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The Great Car Adventure

Copyright 1999, Dorian Scott Cole

This may sound like a "guy" story, but women will probably enjoy parts of it as much as men. Women, after all, usually feel powerless when it comes to cars. I probably shouldn't reveal this to mechanics, but it's difficult for anyone to feel powerful when pitted against the complicated world of cars, mechanics, nonsense engineering, and the potential for dishonesty and abuse.

Let me boldly say with irrefutable evidence that I'm not a neophyte when it comes to electrical and mechanical things. I've been there. I know what it takes to create quality and serviceability. I know cars, having overhauled motors and transmissions myself, and having built electronic ignitions before they were available.

A couple of illustrations

There was a time when I actually took an interest in cars. I tried being too arrogant to work on cars, but I was raised in a fiercely independent area where those who couldn't were looked down on, and when I looked at the broken car in the drive, my empty pocket, and the need to go to work, I quickly realized that "arrogance = being too stupid to survive."

That was also when I realized that if auto manufacturers make a car that constantly overheats and has a transmission that is inherently defective, I could absorb the loss (think tied to boat anchor and sinking swiftly into the depths), or I could fix it. We'll return to this modern marvel of a car in a moment.

What got me into this state of mind was that I had made the mistake of thinking that I could actually improve on the totally inefficient and technologically inferior gasoline engine, carburetor, and ignition in use at that time. Employing my gifts in electrical and mechanical design, I put together an electronic ignition and installed it on my car. What followed was several days of the car failing to even consider starting. I watched the circuit on an oscilloscope. I redesigned it. But no matter what, the car would not start. The aluminum box of components sits in my basement to this day, a reminder that one should leave automotive design to the specialists. But I have to assert the time proven and oft' quoted proverb that one learns more from repeated failure than from a single success. At this point, I was no doubt very wise.      

My reputation and self confidence were soon bolstered by success in other areas of electrical and mechanical design, which brings me to my next example. I endeavored to design and fabricate a motor design panel for a design lab in a local electrical motor manufacturing establishment. I assessed their needs, designed new meters, designed new variable AC circuitry, and replaced their outmoded DC generator with modern state-of-the-art solid state technology. Installation was a lot of work, so I took my wife with me to help install it.

All went well until I tried the DC circuit. I flipped the switch and the AC contactor closed instead. "What can be wrong?" I complained, and spent an hour checking the circuits. Everything was fine. Finally my wife offered, "You must have run the wire to the wrong contactor." I huffed arrogantly and boldly declared that if that was the problem, "I would eat my hat." I had never offered to eat my hat before, but such was the state of my arrogance - after all, who was the brilliant designer here? Who had designed and wired literally thousands of circuits? Who had put the circuit together? Who had just spent an hour checking such things? I traced the wire. I had routed it to the wrong contactor.

It is another oft' realized maxim that no matter how many times you have been right in this life, if you are wrong only once it is recorded in the annals of history and never forgotten by your wife, who never fails to recite the failure at any moment when you declare yourself right. This story is usually accompanied by the compliment, "Self-righteous prig!"  

I can only offer the following solace and advice. "Get over it!" And don't ever offer to eat your hat. They don't taste very good.

Mature introspection about my life over the years has brought me to the realization that both my cars and my wife conspire to keep me humble. The greater my arrogance, the greater their delight in embarrassing me. I have reacted to this assault with a keen sense of self-preservation, and have attempted to remove myself from being the object of this sport.

It isn't that I don't enjoy doing some electrical or mechanical things once in a while. It's just that cars seem to have taken a special interest in being categorically unraveling with regard to my self confidence. I was lured into working on cars when they were relatively simple. But they have become infinitely more complex. Government regulations have placed strange gadgets on them, computerization has led to sensors that I can't find and can't interpret, and design constraints (marketing) have placed components where they are impossible for mere mortals to reach.

My usual tribulations typically advance in the following order:

First I am lured into fixing the car by the following reasoning. I am capable. I am knowledgeable. I don't want to argue with mechanics and spend the money. Therefore I should fix the car. At this point I try disassembling the offending part and immediately find that I need a host of "Ford wrenches." In the early days of cars, Ford created wrench sizes that only Ford made. If you wanted to work on a Ford, you had to purchase a Ford wrench. So, while most modern cars now either use inch or metric wrenches, most car repairs require a host of other expensive tools in order to do the job. OK, only slightly disdainful and ruffled at this point, I buy the tools, figuring I will need them in the future.  

