Pop Quiz!

In the parking structure at my workplace today, I saw the following license plate:

AC V DC

The question: What kind of car was it? Leave your answer in the comments here.

There’s no prize except the certainty that you are smarter than everyone else.

Skewed Perspective

On the way home from work today I got to hear what the V12 Mercedes SL 65 AMG sounds like. It’s a quarter-million dollar car that, despite impressive numbers for power and whatnot, and an equally impressive string of unnecessary letters and numbers in its name, “only” goes 155 mph. (The sound: imagine a hive of bees, except instead of bees it’s full of bears who don’t want to wake up but have to.)

The Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley) is not the place to get a good cross-section of what America’s driving. Based on a survey here, you might think that Tesla is preparing to challenge Volvo. (Tesla is the government-subsidized overpowered electric vehicle that allows wealthy people to be profligate while fooling themselves into believing they are environmentalists. I call it a watt-guzzler — but I wouldn’t turn one down). Tesla’s sound at a traffic light: sweet blissful silence.

In my time commuting in this area, I’ve stopped saying “Hey! a Maserati!” or “Holy Shit! A Lamborghini!” Top-end BMW’s and Audis are a dime a dozen. I got to check out the new Jaguar F-Type because there’s one that parks at my building. (It sounds… magnificent.) Other Jags, a Lotus or two… you know, the usual.

I’ve only seen one of those million-buck-and-then-some Bugattis, in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. It wasn’t that impressive.

Not a single damn Viper. Other modern muscle is represented, but not the top shark in the tank. The lack of creature comforts doesn’t play well here, I suppose — although a brief look at the Viper Web site indicates that the interior has been upgraded quite a bit from the old days. Race-inspired my ass. (Although, of the sites I flitted past for ‘research’ on this episode, give Viper credit for having a section dedicated to braking. That’s a huge part of performance.)

Which brings me to wonder: How much of the awesome of these cars is ever experienced? How often are drivers inconvenienced because their V12 wonder-engine can only get their buggy up to 155 mph? I haven’t even taken my Miata up to top speed. In everyday driving, what benefit is that massive motor?

Answer: the sound. Once, walking down the street in a quiet Prague suburb, I heard the unmistakeable sound of an American muscle car, purring like a tiger kitten choking on shots of testosterone. Rubmble-rumble chaka-huh rumble… I turned to see a Coke-bottle Corvette with a vent in the hood, idling down the main street of Strašnice. The driver gently stroked the accelerator and the neighborhood shook with a sound not often heard in Europe. There’s anger in that sound. In Europe they ask “why?” “Because fuck you,” this car answered. I love that sound.

Jaguar has mastered a more civilized version of that sound, and the twelve cylinders under the hood of the Mercedes SL 65 AMG PDQ BYPFD 0I812 produce a pretty satisfying note. You may never drive 160 mph, but your car will tell the rabble around you that you could if you wanted to.

Unless, of course, you’re trapped in traffic with a Bugatti.

1

When Phones and Cars DO Mix

I’d heard whispers about it in the shadows, seen the knowing glances between those in the loop, and recently I’ve become one of them. I’m a Wazer.

I am required to be at an office during what we call ‘normal business hours’. That means I’m driving to my office in the morning and home from the office in the evening, along with all the other NBH drones. Some mornings, the 12-mile trip can take an hour. That’s not good.

Along my route are some key decision points. It’s shortest to turn left at Curtner, but that ramp onto the freeway can get massively backed up, to the tune of fifteen minutes. On those mornings it’s better to stay on the surface streets for an extra mile.

But which mornings? How can I tell in advance whether Curtner is a mess? Enter Waze, the social mapping service. Waze takes real-time data from drivers like me and finds the fastest route to work (and, perhaps more importantly, home again). Sometimes those routes use streets I never would have thought of, but I ignore the advice at my peril. (Monday, I thought I knew better than Waze. Boy was I wrong.)

Waze is a bit quirky; right now it tries to steer me around one intersection at all costs — including cutting through a cemetery as an alternative. I have no idea why it developed an allergy to that right turn, and I suppose a true Wazer would log in and fix the map. Even the maps themselves are crowdsourced. It’s pretty cool.

