Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Trouble-Free Blessing

Had I kept up with my blog (or my blog, somehow, magically, kept up with me) you'd likely know about the ongoing saga of our car.

Now, some of this trouble, I've brought on myself: I don't like to spend money on cars. My aversion isn't as deep as it used to be; for many years, I rode my bicycle everywhere, and looked down on people who drove. It was a moral superiority born of envy, poverty, two-wheel pride, and a large serving of sour grapes—a conflicted condition, to be sure. Very conflicted.

All the cars I've ever owned, combined, come out to a bit over $5000 — about what I paid for my motorcycle. (Priorities, see?) I nursed my '77 Phoenix along until it was eligible for classic car plates. I loved my station wagon until I started losing a friend a week from frequent rescues. I've had two $1 cars. Two more have been gifts of love and deep generosity. One, I actually paid a whole $500 for. I've never had a car payment.

I'm sure that part of this (ahem) extreme thriftiness is from the culture that I grew up in. One of the enduring images of my father is of him making major repairs on our early '60s Toyota nearly every weekend in Costa Rica. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was the motto to go by.

Even so, long about September, even I had to admit that our car was on its last legs. This is the car where we kept a rubber mallet under the front seat, to start the car when it would stop and not re-start. It was creeping up on 190,000 miles, and I had a several-thousand-dollar list of repairs that it needed to keep it truly road-worthy. I had a stack of parts that had fallen off of it. Deborah hated the idea of getting a new car, but I knew it was a matter of time before we'd need to replace it, and I couldn't think of how to get much—if any—money out of it, and where I'd find the funds to replace it.

God took care of that.

And that was a brand new tire, too....

It didn't take much—just a guy pulling out of a gas station, at just the right moment; enough to total the car, but leave it driveable for a week; enough to make it a total loss, but not hurt anyone.

Deborah decided not to smile for the picture. I guess I wouldn't, either.

The insurance company offered us 10 times what I had thought I could get for the car (hint: the junkyard offered $200) and set us up with a rental just in time for us to take on vacation. I didn't want to give that car back — a 300 HP Dodge Charger — but I knew I'd have to. I started shopping.

About the best thing I can say about the process was that very few people outright lied to me. Oh, sure, we got the pink-sweater-in-the-passenger-seat ("Oh, I've been driving my daughter around in it. . ." Really, in the seat with the broken seatbelt?) and the car that wouldn't start in the pouring rain (Thanks, God) even though it had run fine the day before. But for the most part, we got honest people who listened to our needs, and then would point to the one car on the lot that met the criteria. Most of them were awful.

Hmm. I don't think I'll buy this one.

Discouraged after chasing one option down as far north as Mishawaka, we walked across the street from Mr. Pinksweater to see the car dealer there. "We don't have anything in the price range," he said, "but I have a friend that works at a lot just down the road. They have cars that might fit what you're looking for."

Did they ever. A whole lot, stretching out, hundreds of cars. All of them in our price range. It was like a revelation, angels singing forth. And there, right where we pulled up to park — "Look, Andy, it's our car!" And it was — nearly identical to the car we'd just lost, but two years newer and with 100,000 fewer miles. We knew it would fit three car seats across the back. We looked around, but we kept coming back to that one. With the purchase price, tax, title, registration, inspection, and a few new tires, we came within $2 of what we'd budgeted.

Yay! New car!

It was perfect. It was a blessing.

We reveled in it for months. We were even, I dare say, a bit smug about it. Then, one night, I got a desperate call from Deborah. Every light on the dashboard was lit up, and flashing like a Christmas tree. The numbers on the gas gauge and climate control jumped wildly, from Full Tank to -45° to 0 mpg and, mysteriously, "c." I talked her home, assuring her that, if the car was still running, she could ignore the antics on the dash. Finally, it settled down into a pattern of displaying the mysterious "c" and running the air conditioning full blast. I welcomed home a very cold Deborah, and told her I'd look into it.

The next day, I looked into it, and, since Deborah needed to go to work, I pulled the fuse for the air conditioning, so that she could drive in relative comfort. Unfortunately, by doing so, I also pulled the fuse that would have alerted her to the fact that the battery wasn't charging. A tow truck ride later, and we had a new alternator, battery, but still some odd behavior on the dash. My mechanic worked on it for hours, tracing one potential problem after another, but the haunted dash persisted. His best estimate for the next step involved pre-authorizing up to eight hours of labor for tracing down wiring faults — a figure echoed by the Cadillac dealership in town. We re-enabled the air conditioning, and stuck in a few blankets.

A few days later, on the way to church, an odd thwapping sound emanated from under the hood. I pulled over and had a look. The serpentine belt was shredding. I got it home, and installed a new one. Once I got it all together, though, I realized what the original problem had been: the new alternator was off by about a quarter of an inch, causing the belt to jump up on the edge. I couldn't adjust the pulley off the shaft, so I gave our mechanic a call. He graciously sent out a tow truck, and, because he couldn't move the pulley either, we went home with yet another new alternator.

Apparently, I groused about it often enough on Twitter/Facebook (I often update my status on Twitter, so that I won't be distracted by the rest of Facebook) that Dad called me up to see if he could have a go at solving the dash problem.

We started out by disconnecting the battery, and then spent the next few hours trying to get the battery connected again.

Stripped threads. On a battery terminal. Aaaaargh.

(We also ran the car out of gas. That's another neat little "feature" of this whole mess — no gas gauge.)

On the way home from that adventure, the whine that had been developing under the hood stopped, and a new dash light came on: the battery was not charging. Thank God for cell phones. My parents followed me halfway home from Valparaiso, until we met up with Paul coming the other way. Once the battery ran out, we'd stop, charge up the battery for 10 minutes, then hit the road again for another 5 miles.

Mere days before, I'd helped Paul pick out a new car from that same dealership. It came with jumper cables.

We kept that up until 2 a.m., when we were finally within striking distance of Warsaw, and we had a recognizable place where we could park it, and call the mechanic. A tow truck ride and yet another alternator later (the auto parts supplier now owes my mechanic several hundred dollars in towing charges) and we're back on the road, driving in style, if not comfort.

In the meanwhile, we're back to hunting and theorizing. Fortunately, our mechanic has the wonderful ability to separate his feelings about the car and the customer ("Andy, I'm starting to hate your car") and has been giving Dad and I feedback on some of our ideas about what to try next. Last time I was in there, he showed me some new software he was trying out. We plugged in the make, model, and year, and drilled down to climate control issues — sure enough, there was the problem, described in perfect detail, down to the lowercase "c" on the dash, along with what other mecahnics had done to fix it. There were six entries on-screen, and they all showed the same thing: replace the body control module (BCM). It would have been a revelation, except for one thing: We'd already tried that.

Oh, look. It's snowing. Inside the car.

We're working with a new theory, now, that it's the PROM (Programmable Read Only Memory) unit that sits between the computer and the rest of the wiring. Of course, they don't make them anymore, so I've been contacting junkyards from all over, trying to find one for a reasonable price. We may get there yet.

So, this car is a blessing. Did anyone say it had to be trouble-free?