A winter’s woe

A quick car quiz: You’ve got an old car. Body and engine are perfect, but suddenly it develops a problem.

Now the question: Would you prefer the problem was a big one or small?

A small problem is the obvious answer. But is it the right one? Well, Bucko, it all depends.

If it’s a big problem, your car will run poorly and’ll be expensive to fix. No one wants to spend a ton of shekels on an old car. But no one wants to be sputtering around in a car that can give up the ghost on a back road on a brutal February night. Those are the bad things about big problems.

But there’s something about them – they’re obvious. If your engine’s giving up the ghost, you’ll need a new one. Period. But get your engine rebuilt, and it’ll be trouble-free for the car’s life (and maybe yours, too).

But what if it’s a small problem? It’ll cost a lot less bread, which is a good thing. But there’s a bad thing about small problems – they’re not obvious. So while small problems result in smaller malfunctions, they have a better chance of not being solved. And don’t I know.

Vexing the FMMs

My car, a ’98 Volvo, spent its life in Texas till a couple of years ago, so the body’s perfect, and the engine’s in great shape too. I put it on the road last spring, and it ran beautifully till sometime in November, when the nightly temperature dropped. Then one morning when I went to start it, it did a weird thing: It turned over, coughed, and then keep turning over but not firing. After I let it sit for a bit, it turned over, and fired right up.

All right, so that’s a bit unusual. But since I’ve driven nothing but high-mileage beaters for the past 40 years, the unusual is the usual. If I want to get brutally honest about it, I’d say my fleet of flivvers has had more eccentricities than the British royal family. So if my latest one won’t start till it takes a ten-minute break between attempts, it’s no biggie. All that mattered was it started, which it did until January.

Then the temp was single digits or below and the car was a bear to start. No longer could I turn it over once or twice, give it a rest, then start it. Uh-uh. If it was seriously cold at night, the car wouldn’t start for hours. Generally, though, later in the day, when the temperature went into the teens or low 20s, the car would start. Once it started, I could start it for the rest of the day and night, no matter how cold it got.

Suffice it to say this wreaked havoc with my digestion and delicate disposition. It also made getting to and from work a real hassle, since I had to beg rides both ways.

But it’s not like I just sat back and prayed for global warming. I was a righteously proactive Dope and had the Finer Mechanical Minds of My Home Town work on it.

Each time it was the same.

“So it coughs and then dies?” said one FMM.

“Yep,” I said. “But if I let it cough and die, cough and die, and cough and die, eventually it’ll start.”

He stroked his chin and furrowed his brow.

“Unless the temperature drops, right?”

“Yeah. Then it’s still the cough-and-die thing – but it won’t start.”

“Coughing and dying,” he said, contemplatively. “Sounds like Saranac Lake during the heyday of tuberculosis.”

A funny line -?but one I didn’t need to hear.

“Well,” I snapped, “can you fix it, or should I just pour penicillin in the gas tank?”

“I can try,” he said.

And he did – try, that is. He did a bunch of research, then replaced something. It started beautifully, and I drove it out of the shop. The next morning it was same old, same old.

I took it to another FMM and the scenario repeated itself. And then off to another FMM, with the same non-results.

A tentatively happy ending

It’s not that the FMMs didn’t try. They did. They installed an in-line heater. They cleaned up this and polished that. They consulted every manual and troubleshooter they could. One of them called Volvo, who in turn called a German specialist on cold weather starting. He in turn called back and said it had to be the Wiernerschnitzel switch, or something like that.

That got replaced, and the car started fine till the mercury dropped. And there I was again, carless, clueless, and classless, shnorring rides from anyone who’d oblige me.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I had an epiphany. It hit me while I was dreaming probably due to a combination of suppressed frustration, subconscious cogitation, and acid reflux. I suddenly bolted awake with the answer.

Remember, if the car started once, it’d start every time after that, no matter how cold it got. The only time it wouldn’t start was after it sat overnight. Obviously, the problem happened if the car wasn’t started for one long stretch. So, I reasoned, if I got up in the middle of the night and started it, it should start in the morning.

Waking up in the wee hours is no problem for someone whose conscience is as bad as mine, so there I was at 0330, throwing on my sweats and going out to put my theory in action. I turned the key, the car started immediately. I went back to bed.

The next morning I got up at a reasonable hour and went out for the acid test.

I opened the car door, took a deep breath, and turned the key.

The car roared into life!

So what will I do from now on? I’ll keep doing the only thing I can till spring finally arrives – losing sleep and gaining a car.

But isn’t that annoying? Certainly. However, it annoys my friends more than me, since a bunch of them keep telling me to get another car. But of course I won’t.

First, it’s a minor problem, and I have faith that eventually it’ll get solved.

Second, I look at it the way I’m sure a lot of people look at a troublesome spouse: Sure, you can find another one. But after you do, you’ll just find a whole new set of troubles.