You should be aware, however, that Google just bought Waze for a cool 1.1 Billion, so as I drive I’m telling the Goog where I am. If you use Google maps you’re already doing that, however, and I think this is a case where a voluntary surrender of personal information (with a very short useful shelf-life) actually makes the world better. Perhaps I just think that way because I really hate traffic. I decline to advertise my location on Facebook, and I hope all you have more common sense than to do so.

Another very useful phone-related product I came across recently is actually a gadget/app combo. You may have read recently that I’ve been tinkering with my car so that it will pass the California emissions test. I made some repairs and pulled the fuse that powers the onboard computer and counted thirty seconds, which should reset it. Even if the Check Engine Light is off when I get to the smog place, if there are old error codes in the computer’s memory, I will fail. Again. I know this because that’s why I failed the first time. The Check Engine Light had been on, and that was enough.

So I cleared the computer. Probably. Maybe. After my first round of repairs the light came back on (I had broken a plastic bit during the first operation) so I made my second repair and pulled the fuse for 30 seconds. Once again, there was no way to tell if I had actually cleared the memory. Just in time, help arrived via the U.S. Mail.

You see, during this whole process I was frustrated that I couldn’t just check the damn computer myself. (Once you fail smog, all except a few specially-designated repair places aren’t even allowed to hook you up. Bah!) Then while reading a Miata forum I found a discussion of which OBD tools worked with 1999 Miatas. A light turned on over my head. I could buy my own damn code reader! That had quite truthfully never occurred to me. I went to Amazon and started looking around. There was one hitch that made me hesitate: Units were either a) really expensive; and/or b) not sure to work on my car. Although there is a standard connector, different cars communicate with different protocols. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money for something that didn’t know my car’s dialect.

Then I came across one that was both cheaper than any of the others AND low-risk! BAM! For $21 bucks I bought the Elm327 WIFI OBD2 Car Scan Tool. There’s a cheaper BlueTooth version, but there was some indication that it might not work on all iOS devices. Why is this one more likely to work with my car? Here’s the thing: The gizmo doesn’t know diddle about protocols. That’s software. So if one phone or computer app can’t talk to my car, another will. And now the UI can be presented on a sophisticated touch-screen computing device, rather than a cryptic LCD readout with arrow buttons for controls.

When the ELM-327 arrived I splurged and got one of the most expensive apps available to talk to it, based on reviewers saying it worked no problem with their ELM-327’s. Ten bucks. For a total outlay of $31, I had a scan tool that not only worked far better than dedicated devices costing hundreds of dollars, it had a better UI, and could even display a host of real-time data as I drove around! Speed, rpm, air volume, battery voltage, and more. Some modern cars provide a ridiculous amount of information through the OBD port. The app I chose, OBD Fusion, can log data and even superimpose that info onto a map. Racers, apparently, love this stuff.

My smog guy was really impressed as well. He actually laughed when I revved my motor and the virtual tach needle swung upwards. He was excited that he could prescreen customers in the parking lot, quick and easy. I expect he owns one of these now.

And in fact I had not successfully cleared my computer by pulling the fuse, but with my gadget and my app I cleared the old codes and ran the car until all tests had come back green.

This tool is a game-changer for even an unsophisticated home mechanic like me. Knowing the code and being able to look up the repair on the Internet literally saved me hundreds of dollars. (I know because I once paid hundreds of dollars only to have the problem return a few months later.) It also confirmed that my speedometer is a wee bit off.

And next road trip I’m totally going to make a map of engine RPM along my route. Because the world needs to know stuff like that.

3

I am an Idiot

Last episode I talked about how valuable a well-written tutorial can be. Two weekends ago, supported by an excellent write-up, I dug deeper into the innards of an automobile than I have since I drove an Alfa Romeo. Which isn’t that deep, but you get the idea. The operation was a qualified success, and I saved myself several hundred dollars.

A qualified success. The qualification: I broke a different bit. I didn’t even know the name of the part (1974 Alfas didn’t have them), but it turns out it was the Positive Crankcase Ventilation Valve. The good news: PCV valves are inexpensive and butt-simple to replace. On this car at least, you don’t even need a wrench. The PCV valve is mushed into the top of the valve cover and sealed in place with a rubber grommet. Yank the old one out, mash the new one in, you’re good to go.

