The Truth About Cars » Repair The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 20:36:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Repair Sunday Story: Shade Tree Redux Sun, 11 May 2014 12:00:06 +0000 800px-Catalina_Island,_La_Romana,_Dominican_Republic._A_typical_bungalow_nearby_cost_line,_shaded_with_palm_trees_(1)

Image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov:

“Cool photo. Is that your grandpa or something?” Mark pointed to the sun-bleached black and white photo that hung on the wall of the garage. A smiling, grease-stained man in mechanic’s overalls stood proudly in front of a 1950s dirt-track racer. Sitting at his feet was a trophy.

Danny nodded. “Yup, that’s him. He’s my inspiration. He used to talk about building motors and fixing up cars underneath the old shade tree. You can see it there in the background.” Mark kept staring at the photo. Satisfaction, thought Mark. That was the only word that he could use to describe it. The pure, unbridled joy of winning a competition, based not only on one’s skill with a steering wheel and clutch, but with a screwdriver and a hammer too. Mark knew that feeling well; he loved winning as much as anybody and he built his own machines too.

This time, however, he needed some help. Danny was the best shade-tree mechanic in the city, and a good friend to boot. Mark knew Danny would be able to fix the reliability problems plaguing his machine, issues that he couldn’t seem to trace. He needed Danny’s skill in order to be ready for the weekend.

“Let’s take a look at what you brought me.” Mark gladly obliged. The candy-apple-red paint glimmered in the garage as Danny let out a low whistle.

“That’s one hell of a machine you’ve got there.” Mark’s pride swelled.

“Yeah, I did the whole finish myself. Two coats of primer, then three color coats, then gloss, then wet sanding, then I hit it with gloss again. Waxed it just to be safe.” Danny admired his reflection in the shine of the surface.

“If it looks so good, then what’s the problem?”

“I think it has a short, or a bad battery, or something. At high speeds it starts blowing fuses and just dies.”

“Well, that could be a lot of things. Let’s take a look.” They gently lifted the hood off and set it aside, careful not to scratch the finish. Danny scanned the chassis code. Using his wealth of knowledge about serial numbers and build orders, he noticed something right away.


“What is it?”

“See that code there? It’s a 24X97F. You have an early build.”

“Alright, so what?”

“They made a running change late in the year. They redesigned part of the voltage regulator so that the fuse wouldn’t blow when the system was running at max charge. The new part is a lot more reliable.” Mark nodded his head in understanding, but he was worried.

“Can we get it fixed in time? The tournament is this weekend!”

“Calm down, it’s an easy fix. I think I’ve got the part. We have to do a little soldering, but it’s no big deal.”

“Ah, great.” Before long, they’d yanked out the subassembly and had it in pieces on Danny’s workbench. After a good thirty minutes of rifling through various disheveled bins, they finally found the replacement part.

“Got it.” Danny held up the small clear baggie triumphantly. It was a thin piece of metal, barely an inch long.

“That’s it?” Mark was skeptical.

“Hey, I know what I’m talking about, alright? You stick to paint.” He was already plugging in the soldering iron. A couple dabs later, and the new part was secure. Danny proffered the bad bit to Mark.

“You see how burnt it looks in the middle? That’s because they cheaped out on the design. Stupid bean counters, they wound up fixing it anyway. Grandpa used to complain about them too.”

“Huh. Well, let’s get it put back together so I can check your work.” Thus began the laborious process of reassembly. After many more admonishments to not scratch the paint, Danny had successfully put the whole thing back together. A new fuse, and it was ready to fire up.

“Okay, let’s give it a whirl.” Mark’s machine turned over instantly, whirring lustily in the garage. Danny sat his biggest box fan in front of it, and they ran it flat out for a few minutes. It was solid as a rock. A few more checks, and Mark was satisfied. He was ready to stomp the competition yet again.

“Couldn’t have done it without you.”

“No problem, man. Good luck with Battlefield 4 this weekend.” They admired the freshly-repaired computer, glinting there on its stand. Danny looked back up at the photo of Grandpa on the wall. Sure, it wasn’t a car, but he figured the old man would have approved. He always admired mechanical skill of any type. They carried the machine outside and gently sat it in Mark’s car. The color of his lowered Prelude matched that of his computer.

“Now that it’s getting warm again, are you going to sign up for any more SCCA stuff?”

“Yeah, but I need to reset the suspension first.”

“Well, we can work on that next weekend.”

]]> 4
QOTD: Special Feature, Special Weakness Mon, 14 Apr 2014 04:04:21 +0000 IMG_0244.JPG - Copy

On a busy freeway, a first-generation Scion xB putters along. Ahead, a confused medley of dump trucks, semis, and passenger cars performs the lane-change dance that we all know and loathe. For the driver and passenger of the toaster, things are about to get interesting- and infuriating.

The dump trucks are fully laden, and there’s already plenty of junk on the road. The xB has a well-worn bug deflector, one which has spared the windshield from an unfortunate contact many times already. But this time, it won’t get the job done. Suddenly, a car darts across lanes in the traffic ahead. It picks up a rock, an asphalt clod, or some other piece of detritus. The missile arcs backward at the perfect angle. It misses the deflector by millimeters, hitting dead on right below the driver’s wiper. THWACK. Time to call the insurance company.

This isn’t the first time. The toaster is already on windshield number two, which itself has seen the business end of a resin gun. Half a dozen or so years prior, it took a stone right at the top, where the glass joins the roof. That time, the trauma wasn’t immediately apparent. However, a single cold, clear day later, the glass was split from top to bottom. The nice man from the glass shop told us that xBs were a great revenue stream for his company. Now he’ll be back to collect another check.

But oh, the glory of driving a fish tank. A virtually unobstructed view from any angle, the tiny blind spots totally confound the current zero-visibility trend in styling. When dad first bought it, I hated it. It was a dork’s car through and through. But when I got my license and my own ride, I began to appreciate its virtues. Those vast expanses of glass were fantastic for a young, nervous driver. They made it easy to watch the road, and to negotiate the tight spots. Dad appreciated it for much the same reason. At the time, no other car on the road offered the same level of visibility, unless it was a convertible. That’s even truer today. Perhaps that’s why he’s held on to it for longer than any other car he’s owned. Even if that fishbowl feeling comes at a price.

xB, Wrangler, FJ, van, and pickup drivers know all about the hazards inherent in steep windshields. Even so, they accept it as part of the costs of ownership. Many drivers tolerate possible headaches in maintenance and repair to get the special features they really want. A sunroof is a good example, as are convertible tops more generally. Heated and power seats don’t always last the life of a vehicle, but for many in northern climes they verge on necessity. Premium wheels can look great, even if they aren’t always resistant to potholes. Material quality and careful engineering can help special features last longer without requiring repairs. But some, like steeply raked windshields, can’t overcome the basic limitations of their design.

What weaknesses are you willing to tolerate in the design of your vehicle, to get exactly what you want? Or is durability your sole criteria? Have you ever been seduced by a trick feature that turned out to be an expensive source of woe later?

