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Originality vs usability: Should you use modern electronics in a classic car?

With more classics reaching an age where digital ageing is now becoming a big issue, what can we do to revive old electronics?

Do you own a 1970s or 1980s classic with an electronic box of tricks? It could fail any minute now, and then your car won’t go. FIVA, the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens, has warned that early electronic systems are now at the stage where ‘digital ageing’ – the time-related degradation of components – is starting to become a serious problem. Even new-old-stock ECUs (electronic control units) sometimes don’t work any more.
FIVA’s ECU consultant, Stephan Joest, adds that the problem can only get worse in the future because the newer the car, the more complex and more numerous its ECUs are. Today’s new high-end cars can have 60 or more, so what will happen to them by 2050? FIVA is calling for an industry-wide initiative not only to find solutions for today’s ECU-controlled classics on the cusp of dysfunction, but also to ensure that potential future classics will continue to work by preserving existing component stocks and, crucially, their digital source codes.

> Read more about the problem of digital ageing here
This could be a nightmare scenario. Most modern electronic devices have a short life as fashion and technology render them obsolete, but cars are a special case. People are unlikely to throw away a Ferrari 488 in a decade’s time, for example. So, while FIVA tries to rally the troops, what can we do? And how big a problem is it?
Dave Walker of engine electronics specialist Emerald, which makes engine management systems suitable for old engines as well as new ones, says: ‘We see a lot of cars that have had grief, and the components might have been obsolete for years. We can replace an original system with a modern one, which will give a much more accurate signal.’
That will make for a better-running engine, but what if you want to keep the car original? Some foreign licensing authorities insist on originality for a car to retain its advantageous historic status, so there’s a conflict. Some early electronic systems, such as Bosch L-jetronic, relied on an old-fashioned distributor, so can that still be used? ‘It can,’ says Dave, ‘but we discourage it. It gives only two signals per revolution on a four-cylinder engine. A modern system gives 36 or 60.’
One way forward, should regulatory minds stay open, is to fit modern components inside an original casing – which will bring emissions benefits thanks to more precise management. When used ECUs for a Lancia Delta Integrale sell for £1000 or more, a modernised brain seems a sensible solution.


Words: John Simister

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