But… on a 14-year-old car, the grommet that seals the PCV valve in place can get hard. Not a biggie, but the grommet is cheap and in the long run could be a point of failure. May as well change it, too.

This reasoning is perfectly valid, unless you’re an idiot. In this case, “idiot” is defined as “a guy who might push the old grommet into the valve cover, rather than pull it out.”

Yep.

I stood, looking at the empty hole that the little rubber donut had just leapt down. I don’t even think I swore. Sometimes words give out. I stepped back from the car and spiked the screwdriver I’d been using to pry at the grommet, hard, into the concrete floor of the garage.

My quick ‘n’ easy repair job had just become considerably more complicated.

Oh, I considered the consequences of just leaving the grommet in there. Could a piece of rubber really damage the camshafts? Yeah, dumb question. I was going to have to remove the valve cover and take out the little rubber donut.

In fact, that’s not a terribly difficult operation. The catch is that the same logic that applied to the grommet applied to the valve cover gasket. Fourteen-year-old rubber might not reseal properly. Off to AutoZone I went, and got a new gasket. It was surprisingly affordable. I also got a torque wrench, because you have to be really careful not to overtighten the bolts when you put the cover back on.

Back in the garage, with laptop propped up with the instructions for the upcoming operation, I snapped my 10mm socket onto the extender and dove in. Things went smoothly, and before long I had the valve cover off. I set it carefully aside and looked down between the valve stems, expecting to find the offending bit of rubber.

It wasn’t there.

I probed in the pooled motor oil with a screwdriver. Nothing. Nic. Nada.

Perplexed, I turned my attention to the valve cover I had removed. Where the grommet had been pushed in, there was a chamber sealed by a flat plate. Seven screws held the plate in place, and they were a bitch to get out. I peeled the plate free, breaking some sort of sealer.

There was the goddam grommet. I removed it, cursed myself, and then considered how I would put everything back together. The plate had been sealed with a dark substance; I went back online to find out what product I needed to restore the seal.

This was when I found a question on a Miata forum by a guy who had, in his words, “idiotically pushed the grommet into the motor”. Like me, he had pulled the valve cover, but he had yet to open the chamber.

“Just leave the grommet there,” was the advice. “It can’t hurt anything.” The chamber exists, you see, to keep oil from shooting straight into the PCV valve. The grommet would be just another obstacle. This would have been really good to read before I tried to fix my blunder. Too late now, though; the chamber is open and must be resealed. Happily in that same discussion was advice that addressed my condition. The right sealant to use (probably unimportant since the chamber is open on one end anyway), and a strong caution about the seven screws. If one of those works free it could destroy the engine. The proper adhesives are called for.

So, another trip to the friendly and knowledgeable guys at my local AutoZone later, I began the reassembly. It went well, with only a (hopefully) minor hitch. My car has a big stiffener bar that reaches across the engine compartment. (The bar was part of Mazda’s “dominate autocross” package.) That bar makes it really hard to slide the valve cover into place without disrupting the complex, 3-d gasket. By now I was cursing freely, but finally I got it into place with (as far as I can tell) the gasket properly seated. Then I discovered that the torque wrench I had bought really couldn’t measure bolts as loose as these are spec’d to be. But I got pretty close, I think, and it really felt like I was compressing the gasket gradually as I turned the bolts.

So in the end my clumsiness cost me about fifty bucks and three hours of stress-filled life. Unless I have an oil leak now. One deep breath later, I’ve still saved a lot of money compared to having the original problem repaired by a mechanic. But it could have been so much easier.

Things We Take for Granted

I drove several miles today, and none of my wheels fell off. No bearings seized. Around the world, billions of miles were covered by automobiles, and I’m willing to bet that damn few wheels came off those vehicles. That just doesn’t happen anymore.

Think about what that means. Up until 100 years ago, wheels came off vehicles all the time. Now such an event would be freakish (or terribly negligent on the part of the owner of the vehicle — I do have a story or two).

But I’ve had the same car for well over a decade and while I’ve had to attend to a few issues, by my rough estimate each wheel has turned about 85 million times. And that’s nothing. It’s something that doesn’t even occur to us to worry about anymore. Wheels last longer than we do.

