Category Archives: cars

Car Trouble

My inability to fix cars is near legendary in our household. Oh, I can make it look like I know what I’m doing, propping open the hood and staring into the engine block with a concerned look on my face. But I might as well be staring into a dumpster for all the good I can do.

Not my dad.  My dad can listen to a car cranking, his head tilted slightly to the side, and determine, for the most part, exactly what’s wrong without ever opening the hood. It’s partly generational, I think — his generation spawned the sort of fellow who loved taking an engine apart on a Saturday just for the fun of cleaning it and putting it back together on a Sunday — though it also has something to do with the way cars today are made.  Most times, you can’t tell what’s wrong with a car unless you take it to a mechanic — who then plugs it into a special computer so the car can tell HIM what’s wrong. It’s a matter of having the right machinery, I suppose.

And then there are the days when it’s clear I shouldn’t be allowed near a car at all.

Recently, my car—a ten-year-old Saturn with 150,000 miles on it that I plan on driving until it implodes—failed its Maryland emissions test. I wasn’t too surprised—it had started rough the morning I took it in for its test, and it ran rough all day.  The next morning, it wouldn’t start at all.

For the next week or so, I grumbled about calling a tow truck to drag the car to the shop, and every once in a while would go out and sit in the driver’s seat to crank the engine, hoping that this time — this time! — it would turn over.  It didn’t.

My dad stood by patiently during one of these cranking sessions, listening with his head tilted slightly to the side.  “That sounds like a battery problem,” he said. “Why don’t you pop the hood so I can take a look?”

I reached to the floor and pulled the lever, and there was that muffled PLOOMF! sound the hood makes when it pops — only when I came around to the front of the car, I couldn’t get the damn hood to pull open. “Add THAT to the list, now,” I groaned.  “I’ll call a tow truck tomorrow.” My dad sipped his coffee for a moment. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

Later that afternoon, I ran errands for several hours. When I returned home, my dad had the hood of the car propped open, and was charging the battery with a portable charger.

“What is . . . I mean, how did you get the hood to open?” I asked. “I pulled the lever and couldn’t get it to work!”

“You were popping open the trunk,” my dad said.

I shouldn’t be allowed near cars at all.

Stranded on Saturn: An Open Letter to GM

SATURN_logoDear GM:

I don’t understand a thing about bankruptcy, or what it means to file for Chapter 11 versus Chapter 7, so I can’t comment on your actual financial status.  Nor would I presume to tell you about business practices or pretend to understand whether you are truly worth the huge amount of tax dollars that we — make that I — am investing in you.

But hear me out here for a moment.  I’ve bought American cars my entire life, starting with a 1978 white Trans Am with a gas guzzling 434 horses under its hood — which I totaled (not my fault!) and then promptly bought a 1979 blue Trans Am, with a, uh, much more efficient 403 at its front end.  After spending more than a decade carless, I bought a Jeep Wrangler, and a Ford Explorer which I later traded for a Saturn sedan, in an effort to ratchet up my fuel efficiency.  So, you can’t say I haven’t played ball.  You can’t say I haven’t been supportive.  I’ve bought American, even when others were pointing and laughing.

But now, in the midst of all this mess, I see you’re phasing out the Saturn.  You’ve officially lost me. 

Say what you will about the Saturn — that it’s stodgy, non-sexy, non-soccer or non-hackey Mommish — it’s still one of the best cars I’ve ever owned.  At seven years old, it’s got nearly 130,000 miles on it, it’s on its original transmission, it’s only grudgingly needed new brake shoes and new tires, and has never been in the shop for any major work.  It has, without a doubt, earned the nickname we’ve given it: the Man of Steel.

Further, my local Saturn dealer in Frederick, Maryland is perhaps the most honest dealership I’ve ever seen.  Every time I bring my car in, convinced some odd noise or herky jerk behavior means a major, expensive repair, they inform me it’s a minor problem that can be fixed easily and inexpensively.  When a tail light went out, they charged me six dollars for the light itself, and nothing for the effort of installing it.

Further, they’ve picked up my business for maintenance on our Jeep Wrangler.  When our local Jeep dealer, which shall remain nameless (*cough*Fitzgerald*cough!*), kept finding one absolutely critical problem after another — each of which, I was told, had to be repaired right then and there or the Jeep would implode on the spot like the Bluesmobile — I finally decided I had had enough.  I took it to our Saturn dealer, told them we had been informed the Jeep was teetering on the edge of disaster and gave the mechanics carte blanche to find the problem.  After an hour, they came back to me with puzzled faces, saying it needed new spark plugs, and there was a minor repair that needed to be made in the passenger-side wheel well, but that was about it. For someone who can’t diagnose a car problem, much less fix one, that’s the kind of service I need. 

Look, I get it.  You need to downsize and become more efficient.  But really, you’re demolishing the one room of the house that seems to be structurally sound while trying to salvage the other rooms that might be prettier, but have already been corroded by termites.

The management at my Saturn dealer informed me that they’re hoping the Saturn brand can survive independent of GM.  I hope so.  As one of your millions of newly-seated stockholders, I’ll be watching  carefully — but so far, you’ve not done much to persuade me to stick around.  You’ve kept your showhorses while letting your workhorse go.  Not a promising start, in my book.

As I said above, I’ve been in your corner all along.  Convince me to stay there.

Your pal,

Brian