Why you should care
Someone’s got to keep the antique machines running.
If anything bores Manfred Schumacher, it’s these plugs. They’re stuck somewhere under the car’s dashboard, and their cables spit out automatic error messages onto a screen — the so-called “on-board diagnosis interface.” The error messages list ailments that the vehicle may have — problems that modern-day car doctors no longer feel for by hand, nor do they diagnose with an expert eye.
Today’s way of dealing with cars in body shops across Germany is not Schumacher’s thing. In fact, he’s old-school — but his services are sought after like never before. Not bad for a 72-year-old. “I am completely booked,” says Schumacher, who’s known as the “Carburetor Man.”
In recent years, the classic car industry here has been on a tear. Last year, some 354,000 officially registered “oldies” drove on German roads, up from 254,000 just a year earlier, according to the government’s Federal Motor Transport Authority. Yet the craze has also brought with it a new kind of driver who loves old cars, and they’re not exactly the mechanic types who can tinker with the vehicles themselves. Rather, they’re head-scratchers when it comes to assessing gear under a hood and figuring out what the heck is going on when all of a sudden something goes wrong.
But making matters worse is that high-tech specialists, who are used to just whipping out their diagnostic plugs, often can’t help out either. For some time now, they’ve been learning how to fix more modern engines, and there are only a few specialists who can still restore or adjust old Solex parts with precision and pieces once produced by such manufacturers as Weber or Stromberg. Old motors may seem simple at first glance, but the fuel metering and management system is a science unto itself. “There are still technical needs for electronic parts like control units, semiconductors and transistors,” says Arnulf Thiemel, a representative from ADAC, the country’s largest auto association.
Auto manufacturers are wringing their hands, searching in vain for those who understand the old technology.
Meanwhile, folks like Schumacher — with his mop of gray hair hiding a wealth of experience accumulated from decades in body shops — are coming to the rescue. Back in 1971 he began working in production for Pierburg-Solex, a French company that made something that can only be found in lawnmowers and chainsaws today: the carburetor. The part was entirely replaced by the much more efficient fuel injection system in the ’90s. “I know every type of carburetor that was produced in Germany,” boasts Schumacher.
Demand for more vintage skills has also grown because, back in the ’80s, many classic car owners switched from carburetors to modern fuel injection systems in order to help save on fuel. And now, they want to revert back to the original — authenticity is what counts, after all. Then there all the new parts available in the market today, which are often of “inferior quality,” scoffs Peter Kronthaler. The mechanic, who attracts classic car owners from across Bavaria and works in Erl, a Tyrolean village a stone’s throw from the Bavarian border, notes that if a part doesn’t fit just right the motor will run out of center, requiring more fuel and cutting into the pleasure of driving.
To be sure, the automotive industry is trying to address some of these concerns. Some carmakers, including Porsche and Volkswagen, have started running classic car departments themselves, says Thiemel. Suppliers of classic parts are also playing a bigger role. Bosch, for one, has established around 40 “Automotive Tradition” service branches to help owners of old vehicles. And the German Federation for Motor Trades and Repairs is trying to resurrect grease monkey knowledge from a bygone era. In Bonn, the association has begun inspecting auto body shops that deal in old cars — with around 540 certified so far.
But, at the same time, auto manufacturers are wringing their hands, searching in vain for those who understand the old technology. “The demand won’t lessen,” predicts Thiemel. In fact, if in-house experts don’t know, then even established brands will turn to small body shops for assistance, one industry insider says. And these small shops, in turn, are being confronted with a problem of their own: training the next gen to take over the business.
That’s why when Dirk Kind searches for new employees for his carburetor garage in the Hessian city of Niedernberg, he mostly finds aged experts who want to earn something extra to supplement their retirement benefits. Still, it’s hard to keep up with demand — and his appointment calendar is booked for months to come. “At the moment,” he notes, “we aren’t taking on any more work.”