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Above: a Dynamo. Below: An Alternator.

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Progress, I Think They Call It





My father had a business in auto parts in India before we moved to Canada and made it our home. So I grew up surrounded by lingo relating to the workings of cars and trucks, and to tires (‘tyres’), batteries, pinions, pistons, etc.

I finished high school early at the age of 15, and immediately latched onto the goings-on in my father’s store, even though the first year at university kept me busy much of the time.

I quickly discovered the world of the dynamo and armatures. Manglu the Mistry (Mechanic), as we called him, worked down the street. He specialized in one simple task: the re-furbishing of auto dynamos.

A ‘dynamo’ was the gizmo in every automobile whose job it was  to generate the electric current required to start the vehicle and keep the machine going.

It was a relatively expensive item and unfortunately tended to burn out from time to time. More specifically, it had a metal core which was wrapped in an intricate pattern with endless yards of copper wire.

This part of the dynamo was known as the 'armature' and was the portion which either burned and melted due to overheating or the wiring somehow became loose and made the generation of current inadequate.

Manglu’s expertise was in re-wiring the armatures. Clients would drop off the defective armatures at our store, and we sub-contracted the work to Manglu who, with the help of half-a-dozen employees of his own, completed each job within a few hours at a minimal cost.

Manglu was good at what he did, and he did it honestly. His reputation as a wiz of a mechanic was wide-spread. I remember watching him tackle a problem on many an occasion. He’d open the bonnet (’hood’) of a car, start the engine, perk his ear and listen to the whirrs and gurgles that emanated from it.

Ah, he would say, it’s one spark plug that is missing the beat. He would zero in on it, unscrew the plug, clean it and put it back. The engine would sound fine, and he would send the owner away with no bill. It was nothing, he would say.

Not long after I was introduced to this world of automobile technology, it underwent a revolution of sorts.

An American company, Prestolite, announced that a new gizmo called the ’alternator’ would soon replace the dynamo. The new gadget was to be more efficient, did not require frequent repairs and could possibly even outlive the vehicle.

The price of the alternator, two or three times that of the old gadget, was justified by the projected long-term savings.

Sure, it could have defects too, or could also break down sometimes. Unfortunately, if this did happen, the repairs could only be done with the help of new and sophisticated equipment. The traditional mechanic, like our Manglu, could not take on the new product since the training on the new product required a level of education the ordinary auto mechanic did not have.

Moreover, the two-week-long course was taught only in faraway, metropolitan Calcutta.

As the number of vehicles using an alternator instead of the dynamo grew, Manglu’s work dwindled and ultimately dried up completely. He let go his employees, closed shop, and returned to his village, never to be heard of again.

During my summer holidays, I was sent to Calcutta to learn the art and science of repairing an alternator. I spent two weeks alone in the bustling metropolis, learning how to dissemble one and then put it back together. It is very fragile, we were warned, and has to be handled very, very carefully with state-of-the-art equipment! Carry out a series of tests, identify the defective ’transistors’ if any, replace the defective component(s), reassemble the whole contraption and then re-install it into the vehicle.

Since the promise was that the new product would not break down as often, access to it through the innards of the engine was not kept as easy as it used to be with the dynamo. Therefore, it was now located behind an intricate network of wires and gadgets. Getting to it, extricating it, and then putting it back, also required new equipment and expertise.

As one who is all thumbs when it comes to things mechanical, I managed to live through the trauma of the two-week training only because the evenings were brightened by dinner on sparkling Park Street, loitering at the book-stalls in New Market, walks through glittering Chowringhee Avenue, and movies at the MGM, New Empire and Lighthouse cinema palaces.

It was the summer I first saw Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and a dozen other delights -- all ample compensation for my two-week ordeal.

When I returned home, I diligently introduced some of the workers in my father’s store to the equipment I had brought back with me and the pleasures of repairing an alternator. I washed my hands of this short-term career as soon as I could, and returned to my books at school.

Before long, my father’s store became the only business in the area which offered repairs to alternators if and when they fizzled out. Which they did with remarkable frequency, despite the hype from the manufacturers and promoters of the new wonder product.

The dynamo, before long, became a thing of the past.

A few years later, we moved to Canada. I continued my studies at a Canadian university. With the arrival of my first winter here, I purchased a car -- a used jalopy which matched my pocket and limited needs.

With the full onslaught of the first winter I experienced in Canada -- I was in the far northern clime of Thunder Bay, on the farthest tip of Lake Superior -- my car, a brave but timid Karmann Ghia, started complaining in the mornings. Sometimes, it just dug in its heels, mule-like, and wouldn’t do nothin’.

So I took it to an auto repair shop.

A fellow looked under the hood -- being a Volkwagen, it was located in the back! -- and fiddled around for a while, and then announced: “Sorry. Bad news. It’s the alternator!”

I said, fine, fix it then.

No, he said, you don’t fix them alternators. You just throws them away and gets a new one when it goes bust.

