A tough 2009 for the auto industry

In the motoring world, the answer to "Who will shine in 2009?" may well be "nobody". A sense of gloom pervades the auto industry as it limps into the new year, bruised and bleeding.

In the motoring world, the answer to "Who will shine in 2009?" may well be "nobody". A sense of gloom pervades the auto industry as it limps into the new year, bruised and bleeding.

American giants, General Motors and Chrysler Limited, are the most spectacular casualties, but the crisis is by no means confined to America.

In every country where cars are manufactured the government is considering how it can help the industry to avoid serious job losses, without repeating the mistakes of the British government in the 1970s and 1980s when it pumped vast amounts of taxpayers' money into the ailing British Leyland conglomerate (Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Triumph, MG, Rover, Jaguar) only to see it fail dismally in the end, taking all the money with it down the drain - a classic example of throwing good money after bad.

The sharp drop in the demand for new vehicles in 2008 is blamed on the credit squeeze brought on by nervousness in the banking world. No doubt it suits the car makers to portray it as such, but in reality the causes are much more complex. The surprising thing is that Detroit car makers seem to have been caught completely off-guard by the sharp downturn.

A blind man with a stick could see this shake-out coming, but Detroit's legions of "strategic planners" apparently never did.

Isn't it obvious that the world is heading for a shortage of crude oil, which will drive up the price of fossil fuels, forcing the vehicle market to turn away from huge, thirsty SUVs and bakkies, and creating a demand for alternative energy sources?

Admittedly, the auto industry is a cruel, unforgiving one. You have to plan now for cars that will appear in the showrooms in three years' time. If buyers' preferences change in the meantime, you are in trouble. To succeed in such a fickle market requires flexibility and nimble reactions, and for historic reasons some companies can simply react faster than others.

The do-it-yourself home mechanic can take some comfort from the fact that his knowledge, skills and experience will be valuable assets in the lean times that seem to lie ahead for the South African motorist in 2009. Someone who, by choice or by necessity, does his own car maintenance, quickly learns how he can keep a vehicle going on a shoestring.

He knows on what he can skimp temporarily and what has to be fixed or replaced immediately. He has assembled a basic tool kit, he understands enough to realise which jobs are within his capabilities and which have to be given out to a workshop. He will not easily be duped by a workshop into paying exorbitant prices for simple repair jobs.

He knows how to walk the tightrope between inferior pirate parts and unaffordable dealer prices. All in all, the home mechanic will perhaps not shine this year, but he will probably survive.

In upcoming issues we shall look at the most common car maintenance tasks that can be carried out at home with a minimum of equipment and experience. It is not always an easy matter to decide when a job can be done at home and when you have to go to the experts.

Car models differ greatly in their complexity, the accessibility of engine components and their general user-friendliness.

It is acutely embarrassing, and usually very costly, to discover halfway through a job that for some reason you cannot go further.

Therefore, it is better to err on the side of caution if you are in any doubt.

Happy wrenching!