Material Technologies

Thanks everyone for sharing enough stories to make me feel comfortable that I was not alone in driving a dangerously unsafe car back in my youth. Like I said at the beginning of the post, there was a time when taking possession of your first banger was a rite of passage for young men. (It may have been different for women: the first car of my ex-housemate was a Nissan Micra that, although in very good condition, was ginger in colour.)

Back around 2001 I had to commute between south Manchester and Warrington, so bought a brand new Renault Clio, 1.2l at the very bottom of the range (I got a new one because I knew it would work and the finance deal was pretty good). It was about as much a girl’s car as you could find, especially being bright red, but having done that job delivering cars all over Manchester I knew what it was like to drive compared to Fiestas, Polos, and the other cars in its class. I went for the bottom of the range of a small car simply to save money. I had that car for about two years and not a thing went wrong with it, it was perfect except for being a little to small for my legs. On long journeys, my knee would hurt.

What I noticed when I lovingly washed it every weekend was how much of it was actually plastic. The front wings were, and the sills covered in a rough plastic coating which didn’t chip easily. Parked outside in Manchester weather, there wasn’t a spot of rust on it even after two years. When I walked to work this morning, I tried to spot a rusty car on the way. I didn’t see one. But back when I was growing up in the 1980s? Oh boy. I read stories about how British Leyland would stamp out car panels in one factory, load them onto an uncovered flatbed truck, and drive them through the rain to be painted and installed elsewhere. Little wonder they started rusting from the moment you took it off the forecourt. It wasn’t just British cars, though. My parents had a VW Beetle which one of my school chums nicknamed “measles”, and we had two successive Mark I Golfs whose wheel arches rusted through in a few years. Back in those days, Halfords used to sell sheets of wire mesh that you’d fix over the gaping holes in the bodywork and cover with a sort of polyfilla, then sand it smooth. If you were lucky, you’d find some paint to match but a lot of people just left it at that. I doubt anyone does this any more, save for those working on classic cars.

What’s changed, aside from the demise of state-run disasters such as British Leyland, is materials technology. The steel will be of a higher quality these days, and I expect all cars are galvanised as standard. Plastics are used wherever possible, and the coating and painting systems will have advanced beyond recognition. The paint on old cars used to be very brittle, and would flake off around a stone chip. Nowadays the paint is more rubbery, and stone chips cause small pitting but don’t usually penetrate to the metal.

In my lifetime, the two massive advances in technology have been the internet and mobile technology. These have overshadowed other advances which are possibly of equal importance in terms of quality of life and wealth. Being an engineer, I have a habit of looking at modern equipment and comparing it to the kit I grew up around. The difference is incredible. Clothing is an obvious example. When I was an army cadet between 1992-1996, we were decked out in Falklands-era uniforms: heavy cotton smocks and trousers, woolen military jumpers, 58-pattern webbing made of a sort of woven canvas. This stuff was only waterproof if you sprayed it, and although it kept you warm even if wet, it trebled in weight and took a week to dry. A few of us got hold of Norwegian army shirts made from towelling, which were very warm but if they got wet the arms would increase in length by about fifty percent. By the mid-90s Gore-Tex was well established in civilian clothing lines, and fleeces were starting their period of dominance which continues to this day. Nowadays when I go hiking or skiiing, I’m amazed at how warm, light, and waterproof everything is, and not just the clothes. Footwear, tents, rucksacks, head torches, straps, buckles, and every other piece of equipment is now made from plastics optimised for that precise application. I’m sure the same is true for other pursuits, too. I don’t know much about sailing and nothing at all about golf, cycling, or motorbikes, but I’m confident the material technology in these areas is space-age compared to what it was in the 1980s.

Back then, when we went on holiday, my parents used to pack our clothes into these brown vinyl suitcases in the traditional style. They were awkward, not very strong, and the straps were splitting. Wander into a Samsonite store now and you’ll see suitcases which look to be made of body armour that weigh nothing. Even the arms of the glasses I’m wearing now are made from carbon fibre. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a piece of equipment whose usability, quality, durability, weight, and ergonomics hasn’t been improved massively thanks to the invention and adoption of new material technologies. It’s something a lot of people probably miss, blinded by the more obvious technological changes around them. We probably ought to give a small nod to the men and women who brought it about though, especially when people start railing against hydrocarbons.

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44 thoughts on “Material Technologies

  1. In addition to the improved materials, we’ve also figured out QA and basic things like attention to detail. The result is that we have cars that don’t rust.