The only actual failure of a wheel in my lifetime that I know about (other than alluded stories of negligence above): One evening my dad and I replaced the bearing in the front right wheel of “my” Opel Kadett. I called it “the heap”, but it was a mighty little car. How that front right bearing came to be cracked is a story I’ve only told to select audiences. Until now.

I grew up in a small town in steep territory, seven thousand feet above the sea. One day I had an hour to kill before I was expected at the pizzeria where I worked. I got an idea. Drive this gutless little car up into the mountains as fast as I could for thirty minutes, and take a relaxing thirty back down to work.

Brief aside: The 1967 Opel Kadett was a vehicle far ahead of its time. It was a practical, economical car produced when American factories were vomiting up land yachts. Don’t tell mom that I once got ten people home in that car.

Speaking of don’t tell Mom, off I went up the hill. There are motorcycles with larger engines than the 1.1 liters boasted by the Kadett, and the bikes are better-tuned for power. But that day I wasn’t competing against any of those other vehicles. It was me and the road.

Another quick aside here: I love driving. Always have. I love hitting the curve just right and feeling my suspension flex perfectly. Maybe my tail drifts and I bring it back in line and hit the next curve perfectly.

The above is actually pretty funny, if you picture me in a 1967 Opel Kadett.

That day, I was pretty surprised by how far I got in 30 mins. There was a dicey moment, though. I was roaring up (as much as the heap could roar) on a horseshoe corner, and looming ahead was a cement truck.

It might have appeared to an outside observer that I had two options:

1) back off, and pass the cement truck on the other side of the curve
2) pass the sumbitch

I chose the latter. Pedal flat to the floor I swung out around the cement truck (who the f needs cement out there anyway?), dove back in to my lane and hit the hairpin with gusto. I’m pretty sure that’s when I cracked the bearing on my front right wheel. High five to the tires able to exert that force!

Later, back in the real world, Dad ordered a new bearing (can you even do that now?) and we installed it into the heap. That was a good night. It didn’t go smoothly; the old bearing resisted all our entreaties, until the entreaties involved a hammer. Finally it let go.

It’s not like we were rebuilding the transmission or anything, but that night we touched one of the most fundamental parts of the machine. One of the parts that simply doesn’t break anymore. I was deeper in the machine than most people get, into the parts that we take for granted, and my tour guide was my father.

A little late for Father’s day, but thanks, dad. Sorry about breaking the car.

2

Now with Extra Extras!

I’ve seen a few car advertisements lately, and one thing’s for sure: they’re sure putting a lot of gizmos into cars these days. But where some people see “cool feature”, I see “distraction” and “point of failure”. Electric windows were bad enough, now it seems I’d be hard-pressed to find an automobile that doesn’t tie my shoes for me and tell me how devilishly handsome I am.

If I were king of an auto company, every new proposed feature my marketing whiz kids threw at me would have to answer these questions:

  1. Does it add weight to the vehicle?
  2. Does it divide the driver’s attention?
  3. does it require an instruction manual?
  4. Does it increase maintenance costs?
  5. How many different ways can it break?
  6. When it breaks, how will that affect the owner of the car? (Crash? can’t roll up the windows? Can’t unlock the door?)

I don’t know if there exists a new car (within reason) that I would prefer over my ten-year-old, already-too-fancy car.

A (Not So) Simple Task

Even the most reliable cars require occasional maintenance, like changing the battery. Happily, this is a very simple operation — unclamp, remove, replace, clamp, and away you go. Simple, right? Right? It’s not like it’s the kind of task that would take more than a week to accomplish.

A little more than a week ago I was working here in my office when my sweetie went out to run errands. The sound of the car starting wasn’t quite right, but she got it going and away she went. A couple hours later she called from her parents’ house. “My battery is dead. I’ll be home as soon as I get a jump start from Dad.”

The battery is the original that came with the car, ten years ago. Not terribly surprising that it needed replacing. (And it’s worth noting that this is the first trouble of any sort with the car.) I opened the hood to take a look-see. The negative terminal was badly corroded, along with some pieces that connected to it. The pair of nuts that clamped the connector onto the lead battery post were not really recognizable anymore. I realized it was going to be tricky to loosen them.

