Car Parts Store Archeology

Once upon a time, oil came in cans.

They stacked nicely but made a mess when you tried to extract the oil, which you did by using a punch/funnel. In addition to making a guaranteed mess, you were left at the end of the job with five or six drippy cans that couldn’t be used to store the old oil or for any other thing. So you tossed them – along with lots of oil-mess – into the trash.

That was the ’70s!

In the ’80s, you could find catalytic converter “test pipes” hanging off the wall at the car parts place. They could be used to test the efficiency of the catalytic converter permanently. The “test pipe” was designed to fit precisely where the catalytic converter was.

Credit: CrowzRSA

In those days, car parts places also sold steering wheels to replace the one that came with your car and thereby give it a custom appearance. This was possible because, in those days, steering wheels didn’t come with airbags in them—the government hadn’t mandated them yet.

Cans of Freon were there, too.

You didn’t need to be “certified” to buy them, and they cost about $5 a can, too. But Freon got outlawed in the ’90s—ostensibly because of the Ozone Layer but actually because the patent on the refrigerant was about to expire, which would have cost the patent-holder, the chemical company DuPont, a large sum of money. It made more money by financing its illegalization by multiplying Freon’s cost and bringing forth its replacement, R134a.

People who never experienced a Freon AC system have no clue what cold AC means. As in cold enough to frost the vents. Ah well, no more.

Repair manuals were another thing you could buy for $15 or so at any car parts place. You could use them to service your car. Today, parts places have scan tools to buy to download the code you need to service your car.

Have we lost or gained?

It’s a bit of both.

There is less need for parts today, of course, and those who view cars as appliances will probably regard that as a plus. They don’t want to buy parts. They just want the car to work, and for the most part, they do. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, and even into the ’90s, when cars from the ’70s and ’80s were still in abundant use, they often didn’t.

And then you needed parts for them.

But these parts were generally inexpensive and, relative to today, easy to install. They didn’t require a computer to anoint their installation as many modern cars do, for the part to work. And it was empowering to know you could fix the car, as opposed to being dependent on someone else to fix it.

It was also possible to make a part work. If it physically fit, it just might. You could swap intakes, even engines. Today, this is not possible because cars are hard-wired together; the parts are specific to that car, and parts from another car will not work even if they fit.

The computer will not permit it.

Credit: SIGAUS

Oil changes, on the other hand, are far less messy now than they were. Bottles and jugs are an indisputable boon. All of the oil goes into the engine rather than partially on the engine. And after you’ve finished pouring the fresh oil in, you can pour the old oil into the bottles/jug and carry them to the recycling place without turning your trunk into the Exxon Valdez.

Catalytic converter test pipes (if you can find them) are still a grand idea for the cars of the ’70s. They were crippled by add-on first-generation catalytic converters, which the cars were never designed to use. The early cats worked like a cork in a wine bottle; uncorking made good sense from the standpoint of performance and gas mileage.

It doesn’t make the same sense now because cars have been designed to work with cats since the ’80s. Removing them can create more problems than it solves, including with the emissions police. Plus, the modern car will know you removed the cats and complain about it. Narc you out about it by flaring the “check engine” light, which will alert the emissions police to your malfeasance.

The disappearance of Freon is tragic.

The stuff worked better than any of its government-mandated replacements. This isn’t rose-colored-glasses nostalgic retrospecting, either. I own a car with a Freon AC system pressurized by a massive GM Harrison compressor that noticeably loads the engine when it cycles on. Some will remember this.

It can refrigerate the interior of my ’76 Trans-Am—not merely cooling it down to tolerable levels. I demonstrate this to the unbelieving, who come away, impressed, and believing.

Like the taste of real Coke with sugar in a bottle, it’s a taste of something no longer made in America.

Or sold at a parts place near you.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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