Piston Slap: a Camry Car Wash Conspiracy?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap a camry car wash conspiracy

Scott writes:

Dear Sajeev,

Recently I took my 1999 Toyota Camry (2.2L 4-cylinder) to a touchless car wash with underbody sprayers. This was a car wash that I used often, so I had good luck with it until this one particular day. Prior to getting it washed the Camry ran fine all afternoon, including during the wash.

However, after I left and drove about a quarter-mile down the road, the car acted funny–running rough, no power, etc. This happened sporadically, so one second it would “act up” and then it would run normally for another half of a mile and then “act up” again. As I was trying to nurse the car along to get me back home, the check engine light came on and the hiccups became more frequent until it ran poorly, period (the entire trip, from car wash to my house, was about four miles in stop-and-go traffic with speeds up to 30 MPH). Conveniently the engine stalled just as I parked it in my driveway. Long story short–I had to get it towed and the mechanic had to replace both ignition coils. Was this just a matter of coincidence, or was there a possibility the car wash somehow affected my vehicle?

Thanks in advance for the help.

Sajeev answers:

This is pretty scary: it’s a conspiracy by the automakers to damage the sterling reputation the Camry’s durability! I’ve never heard of this problem with livery drivers (in regularly washed Panthers) so I suggest you find the nearest Mercury Grand Marquis for sale and BUY IT…SON!

I’m realizing that I need a Panther Super PAC: I’d make a difference in our society! Hey, if Colbert has one, why not the Crown Victoria?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that water vapor does this, but it is true. One of the cars in the Mehta garage is a Mercedes buyback because of this exact problem. Or was. But that’s not the point: power washing is bad for electrics, but older motors with older rubber bits are susceptible to even a bit of vapor from regular car wash use.

Let’s make this simple: odds are your Camry needed a FULL tune up (plugs, spark plug wires, fuel filter etc.) anyway, and the magic powers of water vapor was the last straw.

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

Join the conversation
2 of 21 comments
  • RedTuna RedTuna on Sep 26, 2012

    The Toyota 2.2L 5SFE (and the 3SGTE) in an MR2 is known to running poorly when there's water in the spark plug well due to a loose spark plug wire boot. Typically happened after washing the engine. I'm thinking the same thing happened to Scott's 5SFE Camry.

  • ChandlerAZguy ChandlerAZguy on Sep 27, 2012

    I have the same issue with my 2010 Prius at a local car was that sprays the under carraige. It will run roughly and sputter all the way home. The next morning its fine...

  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.https://www.lhd.com.au/lhd-insights/australian-road-death-statistics/
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.