“Brains, Brains, we need Brains!”
Zombie cars? What’s a zombie car?
Way back, when we used points and
condensers and later the basic
electronic ignition systems, cars didn’t
need brains (ECM – Electronic Control
Module), but that all changed in the
mid 70’s on some imports and pretty
much on everything else by the time
the 80’s came around. Some of these
brains were only cursory, and didn’t
actually control the car, but merely
watched for emission issues, while others played a major role in the actual ignition spark or fuel delivery systems.
Most of the engines in those early years, still used the same basic type of distributor setups (with a few exceptions) as their earlier counterparts that used the old tried and true points and condenser type of ignition systems. During those cross-over years it was rather easy to slap a different distributor in it, or change the existing points distributor over to electronic ignition (which worked quite well by the way). These days...it’s not that easy. These computer systems have become so entangled into the engine functions and nearly every other system that it’s impossible to bypass the fuel or ignition systems as we did years ago. However, there are still a lot of people out there that have hung onto some of the cars from that era. Most likely they've been kept parked alongside the garage as a future project or hung onto for some sentimental reason. Some (very few) are in great shape, others… well, they look like zombies already. What makes them zombies? The brain… the brain… they need brains! Just this past week I had several of these faded paint monstrosities lined up in the parking lot. (They never come alone… always in a pack.) For starters an old dilapidated 1986 Dodge pickup with a slant six. This old rusted, tilting to one side relic had been at another shop for a tune-up, but as the story was told to me by the owner, the other shop tried to start it when a fuel line ruptured and caught the old truck on fire. Luckily, they managed to get it out, but the damage was already done. The main harness from the firewall to the distributor, coil, charging system, blower motor, oil sending unit, temp. sender, and the starter wiring were completely melted into an unrecognizable mass of plastic and copper. It was my job to bring this dilapidated hulk back to life. However, the original spark control computer had melted as well, and was unusable. Worse yet, the brain was discontinued eons ago with no replacement parts anywhere to be found. This zombie needs a brain, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to get one. At this point the only solution was to do away with the electronic brain and try to refit the old slant six with a much simpler ignition system from a decade earlier if at all possible. A lobotomy if you will. (Dr. Frankenstein would be envious.) Then there was this 2002 Mustang that moaned and groaned while dragging one foot into the shop. It needed a new BCM (Body Control Module). Call the dealer, call the parts warehouse, call everybody! Anybody! Is there a brain for this car? Nope, discontinued. Seems this particular BCM was a rather rare brain out there in zombie land, and at the time, nobody was setup to rebuild them. It seemed this car was destined to wander the city streets with the rest of the zombie mobiles. At the same time this was going on, in comes a 1982 Ford Bronco with the original Variable Venture carburetor still on it. Ok, not a brain, but just as bad. It qualifies as a zombie for sure. Trying to find a suitable replacement these days is a challenge. Ten or twenty years ago this would have been no problem to find a carb. kit (if you dared) or the Holley conversion kit for it, but not today. This trend of bringing back the dead looks like it’s only going to turn into the next zombie apocalypses. As these electronic systems get more and more complex the likely hood of your family truckster turning into a zombie is just a matter of time as each new model comes out. In some ways, I believe the manufacturers have thought this out long before there was a potential of these cars becoming zombies. In my youth it was nothing for me and a few friends to grab an old car out of a junk yard and raise it from the dead. Ya just had to throw a few shots of gas down the carburetor, add a few wires and a fresh battery and fire it up. The rust would fly, the engine would clatter, the smoke would billow out from under the hood, as the exhaust roared out of every crack in the manifold. Those days are long gone now. They may have engineered a longer lasting engine, better paint, and for the most part, the interior can hold up to the ravages of time, however, the electronics, are their weakness.
Although, these zombie mobiles seem to be coming out of hiding more often than ever before. Reviving some of these early electronic zombies may happen, but on the other hand, it may be a futile effort. The truth of the matter is… these resurrections are not as easy to do as it was so many years ago. There are countless problems that have to be overcome to bring some of these rusted heaps back among the living, especially if you’re in an area that requires emission testing. Just trying to bypass some of those early electronic brains when a replacement part can’t be found can be a real challenge. The good news is that there are a lot of guys out there tearing these brains apart and rebuilding them. But even then, there are some zombie cars that will never make it and eventually die from the lack of a brain, while others wander aimlessly from shop to shop still searching for their elusive electronic gray matter.
Even after you manage to find a brain for these living dead vehicles it’s likely something else is going to go wrong. After all, being cast aside for so long, all the hoses, belts, and gaskets have dried up. Something will more likely fall off just like you would expect from any other zombie wandering around. And, you know, just as soon as the latest zombie joins the living something will undoubtedly come tumbling to the shop floor. Whether it’s coolant, oil, a belt, or perhaps no#2 connecting rod, something is not going to stay in place. Just like in every zombie movie I’ve ever watched,.one of them will always have an arm or leg falling off. It sure seems that these zombie cars follow right along with that same affliction. It’s safe to say, these relics of the early electronic era of the automotive world are in some respects the car equivalent of a zombie: half dead, half alive…and in search of a brain they may never find. So if you’re ever sitting at a traffic light when an old faded-out-rusted-up-completely-dented car sporting a shattered windshield, screeching brakes, and accompanied by a creepy dense fog of oil smoke, that envelops the entire car, pulls up along side of you ... only to pull away leaving nothing but a trail of smoke and the foul odor of bad gas behind, don't be alarmed. It’s just another four wheeled electronic wonder beginning its transformation into a "ZOMBIE CAR".