]]> 70
Piston Slap: Singin’ the Topaz Blues? Wed, 12 Feb 2014 12:26:40 +0000

Matthew writes:

So I have a beautiful Topaz Blue 2001 BMW 325Ci with the sport package and Steptronic automatic. It has 226,000 miles but the tranny was rebuilt 19,000 miles earlier (warranty is good for 24,000), the shocks were updated with Koni FSD’s (installed myself) and some fresh Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric tires were added over the summer soon after the shocks. I spent well over $4000 on the car in the last nine months alone.

I hit a deer, crumpling the hood, right front headlight, radiator core support, radiator, etc, above the bumper. Insurance totaled it, so to repair I would have to give back $900 salvage value of the $5100 due me (post-deductible with some taken off for the high mileage) and repair the car with the $4200 remaining. Body shop says it can be done for $4000 with everything except the front bumper, which is intact save for 12 years of stone chips.

In the New York metro area (I live on Long Island), $5100 or slightly more will get you a nice 330Ci sport of equivalent vintage, an E39 530/540i M package or even a 740i sport with nearly 100k less mileage. Even a 2004 Jaguar XJ8 that needs a new nav/stereo/HVAC unit goes for $5500, and the unit can be had for $350 on eBay. Only problem is I don’t trust automatic transmissions after getting burned for $3000 on the last one, even though it held up for 207k. And even then, only reverse gear went out. Still required a rebuild, but could be driven to the shop.

So do I walk away from the car I know or roll the dice on something else?

Sajeev answers:

The question is: do you actually like this 3-series?

Or perhaps…do you like it more than the alternatives mentioned?

Your 3-series sounds easily repairable, and this platform is cheaper/easier to keep running compared to the E39, E38 and the Jaguar too.  I mean, none of these machines are an Accord…but you already knew that. And don’t care about keeping a fully depreciated, executive European machine up and running. So what should you do?

Not an easy question, mostly because of mileage.  I normally suggest to stick with the problems you know, as all of your choices are a huge financial gamble. But again, those 226,000 miles. But still, E38 BMW?  Come on, I love the E38 in theory, but you don’t hate your wallet/mobility that much…do you?

Enjoy a few more years with Topaz Blue, see if anything else attracts your attention next time fate puts you in a complicated position.


Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

]]> 69
Pride Before the Fall Tue, 19 Nov 2013 20:38:27 +0000 GSXR1100

The ’91 GSXR 1100 was a feral beast. It had been tame once, well “mostly tame” anyhow, but the bike’s previous owner had stripped away the thin veneer that civilization had imposed upon it and restored it to its primeval form. It hadn’t taken much, really. Larger carburetors, performance cams and a full race exhaust had transformed the bike from a wickedly fast street machine into a full-race bike that, despite the license plates, had no business being on the street. Still, it had a sort of lethal charm that attracted men like me: confident, experienced, prideful. It was a battle of wills I would not lose. I was determined to master the bike and, like a living thing, the bike was determined to kill me.

They say that most people who die in accidental shootings are killed by “unloaded guns.” I would imagine that most people who die on motorcycles are riding relatively “safe” bikes. You know the kind, usually big and slow. The ones that inspire confidence in their riders. The GSXR was the opposite of a “safe” bike. It was big, powerful and with a short wheelbase was exceedingly ill-mannered at slow speeds. On the move it was roughly sprung and, despite the steering damper affixed to the bars, prone to a bit of headshake when you laid on the power.

Still, on the smooth pavement of the Japanese expressway, the bike was a marvel of precision engineering. The slightest input translated into immediate action. A simple turn of the wrist became instant acceleration. A modest pull of the brake lever would slow even the most determined head-long rush with surprising aplomb. The GSXR was a true thoroughbred and, when it was doing what it was built to do, the division between man and machine was nonexistent. Like living thoroughbreds, however, it could be sensitive and fickle, too.

The problem began with the slightest of judders when I rolled on the throttle. The bike still surged forward upon command, but the edge wasn’t there and I noticed the change immediately. The problem was more pronounced the next time out. As I hit the gas, the bike stumbled as it came up to speed. Over time, these little vibrations became a full-on epileptic fit as the bike surged and shook whenever I added more than just a smidgen of gas. I knew I would have to address the situation and ran, one at a time, through the possible problems.


Sportbikes are a pain in the ass to work on. Like an old muscle car, the premise of a sportbike is simple – take the biggest, most powerful engine you have and stuff it into the lightest, smallest package you can. Needless to say, clearance is limited and getting to the various bits and pieces I needed to work with proved to be a problem. I started by replacing the spark plugs but there was no effect. next, I made certain the fuel petcock was working and that no lines were pinched before finally deciding to access the air filter.

I hated the idea of opening the air filter. Located behind the carbs, under the gas tank and in the area that normally rested directly between my thighs, it was easy to see but next to impossible to get open. To make matters worse, the airbox, like so many other things on my bike was modified as well. To get into it, I had to pull the gas tank and seat and then disconnect several electrical connections before pulling the battery and then the battery box. After that I had to use a stubby screw driver to unfasten several screws and then another to loosen the large clamp that held on a single, large filter element. It took time, effort and a lot of scraped knuckles but I managed to do it without losing my sanity.

Once it was out, the filter didn’t appear to be especially dirty and so I figured that I had gone down yet another false path. Regardless, I washed it out in a bucket of fresh gasoline and started the tedious process of putting the bike back together. It took time, but when it as done the bike fired right up and idled fine. Grabbing my helmet, I wheeled the bike out of its parking spot and and headed for an access road that ran along beneath the expressway close to the Port of Yokohama.


At the first stoplight I checked for the cops and grabbed a handful of throttle. The old bike surged strongly as it shot its way towards the redline. I grabbed second gear and held the throttle wide open. Able to breathe correctly for the first time in a long while, the old bike ate up the road without missing a beat. Shifting into third I got off the gas and let the bike slow before working it through a series of roll-on accelerations to make sure the problem was fully resolved. It was and I felt good.

A couple of miles out I turned around and headed home. I stayed off the gas a let the bike chug along in the higher gears. It was a relief that my notoriously finicky bike was working so well and I decided at the last moment to head through the port facility to a small park at the base of the harbor light house. The Port of Yokohama is a sprawling place and the central road is easily six lanes wide. Normally filled with idling trucks waiting to pick-up or drop-off loads at the port it is, for the most part, a featureless, pancake-flat stretch of pavement split by frequent railroad tracks. At its far end, the road meets a high cement sea-wall and curves around the barrier in a set of sweeping S-curves. Given the width of the road and the lack of traffic I hit them hard and slipped through them without a hitch.

At the lighthouse, I turned around and headed once again towards. It was a nice day and I wasn’t eager to be back inside so I went slowly, trudging along in the higher gears, the engine stumbling along just above idle. As the S-curves approached I dropped down a gear but the bike’s engine abruptly died. Unphased, I pulled int he clutch, downshifted again and dumped the clutch to bump-start the bike. The engine sprang back to life and I rolled smoothly through the first corner, righted the bike and then leaned into the next. It was there, mid-apex, that the engine died again.