It isn't until I actually try using the tools that things really go south. No matter what you do, you can't get the tool onto the part. I'm accustomed to working with mechanical things that are out of sight. No problem. But cars work like this: first remove sixteen other assemblies that don't need to be removed and which will break or require rebuilding once you remove them. At this point the part could be removed if you could actually touch it. But you can't. It is still underneath the engine, hidden behind four unremovable cables and surrounded by four other permanently fixed parts. To get to it, you must stand on your head on the engine, reach down behind all these other parts, using a tool in each hand, still unable to see the part or know how it is mounted, get a wrench just barely on it, and move the bolt out one-sixty-fourth of a turn at a time, for sixteen hours, until the bolt comes out. No, the socket wrench won't fit in the opening.

My blood is boiling, and also dripping down both hands and arms from contact with sharp objects in close quarters. After one bolt is out, the second bolt, which is frozen in place with the head rounded off, is coaxed out with three times the ingenuity and enterprising effort. My blood pressure is hovering just under orbital power.

The part is a small part, and two bolts should hold it very adequately. You then discover that the part is still immovable. This is because some sadistic designer put in another bolt behind the hot manifold and you can't reach it without removing the cantankerous old manifold, which probably won't come off without removing the fuel injection, intake manifold and engine head. The patient has problems with his vocal cords - OK, let's remove his brain, his head, and then see if we can find his vocal cords in the neck somewhere.

It is usually at this point that I compose the letter to the design engineer. I'm usually at the line that says, "Either get out of design or I will take you out!" when I realize that hostility is not a good idea. It only encourages the production and procurement engineers who get brownie points for cutting 50 cents out of a $50,000.00 vehicle, compromising both safety and serviceability. Lunacy. High blood pressure. Who to blame? Maybe it's the marketing people - it's a scheme to get me to buy a new car. Never! I'll show them - I will never...

My wife usually recognizes the symptoms that are now appearing. Hostility toward everyone and life in general. Tools flying in the air, which is already a blue haze of invective and misplace blame and threats.

We both now try to avoid this situation. The car went to far. It is now me and her against the car. "Take it to a mechanic," she orders, "before you have a stroke," and she places herself between me and the door. Ten years from now she can chide me about it, if I have cooled off.

So now when the car breaks down now, and I think "I can do that..." I stop and begin to meditate on it. I chant the following mantra, "I don't have the proper tools, and I'm not buying the proper tools; I don't have time, I don't have a lift, I can't interpret the sensors, and I don't work on cars."

Now for the sad tale of how this sorry state developed. In 1969 we decided we needed a good dependable car for work and trips, so we purchased a new full size sedan. Not a luxury model, but a solid car that would do well for trips and be dependable for work. I'll call the manufacturer X, for hopefully soon to be X. The first and second year the car did fine. The third year it overheated. Water pump. I replaced. it. Over the next year it continued overheating, and I replaced faulty thermostats (overheating ruins them), a radiator, and several hoses. The car was very dependable - you could count on it overheating.

I had also rebuilt the notoriously weak transmission, myself. I learned that the car was notorious for overheating problems and lacked an adequate size radiator (and it didn't even have air conditioning). The engine was beginning to deteriorate from the frequent abuse. In comparison, I typically drive other cars for over ten years, over 200,00 miles, with few problems. Finally I labeled X corporations cars "disposables," and permanently parked the car. I couldn't even bring myself to trade it. I put a pox on all engineers who were related to the car, and soon X's lawyers were visiting me trying to get me to lift the curse - but hey, they begged for it and desperately needed it.

By 1979 I had basically quit repairing my own cars. By 1986, X had completely redesigned the car. We needed to replace our second car and that was the only one within reach. That should have told me something, but at least it had front-wheel drive. I thought, "In seventeen years, surely X has improved the car. There isn't even a resemblance to the old one." So we added this two-year-old car to our list of payments.

Over the next three years, we had nothing but overheating problems. All of the same parts got replaced. I soon was reduced to comparing the repair, the budget, and the mechanic. I had kids who needed lots of pencils and combs, so the budget often won.

The improvement that X made to the car was to compact the engine compartment so much that now you couldn't get your hands physically on anything in the engine compartment. I finally capitulated and took it to a mechanic. Between the car payments and the car repairs, I could easily have been driving a new Cadillac. (No exaggeration.) X's new model was another 3-year disposable.

