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Motorhead Memo: Maintain–repair

By Kip Woodring


The first factory-produced dealer service manual for the Ford Model T was printed in 1925. The car had been on the market since 1908. An informational “lag” of some 17 years! Sure (before lawyers and product liability), there were owner’s manuals that actually served a person well enough that he or she could take care of the car indefinitely. There were aftermarket (as we’d say nowadays) manuals aplenty as well. (As an aside, Harley-Davidson didn’t print any sort of service manual until 1940! Prior to that, the best one could hope for was to make a friend out of a dealership employee, so you could get a glimpse of the so-called “Shop Dope” sheets printed at odd intervals starting in 1917.) In hindsight, it’s hard to understand why the largest mass producer of automobiles on the planet lacked the foresight to provide this sort of all-encompassing tome much earlier. You could surmise that the old man with his name on both the product and the factory had finally realized other auto companies were gaining on him, and that was the motivation. You would also be right in thinking that with the earlier cars getting on in years and later ones ever-so-slightly changed, updated and improved, a manual would help the masses massage their Tin Lizzies into a longer life span by making fewer mistakes. Lots of reasons come to mind as to why a “factory” manual was finally deemed necessary, and all claim some validity. But the main reason is even more surprising, stupefying and mysterious… yet illuminating as hell. At least to me.

Not exactly by the book

Mind you, this manual we are referring to was intended, not for owners, but for dealerships employing “professional” mechanics. This was a relatively new concept for Ford. Henry was on record for his belief that a true people’s car, for the “multitudes,” like his, was designed from the get-go to be maintained and repaired by the owner… any owner. Intentionally simple. But, a decade and a half of experience in the field had shown that the multitudes had some pretty insane solutions to keeping their cars running. Half of them still went to blacksmiths for help and any sort of metalwork required—shall we say—lots of improvisation. Frankly, dealers were improvising almost as much. With every intention of improving things the factory intended to codify what they thought about the subject. The huge manual plainly laid out best practices, based on the American System that worked so well to build the car in the first place. They created standard rates for regular services, forced dealers to buy special (and even some basic) tools, instructed them on proper layouts for service departments, obviously pushed hard on actual service procedures for the entire vehicle, but mostly preached “division of labor.” Ford was close.

In my decades as service manager at H-D dealers, it didn’t take long to figure out that it was a good idea to give tranny overhauls to the guy who was best at it, electrical problems to those fellas that were facile with that concept, engine rebuilds to whoever showed the most aptitude for it and so on. Not to say these gentlemen weren’t capable of doing any job they got handed. It’s just like being left- or right-handed; people seem to be a tad better at some tasks than others, so you might as well play to those strengths whenever possible. Where Ford went wrong was believing in a division of dealership labor that did not recognize and enable talent, but was more akin to the type found on their very own moving assembly lines… call it a cog in a wheel. Ford figured if any old soul could build a car at their factory and most could repair one in the field, why worry about skills and talents at dealerships? Suffice to say this “Fordization” of maintenance and repair, even for something as simple as a Model T, did not work. Their plan didn’t and couldn’t account for the vicissitudes, uncertainties and plain old unpredictable situations, with which dealers and mechanics often found themselves forced to cope. To put it another way, repair and maintenance work has no connection with mass production!

Art, craft, skill… and guilds

Repair and maintenance is a feature of every place where there are vehicles. These days that’s almost everyplace. But some places have more interesting and individual approaches than others. Anyone who has visited a so-called third-world country has a sense of this. For instance, all those 50’s vintage cars in Cuba have been kept running and on the road for over half a century, without benefit of what we’d recognize as “normal” service. Asian countries teem with motorcycles, yet “facilities” don’t usually amount to much more than shacks and garages. The average age of the machines still running around in most undeveloped parts of the world boggles the imagination of American consumers, yet they continue to provide transportation daily, for decades. How do they do that? In Ghana, Africa, for example, there’s a complex called a “magazine” that as far back as the 1980’s had over 40,000 “mechanics” at work. It actually became a center for repairing (and making) all kinds of things. The kicker is the number of machine tools in this vast enterprise numbered in single digits! The tools used most were rudimentary at best. Hammers, screwdrivers and crescent wrenches are gone through like lead pencils, shared and worn down in no time. Anvils, files and other basic hand tools we take for granted are contrived and thrown together to suit the specific task and situation. The most essential, and elaborate, tools used are an old lathe or two and a few electric welding kits. Want to know the reason such a place could maintain and repair vehicles based on precision engineering, interchangeable parts and elaborate maintenance procedures outlined in thick service manuals? Well, in a sense it couldn’t! No way the place could deal with all those busses, trucks, cars and mostly motorcycles, so they could remain as they were intended or had been made originally. (The very point that Ford missed.)

