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Zombie Cars

“Brains, Brains, we need Brains!”


Zombie cars? What’s a zombie car? Way back when we used points and condensers and later the basic electronic ignition systems cars didn’t need brains (ECM – Electronic Control Module), but that all changed in the mid 70’s on some imports and pretty much on everything else by the time the 80’s came around. Some of these brains were only cursory and didn’t actually control the car, but merely watched for emission issues, while others played a major role in the actual ignition spark or fuel delivery systems.


Most of the engines in those early years of electronics still used the same basic distributor setups (with a few exceptions) as their earlier counterparts that used the old tried and true points and condenser type of ignition systems. On those older models it was rather easy to slap a different distributor in it or change it over to electronic ignition, (which worked quite well by the way). These days, well, it’s not that easy. These computer systems have become so involved into the engine controls and other related systems that it’s nearly impossible to bypass the fuel or ignition systems. However, there are still a lot of people out there with low mileage cars from that early era that have kept them parked alongside of the garage or hung on to them for some sentimental reason. Some (very few) are in great shape, others… well, they look like zombies already.


What makes them zombies? The brain… the brain… they need brains! Just this past week I had several of these faded paint monstrosities lined up in the parking lot. (They never come alone… always in a pack.) For starters an old dilapidated 1986 Dodge pickup with a slant six. This old rusted, tilting to one side relic had been at another shop for a tune-up but, as the story was told to me by the owner, the other shop tried to start it when a fuel line ruptured and caught the old truck on fire. Luckily, they managed to get it out, but the damage was already done. The main harness from the firewall to the distributor, coil, charging system, blower motor, oil sending unit, temp. sender, and the starter wiring were completely melted into an unrecognizable mass of plastic and copper. It was my job to bring this dilapidated hulk back to life. The problem was the spark control computer was shorted out and unusable. Worse yet, the brain was discontinued eons ago and no replacement parts were available. This zombie needs a brain, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to get one. Seemed to me, a better idea was to do away with the electronic brain and refit the old slant six with a simpler ignition system than what it originally had. A lobototomy if you will. (Dr. Frankenstein would be envious.)


Then there’s this 2002 Mustang that needs a new BCM (Body Control Module). Call the dealer, call the parts warehouse, call everybody! Anybody! Is there a brain for this car? Nope, discontinued. Seems this BCM is a rather rare brain out there in zombie land. At the same time this was going on in comes a 1982 Ford Bronco with the original Variable Venturi carburetor still on it. Ok, not a brain, but just as bad. Trying to find a suitable replacement these days is a challenge. Ten or twenty years ago this would be no problem finding parts or conversion kits for it, but not today. This is going to take a bit of time to get these zombies back on the road.


This trend of bringing back the dead looks like it’s only going to continue with the economy in the shape it’s in. In some ways, I believe the manufacturers have thought this out long before there was a potential of these cars becoming zombies. Even though the car might physically still be in fair shape the components themselves are not readily available to bring these rolling dead back to life.

In my youth it was nothing for me and a few friends to grab an old car out of a junk yard, throw a few shots of gas down the carburetor, add a few wires and a fresh battery and fire that old thing up. The rust would fly, the engine would clatter, and the exhaust would roar. Those days are long gone now. Cars could be dead for a very long time in that salvage yard or behind the shed and easily brought back to life in those days. Nowadays, the engine and other mechanicals hold up a lot longer than years ago. Even the body and interior can hold up pretty good, but the electronics are not as friendly with the ravages of time, temperature, and the weather.


These zombies seem to be coming out of hiding more often than ever before. Reviving some of these early electronic zombies may happen, but on the other hand, it may be a futile effort. The truth of the matter is… these resurrections are not as easy to do as it was so many years ago. There are countless problems that have to be overcome to bring some of these rusted heaps back amongst the living, especially if you’re in area that requires emission testing. Just trying to bypass some of those early electronic brains when a replacement part can’t be found can be a real challenge. Some never make it and eventually die from the lack of a brain, while others wander aimlessly from shop to shop still searching for their elusive electronic gray matter.


Even after you manage to find a brain for these living dead vehicles it’s likely something else is going to go wrong. After being cast aside for so long all the hoses, belts, and gaskets have dried up. Something will or is about to fall off all by itself. Just as soon as one of these zombie mobiles makes an attempt to join the living something will undoubtedly come tumbling to the shop floor. Whether it’s coolant, oil, a belt, or a pressure hose off of the power steering, something is not going to stay in place. Just like in every zombie movie I’ve ever watched, one of them always has an arm or leg falling off. It sure seems that these zombie cars follow right along with that same affliction.

It’s safe to say, these relics of the early electronic era of the automotive world are in some respects the car equivalent to a zombie, half dead, half alive…and in search of a brain they may never find. So don’t be surprised if you’re at the next traffic light when an old faded-rusty-dented car with a shattered windshield, screeching brakes, and plumes of smoke that seem to follow it no matter where it goes, comes to a stop next to you. It’s just another car beginning its transformation into a “ZOMBIE CAR”.



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What a fun article, very enjoyable. One question; How many techs these days even know what a variable venturi carb is? When I worked for Ford in the 70s, I remember going to a training course on those VV carbs, not fun.


Always look forward to reading your articles each week, it's like a treasure hunt...you never know what you are going to find!

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What a fun article, very enjoyable. One question; How many techs these days even know what a variable venturi carb is? When I worked for Ford in the 70s, I remember going to a training course on those VV carbs, not fun.

I have no idea what it is.

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Told you Gonzo... many techs (and some shop owners) probably never heard or saw a Ford/Lincoln Variable Venturi Carburetor.No

Now I know we're both getting old Joe. ROFL

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The story reminds me of the term "Frankenstein cars" Cars fixed or built from peices. How about a story on that Gonzo?

Cool idea, I'll work on that one.

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      Most shop owners would agree that the independent auto repair industry has been too cheap for too long regarding its pricing and labor rates. However, can we keep raising our labor rates and prices until we achieve the profit we desire and need? Is it that simple?
      The first step in achieving your required gross and net profit is understanding your numbers and establishing the correct labor and part margins. The next step is to find your business's inefficiencies that impact high production levels.
      Here are a few things to consider. First, do you have the workflow processes in place that is conducive to high production? What about your shop layout? Do you have all the right tools and equipment? Do you have a continuous training program in place? Are technicians waiting to use a particular scanner or waiting to access information from the shop's workstation computer?
      And lastly, are all the estimates written correctly? Is the labor correct for each job? Are you allowing extra time for rust, older vehicles, labor jobs with no parts included, and the fact that many published labor times are wrong? Let's not forget that perhaps the most significant labor loss is not charging enough labor time for testing, electrical work, and other complicated repairs.  
      Once you have determined the correct labor rate and pricing, review your entire operation. Then, tighten up on all those labor leaks and inefficiencies. Improving production and paying close attention to the labor on each job will add much-needed dollars to your bottom line.
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