Although in the end it turns out there was no need; the clamp itself was cracked through. That explains the sudden loss of electricity, rather than a slow decay of battery performance. I would need a new battery terminal connector as well as a new battery.

I looked closer and realized that there were two parts connected to the old terminal – one a fairly typical heavy-gauge wire connected to the chassis nearby, as you will find in dang near every car, and another elbow-shaped copper piece that was fused into a plastic connector that had a pair of other plastic connectors snapped into it. A Dealer Part. The metal was badly corroded, and I thought it would be a good idea to replace that bit, too.

I tabled that thought, however, and ambled off to the local Kragen to get the new battery and a standard terminal connector. I brought them home and set to work loosening the nut that held all the pieces together.

I quickly realized that I didn’t have the tools to loosen a nut that has been corroded almost beyond recognition. Off I went to Sweetie’s Father’s house to borrow his socket set. Home again, to discover that the smaller sockets weren’t deep enough to get all the way down the shaft of the bolt and onto the nut. There were some box wrenches in the set, but they were all too big. I was faced with another decision. I judged that it was time I had a decent set of wrenches of my own, and so away once more I went, this time to the local Ace hardware.

After a long time considering options, it boiled down to two choices: a set of wrenches with both metric and SAE, or a set with a wider variety of SAE sizes. I didn’t think the metric-and-SAE set went small enough, so I went with the comprehensive SAE set (it also had a holder for storage, which in our current situation is a big plus).

Home once more with new wrenches (always good to have anyway), I dove back under the hood and discovered that Americans building cars in American plants are putting metric nuts in their cars now. While overall I’m behind this movement to get in sync with the rest of the world, I still didn’t have the right wrench. It was late, I was tired; I put some penetrating oil on the mess and resolved to finish with the car the next day.

The following day I took another trip to Ace and bought the metric version of the set of wrenches I’d bought the day before. I also bought a pair of vice-grips, in case things got ugly. Home again and back under the hood, things got ugly. The nuts were too corroded, and were chemically welded. The vice grips could lock on with mechanical ferocity, but the material of the nuts was not able to withstand the force necessary to unfreeze them.

During this operation I made another discovery. Normally the clamp that goes over the battery terminal is a separate piece that the ground wire bolts to. Not in this car. The broken metal strap was a contiguous piece crimped directly onto the ground wire. I figured I could work around that, but it was looking more and more like the other Dealer Part was not coming off the car intact. To the Internet I went.

There was no mention of a part like this on any Ford Web site. Finally in a Ford Escort owner’s group I found my answer: the part could only be obtained by buying an entire wiring harness for $350. Say what, now? Also the broken terminal strap that started this whole mess was only included in that $350 purchase.

We ruled out that option and I went back to unscrewing The Nuts That Were No Longer Nuts. Failure, fatigue, and another day lost ensued. That night I decided that bolt cutters were called for, but I wasn’t sure how to get them down into the recess where the nuts lay. Perhaps a little saw would be better. I called Father-of-Sweetie the next day and of course he had all those things. “Do you have a little Dremel tool?” I asked, suddenly realizing what the right tool for the job was.

Sparks fly as I cut through the reluctant bolt.

Sparks fly as I cut through the reluctant bolt.

We have a Dremel tool,” my sweetie informed me. Hot dog! I opened up the case, and there was a little cutting-wheel attachment, smiling up at me. It looked like a light at the end of a tunnel. On a gloomy Tuesday afternoon (the car first failed the previous Thursday), I opened the hood once again and set to work cutting the bolt, while being careful not to harm the Irreplaceable Dealer Part (IDP) any further. Sparks flew! Get the camera!” I hollered to my sweetie. She took some great shots. Now I wish I’d gotten more pictures up to this point, like a time-lapse of the slow aggregation of more and more tools.