Things happened fast. The back wheel locked and the tire began to slide. To prevent a “low-side,” a type of accident where the back tire of a bike slips out from underneath you and leaves you sliding on your ass, I grabbed the clutch and got the back wheel rolling again. But skidding loads a bike’s suspension and, as the back wheel regained traction, the rear spring was free to unleash its pent-up energy. As the spring sprung, the bike bucked, turning into an angry bronco as it attempted – and then succeeded – in throwing me off.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Free of its rider, the bike continued to follow its momentum over onto its far side while I was thrown, still in seated position with my legs beneath me, high into the air almost like a fighter pilot being ejected from his stricken aircraft. The odd thing was that, despite the amazing height I achieved, my forward momentum was not really that great and I had let go of the bars quickly enough that I hadn’t been thrown head over heels. I straightened my body and landed hard on my feet, breaking into a run as soon as I touched down. In a mere moment I was safe on the sidewalk looking back at my stricken bike as it attempted to disgorge the contents of its fuel tank into the street.

Adrenaline pumping, I ran back to the big bike and levered it back onto its wheels. One of the handle bars was twisted and a side mirror broken off, but otherwise the bike looked to be in decent shape. After pushing it to the side of the road, I pulled off my helmet, bent the bar back to where I could use it and tried to refire the bike. The starter growled for a fraction of a second and then clicked off, the battery was obviously dead. How odd. I pulled off the seat and looked to see if there was anything I could do. The problem was immediately obvious, in my rush to complete the project I had failed to reconnect one vital part of the bike’s charging system and had made the entire run on battery power alone. I cursed my own stupidity.

I snapped the wires back together and tried bump starting the bike. It took several runs up and down the flat street and by the time the old bike eventually fired I was nearly sick to my stomach with exhaustion. I waited to recover while the bike idled unevenly and, when the worst had passed, I clicked it into gear and limped home. It was a walk of shame.

In 20 years of hard, fast riding I had never had an accident on the street. Sure, once or twice I had put my foot down wrong at a stoplight and fallen over, but I had never been thrown or had any kind of real accident. I had been extremely fortunate. There was no real damage to the old bike and the only injury I suffered was to my own pride. You know pride, right? It’s that thing that comes before the fall. It’s the one injury that, I think, can never fully heal.


Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

]]> 34
Piston Slap: Bad Vibes from The “Value” Timeline Wed, 25 Sep 2013 12:40:15 +0000

James writes:


My question is – when should I sell my current car? Our family runs a 2004 Pontiac Vibe with 109k miles. It is our only car and it seems to run better since it broke the 100k mark. It has been exceptionally reliable, cheap to own, and gets excellent mileage – I get 29mpg average! We like being a one car family and intent to keep it that way unless we suddenly become independently wealthy.

I gave up my ’06 civic coupe for the Vibe in a purely pragmatic move to accommodate our newborn child and high energy dog in the back. I didn’t expect to like it, but it has turned out to be a really good car and I seem to like it incrementally a little more each day. Although we’ve grown to really like the car (to our surprise), it is basically an appliance to us. We use it to commute, get groceries and the occasional road trip.

I read in the Fiesta ST Review that engines are often engineered to last 150k miles, and I’m often pondering when is the typical right moment, miles-wise to let go of the Vibe and replace it with some other reliable used car.

The way I see it, there are the first three years or so of car ownership where the cash expended in depreciation is way higher than the utility returned. Then there is a sweet spot of value which lasts about 10 years where the car is actually giving back the most for the money spent. After that, there is a mystery period I have yet to experience where, while the car is cheap as dirt to run, a great deal of time is spent with it out of service getting growing maintenance repairs.

Is this an accurate evaluation of the car value timeline? And if so, can you give some insight into when (in miles) is a good time to let go of the car in a one-vehicle house hold.

Sajeev answers:

Your general timeline (second to last paragraph) is fair, can’t say the same for the 150k miles reference: there is far too much variance in engine design, driving conditions and ownership maintenance schedules to draw that line in the sand. So to speak.

A car’s “value timeline” is a good resource for accountants planning a company/government vehicle depreciation schedule. For everyone else, I think it’s a crock. A pot-hole beaten suspension may cost $3000 to restore in 10-15 years, but will the owner even notice enough to care?  Will one vehicle need the same repairs as another?  An extreme example is comparing an AMG Benz driven on brutal NYC roads versus a Honda Accord in a far tamer rural/suburban setting. One size fits all is simply a notion that cannot exist.

Another issue: some body/trim levels need less repair than others. Compare your heavier Vibe to the light Corolla from whence it came. Or take my 2011 Ranger regular cab to any other truck:  with the same brakes (4-whl discs) and suspension as an Explorer from the Clinton Era but with about 800lbs less weight on its shoulders, my need for brake/tire/suspension reconditioning shall be far less frequent.  In two years and almost 20,000 miles, my truck’s tires and brakes look new: they are completely overbuilt for the tiny truck in which they reside. I don’t expect my truck to need repairs like an Explorer, or even a super cab Ranger with a big V6, longer wheelbase and rear drum brakes.

But will the anomaly of an Overbuilt Economy Variant of a common platform be represented on someone’s spreadsheet? Not likely.

Back to the point: there is no “one size fits all” timeline.  The schedule is different for everyone, and everything they may choose to drive.  And where they drive it. And, most importantly, one’s irrational/unexpected need to want something new for reasons yet to be explained. You ain’t never gonna find that on a timeline, but it happens all the time: marinate on that.


Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.


]]> 88
Total Recall Update: Rustectomy Successful But Change Is In The Wind Mon, 29 Jul 2013 13:56:16 +0000 Freestar

Saturday was a day of reckoning for my Ford Freestar. As detailed in an article I wrote last week, my Freestar required a trip to the dealer to repair rust related issues that affected the rear wheel wells and the third row seat latches and the cost of the repairs were covered by Ford under a recall issued earlier this year. I promised then that, once the repair was completed, I would report back to you on how everything turned out.

As you may remember from that earlier article, the damage to the van was fairly advanced. The area around the seat mounts was encircled with corrosion and, in some places, had rusted to the point that there were actual holes between the wheel well and the interior of the vehicle. The affected area had been concealed under a plastic panel so I had not noticed the issue earlier, but I had noticed the van felt and smelled damp. How the whole piece had stayed in place I have no clue as it seemed to me at the time I could have pulled the seat mount out with my bare hands.

rust 1

As usual, my local Ford dealer was excellent and scheduled the repair as quickly as they could. They took it in after work on Friday night, completed the repair on a Saturday and I had the vehicle back in my garage that night. Once again, Ford deserves accolades for their customer service and I came away quite satisfied with the transaction.

