was not as apparent as it is now. There were fewer components (compared to today’s cars) and generally speaking, a variety of repairs were common to various manufacturers’ vehicles.  Back then, most every component could be taken apart and repaired on the spot, rather than replaced. The term “mechanic” was for the most part, a true ‘tear-it-down-and-fix-it’ type of occupation. As time went on lighter materials, plastics, and disposable, non-repairable components came along. Quite a bit different than the way it’s done with the modern car.  Now, those mechanic ‘fingers’ had to rethink the way they repaired and diagnosed cars. 

By the time the first electronic ignition parts became the norm, a whole new way of diagnosing an engine problem and repair methods had to be devised by the average mechanic in a small town. Typically, a repair shop that didn’t have the resources to learn the latest ‘facts’ generally followed the old tried and true method of swapping parts to “check their guess” on a repair.  Obviously, not every shop worked in this manner, but a lot of mechanics kept “known good” ignition modules and other electronic components in their tool boxes because it was still easier to swap a part rather than get the books and test equipment out. (Guilty as charged…) Since a lot of these components couldn’t be taken apart and repaired, swapping a suspected bad part for another one seemed like the quickest method of diagnosing it. These days swapping parts isn’t the answer. Change the wrong part and you might be looking at a car that won’t start until it’s reprogrammed. The computer is the boss under the hood, and they have gotten a lot smarter than the first computer systems adapted to cars.  As these systems in the cars changed, the mechanic had to change as well.

Mind you, this is still a trade that requires a great deal of dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and talented fingers, but more importantly, you need the facts, figures, schematics, flow charts, and diagnostic equipment. Knowing the inner workings of these systems, how a data stream gets the information from one end of the car to the other, and how various sensors operate is just as (if not more) important than knowing how to make the repairs.  Take a look at some old photos of repair shops from decades ago.  Pay close attention to the background and see if you can spot the mechanics’ tool boxes. The typical tool box of that era wouldn’t even begin to hold the diversity of specialty tools and electronic equipment needed today. 

I’ve spent many an hour rummaging through old service manuals from the 1900’s all the way up to the present, and I’m not at all surprised how the manuals kept getting thicker and thicker as the technology changed.  Some of the earliest manuals I’ve collected from the 20’s for example, have only a few pages for an electrical section and those few pages covered every model that particular manufacturer had for that given year.  On today’s cars, the electrical system information and diagnostic manuals could easily fill entire shelves on their own.

With all these new and innovated systems and components in today’s cars, the way the new tech learns the facts about auto repair has changed as well. There are far fewer opportunities for a guy or gal to break into the automotive field down at the corner repair shop.  Now, it takes trade schools, apprentice programs, shadowing mentors, convention classes, after hours classes and online classes to not only learn this trade, but to keep up with the ever changing industry. There are even companies that build training units to aide schools in teaching the new mechanic how everything works, how to diagnose a problem, and how to properly repair it. It’s essential in today’s vast automotive world.  Keep in mind, this is still a hands-on trade, but the fact is… ya gotta learn the facts as well as how to perform the repair. 

So, which is it, facts or fingers? Which is more important? It’s hard to say, or how much it may change in the future.  We’ve already seen the change from pure mechanical ability to a time when trial and error testing worked, to how it has morphed into the technically advanced trade of today. It’s an ever evolving career, a career that a mechanic from just a few generations ago wouldn’t even recognize.  You and I can only wonder how a mechanic is going to accomplish a repair a few decades from now.  It comes down to a question of whether or not the need to know all the facts and procedures surpasses the need of using your fingers to actually make the repair.    

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