Success! After cutting through nut and bolt about two millimeters above the surface of the IDP and then slowly carving away at that, at last the bolt came free! Now all I had to do was cut back the main ground terminal so it could be mounted on the new terminal strap, slip on the IDP, and go have a beer.

bits and pieces of the old terminal connector

bits and pieces of the old terminal connector

Only…

The place to connect the Irreplaceable Dealer Part to the new terminal connector wasn’t flat enough for the IDP to sit flush. It would have to do, I decided, and cranked down on it to get the best contact I could and forged ahead. Not very far ahead, as it turns out; I dropped one of the nuts for the new connector. It fell under the battery tray. Probes with a magnet were fruitless. Shaking the car didn’t free it. We couldn’t get to the damn nut. We were thwarted for another night.

I’d been thinking about using a good old-fashioned lead terminal connector anyway, rather than the steel one I’d first purchased, so while on another shopping mission we flew by Sears Automotive and got what I thought was exactly the ticket. We got home and I told my sweetie it would only be a few more minutes. Hah.

On with the lead connector, on with the… What the #$%$@#! The corroded and truncated connector at the end of the main ground wire didn’t fit over the terminal post. *sigh* I used a screwdriver, twisting it in the hole, to widen the opening until I could just get it over the terminal. I was worried about that connector, though, corroded and abused as it was. I managed to get the IDP onto the clamping screw, and tightened everything down.

At last, the battery was installed.

I got in and the hazard lights blinked and the chime went “beep-beep… beep-beep” which I took as a sign that a) there was electricity, and b) the car was trying to tell us something. Like, that it had lost power and its electronics needed to readjust. I turned the key.

Nothing. Not even a click.

Well, crap. Back under the hood I went. Primary suspect: The used and abused ground connector. I cut the ground wire and stripped back the insulation. Holey moley – the copper was corroded right on up the wire, beneath the insulation. Powdery light-blue copper oxide fell like snow. I cleaned off what I could and clamped on a new connector that had come with the first terminal connector kit. I used parts from both kits to get the IDP bolted on with good contact as well. This was about as good as it was going to get without replacing the entire wiring harness. Key in ignition, lights came on, beepers beeped. I turned the key. Nothing. Not even a click.

Perhaps the battery didn’t have enough charge to turn over the starter. The Miata was standing nearby, so my sweetie and I pushed the Escort out into the gentle rain to the other end of the carport. We hooked up the jumper cables (using an entirely different ground point), waited a couple of minutes, then turned the key. I think you can guess what happened. Yep, lights flash, beeper beeps, turn the key and nothing — that’s what happened. We pushed the car back, managing the slight uphill better than I thought we would, and I turned once more to the Internet.

After striking out finding any sort of answer myself, I found JustAsk.com, a place where, for a fee, I could ask a certified Ford mechanic what the heck was going on. I went through the preliminary steps, plunked down fifteen bucks, and asked my question to a guy named Chuck.

“Is it a dealer or aftermarket anti-theft device?” he asked.

“I specifically told the dealer I didn’t want any of that,” my sweetie said when I relayed the question.

“Well, you have one,” Chuck informed us. “You need to find the reset button.”

The anti-theft module we didn't want

The anti-theft module we didn't want

Long story (that had me contorting myself underneath the dashboard) short, we did have an anti-theft device, and it didn’t have a reset button. That was the part that the dealer was trying to sell my sweetie when she declined to be upsold.

To emphasize: Frontier Ford of San Jose sold my sweetie a car that would become completely disabled any time the battery was disconnected. What if she’d been out in the middle of nowhere when something happened to interrupt the electricity? What else might have activated the device? The irresponsibility of the dealer is simply mind-boggling. There really are no words to express the depth and breadth of my anger, and it pales next to the world-class ire my sweetie felt.

After a couple of hours tracing wires, we called it a night. At least we knew the problem. I would be able to remove the module, but I needed wire and connectors to restore wires that the anti-theft module interrupted. The next day I went out to the car again and got my only pleasant surprise of this whole endeavor: merely removing the plastic anti-theft module but leaving all the wiring in there actually allowed the car to start again. I’m a little surprised at this outcome, but I’m not questioning it.

When she heard her car start, my sweetie came down and hugged me and congratulated me on getting the damn thing fixed. Honestly, though, when you consider I made six trips, bought wrenches, vise-grips, multiple redundant parts, had my sweetie pushing a car in the rain, and torqued my back, all to change a battery, it doesn’t sound so great. But there it is.

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