On Sunday morning, I went out to the garage and took a good look at the work done. From the wheel well side I could see where a new piece of sheet metal had been grafted onto the inner fender well. The edges appear to have been carefully caulked and the whole thing covered over with rubberized undercoating. To my eye it looks to be a neat and efficient repair.


Inside the van, I once again removed the plastic panel to examine the backside of the repair. The most obvious thing the Ford techs have done is to totally cut out the rusted area. It appears as though they did the work with a pair of tin snips, nibbling away at the area one bite at a time and leaving a series of sharp metal teeth along the edge of their cut. Several sheet metal screws have been used to affix the panel and a large steel band has also been added to reinforce the seat mount. Besides the sloppy cut, which would have been neater and easier had they used a dremel or a sidewheel cutter, the repair seems to be a good one. Given that it was all done on the company dime and that all the sharp bits are hidden behind a thick plastic panel where they should never come into contact with soft human skin, I am satisfied with the work. Of course, since I am not a body and fender man, I’d be interested in everyone’s comments, too.


To me, however, there is a larger issue brewing. This whole experience of finding massive quantities of hitherto unexpected rust has left me questioning whether or not hanging on to the Freestar for another year is really worth risk. I wonder now just what other parts of the vehicle are suffering similar issues and what the results may be if we have an accident. There are, I note, a few places around the body where rust bubbles are forming and I have over the past year assiduously attacked the red stuff wherever I have found it, in particular along the lower edges of the vehicle’s doors. With my eventual departure from Buffalo now less than a year away, I am thinking it may be time to replace the Gray Lady and I have a pretty good idea what we are going to end up with.

Am I wise to make a move or just worried rat trying to jump a holed ship that isn’t actually sinking? You tell me.

Photo courtesy of

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

]]> 92
Piston Slap: In God We Rust, Part III Mon, 08 Jul 2013 12:00:25 +0000

TTAC commentator Kovalove writes:

Hi Sajeev,

Long-time lurker on a daily basis for over 5 years now. Not sure if this is a worthy question for Piston Slap but here we go: In about two weeks’ time I’ll make my final payment (0% loan ftw) on my 2008 Mazda3 GT 4-door (‘S Grand Touring’ in US spec) with just over 97,000 km. It has served me well with no at-cost repairs other than routine maintenance (some minor stuff was covered by warranty). I have been looking forward to payment-free living and would happily keep the car for many more years, but one thing has been rattling around in the back of my mind…

I live up in the Great White North in the Toronto area where road salt is used from November through to the end of March. After winter 2012 I noticed some early signs of rusting on the inner lip of the rear wheel openings. I was annoyed but not really surprised as this is a well documented phenomenon with Mazdas. I regularly see ’3s a couple of years older than mine that are rusting badly in numerous areas on the sides and rear end.

Supposedly the 3′s resistance to rusting was improved with the refresh in 2007, but only time will tell for sure. My question is whether there is any financial sense in getting rid of the car now before the rust gets serious, especially given the inflated used car market? For what it’s worth, I will be debt-free with the repayment of this loan. Presumably a badly rusted car would plummet in value despite being otherwise mechanically sound? According to many reports, repairing the rust on these cars is a mostly futile exercise and it comes back quickly. Thanks in advance!

Sajeev answers:

Ah yes, we are revisiting the rusty Mazda problem for the third time in this series. Too bad the 3′s mild redesign didn’t/couldn’t address this problem, and it appears Mazda Canada’s warranty doesn’t cover rust damage.  Did I misread that part with the exclusions?

“Damage or surface corrosion from the environment such as: Acid rain, airborne fallout (chemicals, tree sap, etc.), salt, road hazards, hail, wind storm, lightning, floods and other natural disasters.”

Don’t take my word for it, read your owner’s manual (RFTM) and verify.

Now someone can quickly repair the rust if it’s small/localized (DIY is not impossible, either) and buy more time before the Rust Lord takes over. But will it buy enough to justify ownership to you? And it is worth it to your pocketbook if you can sell it for a price that makes you happy and gets you into a newer car that’ll make you happier? 

Now that’s the real question, me thinks. So what is your threshold for pain? Without supporting photos or a comprehensive underbody inspection, who knows how much pain you got coming?

Take it from the idiot restoring his “rust free” 1983 Lincoln Continental Valentino: once you tear into a rust repair project, you’ll find more of it. Peep the photo below: I thought my Valentino’s decades old, well-known rust hole under the battery was just that!   But oh noooo, the rust seeped down farther, down to the base of the radiator support.

Now is mentioning my Valentino in the same blog post as your Mazda 3 a fair comparo? Absolutely not! 

We all assume that the “young” Mazda won’t be this sinister: at least we assume this. But you know about them people who assume too much!

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 


]]> 39
Piston Slap: Crystal Ballin’ The Mighty Dak’s Tranny Wed, 29 May 2013 11:03:36 +0000

TTAC Commentator PartsUnknown writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I have a transmission issue, but to mix it up a little, it’s not attached to a Honda.  This is my dad’s 1999 Dodge Dakota with the 3.9 liter V6 boat anchor.  When shifted into drive, it will move forward but will not shift itself out of first gear.  Moving the column shifter does nothing.  Reverse gear works fine. The level and condition of the trans fluid is good.  The truck isn’t worth much as it’s a 2WD regular cab (worthy of a scarlet A in New England), but here’s the thing: it only has 74,000 miles and is in otherwise good shape. 

My dad needs to decide whether to fix it or sell it as-is.  Is he looking at a new tranny, or something simple (and relatively cheap) like a solenoid or a control module?

As always, thanks for the advice.

Sajeev answers:

The “Magic Box” known as any automatic transmission is impossible to diagnose from an armchair position. If no warning light appears or an error code on a diagnostic tester, odds are the transmission must be somewhat disassembled and repaired.  Which means it’s time for a full rebuild, because once you crack that bitch open (at this age, even at this low mileage) you might as well do the damn thing.

As much as I’d like to stay fair and balanced with such modest information, I’ve seen/heard too many horrible Chrysler transmission nightmares from the past 20+ years to not jump to one conclusion:  replace the transmission with one that works (and has a warranty) from the junkyard and sell it immediately.

If it quacked like a duck but now smells like pâté…it is probably a grenaded Chrysler transmission.  Such is the life of an old Chrysler product.


Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

]]> 6
Piston Slap: Me Thinks It’s Undiluted BS! Tue, 28 May 2013 11:34:13 +0000

Fernando writes:

I own a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. At exactly 7 years and 7 months, and 68k miles, the battery quit. Being well within Honda’s 8 year, 80k miles warranty, the dealership replaced it fully free of charge. The vehicle is working like a charm again. Other than this mishap, it has been completely trouble-free, and does its job as a good commuter car perfectly.

So……where is the rub, you ask?

Well, when I queried the service manager about the warranty for the new battery pack, he told me until the vehicle reaches 8 years, which is only 5 months away. Is this BS? Or is it reasonable?

Me thinks it’s undiluted BS.

