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Friday, October 04, 2013

Automotive blues

I am so frustrated and stressed by my car situation right now I want to just sit down and cry.

Okay.  So when we bought this car we knew there were a few things wrong with it.  We took a mechanic we had just met along with us and he assured us that all the little issues were easily fixable and he'd do it for a very reasonable price.  So we went ahead and bought the car.

We really wanted to buy this car because the woman who was selling it was a friend of my wife's and needed money desperately, and the price fell into our (low) price range, and other cars we'd looked at at actual car dealerships were higher than we wanted to pay.  Also we were about to leave on vacation and the timing just seemed right.  So we bought it, and my wonderful wife went to a great deal of trouble to get it all registered and inspected and we got the repairs done while we were on vacation and that was all great.

As it turned out, the one really significant issue that our mechanic told us he could fix no problem, wound up being more significant than he thought.  He told us it was some kind of short in the wiring and we would need to replace some kind of circuit board that was a $500 part if we wanted the engine fans to come on like they're supposed to when you start the car up.   But he just ran a wire to a toggle switch that the driver could flip to turn the fans on when the car was started and off when the car was turned off.

He did not tell us this before we bought the car.  Before we bought the car he told us that these issues were no problem and he could fix them right up.  It wasn't until we'd bought the car and were stuck that he discovered this situation.

When I was first told about this I freaked out a little bit.  I am not Presence Of Mind Guy and this was not a minor thing.  Forget to turn the engine fans on and you burn the engine up.  Forget to turn them off and you drain the battery and possibly burn out the fans.  This was not pressure I fucking needed with my first car.  But we were in.  We were stuck.  So I drove the car.

Now at first when you remembered to hit the toggle, the car ran fine.  It would get up to 200 and sit right there.  That was fine.  But I am an idiot and a bungler and sure enough I forgot to toggle one time and boiled all the coolant out of the car.  But I put water back in it at  the mechanic's advice and drove it around and it was fine.  So, good.

But then I forgot to toggle again many weeks later and then it was not fine.  Even after putting coolant back in it the car would still overheat after about four miles on the road, and as my commute is 15 miles either way, that was a bad.  And of course, our mechanic turns out to be in jail for 90 days.  So I took the car over to a local garage we've done business with before with our van and they said one of the fans was no longer working and replaced it and completely rewired the toggle switch and charged me $350.

It was more complicated than that.  First they told me the repairs would be done by the end of the day.  Then they called me back and said they thought they had it, but they were driving it to test it and it spiked over 200.  So they looked at it again and the one fan was not running right.  So they said they needed to run more wire.  So it was going to take until the next day.  But it was done the next day and I picked it up.

And the car ran great for three trips -- to work, back from work, to work again.  Then on the fourth trip, back from work, it spiked over 200 again.  So I took it back over to the garage and said what the fuck, and they looked at it and said, okay, one of the fans isn't working right, we'll fix it.  And they did.  And I drove it to work, and back from work, and to work again, and then on the road back from work I got to within 3 miles of home and I'm stuck in traffic because apparently last Wednesday  night in Louisville everyone lost their minds and their were wrecks everywhere... and the car spikes over 200 again and this time there's steam coming from under the hood so I pulled it over fast and parked it and called Triple A and wound up waiting four hours for a tow truck in a not particularly great neighborhood.  And getting up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the bus to work again.  Oh happy day.

Here's what really scared me:  the fans were off when I shut off the car that night.  I know I turned them on because I could hear them come on, but they were off when I shut it down in that parking lot.  I reached down to toggle them off and the switch was completely limp and unworkable.  That gave me a bad start.  But the fans were off.  I could not hear them and when I went out and lifted the hood to let the engine cool I could not hear them.

Then, sometime that evening, they came back on.  I could hear them.  I tried to hit the toggle switch and it was hot enough to burn me.  That REALLY scared me.

I had the car towed to the garage that had done the two temp fixes on it.  The Triple A guy was very nice and helped me pull the wires to the toggle to turn the fans off.  When he did that, we discovered that there was not one long wire running from the toggle to the fans but a long wire spliced to a short wire.  That did not thrill me either.

So I called the garage from work the next day, as we'd dropped it off at 10 pm the night before.   Well, the owner hemmed and hawed, obviously the car had serious electrical issues and he should probably have never agreed to try to fix it with that toggle situation and it having failed twice now he felt I should take it to a specialist.  He recommended a place that specializes in auto electrical work and I talked about it with my wife and she agreed so we had the car towed there.  That was Thursday.  They worked on it all day and all day today and said it was done.  $320.  No more toggle switch, they wired him up correctly.

So my wife picks me up at work and we drive all the way back downtown and get the car.  And I'm really really hoping that this is it, we've put all the money we'll need to into him for a while and now these professional experts have fixed it and that should be it.  And I'm ready for this to be behind us, I really am.

