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Once Upon A Tune-Up

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On: Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 3:14PM | By: Peter C Sessler

Once Upon A Tune-Up

Once upon a time, cars needed a tune-up every 12,000 miles or so. That provided a lot of business for the local dealer and service stations. The process was somewhat complex as well. The points and condenser in the distributor needed to be changed, or, at the very least adjusted, as did the spark plugs. Then the timing had to be reset. As 99 percent of all cars had carburetors, those devices needed some attention as well.

It should also be remembered that cars weren't able to last as long as cars today do. After 50-60,000 miles, it was expected that some oil burning should occur and it was highly unusual for anyone to keep a car for 100,000 miles or more.

Well, oil technology has changed all that and electronic controls have reduced the need for that ever-frequent tune-up.

Today, the norm is every 30,000 miles, and more and more cars are now advertised to need a tune-up only at the 100,000 mark. The reason for that is federal government regulations require that engines maintain a constant emission level without deteriorating. In order to do that, manufacturers had to rely on electronic controls along with higher quality components that last longer.

So today, while the need for a periodic tune-up is still there, it doesn't have to happen nearly as often as it used to and if you forgot or put it off a bit, the consequences aren't as bad as they used to be either. Back in the pre-electronic days, a car with bad points would have a very noticeable loss in power and fuel mileage. Today, that is not the case and it is also quite easy to convert your car to one of those that needs a tune-up at the 100,000 mile mark. All you really have to do is switch to platinum spark plugs. Before we get to that, let's take a quick look at what a tune-up today consists of.

Typically, the spark plugs are replaced. Since there are no more points or condensers to change, there isn't much you can do to the distributor except to check for cracks or for a burnt rotor. A lot of engines don't even have distributors anymore, and pretty soon that will be the case with all engines. It's cheaper for car makers to make engines without them.

Besides spark plugs, the only other thing you can do is replace the spark plug wires, but, here again, it's necessary to do so only if you notice your car is missing a lot (especially at high speeds) or if it pops and sputters as you accelerate. Your engine's timing is computer controlled, so you don't need to time the engine. So today's tune-up is pretty much a replacement spark plugs operation.

In most cases, you don't even have to do that. You can remove the spark plugs, file the tip flat, regap the plugs and then reinstall them. I normally change plugs in my car every 30,000 miles or so. This past time, I replaced them at 35,000 miles. These were plugs that were guaranteed for two years/unlimited miles. I checked the plug gap before I tossed them and found that they were only .005 from what they should be from new. Since I already had bought the new set, I replaced them anyway, with a set that's guaranteed for 3 years/unlimited miles

Now the cars that are supposed to go for 100,000 miles come with platinum tipped plugs. These withstand the heat better and the tips won't erode as quickly. Interestingly, all the ones I've seen for sale at the local department stores say that they should be changed (or at least checked) after 50,000 miles.

My advice for those needing a tune-up is to replace the plugs with platinum units and pretty much forget about them. Check them at the 50,000 mile mark to be safe or when you notice that your mileage has started to drop. If your wires have gone bad, replace them with the type used on the 100,000 mile engines.

That's about all that's needed for a tune-up these days; however, other maintenance operations are usually called for at much shorter intervals. These include filter and oil changes, belt replacement, etc. So don't think you don't have to bother looking under the hood. They haven't built an engine yet that never needs any sort of maintenance.


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