    It’s not just cars or other things mad from metal bashing. We also don’t have corked bottles of wine anymore and even a $5 (or equiv) bottle of wine these days is likely to taste OK* – whereas in the past the bottle of plonk was likely to taste crap half the time even if it wasn’t corked. Same for beer in the 3rd world. Someone told me recently how much they enjoyed Tusker beer from Kenya which definitely surprised me because I recall that being a beer where one bottle in two was shite. Apparently even Kenyans have figured out the basics of brewing (wash all the things, all the times)

    PS this comment being made at 30,000 ft above Japan because the plane has internet on it. Another amazing change that we now just take for granted

    *OK. Admitedly this may be a fairly low bar. But the price is also low

  2. Interesting point.

    The lightweight four-wheel suitcase is indeed a marvel.

    I remember the first dri-fit top that I bought – it seemed like magic! I didn’t do much sport but that sort of kit is ideal for clubbing.

  3. I remember the first dri-fit top that I bought – it seemed like magic! I didn’t do much sport but that sort of kit is ideal for clubbing.

    I have a Helly Hansen undershirt which I can wear pretty much straight out of the washing machine. It somehow doesn’t ever get wet.

  4. A while back I saw an internet discussion with someone who believed sincerely that aside from computers, technology hadn’t really progressed much since the 60’s.

    Seriously…

  5. A while back I saw an internet discussion with someone who believed sincerely that aside from computers, technology hadn’t really progressed much since the 60’s.

    I once read a woman on a forum saying quality of life cannot be measured by the number of white goods you have.

  6. I once read a woman on a forum saying quality of life cannot be measured by the number of white goods you have

    Remove her washing machine for a month, see if she changes her mind.

  7. abacab – there are plenty of people who write for or comment in The Guardian who believe that life is worse now than in the 1970s. So, presumably, we should elect politicians who last read a book or had a thought in that decade?

    I lived through the 1970s – I know they are wrong.

  8. When I went to university, metallurgy was a bit of a fringe study. Now that it has expanded to cover materials generally, it is very much part of the mainstream. The advances over the last 30 years are almost unimaginable but paints, plastics and medical applications are perhaps the most astonishing

  9. It’s likely that your Clio of that vintage ended up far less rusty than many Mercedes of similar vintage. They went through a period in the late nineties to mid 2000s where the cars suffered pretty bad rust problems. Supposedly this is due to them switching to a more environmentally friendly galvanization process and water-based paints around that time.

  10. Back then, when we went on holiday, my parents used to pack our clothes into these brown vinyl suitcases in the traditional style. They were awkward, not very strong, and the straps were splitting.

    You were lucky. We used to dream of brown vinyl suitcases. Had to make do with a used plastic bag that was open at both ends.

  11. PeteC beat me to it. Bloke round our way had a bit of a mid-life crisis around 2008, bought himself a brand new Mercedes saloon.The rust on the wheel arches, within two years, was shocking. A customer in the mining industry told me that Mercedes had switched to steel from South Africa, for those cars built in Spain.

    Though having seen that, I realised that I hadn’t seen rust on a car for about 15 years.

  12. Vaguely related; there used to be a fair few nasty bits of road about, even on A-roads. Dodgy bends, wonky camber, misleading sight-lines. There was one on the A23, and a bend at the end of a village high street near me used to regularly flip Mini Coopers onto their roofs, for some peculiar reason. The handling of the cars of the 70s and 80s wasn’t that great, compared to today, so you really had to be paying attention or “know the road”. They seem to have all been sorted out by now, in the same time frame as the handling characteristics of cars have improved dramatically.

  13. Ducky McDuckface,

    That’s an excellent point about the roads improving drastically as well.

  14. All very true, but there are some things I miss, such as stuff – e.g. clothing – that lasted forever. I was very fond of one of my rugby jerseys. I changed clubs and then wore it in, as it were, civilian life. Then when I finally got to be too much of a middle-aged fatty, my beloved – she of the lovely, long legs – took it over and wore it around the house and in the garden. When it did eventually get lost or cut up for rags, or whatever end it finally met, it was so badly missed that a replacement was bought in which she still disports herself.

    As for suitcases, I remember the weigh-a-ton leather suitcases of my childhood; lovely things but hopelessly impractical compared to the modern wheelie. Talking of which, do you remember the awful galvanised dustbins before the age of the wheelie-bin?

