Monday, April 04, 2011

Check engine light means sanity check imminent

I had to drop Youngest Son off at school a week ago. His baseball team was gathering there for a Spring Break trip to California to test itself against high-powered West Coast competition.

I started the car that the kid usually drives -- and lost my mind.

A sickly yellow light remained glowing on the dashboard as the engine engaged. Taking off my glasses so I could attempt to interpret this glyph, I realized it was the "check engine" light.

We live in a post-literate age. Sometimes I don't know why I bothered to learn to read at all, given the way 'glyphs' or 'icons' are used instead of words these days.

Of course, in the case of the evil omen on the dashboard, I am obliged to concede that providing accurate words would have taken up too much space. The "check engine" light does not necessarily mean that the engine is not working -- in my case the car was on -- but, rather, serves as a warning that one's credit is in for a major hit. A light that read, "Prepare your wallet for a major hit because something -- and we haven't the foggiest idea what -- isn't working but if you don't pay immediate heed to this warning you will be stranded in the middle of nowhere," would not leave room on the dashboard for the speedometer. Even in an SUV.

I dropped Youngest Son off at school and continued straightaway to the nearest Ford dealer. (The car in question happens to be a Ford Focus, a smallish, utilitarian vehicle, quite the opposite of an SUV. I do not indict this brand in particular. I have had similar problems to those related here while in possession of vehicles manufactured by others.)

I had not anticipated this problem, but I did (thankfully) anticipate that there might be some unforeseen complication in getting the boy off on his journey. I therefore had scheduled nothing in court for that morning.

Incidentally, for the record, the young man denied ever seeing the "check engine" light on the dash. It must have gone on, he insisted, for the first time that very morning. I almost believe him.

I waited nearly two full hours at the Ford dealer waiting for some word on the car's condition. There was one problem I expected: The brakes were allegedly on the point of failure. I had noticed no troubles with the brakes on this vehicle, and my son had not reported any, but it seems almost impossible to go to a dealer these days without receiving a recommendation along these lines. It is my belief that a new car can be secured from the showroom floor, driven around the block, and into the service bay -- at which point, at least as long as the new car sales sticker has been removed, a very sober-faced man will insist that at least two brakes must be replaced.

So the bad news about the brakes was hardly unexpected. This would not, however, explain the check engine light.

Well, the sober-faced man in my case said, your four tires are very worn and in need of replacement.

I have someone that I will take the car to for that work, I told him, but what about the check engine light?

Oh, that's the good news, the sober-faced man said -- without, of course, actually smiling. It seems there is a failure of pollution control whatchamacallit-fizzbin, but that's covered by the extended warranty. (I may not have heard him exactly, but that's the gist of what he said.) Of course, he added gravely, it may take some time to get this part. That's alright, I reassured him, and he gave me a loaner car and I made my way home.

We picked up the car Wednesday. With Youngest Son out of town, we didn't need to drive it again until Saturday, when we took it to get new tires.

We had no difficulty getting to or from.

Now we get to last night. Lightning was flashing in the clouds and the temperature was unseasonably warm. The wind was whipping leaves and papers and dust, but there could have been ghosts or evil spirits abroad in the land as well. I took the family van to pick up Youngest Son (he had just returned from his trip). In the meantime, Long Suffering Spouse decided to use the newly-repaired car to take the recycling to her mother's house.

(I'm sure I've mentioned before how we smuggle our recycling into a nearby suburb each week, the City of Chicago's recycling program ranging from dubious to non-existent.)

As Youngest Son and I pulled up to the house, we saw Long Suffering Spouse getting out of the other vehicle. She yelled something at us, but we couldn't hear her over the wind. I walked over to where she was. The recycling bag was still in the car.

That's when I found out:

The car -- with the new brakes and the new tires and the new pollution control whatchamacallit-fizzbin -- that car would not start. All the dashboard lights lit up in mockery when the key was turned, but no engine noise of any kind resulted.

One of the hardest thing to teach children or politicians is cause and effect. It is not always easy to distinguish between consequence and coincidence.

My mother-in-law stopped having her furnace cleaned annually because, over a period of several years, without exception, some four to six weeks after this annual service, her heat would fail. She began to suspect that there was a causal connection between these events. She field-tested this hypothesis the following year by not scheduling her furnace for its annual cleaning. That winter, she enjoyed uninterrupted heat.

I have on numerous occasions, with several cars, serviced at several different dealerships, noted that one service visit seems to lead, shortly thereafter, to another. Cause? Or coincidence?

I suspect that this dealer, like others before, jiggled something, loosened a wire, or unplugged some cable, thereby guaranteeing that an additional service call would be required. Unlike my mother-in-law's furnace, though, I can not field test this suspicion by doing nothing: The car is too big to be a paperweight and, at the moment, it is capable of no other function.

So I will go home soon, hoping to work on an appellate brief while I wait for AAA to show up and see if it can get the car started. If AAA fails, I will have the car towed to the dealer where, with a straight face, a sober-faced man will explain to me that the reason that my car will not start is that I bought the tires somewhere else.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i actually had a copier repair guy tell me once that the cause of the failure was the PAPER. i bought it from someone else. i agreed to buy from him in the future and he had it delivered. it was the same paper. buggers...

smiles, bee

LAC said...

Oh no! This is one of those horribly frustrating, yet uncontrollable things. I hope it is a mere fluke that the car won't start. But with the lights working, it obviously cannot be the battery. No doubt the solenoid or starter failed. They probably shorted it out when replacing the EGR pollution valve.