In a Facebook discussion the other day, a friend of a friend made the following comment: “I don’t really want an old car……I can’t imagine the upkeep.” Over the last year, I’ve been using my 1978 Chevrolet Blazer as regular transportation. This morning, for the first time, it had a mechanical issue. Here’s how it all went down, and what it cost to fix, versus your average, everyday used car. For this example, we’re using the 2011 Honda Accord.
I’ve done a lot of work to the Blazer over the last 18 months, but none of it was entirely necessary. It ran and drove just fine, but when we put it on the dyno with my pal Brian Lohnes from BangShift.com, it was churning out all of about 150hp. That’s lousy and inefficient for a 350-cu.in. V-8, so I made some changes, including a new carburetor, new intake, and better, more efficient heads.
The one thing I didn’t change, and hadn’t been changed probably since the late 1980s was the alternator. It seemed to work just fine and charged the battery the way it was supposed to.
Alternators tend to work until they don’t, and a few weeks back, as I rolled into my polling station with my son on Election Day, it stopped doing what it was supposed to.
With a jumpstart, I got it fired up again, but noticed that the turn signals were running at about half-speed and falling, a sure-fire indication in an older car that the alternator isn’t charging the battery.
I turned it around and headed for home, wheeling the Blazer in the garage just as the battery was about to give out. When I put a voltmeter on it, it showed that the alternator was churning out just 10 volts, nowhere near the 14 it’s supposed to to keep the battery charged.
Yes, my old vehicle had failed me, but I realized what was going on before it left me stranded.
So what’s it take to fix it?
A quick internet search reveals online pricing of $31, plus $11.38 for replacement belt, which it doesn’t really need, but it’s a good time to replace it. I ended up paying a few more bucks to get it locally: $39, plus the cost of the belt.
Replacement is a snap. GM alternators from this era had only three wires and an internal voltage regulator, so it’s a matter of removing a 7/16-inch nut holds a couple of wires in place, and a harness that comes out with the push of a tab.
Remove the 1/2-inch slide bolt and the 9/16-inch pivot bolt and the alternator drops right out. The belt loops onto the pulleys, and the bolts are put back in place. Pull the belt tight, tighten the slide and pivot bolts and reinstall the negative battery cable and you’re done.
I’m no world-class mechanic, and I replaced it in nine minutes flat. If I absolutely had to, I could’ve done it in the parking lot of the parts store.
In the dark.
While it was snowing.
Now let’s take a look at the 2011 Honda Accord alternator: Online, it lists for $128.58. Again, it’s a good time to replace the belt, which is around the same price as the Chevy’s belt. But you’ll want to simultaneously replace the belt tensioner, which is almost guaranteed to fail if you don’t. That’s $65 for a replacement belt and tensioner kit.
Swapping out the alternator in the Accord requires a lot more time under the hood. It’s packed tight in there and the alternator doesn’t just come right out. You’ll have to take off the air inlet, plastic radiator cowl, unbolt the top radiator mounts, remove the electric fan, and remove the radiator overflow bottle. You’ll also need a sizeable breaker bar to release the tension on the tensioner. None of it’s all that difficult, but it’s not something you’re going to be doing in a parking lot.
Starter replacement is the same story. Online, a high-torque, OEM-spec K5 Blazer starter carries a price of about $69. You could get away with an aftermarket version of the same for $39. Replacing it requires crawling under the truck, but there’s tons of room to work down there. Disconnect the negative cable from the battery, disconnect the positive cable from the starter terminal, and with a half-inch socket, a ratchet and an extension, you can drop out a Chevy 350 starter in minutes.
A starter for the 2011 Honda Accord is $111 at a minimum. Replacing it requires the same disconnection of the battery cables, but to replace the starter, you’re also going to have to remove the radiator and the intake manifold.
All of that work is certainly doable by your average DIY mechanic, but it’s going to take a lot longer.
So what if you’re not up to doing it yourself? According to three different sources online, the average replacement cost for an alternator replacement on a Honda Accord runs about $500 for parts and labor. The replacement cost for a starter including parts and labor runs closer to $650.
If you went to a garage to have an alternator replaced on a vehicle like this K5 Blazer, the cost would run in the $175 range. To replace a starter, the cost is somewhere around $225.
There are loads of reasons not to drive an older car. Safety is a big one, especially if you’re spending a lot of time in the car with kids. But the cost of maintenance shouldn’t be one of those considerations. Every single major component — from the engine block right back to the brake light bulbs — is significantly less expensive, and less expensive to repair and replace in any relatively common American car or truck from the 1960s and 1970s.