Household appliances They don't make 'em like they used to...
...or do they? John Cradden, while rebuilding his 40-year-old Kenwood Chef food mixer, wonders if household products are as durable as they once were
It could do with a respray, the smoky engine either needs replacing or a good overhaul, the rubber pulley belt needs renewing and the gearbox needs a rebuild and a fresh dose of grease.
OK, as vintage restoration projects go, it might not arouse as much interest as, say, a MGB sports car, but this 1974 Kenwood Chef A701 food mixer, which had been gathering dust in a relative's old country house for years, more than deserves a second chance at life.
Taking it apart and giving it its first proper internal clean brings home just how well-engineered it seems to be for longevity - a throwback to the days when kitchen appliances were built to last.
This might sound like a grumpy-old-man rant about how things were better made in the olden days, but the fact is our household has gone through four toasters, three kettles and two vacuum cleaners in the past five years.
And it's not as if they were from cheapo brands - they were made by premium, well known manufacturers.
A quick survey among family and friends to flush out some of the oldest and still-working appliances revealed, among other items, a 20-year-old Dualit toaster, a 25-year-old Sharp microwave, a 27-year-old Kenwood Chefette (an electric handmixer), a 30-year-old Russell Hobbs kettle, a 35-year-old Nilfisk vacuum cleaner and a 40-year-old Belling electric cooker.
The Dualit toaster needed new elements after 15 years or so, its owner reported, but the parts were very easy to find and fit.
Several Kenwood Chefs were also mentioned, ranging from 25-year-olds to 40. It's clear that the more serviceable a product is, the longer it can potentially last.
Stephen Molloy, manager of Terenure, Dublin-based Kenilworth Electrical, doesn't agree that household appliances are not built to last anymore, as devices like kettles, toasters, food mixers and vacuum cleaners haven't changed that much at all, even in terms of the parts they use - never mind the basic design.
The Kenwood Chef, for instance, still uses the same bowls and beaters as its 50-year-old equivalents. The gearbox mechanisms and the electric motor may have changed slightly, but, he says, "basically they've kept the machine exactly as it was. Some of the parts are common to the last 50 years."
Even if the design had changed, he says it wouldn't make sense now if manufacturers were building them to last only a short while beyond a typical warranty period.
He couldn't explain our bad luck with toasters, but said the elements in kettles are vulnerable to blowing unexpectedly in the same way as light bulbs sometimes do (which might hint at an issue with our household electrical circuits as we've had to replace quite a few lightbulbs recently).
What surprises many people, he said, is the ease with which certain spare parts are available.
"We get people coming into our shop who are always shocked at what we do. They're astounded that you can buy certain spare parts for certain products and get things repaired."
Kenilworth Electrical is a long-established service and repair agent for a number of appliance brands, including Kenwood, Magimix, Delonghi, Electrolux, Nilfisk and Zanussi, and also has a stock of spare parts.
"Granted, we wouldn't hold them all in stock as the demand for kettle and toaster parts would be zilch. The mindset people have is that when a toaster goes pop, they literally bin it and buy a new one."
"Unfortunately people throw away a lot of the more expensive vacuum cleaners. We get people collecting them from skips, these cleaners costing €500 and usually all that's gone on them is the lead, so they buy a new lead for €20 and away they go."
As more of us bemoan the rise of the throw-away society, Molloy says that his shop still has more or less the same volume of people coming in for repairs, but what has changed in the last six years or so is that more people are trying their hand at repairs themselves, thanks to the ease with which you can find parts on the internet.
While essential electrical appliances like toasters, kettles, cookers and mixers today remain much the same in terms of their basic designs as they ever were, things might change with the encroaching of the 'Internet of things', which will see kitchen appliances of the future be fitted with computer chips so that they can 'talk' to other appliances.
This could mean that such 'smart' appliances will at last be subjected to Moore's Law, which says that the number of transistors in a computer chip will double every two years. So, like digital devices, they'll become obsolete in no time.
In the meantime, I've ordered a repair kit for our Kenwood Chef's electric motor, a new rubber pulley belt, and fresh grease for the gearbox. I'm looking forward to putting it back together, ready to go for another 40 years.
5 of the best... Food Mixers
Kenwood Chef Sense
Launched last year, the Chef Sense is a variation on the classic Chef with a simplified and improved design. Kenwood has changed the design of the mixer's splashguard - it used to fit on the mixer head but now slides onto the bowl and is made from heavy duty tritan plastic, meaning your mixture is less likely to fly out of the bowl. It has also changed the design to make extra attachments, such as the blender and meat grinder, easier to attach. However, an adaptor is available so older attachments are still compatible. It also has an 'intelligent speed-regulation system' which senses the load in the bowl. €549, arnotts.ie
Kitchenaid Artisan Stand Mixer
Like the Kenwood, the KitchenAid has form in the world of high-end food mixers, and is considered by many as the Rolls-Royce. Since it came to the market in 1922 its design has changed little over the years and its motor, as designed by an engineer, means it can keep going for decades. The Artisan comes with a stainless-steel mixing bowl, wire-beater, flat whisk and dough hook attachments. The downside is the price - hence its presence on many a wedding list. €585, debenhams.ie
Breville Pick and Mix Hand and Stand Blender
This one is for the price-conscious home chef. It comes with a stainless steel mixing bowl and the basic attachments of a beater and a dough hook, but its appeal lies in the price and the fact that it has a detachable hand-mixer for small jobs like cream-whipping. It's a compact machine but its mixing bowl has a large capacity at 3.2 litres. It comes in cream, pink and blue and has ten speeds in the mixer head, and two speeds for the bowl, with a boost button. Good for amateur bakers who are only dipping their toe in and out of the dough. €80, littlewoodsireland.ie
Sage Scraper Mixer Pro
The Scraper Mixer Pro is a mid-range device promoted by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. It has one very cool feature in the form of flexible edges on one of the beaters - a bit like a windscreen wiper - which ensure that the bowl is scraped clean with every rotation. The result is that the cake batter (or whatever you're mixing) doesn't need constant bowl scraping. The shatterproof 1.5-litre jug is made from Triton - the material used in aircraft windows. It works up to three times faster than ordinary beaters so it traps in more air, making lighter, fluffier cakes. €429, Harvey Norman
Swan Vintage Stand Mixer
If you like the retro looks of the Kitchenaid Artisan but the price is a step too far, the Swan Vintage Stand Mixer is a reasonably priced alternative that comes in a number of different colours, including black, red and green. It has eight mixing speeds, a 4.5 litre stainless steel bowl, and comes with accessories like an aluminium dough hook, Teflon beater and stainless steel balloon whisk. €199, littlewoodsireland.ie