Sajeev answers:

Usually, usually, replacement OEM parts have a modest warranty that’s significantly shorter than the original coverage for a new vehicle.  It is usually 1 year.  This aftermarket vendor provides the usual 1 year warranty of replacement battery packs, too.

But if the service manager said there is no warranty after 8 year/80k miles, he probably knows better than all of us. I Googled to find the warranty duration of the OEM, Genuine Honda replacement battery packs and found…nothing. Not on the Hybrid forums, not on Honda forums.  Then again, I won’t be depressed if someone hyperlinks their way to beating me at my game.

So what’s the final analysis? The warranty period is moot, OEM replacement parts are rarely warranted for longer than a year. And that battery pack will last longer than a year: making the warranty pointless. Probably.

So who cares?

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Now forget about fancy-pants Hybrid parts we rarely encounter.  Many aftermarket (not OEM) auto parts are available with a lifetime warranty. This is good and bad.  The quality of lifetime replacement parts has improved in the past decade, if you shop wisely. My first and secondhand experiences with “Platinum” branded alternators from O’Reillys rings true.   You can still buy the “junk” alternator with the lifetime warranty, but for a mere $20-ish more…why would you?

If you like to work on your car and know that some replacement parts are better with the lifetime warranty because you will need a replacement 10+ years from now, avoid the OEM manufacturer part and go lifetime. I’ve cashed in several times (alternators, suspension wear items, ignition parts) thanks to my lifetime warranty paperwork, arriving at the store with 10-12 year old receipts.  The staff gladly accepts them, sometimes even complimenting me for being such a tightwad!

Well, at least it felt like a compliment…hmm!


 Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 


]]> 82
Collision Collusion: How Insurance Companies Junk Your Car Fri, 15 Feb 2013 15:53:03 +0000

Drivers who were in a collision often follow the recommendation of their insurance company when it comes to fixing the car. By doing so, they hope for a more accommodating insurance company. They also are likely to end up with a car that has lost a lot of value. In collusion with insurance companies, low-cost collision shops use knock-off or used parts.

“It’s a big problem,” Bob Collins, owner of Wreck Check Assessments told the Boston Globe. “It’s pretty widespread.” Collins says vehicles are often worth an average of about 10 percent less, or more vulnerable to failure, when shops install generic parts.

  • In December, a West Virginia court ordered Liberty Mutual to stop using parts salvaged from junkyards to fix newer cars.
  • California regulators tightened their rules for using knockoff parts last month.
  • Massachusetts repair shops are considering lobbying state regulators to require insurers to pay for new parts for vehicles that are still under warranty, or with less than 36,000 miles: Current regulations require companies to use new, original parts on cars with less than 20,000 miles.

In many states regulations require insurance companies to tell customers what type of parts are being used in repairs. Often, the information is buried in stacks of paperwork.

In Massachusetts, a group representing repair shops, the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, is considering asking regulators to stop insurers from requiring old or generic parts to fix cars that are still under warranty or that have less than 36,000 miles.

Hat tip to Herr Holzman.
]]> 47
Piston Slap: Your Body is A Temple? Mon, 07 Jan 2013 12:18:57 +0000

TTAC contributor David Holzman writes:


My brother Tom’s Prius has been suffering neglect: a scraped door here, a tear in the bumper there, and my heavens, enough dirt to coat all the government buildings in the Washington DC metro area, where Tom lives and works, and pretty soon a two year old Prius is looking like a common beater. He has no plans to fix all this ugliness, but if there’s a logical, cost-benefit case to be made, he will definitely be swayed, as will his wife.

Will this cosmetic disrepair affect this fine car’s longevity? Is there any other cost-benefit equation at work that might way on the side of some bodywork? Not to mention a trip to the car wash every now and then? Please give me your thoughts, and then let the multitudes on TTAC provide theirs!

All the best, –David

Sajeev answers:

Cosmetic imperfections are important when you sell a car…or look for a soul mate. If you are doing neither, looks aren’t important to many folks. And that’s cool. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if someone gave my 2011 Ranger a good smack in the front, so I can replace the quasi-tough guy front fascia with that of a 2000-ish Mercury Mountaineer. Then I’d have a Mercury Ranger, or Manger.

Well then! Back on topic: if you don’t care, and don’t care about resale/public perception, a dented door is no biggie. Neither is a plastic bumper in disrepair. Your brother’s current problems are too minor to really worry about. At least for now.

Yes, the door will get worse, rust and eventually get rust holes in multiple places in the door. But the rot stays inside the door and thanks to the beauty of online junkyard databases, it’s no biggie. A new (used) door is in order, 10+ years from now, and all the labor involved in switching window parts, etc. And since white is an easy color to find and easy to match, getting a replacement that needs zero body/paint work is very likely.

If the damage was in another place (quarter panels, floorboards, etc), my tune shall change. But, when you consider the opportunity cost of fixing up a Toyota Prius instead of tackling a home improvement project, college education, hot stock tip, etc instead of the dent repair…well, I’m not gonna judge your brother for caring about other things than his ride.

It’s a Prius, bought (presumably) with his money. Cosmetic issues are just that: cosmetic!

Bonus! A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

To some extent, pouring money into a heavily depreciating asset is kinda stupid. If he’s neglecting an antique (loosely defined) vehicle, oh my damn son, he’d deserve a right thrashing from you. But it’s hard to justify the drama for not adoring a late model Prius.

(photo courtesy: David Holzman) DSC_0004 Well there is that. Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

]]> 38
Working On a Harlequin Interior For My Civic, One Junkyard Piece At a Time Wed, 30 May 2012 18:03:27 +0000 There’s a liberating feeling when you have to fix some interior component on a beater transportation car (e.g., my destined-to-become-a-track-car 1992 Civic DX) and you don’t care about color matching. Item #3,491 on the list of Parts Whose Failure Doesn’t Stop You From Driving, But Still Drives You Crazy: the glovebox door latch.
My Civic led a rough life before I bought it five years ago; its previous owner was a blues bass player who lived in Chicago and then San Francisco, parking the car on sketchy side streets near sleazeball blues clubs in both cities. Street-parked cars in San Francisco get broken into about once every two weeks on average, which meant that every lock on the car has been punched or pried out at least a dozen times, and every storage compartment in the interior has been pawed open by many desperate thieves in the throes of amphetamine psychosis and/or the DTs and/or the hippie hippie shakes (in Denver, they just try to cold steal the car itself). The glovebox in my car was always flaky, with a balky latch mechanism damaged by the scrabbling fingers of so many urban entrepreneurs, and last week it finally gave up completely.
Yes, the plastic handle finally snapped off when I opened the glovebox to grab my cassette of I, Fish Driver. I called my local Honda dealer and was quoted a price of just $17.95 for this piece, but it wasn’t in stock. I planned to do a junkyard run that day and shoot Junkyard Find photos, anyway, so I thought I’d do some glovebox-latch shopping at the same time. If I couldn’t find one, I’d just wait a few days for a new replacement part.
The first yard I visited didn’t have any fifth-gen Civics that hadn’t been completely gutted (I’m still waiting for 1992-95 Civics to show up in large quantities in self-service junkyards, but this hasn’t happened yet), so I looked at Integras, Accords, and Preludes from the same decade. Honda has been known to share components across different models, so maybe the Accord’s glovebox latch will fit the Civic.
This one has a lock, but the overall shape is identical to the 92-95 Civic unit. What the heck, it’s held in with just two screws and the junkyard wanted only $2.99 for the entire latch mechanism. As an added bonus, it’s even the correct gray color!
Unfortunately, the location of the striker is about 1/4″ different in the Accord latch, so it wouldn’t work without a bunch of pain-in-ass modifications. The good news was that I planned to do another photo expedition at a second junkyard that afternoon… where I found this fifth-gen Civic coupe.
The interior of this Civic was a very mid-90s beige, which was sort of horrible, but the latch was mechanically correct. This junkyard charged just $1.49 for it.
30 seconds of work and the swap is done.
In a non-beater, this would be a major fashion don’t, but I’m this car’s final owner!
Anyway, the latch goes well with the only-one-I-could-find replacement for the window crank I snapped off while loading 8-foot 2x6s in the car at the lumberyard. Now I’m tempted to get a green steering wheel.