So I get in my car and start it up and I'm following my wife home again.

Now, here's the thing:  when I first got it and was driving it the heat needle would sit right at 200 and that was okay.  If it ever edged over 200 at all then we'd have problems -- the coolant would boil out or when I turned the engine off I'd hear the motor knocking as it cooled.  All that was bad; all that meant I couldn't drive it safely.  Anything over 200 was always bad.  Always.

When the garage fixed it and I could drive it for those three trips when it worked before it failed (both times) it never went over 190.  It would climb up to a notch or two under 200 and stay there.  And I LOVED that.  And each time it overheated after the garage fixed it, I would see it start to edge up to 200 and say 'okay, maybe it will just stick there, that will be fine' and so I'd be sitting there in the car tense and stressed and scared watching that needle (and I'm not a good enough driver to split my attention like that, it sucks) and it would creep up to 200... and stay there...

...and then, start creeping over.

And the last time this happened, it got to like 220 and steam is coming up under my hood and I'm crawling through the most ridiculous rush hour gridlock I've ever seen on Bardstown Road and I know I've got to pull this car over FAST and I'm in the middle lane and thank God the guy to my right pulled up and let me get over.  And that there was a parking lot there and the people who ran the Firestone business were cool and didn't mind me parking it there.

So all that SUCKED.

So anyway I'm in the car which we've just spent another $300+ on and these guys are supposed to be the experts on this shit and the heat needle starts climbing.  But it gets up to around 190 and it seems to be staying there although we're not more than halfway home.   And my wife rolls through a yellow light and I get stuck at the red and as I'm at the red the needle creeps to 200.  And while I'm sitting there it starts to look like it's trying to go over and I'm SCREAMING at the light COME ON COME ON COME ON...

And finally I start to roll again and it hasn't actually gone over 200.  And as I move it seems to settle a little, not below 200 but right at 200.  And we get to the traffic light right before our house and it's still at 200... but we get stuck there and... it starts creeping over 200.

And I'm freaking out.

It's only two blocks to the lot where I can park it and there's no steam or anything but for that whole last two blocks I'm at 210 and I'm just stressing and freaking and WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

We have given so called professional experts of good reputation nearly $700 over the past ten days to fix this and THEY CANNOT FIX IT.

So I'm doing research on the internet tonight and I'm finding all kinds of answers.  Some say the normal range for a 99 Grand Am is 180 to 220.  Others say it should run right around 195.   My own experience is, this thing gets over 200, bad shit happens.  AND IT GOT OVER 200.

Right before I got it home.

And the trip from this electrical specialist to my house is maybe four miles.  Maybe.  Less than a third of my commute to work.

And if it's slipping over 200 after four miles, what's it going to do when I try to drive it 15 tomorrow?

If I thought that, after the new wiring and the repairs this new place did today, 210 was the new 'normal' and it would run okay there and I felt any kind of assurance that it wasn't going to go over 210, I'd drive it.  But I feel absolutely no assurance of that at all.  If this thing starts edging over 200 when I'm still 11 miles from work, and it JUST KEEPS GOING UP... I need to pull over.  And probably not get to work that day.  And that's an occurrence that I really don't need right now, plus, possibly a burn out engine and a totaled car sitting at the side of the road until Triple A can get to me again.  And a big towing bill.

And I am so tired of this.  I am so TIRED of this.  And we are so screwed with this.  There is no way to get our money back.  I feel like it was all just a perfect trouble pit... all these little things just kept pushing us further and further down a gradually steepening slope... wanting to help out a friend, the mechanic telling us the fixes were easy and cheap, wanting to get it done before we went on vacation, needing to keep the buy on budget... and now we're stuck.  We can't ever get our money back out of this thing.  It HAS to work.  We can't AFFORD for it not to work.  But it's not working.

When I was doing research -- and oh do I wish we'd had the time to do the research before we bought this thing, but I guess we did, we knew the make and model a week or two weeks before we bought it -- I'm finding that apparently a great many people have had this problem with the 99 Pontiac Grand Am.  And there seems to be no good fix.  Several people on the Internet have said 'if you're stuck in traffic running the AC this car WILL overheat'.  I mean, are you KIDDING me?

I can always just start taking the bus again, but that doesn't get us our money back.  We can't AFFORD to just have thrown two grand out the window.  We can't.  

And I got us into this.  My wife gave me driving lessons for Christmas and then bought me this car to give me less stress, to give me a better commute and more time at home.  She did all of this for me and I feel like my inability to just ride the bus to work and back without hating life and being miserable has gotten us into this huge hole.

Honestly, I could just sit down and cry.  I really could.

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