    And cars: ours showed a set of warning messages at the weekend. Off to the garage, computer plugged in, problem diagnosed and corrected, all done very briskly.

    I used to bat wearing my father’s box: it may still be in use because I eventually “lent” it to the son of a friend. He’s also the chap I gave my rugby boots to. Hell, maybe he got the beloved rugby jersey too. I must enquire.

  15. So we have the invention of the combustion engine and then in the twentieth century the splitting of the atom, one hundred years ago in Manchester and the dawn of the information age. Yes we do live in interesting times and working in construction I have seen massive improvements in materials technology in my career span all of it absolutely inspiring. We now also see the advent of the consumable society whereas nowadays as others have pointed out we dispose of and update our stuff even though its is still functional rather than continue to use it.

    But when it comes to durability and natures way, nothing has changed, corrosion, oxidation, weathering or whatever you want to call it still working away doing its job, munching at things that are not in their raw state 24/7 no matter what we throw at it.

    I think concrete is a great example of this, yes we have super plasticised very high strength mixes, we have composite materials, we have fibre reinforced and we have chloride resistant concrete and the like. The technological advancements are fine but at the end of the day there is not much difference from its basic properties to the concrete that was placed thousands of years ago and is still holding up the ceiling in the Pantheon.

    I had an interesting meeting the other day with a client of ours when we were discussing a potential durability problem with an offshore pipeline coming onshore and the coating being damaged on the beach pull and thus impacting the life span of the pipe due to corrosion. Once I seen the design I explained to them and reassured them that due to the over design of sacrificial anode bracelets on their pipeline, we could actually gouge the fuck out of the entire pipeline coating and there would be no risk at all to the integrity of the pipe wall. The laws of galvanic corrosion support this but all these boffins in the room just couldn’t grasp such a fundamental concept and I just stated to them that it was absolutely true and that I wasn’t to concerned about scraping the coating off and left it at that. They can get the ulcers about nothing.

  16. dearieme; don’t get me started on that – I’ve currently (just about) still got a pair of Timberland trainers that are about 15 years old. The sole at the heel has just about worn away such they are now uncomfortable to walk any distance in. Over the past three years, new trainers have lasted about six months before the sole comes away from the body.

  17. In some respects, our bodies haven’t quite adjusted to these advances: we’re seldom really cold. This means we burn fewer calories and thius get fatter despite eating less. Funny you and Worstall issuing pieces about the same subject pretty much simultaneously. Should we worry about a nefarious conspiracy?

  18. Funny you and Worstall issuing pieces about the same subject pretty much simultaneously. Should we worry about a nefarious conspiracy?

    I haven’t checked his blog today! Will head over right now…

  19. And whilst I’m at it; potholes and road repairs. When I were a lad, the edges of every repair to a road surface (including when the utilities dug them up) got sealed with tar. You could smell the stuff boiling in the drum from miles away.

    They don’t do that now. So within 12 months, the surface is breaking up at the join. During winter, you can see it deteriorate on a daily basis.

  20. Automakers have also started to use a lot more aluminum parts because it is lighter than steel and absorbs more energy in crashes. New car smell is plastics releasing toxins.

  21. When I walked to work this morning, I tried to spot a rusty car on the way. I didn’t see one.

    How many driveways in front of houses now have a large oil-stained black patch?

  22. I don’t know much about … cycling,

    Commenting as a commuting cyclist: LED lights.

    Up to 25 years ago, cycling in the dark meant spending a fortune on expensive batteries which drained quickly, leaving me (and most cyclists) with lights that were little more than a faint glow. (Or dynamo lights, which brought their own joys)

    Now I can be lit like a Christmas tree at miniscule cost.

  23. Commenting as a commuting cyclist: LED lights.

    That’s an excellent example. I remember the old bulb lights, boy were they crap. Bulky too, IIRC.

  24. Speaking of oil leaks and rust i can only say my car has a little one and a little but it’s not worth fixing. The remarkable improvement in the quality of things is actually not slowing down. Computing technology and finite element analysis made it possible but conscious desire to shorten product life cycles meant more learnings from what worked and didn’t leading to consequential improvements coming in even faster. Improvements in goods with lower capital costs of production are coming faster still as software for injection moulding leaps ahead.

    My M5 is 16 next month. There are now two versions that have started and ceased production since and a new one out now. This is crazyily fast given that my car is more than adequate except when racing and it isn’t worth spending £70k to get better sat nav and Bluetooth streaming music.