18 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 01 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 02 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 04 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 05 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 06 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 08 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 12 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 16 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair 17 - 1992 Honda Civic Glovebox Latch Repair Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 24
Saab Pulls The Plug On Repairs Tue, 24 Jan 2012 19:43:57 +0000 Saab owners receive two pieces of bad news today: Their allegedly “iconic” and “quirky” brand that supposedly embodies everything that is good in Sweden, turns out to be a dud. It landed with a thud at the very bottom of the Consumer Reports 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey.

Probably more disconcerting to a Saab owner: Repairs that are more complex than the exchange of wear parts have become next to impossible, because someone at Saab literally pulled the plug.

“Currently, workshops can only perform very limited repairs, because online access necessary for work on on-board computers has been switched off.”

So says the usually reliable and well-informed Kfz-Betrieb, the German magazine for professional automobile workshops.  Without such online access, anything that is more complex than changing a brake pad will become either an ordeal, or impossible.

In a modern car, even something as simple as replacing a lost key becomes unmanageable when the electronic umbilical cord to the factory is cut.


]]> 55
Ford, Aftermarket Tangle Over Collision Replacement Parts Tue, 16 Aug 2011 19:03:28 +0000

For some time now, there’s been something of a low-scale war going on between OEMs and aftermarket parts suppliers just below the national media radar. The issue: whether or not aftermarket structural parts are as good as OEM parts. Ford has been a major proponent of the OEM-only approach, making the video you see above in hopes of proving that aftermarket parts aren’t up to the job. But the aftermarket is firing back, and they’ve made their own video in direct response to this one, which you can view after the jump.

The video above, made by the Automotive Body Parts Association, directly challenges the findings of Ford’s video experiments, arguing that they prove only that “motorists should avoid slowly driving into madmen wielding reciprocating saws.” In a press release, Co-Chair of the ABPA Legislation and Regulation Committee Eileen A. Sottile lays out her industry’s position

Time and again the aftermarket industry has demonstrated the safety and quality of its products, yet some car companies seem determined to counter scientific facts with fear-mongering. OEs cannot credibly argue that only their branded parts can provide safety, especially when it comes to components that play a very small role in crash energy management. If car company safety systems cannot handle a wide range of real world crash conditions and material differences in minor replacement parts then they are not robustly engineered and as such are a significant threat to the consumers.

You can read a compilation of material on the debate over at if you want to dive deeper into the argument, but it seems to me that the aftermarket is always going to face a single challenge again and again: branding. Whereas the OEMs can put their brands on their products, consumers will always be wary of parts made by different companies. Some consumers will always buy off-brand in hopes of a deal, but when safety is at stake, trust is of the utmost importance. Buyers trust brands, whereas the aftermarket’s myriad companies can’t all have the prominence of, say, a Ford… and they can’t all guarantee the exact same quality either. Still, that doesn’t mean the OEMs aren’t unnecessarily fearmongering…

]]> 52
Hammer Time: The Boss Killed My Car Tue, 14 Jun 2011 13:50:45 +0000

Your worst nightmare. A pleasant drive along a yawning rural two-laner is met by a sudden ‘jolt!’  You quickly take your foot off the accelerator. Was it a transmission shudder? A miss in the engine? Some gravitational push from a UFO? After a couple of mini-jolts it looks like problem number one. You do what you can to not stress the tranny. But it gets worse and worse until ‘jolt!’ ‘JOLT!’ ‘Veeeee!!!!’ The engine spins over to the high rpm’s with nothing left to propel it. The tranny is toast… and now the fun begins.

I saw this one coming. I had changed the tranny fluid on the Honda Insight the prior August and had seen the unmistakable sign. Little bits of metal microns that had accumulated on a magnetic drain bolt. It was about the size of a dime and only slightly thicker than one. Some trannies can take that bit of wear without a hitch (V8 RWD domestics in particular). But not the CVT on a 1st generation Honda Insight. Not a chance. Once I saw the bit sized metal gloop, I knew it was time to start shopping around.

For the next few months I frequented…

1) Ebay

2) Craigslist


4) IAA (large salvage auction)

5) Copart (an even larger salvage auction)

6) Insight Central (enthusiast site)

The first two are known by everyones mother. Numbers three through six are more ‘enthusiast’ focused.

Car-part is an enormous database that links to thousands of  junkyards throughout the country. I refer folks to this site all the time. Most car owners who have mainstream vehicles and simply want a part, instead of a whole car, will find ‘the deal’ there. If you just need a common part and don’t want to go through the parts store or dealership, look no further.

IAA (Insurance Auto Auctions) is an auto auction that goes through over 1.2 million vehicles a year. They serve the public as well. In fact you can see multiple pictures of the inventory online and visit their locations if you need more information about a specific vehicle. I find them especially useful since the VIN number combined with a Carfax report will let me see the dealer maintenance history on most vehicles at their sales. This is perfect when you need to replace the tranny on a rare car… like yours truly.

Copart is also a salvage auction. However they only serve dealers. If you can’t find what you need in the first four places, you may find a friend at a junkyard or a mechanic’s shop. A number of transmission and engine repair facilities will actually buy the whole car. Take the part they need. Run a little small parts business on Craigslist. Then send it to the crusher or a nearby junkyard when they get tired of looking at it. If you ever wonder why a tranny shop may have a long wooden fence along the back of their lot, it’s because of all the parts cars.

Finally you have the enthusiast site. Ones that specialize in older or classic vehicles are treasure troves. You may find the part along with a lot of useful tips about what to look for when purchasing it. The late model enthusiast sites? It depends. The more enthusiasts. The greater the chance for a good find.

