Why are they vanishing?
By Bill Carberry
Have you noticed that there are fewer radiator shops around than there were 30 years ago? The same can be said for regular auto repair shops as well. Some of the reasons are the same for the closing of radiator and auto repair shops. But radiator shops are now a very small fraction of what they used to be for some unique reasons. Years ago there were at least a couple of pages in any given telephone book with ads for the best place to take a leak. Not any more.
As late as the 1960’s the only place you could get a complete new replacement radiator was from the parts department at a car dealership. Aftermarket replacement radiators were non-existent. Because of this there was an entire industry that existed to manufacture replacement radiator cores. Their only customers were radiator shops. If a radiator failed due to wear & tear or collision damage and was not repairable, your two choices were new from a dealer or recored at a radiator shop. Maybe because dealer parts departments did not stock new radiators or because the prices were way too high, a radiator shop was a necessary service back in the day. It was a niche service just like carburetor, starter and generator rebuilding.
One of the larger radiator core manufacturers was a company later to be known as Modine. In the 1970’s Modine and a few other radiator core manufacturers decided to start making their own complete replacement radiators. They did very well with this new concept. They also remained loyal to their customers and sold their product only to radiator shops directly or to warehouses that sold exclusively to radiator shops. They did so well in fact that many other manufacturers got into the business. In order to get a piece of this market the “new guys” tried to beat out companies like Modine based on price. The easiest way to do this was to cut corners and make a cheaper product. Since they had no loyalty to radiator shops they also started selling to anyone that would buy their product. Before long every large auto parts warehouse was stocking replacement radiators and in turn selling them directly to general auto repair garages thus bypassing radiator shops.
Another “nail in the coffin” you might say was the introduction of the plastic tank radiator. In order to save weight and increase fuel mileage back in the late 1970’s a revolutionary new way of making radiators was being experimented with by the car manufacturers. Aluminum radiators weighed considerably less than copper radiators and they could be put together by a machine instead of someone holding a torch. Even OSHA was happy about eliminating all those problems associated with lead. Volkswagen was one of the first to use a plastic aluminum radiator in 1977. The Rabbit was a lightweight economical car and was considered by many to be a disposable car. It was not made to last long, just get good gas mileage and get you from point A to B. This first design of a plastic aluminum radiator was perceived the same as the car it was put in. Not made to last forever or even to be serviced. Just throw it away and replace it when it failed.
Chevrolet introduced PTR’s (Plastic Tank Radiators) in 1981 in a limited number of Caprices and expanded to Camaros and Firebirds in 1982. By the early 1990’s GM was putting only plastic aluminum radiators in their vehicles. They even started selling plastic/aluminum radiators as exact replacements for failed copper/brass radiators. The first PTR’s by GM were somewhat still an experimental design and had some teething problems. GM did offer support for repairing this new technology however. They offered epoxy repair kits to repair the tanks and even sold the plastic tanks separately so if a tank was damaged the radiator could be saved by just replacing the tank. Aluminum cores could even be purchased in case the core went bad but the tanks were still good. This was great for radiator shops because this was a repair procedure that only a radiator shop could easily do.
As PTR’s were used more and more in the 1980’s by all car manufacturers, a niche within a niche developed. Several radiator shops across the country started dealing exclusively in selling plastic radiator tanks to radiator shops. Plastic tanks slowly became available for most applications using them. Several early designs like the Volkswagen had very limited repair options just because of their design. Chrysler used plastic tanks on copper cores which allowed easy repair of the cores but prevented tank replacement. General Motors and Ford radiators were relatively easy to service as far as replacing the tanks. A plastic tank could even be removed to allow rodding of the core to get it back to proper cooling capacity. Unfortunately the perception that PTRs were not repairable had taken hold in the early days of their use. If radiator shops in a particular area did not jump on the opportunity to repair these radiators, the local market quickly assumed that they were not repairable at all and bought new radiators from whoever was selling them.
