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"Unintelligent Design," You Say? An Automotive Parable

Rob Sheldon

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I am trained as a satellite experimentalist — triple-ought screws, gloves, alcohol rinse, Kimwipes by the crate. In grad school I worked on my 1979 Chevy Nova: timing light, dwell meter, feeler gauges, half-inch socket set, etc. The past five months, I’ve been trying to change the head gasket on a 2001 Chrysler PT. I have never, ever encountered such bizarre engineering. They have crammed a 2.4L engine into a 1L hood. Every single bolt requires thirty minutes to extract — jacking up the engine, removing the engine mounts, disassembling the exhaust, it just goes on and on.

Like some Saturday-mechanics on the Web, I am tempted to curse the Chrysler engineers one by one, knowing that the job will still take longer than the list of names.

Was the car badly engineered? Have we lost the art of building engines since 1979? Why the painful mechanics? My car repair shop flatly told me they won’t work on this car any more. Was it the result of evolution?

Well, it isn’t evolution — as you no doubt realize — it’s a case of optimizing on something else. This engine gets better gas mileage than the 1979 straight-six. It doesn’t require tuning every weekend. The plugs never need to be gapped. There is no distributer cap to adjust the dwell. The timing is self-correcting. It runs on a wider range of fuel — never knocks — including 15 percent ethanol. I can’t imagine the Nova swallowing that stuff.

It runs under a wide range of environments — high altitude, cold, hot, damp, dry. All the while producing less soot, less nitrous oxide, meeting stringent government standards. In fact, it is such a successful engine, that not only has Chrysler put it in their PT but also in their Neon, and a host of other vehicles. It is just that the PT was designed for style — hence the very small engine compartment.

So it is hard to work on, not because it is devolution in action, but because they figured no one would ever have to work on it. When the car became too old, a stylish owner would trade it in anyway. So why bother making it accessible? It is sort of like laptop computers — by the time they are discarded or sold, the technology is so old no one uses it anymore. Modern technology is disposable, never meant to be repaired. The real question I should have asked instead of cursing Chrysler engineers is, "Why would anyone in their right mind buy a used PT?"

Image source: David Brooks/Flickr.