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Lost Knowledge, Old Catalogs, And Thinking Outside The Box...


This is my 60th entry into the Garage Tech portion of the website. Many of you reading these entries, have sent me an email to say "thanks" for explaining how things work, and thanks for helping me solve my fuel, electrical, cooling etc, problem. To all of you I say..."you are more than welcome", and there will be more to come.

I have also received a few emails asking "why are you giving all of this information and tech advice away for free...?" Simple. If you know how something works or is supposed to work, then fixing it or operating it is much easier.

When you call me to order parts, you will know exactly what parts you need and why. That makes my life easier as well. makes owning an antique vehicle much more fun, and that antique vehicle is more likely to get preserved and passed on to the next generation to enjoy.

By now most of you have experienced what it is like to visit a modern auto parts store. Everything is on computer and they look up parts by application. Many of the people behind the counter are much younger than we are, and have little or no mechanical experience, especially with antique vehicles, or auto parts installation in general. As a result they do not have the ability to "think outside the box" and look at a part and know exactly what it does, how it functions, making the part number and application secondary.

Here is an example of what I mean... I needed a mechanical brake light switch for my Fairmont railroad motorcar after it was finished. There were not any brake lights or taillights on a Fairmont railroad  motorcar originally from the factory, because only one car was operated at a time, and mostly during daylight hours. But I needed a brake light switch that would activate a brake light when I moved the manual brake lever forward. That way, when I ride with a group of motorcar owners they know when I apply the brakes, and can follow me after dark and not run over me.

I knew from working on various antique vehicles growing up that a brake light switch from a 1951 Chevrolet pickup could be made to work. That same brake light switch was used on dozens of different applications besides automotive, including my 1958 Cushman Truckster. It was also sold back in the day as a "universal brake light switch." I knew how it worked, and I knew how it mounted, and was sure I could make it work on my motorcar.

Going to the local auto parts to get one proved more difficult than I could have imagined. I went in and asked for a brake light switch for a 1951 Chevrolet pickup...(knowing they look things up by application) "it has been discontinued" was the reply after a 20 minute computer search. So I asked for a "universal" mechanical brake light switch.  "For what application...? " came the reply..."doesn't matter it's universal fit..." I reply. Look in your illustrated parts catalog under brake light switches it will be in there..." Then came the deer in the headlights look.

One advantage of living in a small town is that you can go back behind the counter and look up things for yourself. I did and there it was on page 167 of the catalog. Together we went back to the parts shelf and they had two in stock. I grabbed them both to save myself some aggravation in the future.

Those of us that are older, can remember going into an auto parts store and asking the guy behind the counter for a universal brake light switch and the counterman would immediately go get one off the shelf without looking it up. Same when I used to go get tune-up parts for my old Chevrolet pickup. I could just go the counter and say points, plugs, condenser, cap, and rotor for 1951 Chevrolet pickup and it was on the counter in five minutes or less. The counterman knew without looking up in the book, exactly what I needed.

Part of that came from the fact that most every counterman "back in the day," was also a mechanic on the side and had personally tuned up a Chevrolet and knew first hand the job I was going to do.

That vast knowledge of parts and procedure has disappeared for the most part. That older generation of parts countermen have long since retired and have been replaced with a counterman (or woman) that is good with a computer but often times does not know a water pump from a spark plug, has never actually installed either, and does not know what function they provide, and could not point out either part under the hood of an automobile.

 So...if you are lucky enough to find and auto parts store with a counterman who has the knowledge of your antique vehicle, be nice to him and capture all of the knowledge you can get from him, while he is still around.

Most auto parts stores today also do not have any paper catalogs, everything is on the computer, but you may find a long established auto parts store that has a bunch of old catalogs stored in the basement or upstairs that they are willing to get rid of... "because they are obsolete..." Load them up and take them home. Study them during the long winter nights and you might be surprised at what you learn.

We as antique vehicle owners have to be more self sufficient today than ever before. We are at least three generations away from when our antique vehicles were a daily driver.  With the increased lack of general "hands-on" knowledge, it becomes more of a challenge to get what we need at a modern auto parts store.

The modern full line stores like NAPA and Carquest carry a large selection of mechanical parts for antique vehicles, you just have to share your knowledge and help them find the parts they did not know they had in stock, or could order.

That is why I include things like a bulb crossover number chart in the 6/12 Conversion Guide. If you were to take your 1154 tail light bulb into the local auto parts store and ask for an equivalent in 12-volts...most of the time, nobody in the store would have a clue how to figure out, that you need an 1157 bulb.

Many of the old bulb catalogs gave specifications such as candle power rating, type of base, (bayonet straight pin or offset) and single filament or dual filament for each bulb. With the paper catalogs and the counterman knowledge both gone, it is much easier if you go into the local auto parts store knowing the part numbers you need, and walk out smiling.

That is where collecting all of those old paper parts catalogs from the auto parts stores, comes in handy. You can learn a lot from them, and the older ones were much more detailed than the modern day computer catalogs, and worked much like an interchange catalog. As you study them you will begin to recognize the same part number used on a host of applications.

That is exactly what a counterman did in the old days. That is how he eventually knew what fit what, without looking it up. He had studied those catalogs long enough, that he knew all of the applications that used the same part number.

So all of this is some food for thought. Think about gathering up some old auto parts catalogs and start a notebook that you can write down part numbers as you discover them. The part numbers do change over time but the part seldom does. Many times an auto parts store can go back a couple of number changes to find the part is still available.

If you keep current on your part numbers and write them down as you buy them, then going to the auto parts store will be much less painful, and you might be able to teach the younger generation a thing or two in the process. Better yet drive your antique vehicle down to the local auto parts store and show them what you are working on. That will surely blow their mind!

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About Me

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Since 1987, Fifth Avenue owner, Randy Rundle, has been making antique, classic and special interest vehicles more reliable and fun to drive.