Instead, over time, something awesome occurs: the vehicle is reworked to the local idiom, until it reaches a functional state of equilibrium, in which it can be maintained indefinitely. It is maintenance by constant repair. (Or, as the British might put it, “bodged into consistent functionality.”) Since these vehicles were in a daily loop of repair and usage, the notion of replacement rarely, if ever, comes up. The economics of investment and depreciation simply do not apply—costs are those of maintenance and repair. In such an environment these African “engineers” develop an intimate knowledge of engines, drivetrains, transmissions, chassis, brakes, etc. and learn how to keep things going with unlikely materials, local resources and “homegrown” skills. They transform things knowing them in many ways, more intimately than any end user. Hell, the original designers often go wide-eyed when they lay eyes on what has been made of their ideas. In the end, what initially seems like dangerous indifference to rules, practices and techniques set forth in fat, biblically-stern manuals becomes a remarkable example of extreme technical artifice brought about by deep human understanding. In essence, demonstrating that skills required for maintenance and repair are not and cannot be acquired from books and manuals alone. It has been said we learn (and teach) via three primary conduits—visual, verbal/auditory, and kinesthetic. Although all three are in play constantly, like that left- or right-handed thing I spoke of earlier, almost all of us lean heavily on one or the other, but rarely balance all three equally. For instance, three guys walk into a bar; the visual guy picks up on the wallpaper, the furnishings, lighting and such. The verbal/auditory dude couldn’t tell you a damn thing about that stuff; he’s hearing glasses tinkling, conversations two stools over, the cash register and could tell you every song he heard on the jukebox… at length and in eye-glazing detail. The kinesthetic fella, the one most likely to be a good mechanic (given time and opportunity), knows a hell of a lot less than the other two about anything they experienced, but he can tell you what the temperature felt like inside, which barstools wobbled (and how to fix them), whether one of the taps was sticking open or closed and more than likely beat you at every bar game ever invented. He learns by feeling, doing—hands-on experience. Once upon a time, and for a long time, when the world recognized that some skills (usually the kinesthetic ones) had to be acquired that way, there was a guild for it. Whatever “it” was. These guilds had men with skills (masters) taking on boys with potential (apprentices) to continue and improve a particular craft by doing it. Practice, practice, and more practice. An example very close to the point for our purposes was watchmaking. It took years, if not decades, to become a master of that craft. Even today high-end watch companies (like Patek-Philippe) have long-term programs to preserve, pass on and perfect skills dating back hundreds of years. Because there is no easy, no quick, no “other” way.

Ride, wrench, repeat

OK, right about now you’re saying to yourself, “So what? I don’t see the relevance of butchering good motorcycles—or any other vehicle—for the lack of options when I don’t have that problem here in the U.S.” Well, we’re getting to that. For now, let me digress a bit more into aircraft maintenance. Most of us are aware that the average age of commercial aircraft for domestic airlines is over 10 years. We also know that airplanes have to be massively maintained to keep from falling out of the sky. Since crashes are few and far between these days, they must be doing a good job of it. So good, it brings to mind the old joke, “If Harley made airplanes, would you fly in one?” Actually, you would, if you knew the backstory of maintenance as applied to flying machines. There’s a connection with “certified airframe and powerplant” tech and the scenario we just looked at in those African magazines.

First off, aircraft maintenance is expensive. U.S. domestic airlines, from the 1930’s through the 1960’s had a ground-based mechanic for every two members of the flight crew (including flight attendants). Maintenance accounted for just over 20 percent of airline operation costs and 35 percent of flying costs. (The Ford Trimotor in the 1920’s cost about 25 percent. It was closer to 30 percent for a piston-engined DC-6 40 years later and jet-engined DC-8’s finally got it down to that 20 percent.) The major advance in the economics of aviation between the 20’s and the outbreak of World War II was the 80-percent decrease in cost for needed maintenance of engines. The fundamental measure of such things is Time Between Overhauls (TBO) and from World War I to the early 20’s it was about 50 hours. By the late 20’s it was 150 hours and by the late 30’s, 500 hours. Where it gets interesting is TBO’s for new engines; once in service for two or three years (as techs got used to them) they were usually doubled or tripled! The Twin Wasp engines of 1936, powering the DC-3, went from a 500-hour TBO to a 1,500-hour TBO by the 1950’s. Engines introduced during the war started out in the 800–1,000 hour range and wound up more like 2,500–3,000. When jets came on the scene the TBO’s were in that same 2,500–3,000-hour range, but went to 8,000 pretty quickly and today go as high as 50,000. No doubt, improved designs, materials and manufacturing techniques played an important part in this phenomenon. But costs of engine maintenance fall most dramatically with length of service, because humans who work on them learn what needs maintaining, and the most effective, efficient ways to do it. Put differently, service schedules, routine tasks, programs, techniques and costs are not predictable in advance! No differently, I might add, whether it be high-tech aircraft or low-tech motorcycles here or halfway around the world, every tool at hand or nothing to work with, under ideal circumstances or a shade tree. The more you do it the better you get at it, period! Just ask your local Harley mechanic and they’ll tell you there’s no other way.

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