Ah, I said, but maybe a transistor or two may have burnt out, that’s all.

What’s a transistor, he muttered under his breath, and raised his eyes towards me with an askance look of “I knew you’s was strange!” 

And then, he added: “You been long in this country?”

I sought out his manager for help. The manager explained: we don’t repair alternators. No one does. They are not reparable. At least, we’ve never heard of anyone opening up an alternator. When one burns out, you throw the whole damn thing away and get a new one. They come sealed. They go sealed. Simple as that.

I went for a second opinion. And a third. Everyone said the same thing.

So, I had the alternator replaced. It cost me $250 or so, I remember. [The year was 1972. That was roughly a third of what I had paid for the car!] Plus $75 for labour.

I recalled we used to repair the same things for 50 rupees ($4 then) back in India. But East is East and West is West … I didn’t complain and drove away.

A few days later I was back. The problem was still there, the engine still fussing when it got very cold.

The fellow stuck his head under the hood again. And announced: this is an old car. You need a complete overhaul. Change the battery. The ignition coil. The wires. The plugs. The rotor. The distributor. That should do it.

It’ll be as good as new, he added triumphantly.

But why did you change the alternator the other day then, I asked frantically.

Well, he said nonchalantly, we would've changed it anyway today.

What exactly is wrong with the car today, I asked.

I told you, he said, it’s the whole bloody electric system, that’s what.

What could I do, being the proud owner and desperate to have transportation through temperatures that went down to 30 and 40 degrees, sometimes even 50, below zero? Centigrade (Celsius, I was corrected!)

I spent another $200 and, as directed, had everything replaced.

The problem didn’t go away, though.

In desperation, I went to yet another mechanic, a friend actually, who merely dabbled in auto repair as a hobby. He listened under the hood. The fan belt’s loose, he said. He tightened it, and away I went.

The car started like a hungry cat every morning after that.

I should add one more fact. The mechanics who had renovated the insides of my car had a ‘computer centre’ to diagnose such problems. And did use it. They were licensed mechanics too, all of them. Trained and certified.

Progress, I think it’s called.

January 17, 2015


Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 18, 2015, 8:19 AM.

Thanks for resurrecting the dynamo, the power house of the car. My hands-on experience came with my first car, an 'Austin 40' in 1954. It was a first expensive lesson to learn. The cars in that era were all manual. The automatics hadn't come up yet. I took the clutch pedal for a foot rest and soon damaged the clutch plate and the car could hardly move. Occasionally, the dynamo would act up. By this time in 1957 I was on the plantation and we had a full-fledged motor workshop with a Chinese foreman and his assistant. They were our Manglus (mechanics) and could strip a vehicle and reassemble it as good as new. The quick test to check the dynamo would be to switch on the headlights and accelerate. If the lights did not brightened up then it had a problem. The first step would be to check the two-spring loaded carbon pieces that connected to the commutator. The other major problem was the radio interference, especially for us radio amateurs. We had a handbook to deal with that problem. Then came the first alternators that produced AC voltage that had to be converted into DC by using bridge rectifiers that consisted of 4 diodes (not transistors). Being an electronic buff, I was quite familiar with the circuitry and with the help of a multimeter could quickly identify the problem. Somewhat difficult part was to remove the alternator and refix it, ensuring that the belt was tight enough and did not slip. This is my ode to the dear old Dynamo that served us well.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 18, 2015, 4:07 PM.

May I add a little more juice to Sher ji's courtship with dynamos. Nowadays almost all cars are automatic and have just two pedals to handle its locomotion. Here I take you back to the Forties. This applies only to those born before then and had the luxury of a car by whatever means. I remember I first drove a car at the age of 12 or 13 -- an open-hooded Chevrolet, no less. It belonged to a school friend's family and every evening it was driven to what was known as 'Ladies Garden' in Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) and name mutilated into 'Fazalabad' just because King Faisal donated some money. This is when we got a chance to drive. With that initial knowledge I also got a chance to look under the hood and usually hung around the motor workshops near our house and picked up some rudimentary information about vehicles including the lingo. If the 'mistry' under the vehicle shouted 'Oye, hand me the 'plaas', he meant 'pliers'. With that kind of exposure I didn't have to learn how to drive. It just came with the milk.

3: Baldev Singh  (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 18, 2015, 7:30 PM.

Crikey! You gentlemen are making me feel thirteen! What a lovely, poignant story from yesteryear when things were 'made to last' but quickly that theory went out of the window with the American Dream and throwaway society ... and its throwaway people too! So sad that we have taken the planet to the edge of catastrophe and oblivion in just 50 years! We really do need to recycle and reuse everything we can! Thanks, Sher ji, for a lovely reminiscence and great parable!

4: H. Kaur (Canada), January 19, 2015, 12:49 AM.

It is progress for people who manufacture things to throw away, just not those who have to pay an arm and a leg.

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