In 1989 my sister bought a minivan from X, same model. It was unrecognizable from the 1986 sedan, except in one respect. Continuous overheating problems. It was purchased new and fully paid for, but she had to take it to an auction and sell it to prevent being financially dragged to the bottom of the ocean. Corporations may change the looks of cars, but they don't improve design philosophy. Poor design is poor design, no matter how you package it.

Now, even with this huge expense, the tale could have had a good ending. But no, automobiles somehow just gravitate toward creating misery for me. They introduced me to mechanics, a whole new world of misery. Our other car rarely gave us any trouble, but when something minor did occur, like an armrest was getting loose, I just took it to the dealer garage. It was under drive train warranty, and had a service contract on it. But inevitably when I picked up the car, the charge was $300.00. This seemed to be the cost of a service visit. It really didn't make any difference what I took it in for, or what they did - it started at $300.00 to cover problems that I never knew existed. "Grin and bear it," I thought. "At least I'm not covered in blood, grime, and anger."

I found in this great adventure that mechanics all seem to be the same. They seem to be under corporate mandate to suck $300.00 minimum from every car that enters their doors, to cover corporate overhead. I don't know why they don't just hang up a sign so that it isn't a surprise when you drop your car off for an oil change. "Your bill will be $300.00. We'll find $300.00 worth of things to do, and let you know when we've reached that total. We have to do five cars an hour at $300.00 each, or we get fired. Please wait in the waiting room - it usually doesn't take us long, and you need to be available in case we find actual problems and need to charge you $700.00 to $1500.00."  

I learned a long time ago that if you drive a car that is over 2 years old, you need to plunk $100.00 a month away for routine car repairs, and figure on visiting the mechanic every four months. It helps to know this when considering the purchase of a new or used car - for $100.00 a month more sometimes you can get the new car and escape the mechanic for three years.

I'm not slurring mechanics - I respect what they do - it's just that they have to actually earn my trust. Knowing what I know about cars, I usually have a reasonably good idea when the mechanic is trying to replace a timing chain on a car that doesn't even have one. I have had too many bad experiences with mechanics.

Later I was driving a station wagon (but not from X). Remember station wagons - those things that kids wouldn't be caught dead in - enter the minivan fad, now the land-yacht SUV fad, next to be motorhome style mom's schoolbus - where does it end - I digress. I was working in Cincinnati when my car began to splutter and die. Well, that pretty much says to me that it is having fuel delivery problems. I replaced the carburetor fuel filters, but again had problems. Corruption in the gas? carburetor problems? Gas tank filter? Too much for me. So I took it to the dealer from whence it came and explained that I had already replaced the fuel filter. Three days later I got the car back. "Fuel filter," they said. "Let me see it." I demanded. They had thrown it away. Grin and bear it.

It was late afternoon, but I got in the vehicle and headed out of town. Before I could get out of Cincinnati, the car was spluttering again. I knew it was going to be a long, miserable trip. Soon the car was spluttering, and I found that if I let it rest for a moment, it would start and continue - albeit haltingly. I pulled into a parts store and purchased several fuel filters. I replaced the fuel filter and made it as far as a Cincinnati suburb. Limping along, pummeling the gas pedal, sputtering and coasting, I pulled into the only place available, a transmission place. I told the mechanic the symptoms and that I thought it might be a filter in the gas tank. He immediately knew the problem - "Catalytic converter," he proclaimed.

I usually try to find the best way out of a difficult situation - like when someone is trying to steal you blind. Six month old car, bad converter? I considered thoughtfully, "Replace the catalytic converter for about $300.00 and have the same problem, or just go on down the road." Finally I finished my deliberations, said no, and left.

At the next exit, I located a service station with a garage. I pulled in and told them that the gas tank filter was bad, and could they fix it. To my surprise they could actually look at it in the same day, and even within a couple of hours. Around 8:00, after dark, they brought the car out of the garage and told me that they had replaced the carburetor filters. I paid the $50.00 and pretended to be pleased, while plotting my escape from idiots. An entire area full of idiots.

I limped along for sixty miles, not replacing any more filters, but just stopping the car for a few minutes, then continuing to limp along. But the stops got more frequent, and I realized that if I wanted to get home I was now going to have to do the unthinkable - actually work on the car. Alongside the Interstate highway, in the dark, I crawled under the car, disconnected the gas line at the first rubber connection, and sucked on the end connected to the tank. Nothing. Vacuum. The fuel filter in the gas tank was blocked. One thing was certain, I wasn't going to be able to do anything about it at this location. 