As for that Honda Insight? I found a spare one on Craigslist. Less than 40k on a dealership tranny along with a perfectly drivable vehicle attached to it. Salvage title. Asking $2500 with several months of reposts.. After a bit of friendly haggling  we settled at $1800. I drove it for about an hour to make sure everything was up to snuff. The seller hauled it back to my place and 10k miles later my Insight is still shifting like brand new.

As for the rest of the car? That’s part two. High voltage. The Bonneville salt flats. Racing shells. Engine storage. You know… the good stuff!


]]> 36
Field Expedient Engineering: JB Weld Porsche Cylinder Head Repair Thu, 28 Apr 2011 16:57:35 +0000
When your 1980 Porsche 924 craps out minutes after the start of its first race and you’re in rural Texas, parts might be a little hard to find. You won’t get far with a blown head gasket and big ol’ notches burned in the head itself. But, damn, the clock keeps ticking! The Moose Knuckles team called every junkyard within 500 miles, but nobody had any 924 (or Audi 100) cylinder heads. In fact, nobody had ever heard of them furrin thangs.

The Moose Knuckles were able to find a head gasket a few hours’ drive away, but they came up with exactly bupkis on the head. But then one of the guys remembered the fine print on the JB Weld package: Repairs Engine Blocks. Block, head, what’s the difference?

Picking up some JB Weld and JB Kwik, the Moose Knucks got right to work. Sure, combustion-chamber temperatures get higher than the JB Weld-rated 500 degrees F, but we’ve seen such repairs work in the past… on cast-iron heads. What will happen with an aluminum head?

Fill in the holes with that magical gray stuff, sand it down, and slap the head back on the engine. Take the car on the track. Return behind the tow truck. Repeat. Endlessly.

Because the track exit at MSR comes before the transponder loop, and the Moose Knuckles’ Porsche never managed a full lap under its own power, all those laps that ended on the hook didn’t count. Official race results counted the car as a DNS. On the bright side, the Moose Knuckles took home the I Got Screwed award.

Just so you don’t think JB Weld repairs always fail at LeMons races, here’s a JB-patched E30 oil pan from the same race. The car wiped out, bottoming the pan and cracking the hell out of it. Thanks to a generous application of metal-filled epoxy, the car finished the race.

JB_Weld_Head_Repair-09 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-01 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-02 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-03 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-04 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-05 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-06 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-07 JB_Weld_Head_Repair-08 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 40
Hammer Time: Repairs Thu, 13 May 2010 15:41:18 +0000

$110 an hour. That’s what certain European dealerships will charge for their $15 an hour technicians. Now granted you’re paying for the nice marble floor and a waiting room filled with old magazines, cable news and pretzels. But still that’s an awful lot of money to part with. In fact, a lot of dealerships make an exceptional living out of highballing the repair cost and lowballing the trade-in value once the customer sees the repair estimate. One outfit in particular with nearly ten dealerships in my neck of the woods clears the two million dollar mark just on this homegrown recipe for consumer disaster. So how do you avoid it?

If you’re not into wrenching consider the repair first. Brakes, filter and fluid replacements, cv joints, alternators, and tie rod ends don’t really take anything more than a will and a way for most cars. Don’t want to do it? That’s fine. But my general rule of thumb is that if you can easily see it and touch it, a hobbyist can do it for you… or with you. Friends, shadetree mechanics, mobile mechanics, and even the neighbor down the street who tunes his own car can handle these things.

The pay is usually between $10 to $35 an hour at what can loosely be termed a ‘fitter’ level. All most folks do with these repairs is remove no more than a dozen or so bolts, take out the old, and put in the new. Speaking of new… here’s a really good parts guide to help navigate the new vs. used parts paradigm. Even a cheap bastard like me will buy a quality part because it always cost less in the long run.

But what if you have something that seems tricky or elusive? A lot of folks will go to a franchised tire or repair shop. These places have the worst combination of high overhead and cheap lower quality parts. For starters, cheap labor is often cheap for a reason and the ones who work at these places are usually inexperienced. I strongly prefer independent mechanics who have set up their own shops. Many of them are hobbyists who have evolved, grown, and experienced all the rigors of learning a craft. A distinct minority have more moderate wrenching experience but are very good at managing other people (and customers).

Virtually all of them will have a system called Autodata which can guide them through a particular type of repair. But the ‘doing’ is usually easy when it comes to tricky problems. I pay these guys for a diagnosis and consider the higher cost of repair as a reward for solving that riddle. In our business it’s actually a nice mutual circle of help. The independent dealer provides clients and cars at all seasons… and the independent repair shop does the same for me. Many of my best customers and trade-in’s have come from this source.

One other thing. Independent shops are very good at having specialists of varying sorts. Air conditioning, electrical, suspensions, many of the issues you will face in these areas require skills that end up interchangeable among a wide variety of cars. This time of year I end up with dozens of cars that need a/c work and one mechanic’s know how in this area can make all the difference.

Finally… you have the big job. An engine, transmission, or a comprehensive vehicle overhaul. For those I’ll usually either get a dealer mechanic on the side that specializes in that brand. Or I’ll get a few shadetrees in the more rural areas who have their own bay and equipment. In the less populated areas you tend to have folks who have more time and resources for their hobbies. You may have to wait a day or two to get your vehicle back. But 90+% of the time the repair pays off. Unlike many franchise dealers, these folks will keep on working on a job until it’s right.

]]> 48
Adventures Under the Hood Sat, 17 Apr 2010 16:18:31 +0000

I’d been wondering if I’d damaged the fuel pump when I ran out of gas a couple of months ago, for the only time in my 350,000-400,000 lifetime miles. Sometimes, after coasting in gear I’d feel the Accord 5-speed subtly hesitate as I gently pressed the gas. But this morning, the engine seemed to be gasping for fuel, and the check engine light–a species which is well known to cry wolf–was blinking at me as if it really meant it. Instead of to the espresso joint, I headed to the local mechanic.

On the way I pressed the codes button on the scan gauge. It was a 304. Carol, the garage’s owner, told me that was a misfire code, and not the fuel pump. She didn’t have an opening in her schedule until tomorrow. As for the problem’s cause, she said, it could be plugs, plug wires, injectors, the fuel filter…

The last time I’d done more than change an air filter, a headlight, or a battery had been in the summer of 1993. I’d sold Bryant the ‘77 Corolla a month earlier, after I’d bought the new Saturn, and early one morning he’d limped the car over, and banged on the door. I think he wanted his $200 back. For reasons I didn’t understand, the points had always needed gapping about every 3,000 miles. So I dragged myself out of bed and gapped ‘em one last time.