That gets us back to the radiator replacement manufacturers beating each other to death trying to sell their products. Although Modine had a reputation for making a quality product, that was not enough for them to keep their share of the market. It soon became a war and price was the weapon. Offshore companies got involved and brought very inexpensive radiators to the American market. Yes, they were cheap but many people did not care or were not told of the quality difference. The average motorist was told their radiator was not repairable and they needed a new one. This was easy for them to believe especially when they saw that the radiator was plastic. The repair shop would call their local radiator shop for a price on a new radiator, but wait a minute! Who was that in here just last week saying he could sell us new radiators? It was the same parts house that was selling radiators to the radiator shop. Let’s bypass the middleman and buy direct! That’s how it started.
After a while if one manufacturer thought they were not selling enough product in a particular area they went as far as opening their own warehouse and selling direct not only to repair shops but even to the retail market. This is when things started getting really tough for radiator shops. In the past they might have been the areas only source for a new radiator but now they were competing against actual manufacturers and the local parts store. Some radiator shops had built up a large volume of sales to people that thought plastic/aluminum radiators could not be repaired. In fact many radiator shops even perpetuated the myth that they could not be repaired. As long as they were making money selling new ones, who cared? As time went on, profit margins decreased for everyone due to the proliferation of different radiator brands available. A parts store was happy to make $20 or $30 over cost on a radiator because that was $20 or $30 that they were not making before. And they already had a fleet of delivery vehicles all over the place anyway. Little by little most radiator shops lost their sales of replacement radiators to repair shops. And since most people already thought that plastic tank radiators were not repairable anyway, what was left for a radiator shop to do? So because plastic tank radiators were perceived to be a poor quality design and not repairable a chain of events was started that has put many radiator shops out of business.
Another factor that you might not have realized is that cars in general are made better now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Believe it or not plastic tank radiators do have some advantages over the old copper/brass design. The old fashioned radiator was made of many different pieces all soldered together. The soldering process required the use of flux. The problem was and is that at the joints where the tubes were soldered into the tanks of the radiators a process called “solder bloom” would occur. This was a result of different metals (copper, brass, tin, lead) all being exposed to liquid. Eventually this solder bloom would grow to the point where the radiator was clogged and it would not cool the engine properly. As far as leaking, why do you think there were so many radiator shops around in the past? Copper/brass radiators leaked on a pretty regular basis. Combine that with failed water pumps and thermostats that put extra stress on them and you could almost count on a leaking radiator before a car hit 70,000 miles. The failure rate of these parts and others was a result of the limited technology they were designed with. Todays engines are designed different and better in many ways so that the new radiators are not subject to the heat and pressure caused by the failure of other components. Todays cooling systems generally operate at around 18 psi. If you subjected an old design copper/brass radiator to that pressure day in and day out it would likely fail even more often.
Cars being made better are one common reason for the diminishing amount of auto repair shops and radiator shops. The cars of today have much larger intervals between required maintenance. Antifreeze is now designed to last 5 years or longer. In most cases it does. The next time you are getting gas, look around and see how many cars are having their oil checked. Probably none. Newer cars don’t leak or burn oil nearly as much as the older cars. Therefore people don’t ruin their engines as often from neglecting to check or change their oil. In the 1970’s it was unusual for a car to reach the 100,000 mile mark. Now it is commonplace. The manufacturers even warranty drivetrains for that long. They wouldn’t stick their necks out that far if they didn’t think their product would last that long.
I like to compare the situation that radiator shops are now in to what blacksmiths faced about 100 years ago. As people bought more and more cars, putting shoes on horses became a much less needed service. Blacksmiths may not be in every town like they were in 1900 but they are still needed. Before long you might be able to buy a new radiator for your new car in the supermarket next to the oil and washer fluid. But if you have a classic car or truck and you know that the copper/brass radiator in it can be repaired you will only have one choice. That will be to find a radiator shop that still has a torch & solder and a radiator repairman. If you can find a radiator shop that really likes old cars & trucks then you will be in good hands. As long as there are classic vehicles on the road there will remain a need for radiator repair shops.