I continued on, limping along like a lame horse, until I reached a small town. Too late and too much driving hassle to locate a motel, so I located a garage and slept in my car until the next morning.

I usually try not to insult mechanic's intelligence by telling them what is wrong with the car. This usually inflames their ego and they stomp off determined to replace five other parts to prove how wrong you could be. But I had had it with mechanics. The next morning I walked into the garage, told the mechanic the symptoms, and said, "Please replace the fuel filter in the gas tank." He said they would look at it.

A couple of hours later I retrieved the car and learned that I was now the proud owner of a new fuel pump. I guess I could have gone ballistic, but the mechanics were living up to my new expectations of them. I gave the car a try. Before I could get out of the small town, the car was again spluttering and losing speed. I turned it around and limped back to the same garage, unwilling to let them get away with it. I demanded that they replace the filter in the fuel tank. They smiled and said that they couldn't do that kind of work. I would have to take it to the guy next door.

I called my wife to come and get me out of the Twilight Zone.

I now know that many mechanics live in an entirely different world than the rest of us. It is a world in which the mechanic is going to do what he wants to do, and he will not be dissuaded by facts. On that same station wagon, I began having problems with the rear window. It was key operated, and intermittently it would go down, but not back up. I made a quick check, saw that it was a two-wire DC motor, so all that the circuit was doing was reversing polarity on the motor to reverse direction. Therefore the key switch was most likely failing. But it wasn't a repair that I wanted to make, so I took it to a local dealer. Without looking at it, he analyzed the problem to a faulty motor. Totally fed up with mechanics, I said that it wasn't bad and that I would prove it.

"I'll sell you a rebuilt motor for half the price," he offered. Incredulous, but not surprised, I led him with absolute determination to the car, put a meter on the motor, and showed him that it was getting voltage to go down, but not to go up.

"We'll be glad to replace your motor, if you want to leave it here," he replied.

I left him standing there with a smug look on his face, completely oblivious to the real world - in his mind he had won. I went to the other dealer in town, purchased the switch, and did the unthinkable. I replaced it.

Wave of the future: modular components for cars - engines in a box with only two connectors. Pull in to a parts store and replace the module in five minutes. Who am I kidding.

It has been a long time since I worked on a car. I have successfully fended off the many requests (demands) by family and friends to risk my life to save them a fortune. I found a mechanic that does an acceptable job, and is honest enough not to charge me when the part doesn't fix the problem, and bills range from $25.00 up - they don't start at $300.00 for an oil change. But lately, growing fickle, I just got the feeling that he was doing more work than required.

So when my brakes needed replaced, I decided to brave the brake specialist world. $90.00 for four wheels. Right. I knew this wasn't going to happen, but having just replace four struts and my car budget depleted, while still needing four tires, I hoped for just a decent brake job at a decent price, by specialists. While they had it up on the rack with all of the wheels off, they came to me with their appraisal. $650.00. I knew that I had to have a brake job immediately. It was time to negotiate. They agreed to make it road worthy for $350.00, but they claimed that it still really needed all of those other parts replaced. I let them do it for $350.00.

As I was getting my keys back, they actually told me that they had put on brake pads with a short lifetime so that I would have to come back soon to finish replacing the parts. Fat chance. But the brakes were squeaking from the moment I left - that telltale wear indication.

A couple of months later the brake light came on, accompanied by a steady dong, dong, dong. I began to fret. What had they done to my car? Was there an electronic sensor on the wheels now. I refused to take it back to those guys and have my car held hostage. The car continued with its incessant dong, dong, dong. It was going to trap me somehow into working on it. Dong, dong, dong. Finally in desperation, I jacked it up and pulled a wheel off. The disc pad wear was fine, and no wear tab was near the rotor. There was no brake problem. But, dong, dong, dong. I thought about getting used to it. Dong, dong, dong. With the radio loud, you could just barely hear it. Dong, dong, dong. And when the radio was off, it had a nice beat to it, and the rhythm wasn't hard to follow.

I was reciting this tale to one of the women that I work with. She said, "Did you check the brake fluid level?" Light comes on. Oh, yeah, there is a level sensor on the brake fluid tank. I have seen the light come on on other cars, and even filled the tank for others. Fortunately I hadn't vowed to eat my hat - I just slunk off and put the brake fluid in the tank.


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