I’d learned auto mechanics in Mr. Smeltzer’s class during senior year at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, 1970-71. Although I’d understood the mechanics of internal combustion before my voice had deepened, I was not gifted with a wrench. I did manage to do the tappets, to tune my‘62 Falcon, and to pack the bearings, and on the way back to Boston the following summer I’d given the car a lube and oil change in Omaha, where some gas station had graciously allowed me to use their lift and their grease without even charging me. But in another auto shop incident, I’d stripped a screw hole while inverting the transmission cantilever spring, which I was sure had been upside down. Then I’d struggled painfully with knurling a new screw hole, and widening the hole in the cantilever spring to accommodate a wider screw, and I’d shattered the relevant drill bit, and Mr. Smeltzer had sent me to the hardware store to buy a new one, an embarrassing episode.

Then there was the incident of the worn idler arm. Back in Boston, at Tufts University where I was now a student, and where my parents taught, one afternoon I failed miserably to dislodge the thing while lying cramped beneath the car. I took it to John, my Dad’s mechanic, a big, serious southerner with superb skills. He put the Falcon on a lift and whacked the thing hard, five or ten times with what I swear was a sledge hammer before it went flying, while his colleagues stood by discoursing on the need for appropriate education in order to work on cars.

After the Falcon died the following summer, I went carless for nearly a decade and a half, until I bought the Toyota in ‘85. The first time I tuned it, I lost a couple of screws down the distributor shaft. That little mishap cost me $150 about six years thence. My mechanic, Adrian, of Northeast DC (whose last name I never learned) saint that he was, had searched several junk yards to find a distributor that would fit my by then 14 year old Corolla. But I figure my skills saved me at least five or six times that over the 70,000 miles I drove that car, what with tuneups every 10k and several point gappings in between each. My skills also gave me immense satisfaction when the little 1.2-liter-that-could would sing happily after each tuneup. Oh, how I loved that sound, even if Greg, my best friend, hated that car’s noisy exuberance.

After I bought the Saturn, I hadn’t missed Zen and the Art of Beater Maintenance as much as I’d feared I would. And now, contemplating Carol’s advice, I wasn’t missing it even more as I considered my options. Nonetheless, I knew my skills might save me some tsuris. The Accord, a ‘99, has 172k. I didn’t think the injectors were bad, because I’d been using only top tier gasolines for years. I knew my plugs should still have life in them, as I’d had them changed around 100k, but I thought the plug wires might be original. (I’d bought the car with 67k.) Changing plug wires was something I could do. So off to NAPA.

New wires in hand, I opened the hood and carefully examined the old ones, remembering that I needed to change them one at a time so I would not mix them up. I saw that they were different lengths, and that I would need to use the correct wire for each connection. I lined the new wires up so that I could see their relative lengths. As I carefully replaced each old wire with a new one, I could feel the strain of my brain activating atrophied connections concerning both the conceptual (putting the wires in the right places so the cylinders would fire in order) and the physical (pushing each female part over the corresponding male part until the fit of wire to plugs and distributor was snug). I was not facile.

Now it was time to start the car. I braced myself for failure. “This engine’s probably still going to missfire,” I warned myself. But the engine was so smooth it felt new. Elated, I ran back into NAPA and told the guy behind the counter. I drove to the espresso joint and told Jamie, the barista, a 20-something woman whose multiple talents include racing cars and working on their innards. It’s really no big deal to change the spark plug wires, even after nearly two decades, but for that brief morning I felt a little of what the Red Sox must have felt in ‘04.

]]> 25
Piston Slap: The Threat Of Going Audi 5000 Mon, 18 Jan 2010 17:20:18 +0000 Sweat the details (

Michael writes:

Sajeev, you always hear the advice to have a used car inspected before purchase by a reputable mechanic. But how do you implement that advice at your typical car lot? Dealer or independent, I can’t imagine they are excited about having someone drive off for several hours.

How does the B&B make this work? Leave your existing ride? Partially fill out a purchase contract? Leave your kids the showroom? Ideas, please, on how I phrase this “request” and what is reasonable to guarantee my return with their vehicle.

Sajeev replies:

There are several ways to skin this cat, but one phrase clears through the crap, “I’ll buy this car for such-and-such price after my mechanic looks at it.”

If the dealership wants a sale, that conditional statement is a non-issue. Personally, I’ve mentioned third party inspections as possible objections at many used car dealerships. And they’ve never cared. (Probably because they want my money.) And if they don’t budge, go Audi 5000 on their asses.

Remember, the customer is always right.

Then again, there are mobile car inspection services in many large cities. So if a dealership loves their iron more than the lure of cold, hard cash, get the mechanic on wheels and save yourself the drama.

(Send your queries to

]]> 22
Piston Slap: Service The Spectra Or Show It The Door? Wed, 06 Jan 2010 15:48:10 +0000 Spectralogy? (courtesy:wikimedia)

TTAC Commentator osnofla writes:

I have a 2000 Kia Spectra GS manual with about 97k miles on it and lately it’s been doing something really weird. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the clutch. When I upshift the engagement is very rough, especially below 3k rpm. It kind of lunges forward and stops and forward again then finally picks up roughly around 3k rpm and the rest of rev range is smooth. On top of this there is also the matter of the tightening the belt for the power steering because it squeals at full-lock and fixing the brakes because I’m pretty sure the rotors are warped and need new pads and shoes.

So actually my question is whether I should actually fix these things since — and I’m going out on limb here — the repairs probably cost more than the car is worth. I’m in grad school and will be for the next year. As a result, I have very little money to go out and get another car, though my parents said they could help me out if I really need it. I’m not really attached to this car at all even though I learned how to drive with it. I just don’t see that many options for my tastes: I like manny tranny wagons and hatchbacks. Should I use my parents money while I still can?

Sajeev Replies:

Oh, so you are one of the 500 people in this country that like wagons with clutches? Nice. Since you’re in grad school, better stick with a cheap sedan with a stick until you have the cash reserves for something more to your liking.  A cheap sedan like a Kia Spectra.

Here’s why: the Kia will net $1000 on a trade-in, if you’re lucky. That’s provided the dealership makes a healthy profit on the car you bought.  Or keep your fingers crossed, hoping that someone buys it on Craigslist for $1500.  I don’t like either scenario.

The car probably needs $500 (quick guess) worth of work to fix the shifting issue.  It’s possible you need a new clutch, or the clutch’s hydraulic system is out of adjustment. Parts will be cheap, labor will not.  Brake pads/rotors can be $100-150; odds are you need a cheap brake job with the cheapest parts.  The power steering belt squeal is not an adjustment: a new serpentine belt ($25) is a likely candidate because I suspect yours is original and glazed like a doughnut.  All of this is normal used car stuff, and you shouldn’t be afraid to get them sorted.

I am more concerned about this Kia’s timing belt: another expense we haven’t considered.  Still, if I were you, I’d find a good non-franchise mechanic who runs a clean shop, has fair labor rates, and bite the bullet: get your parent’s help to get the car serviced. I suspect any alternative vehicle in your price range won’t be much better than your current ride.

My point: a big repair bill (for normal wear parts) sets a car straight for several years. By then your advanced degree can buy you a sweet wagon with a 6-speed stick.  And don’t forget the little people who got you there, ya hear?

(Send your queries to

]]> 38