Computers Are Like Cars. Kind Of.

It's been a while since I posted one of my tenuous analogies. Such an analogy came to me this morning in the shower. Computers are like cars. Stick with me.

Here's a picture of the first car I ever owned. It was when I was about to turn 18 and go off to uni to "study" Mechanical Engineering. Not that the degree had much to do with cars, but I spent the summer before I started tinkering with my little Mini. I did all kinds of things to it. Draining the brakes and changing the head gasket for example. The engine was easily accessible and I felt comfortable tinkering with it.


The fact it was a death-trap that my then girlfriend's mother refused to let her travel in (quite rightly so) was besides the point. It was fun. I just hope my kids (or their partners) never turn up in anything like it.

Because I happened to find them while looking for the photo above, here are shots of the two cars I owned subsequent to the Mini.

Save0246 Save0334

I remember owning a Haynes manual for the 306 but not for the Golf. I bought the Golf brand new (will I never learn!) and so it was covered by a warranty, so I never needed to touch it.

Where is this going? Well, my first computer was like the Mini. It was accessible and I often tinkered with it. Sometimes I'd completely strip it down, clean all the bits of dust and rebuild it. With the OS (Win 95) I used to know all the nuts and bolts of it. I knew exactly what each line of config.sys and auto(?).bat meant and how to change them.

Forward fifteen years and I've just bought another new car. I can't imagine for a second that I will ever even lift the bonnet. I have no interest in how it works, just as long as it does. Same goes for my latest computer. The fact it's a laptop makes it unlikely I'll ever lift the lid on its inner workings. The fact it Windows 7 means (AFAIK) there's no longer a config.sys file and I have no idea how it boots or how I'd tinker should I want to. Fact is I don't want to.

So, what's changed? Maybe it's just me and I have less time and interest in tinkering with either cars or PCs. More likely I suspect is that it's the manufacturers making a conscious effort to stop us from being able to?


  1. Ah, Mini's. My favorite car. A Mini is perfectly save, just don't hit anything with it that's bigger than you. We still had our previous Mini when our first child was born. As it was a bit too small and too loud, we bought a family car. I guess my family in law was a bit more forgiving. The current Mini is only for myself, to prevent the midlife crisis from hitting me later on.

    The laptop is a bit like the family car. It's good enough as it is and just has to work as intended. Even though it's Windows 7, it still has a auto<b>exec</b>.bat and config.sys.

    • avatar
    • ChrisC
    • Wed 18 Nov 2009 05:38 AM

    I remember my first car - company car it was as well - E Reg Red Ford Sierra Estate 2.0 (think it was GTX) - top of the range - electric windows - fantastic.

    Problem was this was 1995 and the car and done from memory 170000 miles and the previous guy that had it was a part time grocer (so many dubious stains on the seats - that was his excuse..).

    It was kind of two-tone. The bonnet was a lighter shade of red than the rest - sort of pink. Also the electric windows gave up and one window fell inside the door. Managed to retrieve it and wedged some fag paper in the window to hold it up (1995 was a particularly cold winter...).

    The most vivid memory was the stench in it - there was a leak somewhere which meant that whenever it rained a nice puddle formed in the passanger side floor area.

    The ladies loved it!!!

    • avatar
    • Lee
    • Wed 18 Nov 2009 07:37 AM

    Ah the memories. My first car was a secondhand (or more likely 10th hand) mk 1 cortina coincidentally painted in the Lotus colours (an omen of things to come maybe). Unfortunately, it wasn't a real Lotus Cortina and it had a horrible leaking fuel smell (basically because of little rust holes in the top of the petrol tank). How I never blew myself up in those days of 10 packs of No6, Sovereign and Embassys I'll never know. Ah the halcyon days when it was safe to smoke even with petrol fumes surrounding you in an enclosed box;-).

    • avatar
    • Rami
    • Wed 18 Nov 2009 12:56 PM

    I spent some time lifting the "bonnet" on a IBM Thinkpad t30, my family's "netbook". The fan failed and figured what to lose except $25USD for a used fan and pride if I could not get back together. Thinkpad's have very good/detailed maintenance manuals if you need to do anything.

    • avatar
    • Doug Finner
    • Wed 18 Nov 2009 05:31 PM

    Win 95? You youngins with all your fancy 'Windows' and 'point and click'...Heck, my first computer ran CP/M...

    I think your analogy holds up quite well. All kinds of systems have gotten more complex and, apparently, less hackable. I say apparently because there is a whole new generation of tweakers and fiddlers who work on everything from firmware to hardware to software to cars. In fact, they hack chips on cars to make them run better/faster/smarter. I think as we get older, it's a balance of time, effort, and fun vs money. I'm willing to give up some cash for things like oil changes so I don't have to deal with the waste oil and giving up an hour of my time when I could be doing something more fun for me today. For others, the equation is different and they'd rather be under the hood getting greasy.

    Checkout hackaday.com, make.com, and openprosthetics.org to get a feel for what kind of things people are doing.

    • avatar
    • Jorge
    • Thu 19 Nov 2009 02:59 PM

    I would tend to think that this correlation has much more to do with your position in life versus anything else. Think about it.

    When you got your first car/computer you had loads of time. You may have been dating, but you were not married with kids, bills to pay, etc. Now flash forward a few years. You are married with a few kids, bills to pay, a business to run, etc.

    As your responsibilities have gone up your availability to "tinker" has gone down, which probably means that "tinkering" was at the lower end of your interest spectrum.

    • avatar
    • Jono
    • Sun 22 Nov 2009 08:14 AM

    Like your analogy Jake. And funnily enough my cars have been pretty similar to yours... first was a beetle, then had two 306's then a golf (also brand new)... we now have an Audi A4 (estate - had to grow up unfortunately!). Good luck with your new motor!

    • avatar
    • Bernard Devlin
    • Sun 29 Nov 2009 07:36 AM

    My last car was a BMW 735i. Lovely, lovely car. It was about 15 years old (with 90k on the dial) when I bought it sight unseen. I sent the AA to inspect it and (after their report showed it was in perfect condition) I then turned up with the cash and drove it away. The showroom selling it said in 20 years they'd never have someone behave like me. It cost less than 10% of its cost when new, and I know nothing about cars anyway.

    After driving it for a couple of years, it got a dent on the driver's side of the bonnet. When I took it to be repaired, the guy asked me to open the bonnet. He was appalled when I told him I didn't know how to do that :-) I just shrugged.

    I drove that car for 7 years, and it was still in great condition when it was written-off in a minor accident (as a technicality - it was just too expensive to repair the body work). Even after years of neglect from me, opening the bonnet was a dream - the engine was so _clean_.

    Before owning that car I'd never realised that someone could actually _like_ the car they drove. And until then I'd never realised that driving could be fun. For the first few years of my serious back problem, the seat of my BMW was the only place I could sit and not be in pain...

    Apart from the fact it guzzled petrol (13 mpg in London), I wouldn't hesistate to own another BMW. But I don't think I'd ever buy one new.

  2. I remember fondly the 306 I owned. Mind you it was

    the bees knees GTi-6 version. One of the best cars

    I have ever owned

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