It’s not up there with losing a family member, or a dog, but the the thought of losing a car — inanimate as it may be — can sometimes be a little painful, too.
This year, as the time came up for a state inspection, my red 2005 Jeep Liberty — best known as the Acemobile, and filled with memories from the last 13 years — things were not looking good.
The engine light, aka the check engine light, or the malfunction indicator light, would not go off.
That’s been a problem, off an on, for years now. It comes on. I generally ignore it. It goes away. Fortunately, it never happened at inspection time, but this time it did — and it stayed on.
Decades ago, the check engine light was just that — a warning that you should check the engine. Now though it serves as the beacon for the automobile’s entire computer system, and it could be a sign that virtually anything is wrong.
Absolutely, it is a bit of a scam. The light goes on. You take it in for an expensive diagnostic test, meaning they hook your car’s computer up to yet another computer, and it spits out some vague information about where problem area might be.
As with doctors and their testing machines, guesswork is still involved, and often a long process of eliminating other possibilities. At least with human health problems, though, you can go on with life, coping with your ailment until, just maybe, it gets figured out.
It’s a good thing humans don’t have to pass inspection to hang around, and probably a good thing (given they are not all that reliable) that we don’t have malfunction indicator lights.
In North Carolina, you can’t pass an inspection when your engine light is on. You can unhook a battery cable, which resets the car’s computer and makes the light go off for a while, but that doesn’t fool them. They know when it’s resetting.
Having until the end of September to get the inspection, I took it in at the very beginning of the month. They ran the diagnostic test, found some alleged problems, replaced some parts and a couple of tires, handed me a bill for more than $800 and told me to take it home and drive it until the computer reset.
When the computer reset, the light came back on.
By then I was already worrying about investing too much in an old car that might not even be fixable. Virtually everyone I spoke to about my car trouble said sell it and get a new one.
I took it back to the same place and they looked at it again. They believed they pinpointed a problem, but it was not the sort they could address. They thought that, somewhere in the wire that ran from my speed sensor (one of the parts they replaced) to the speedometer, there was a short.
You are not required to have a working speedometer to pass inspection in North Carolina. But you are required to have that check engine light off.
So even though my light was on due solely to the speedometer issue, they could not pass it.
At this point, I am thinking a well-placed blow with an ice pick, right into the bulb, might be the answer. Instead, at the suggestion of the mechanic, I took it to another garage that specialized in electrical matters.
I explained to two people there what the first garage thought the problem was and handed over all the paperwork.
The next morning I got a call informing me I needed a new power train control module; the price $1,990. I asked how they knew that. They said because the computer said so. I asked about the faulty wire issue that had been diagnosed earlier. They said all they know is what the computer is saying.
I got a little angry. I tried to understand the situation, but face it: Most of us do not understand what computers are saying, or, even more difficult, what humans are saying that computers are saying.
Again, true of doctors and true of car mechanics.
I asked, again, about the wiring problem that had already been diagnosed, and whether they had ruled that out as an issue. They insisted I needed the module, which had to be paid for by me before they ordered it.
I debated again, but only briefly, getting rid of the car.
And I decided the memories were worth the $3,000 I was about to put into the car with 108,500 miles on it.
For one year, Ace and I lived in the Jeep, more or less, while traveling across America. The Acemobile was my Rocinante, the name John Steinbeck gave his camper during Travels with Charley — taken from the name of the horse Don Quixote rode.
The horse — like him, like Steinbeck, maybe a little like me — was awkward, past his prime, and trying to recapture something he may or may not have had in the first place.
All the many trips I took with my son, Joe, also sprang to mind — from warming breakfast sandwiches on the dashboard defroster on a cold morning fishing trip to meandering through Texas on a ride from Arizona to Alabama, or was it Mississippi?
I honestly just couldn’t stand, stomach or tolerate another loss.
So my wallet and I headed down to the second garage to pay for the module. When I walked in they told me that I was right about the wiring issue. I did not need the module after all. They just needed to replace that wire.
The next day I picked it up, paying another $500-something, and took it directly back to the first garage. It passed inspection. I was so grateful that I instructed them to fix two other problems — the hydraulic bars that keep the hood up when opened and the hydraulic bars that keep the back window open.
I picked my car up Wednesday.
When Hurricane Florence comes my way, probably Friday, my car will be parked far away from any trees that might fall on it.
The Acemobile lives!
(Photos by John Woestendiek, from Travels with Ace)