  25. For my sins, I currently look after a small fleet of vans a work.
    Anyone who thinks motor vehicles have improved in the last 15 years is delusional. We were having a serious conversation in the office today about buying half a dozen late 1980s Ford transits, paying someone to restore them to “like new” condition, and then getting rid from the entire fleet every single vehicle built since the year 2000. Preferably by driving each one to the dealership it came from, and setting it on fire in their carpark.

    I’ve spent today trying to cure a 2012 transit pickup of a fault that puts it into limp home mode. Engine in it is under 12 months old, fitted by a Ford dealership under warranty. Took it to a local garage that specializes in them, they plugged it in, told us that no4 glowplug had gone, ECU wasn’t happy about it. They weren’t willing to attempt to change said glowplug, said it is very difficult, and that there were specialist outfits which do the deed. Rang said specialists, who quoted £860, if it all went well, potentially twice that if it went badly wrong.
    So I put it in the workshop, and did it myself. 7 hours work, a good deal of cunning and the use of a pretty comprehensive toolkit later, I triumphantly fired it back up, drove it round the block, and it went back into limp mode.

    I was then advised to try a new fuel filter. Unless you’ve changed one, it’s difficult to describe just how poorly designed and located this item is. It requires a special tool to undo, invariably drowns you in diesel, and is in a location where once released it’s almost impossible to actually get the filter out of its bit of the engine bay… Anyway, changed it, still no better, so temporarily given the problem up as a bad job.

    And it’s not that this particular vehicle is a lemon – we’ve a brand new Renault van which spends about a third of its time at the dealership being repaired under warranty – so far its had the gearbox out twice (and swapped for a recon box once) and enough warning lights come on and had to be reset that it could have been the blackpool illuminations. Oh, and the dealership broke the glove box door, and had to have it back again to replace it.

    The we’ve two near new transit customs off which parts fall with such monotony that we’ve usually barely enough good bits to make one from two.

    Most of the problems are caused by excessive complexity, and are made almost unfixable by poor design. The vehicles themselves go little better than those of 20 years ago, use more fuel, and go wrong more. They have more toys and features, that that’s of limited help when your sat a hard shoulder somewhere.

  26. Most of the problems are caused by excessive complexity, and are made almost unfixable by poor design. The vehicles themselves go little better than those of 20 years ago, use more fuel, and go wrong more. They have more toys and features, that that’s of limited help when your sat a hard shoulder somewhere.

    I had an old-fashioned, recently retired mechanic look after my cars for the last 25 years. In the end, he was servicing mostly pre-computer chip cars, such as my recently retired 1999 model.

    His view is that we will no longer be able to drive cars economically past 10 years, if even that. Diagnostics, servicing and parts replacement will all be via “authorised” outlets.

    That is before we even get to considering the life-cycle and economics of electric cars.

    I fear that the Golden Age of the car i.e. the peak of performance, reliability and affordability may have passed.

  27. cover with a sort of polyfilla

    Oh yes, Isopon P40, I can still smell it now. In order to impress a girl I once spent a whole day with that and the poxy mesh trying to fix a hole in her mini’s wing. Only thing I got out of it was a reasonable ability to ice cakes.

  28. @ducky

    “They seem to have all been sorted out by now”

    Some of them can’t be fixed without major cut to fill earthworks ie a 300mm superelevation correction asphalt course is not enough. Plus I love driving at high speeds in a manual car through the town and country roads of Mud Island with all the given challenges of the twisty narrow roads, it’s one of the last joys left.

    “When I were a lad, the edges of every repair to a road surface (including when the utilities dug them up) got sealed with tar”

    John MacAdam would be turning in his grave. UK road conditions are a pretty sad state of affairs when it comes to proper maintenance, especially when you consider the relatively high population per square metre of road. I really don’t know why it is so sub standard for a country that arguably has produced the best civil engineers in the world.

  29. Anyone who thinks motor vehicles have improved in the last 15 years is delusional.

    Oh, I can well believe vehicles overall have become way too complex and increasingly expensive to maintain, affecting overall reliability. My post insofar as cars was concerned was mainly about the bodywork: I bet none of your vans have rotten clean through.

  30. I really don’t know why it is so sub standard for a country that arguably has produced the best civil engineers in the world.

    Because repairs are carried out by government workers who firstly aren’t much interested in doing a proper job, and secondly have an incentive to ensure there is plenty of work for next year.

