I have several small machines (chain saw, hedge shears, blower, weed whacker) powered by gas engines that no longer work. For some time I have intended to go through them and heal their problems, but I keep postponing this, so I made a vow a few days ago that yesterday (a Sunday), I would work on them. But I didn’t. Instead I spent the day happily working on a non-working old tractor I own. It is a late 1920’s Cletrac that has not been run for many years, during which it was rained on enough to develop the nicest uniform coat of rust I have ever seen, and through lack of use was terminally gummed up.
The small machines, after I repair them, will be immediately useful in the garden. The tractor will not be—in fact it does not even fit in the yard. The small machines will help my wife in her gardening, and will make her happy, even though she hates the sound of small gas engines (as do I – we won’t be pleased when the air is filled with drones). The tractor will not help her. What is with me?
Partly it has to do with when, where, and how I grew up. My parents and great grandparents went through the Great Depression scraping out a living on a small orange orchard plus outside jobs in Southern California, which at the time was occupied by many people doing the same thing. Because of this, no one considered themselves poor, and in fact in terms of satisfaction in life they weren’t, but people made what they could, bought the minimum of what they couldn’t, and repaired everything to the point where many of their possessions they built and maintained are still being employed by my brother, my children and I, including a house they built of materials such as siding from no longer used freight cars and shingles made from old orange boxes (nice house in great shape still lived in by my brother). The reigning ethic was never to throw anything away (hours spent straightening bent nails and bailing wire) and repair anything that broke. I can still hear the voice of my grandmother, sounding like the wrath of God, saying “If you can’t take care of it, you don’t deserve it!
I grew up in the middle of this, and somehow came to love making and fixing things and generally tinkering with them. Probably why I became an engineer and was attracted to hobbies that involve such activities. But I have not been able to escape wondering why these activities seem to appeal to some people (me), and not to others (my wife), and why some of them are more fun for me than others . For instance, in the case of the tractor vs. the yard machines I can think of several reasons . First of all, to me it is more of an accomplishment to rescue something that is rusted together and hasn’t worked for years, than simply diagnose and repair something fairly new. Secondly, I find older objects, with their history, different ways of accomplishing their function (and often with great aesthetic appeal overall and in their parts), sometimes more interesting than contemporary ones. And strangely enough, the task is often easier.
Why easier? Farmers were the main purchasers of tractors and other such products and they had spare time to maintain them when the weather didn’t allow them to work directly on their crops. They demanded serviceability. As mentioned they often didn’t have enough cash to hire other people to maintain their products. They often liked to work on machinery. And in those days tractors were designed to be assembled in the factory more by hand, rather than by machines, so they were designed to be worked on by humans. Finally, they were less sophisticated technically (no digital circuitry) and manufacturing technology did not allow the complexity that one finds in such things as modern multi-functional injection molded plastic parts
As a result, the Cletrac is relatively simple to take apart (few fastener types and not that many of them), understand, diagnose, and put back together. A couple of photos might help make the message, even though they are a bit confusing. The first one on the left shows shows my tractor minus its sheet metal parts and a large casting that covers the clutch, gear train, brakes, etc. Stripping it down to that level, despite the rust, took little time and was straightforward. Note the resulting easy access to the various components, compared to access of similar parts in an automobile. The photo on the right below is a close up of the components of the drive train —the differential, the transmission, and the brakes— at the same stage. If you are not familiar with such things, they are beautifully explained on the internet. But take my word for the fact that in old tractors like the Cletrac they are easy to reach and identify, and only a few standard tools are needed for further disassembly and repair, And as you may be able to see, one can work on these things without cranes, special tools, grease pits, or lying on the ground under the machine. Granted the parts are dirty and one becomes so also, but the dirt is easily removable (except perhaps under the fingernails, but dirty fingernails show that one is doing useful work).
The blower could be called more sophisticated, but although cleaner, and with smaller lighter parts, taking it apart and diagnosing what is wrong with it, finding the necessary parts, and putting it back together will be much less fun. Even the meager instructions are less intuitive. One dead giveaway to complexity and strange fasteners is the phrase “Service on the blower must be performed by qualified repair personnel only”. Another is “Using a Torx screwdriver to….” I would bet that most people buying this sort of product do not own a set of Torx screwdrivers.
It is easy to tell the difference in what is often called serviceability with respect to the tractor and the blower by looking at the manuals that came with each. The blower manual mainly consists of instructions on how to operate it (should be obvious by looking at a good product), warnings about safety, various notices obviously for the purpose of avoiding lawsuits, a full page of exemptions from the warranty, and notices such as “if these solutions do not solve the problem, contact your authorized service dealer”. I happen to have copies of the Instruction Manual and Parts Manual that came with the tractor, and they represent the opposite end of the spectrum. The Instruction Manual spends a bit of time on the tractor operation, but then goes into the details of each sub-assembly of the tractor, how to assemble and disassemble it, and how to maintain it including beautiful drawings. The Parts Manual offers drawings of each part in various exploded views along with part numbers. Neither has warnings about safety, pleas to contact the dealer if anything goes wrong, or statements of how wonderful the product is. And certainly not instructions to rely on “qualified repair personnel only”. The photo below shows two pages from the Cletrac Instruction Manual as an example. They show a portion of the undercarriage of the tractor and accompany a detailed discussion of how to test the assembly, take it apart, replace parts of necessary, and put it back together.
As I said in a previous post, serviceability is one of the central components of product quality. I am afraid we have lost a great deal of that as products have become more complex and difficult to understand. Or possibly we are considered (are becoming) less capable of taking care of our products. Or lost interest in doing so —throw it away and get a new one (as in "Oh goody, now I can get a 6S plus with 64 gigs "). Or looking at it more positively, perhaps we would rather outsource the service function to specialists, thus creating more jobs for skilled workers. Maybe I should un-retire and fix things for money for other people instead of working on my own stuff. But then my grandmother’s voice would be even louder.