  31. That still doesn’t explain it my books. I have actually worked for a Government Department in Oz and did a stint in maintenance, so same situation but the quality was far higher,

  32. I like modern cars and all the gadgets they are packed with perhaps I’ve been lucky in having no problems worth mentioning in the last 15 years. I am worried about the ability to work on them as they age though, I’ve considered buying a 2008 612 scaglietti as a fun car lately but the problems with future electronic meltdowns is a big concern. Will classic cars of the future cause small firms specialising in modern classic problems spring up much like the myriad of specialist we have now?

  33. His view is that we will no longer be able to drive cars economically past 10 years, if even that. Diagnostics, servicing and parts replacement will all be via “authorised” outlets.

    With so many cars now coming with touchscreen technology and other bits of electronica, it is certainly hard to see many lasting 20 years. For comparison, not many people use a 20 year old laptop…few from that era would be serviceable at any economical cost even if their owners didn’t find them hopelessly outdated.

  34. I was thinking exactly the same as you about rust, Tim, about a year ago – was walking round a fairly rough housing estate and happened on a street with on-pavement parking where by coincidence there was a cluster of Fords, mostly Fiestas. About 8 of them within visual range of each other, of various vintages from about 1990 to a couple of years old. (The two most recent British number plate systems let you instantly work out the age of most cars, for Yanks reading this.)

    So was a good historical cross-section but of cars in active use rather than pristine museum pieces – made for an interesting like-for-like comparison. You could actually see the exact moment when they’d obviously changed something critical – every single car before a certain year had serious rust problems. Every car after that cut-off, even ones that could only be 6 months younger than the rustbuckets, might be dented and chipped and scratched or even have moss growing around the windows but no trace of rust on any of them.

  35. After a quick google to refresh my memory – the critical year was 2002. Any model after that (what was marketed in the UK as the “mark 6” and then “mark 7”, for some reason the numbers differed on the Continent) was spotless rust-wise, but the models 4 and 5 on that street (the 4 was late 80s/early 90s and the 5 was late 90s/early 2000s) were all rusting up and the older ones were developing pronounced holes in the bodywork. I occasionally see mid-80s model 3s around town, generally crammed full with what seem to be college students, and they all look in a hell of a state.

  36. Car complexity in the non-critical stuff has shot up. There’s a reason why I have an old car. My wife’s X5 is the next generation and when the battery goes flat it throws up all sorts of errors that are completely unrelated. In my car it all works until it just doesn’t start.

    Engine complexity is another emissions related issue. The Transit engine is way more complex than before to squeeze more fuel efficiency and lower use but is also way more fragile. One wonders whether the system as a whole uses more energy than before.

  37. “Wander into a Samsonite store now and you’ll see suitcases which look to be made of body armour that weigh nothing.”

    Well, born out of necessity, surely? Haven’t you seen how they handle your luggage at LHR? 😀

  38. “I read stories about how British Leyland would stamp out car panels in one factory, load them onto an uncovered flatbed truck, and drive them through the rain to be painted and installed elsewhere.”

    Absolutely true – they pressed panels in the Swindon works (still going as a BMW pressing plant) and took them on open sided lorries to Oxford (Cowley works, now BMW as well) and Abingdon (MG factory, closed in the 80s) along the A420 in front of where I lived as a kid. They also used to send them by rail, again in the open, again I used to live right by the main line they went on.

  39. You were lucky. We used to dream of brown vinyl suitcases. Had to make do with a used plastic bag that was open at both ends.

    The best we could manage was to tie a bundle with a damp shoestring.

    But we were happy in those days… although we were poor…

  40. Well, born out of necessity, surely? Haven’t you seen how they handle your luggage at LHR?

    I bought my pair when I learned I’d be going in and out of Lagos airport frequently!

  41. >Wander into a Samsonite store now and you’ll see suitcases which look to be made of body armour that weigh nothing.

    I had to sell my Samsonite suitcases, they’re very strong, but they don’t weigh nothing.

  42. I had to sell my Samsonite suitcases, they’re very strong, but they don’t weigh nothing.

    Some are super-light, some not. None are as heavy as the old ones, though.

  43. Bardon;

    The one on the A23 was cured by exactly that scale of work – about 30 years after pissing about with road signs and then speed cameras, on a hill that is probably 1 in 6. Not sure what they ended up doing in the village, probably nothing, just waited for it to kill all the Minis in the area.

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