5 Little-Known Ways You Suck At Owning A Car
A car is like a romantic partner: If you go too long without one, people think you're weird, but once you get one, it sucks up all your cash and will possibly murder you on a dirt road on a moonless August night. I want to avoid dying alone and poor, and so do you (presumably), so I talked to two mechanics -- Ryan and Taylor -- to find out some tips and tricks to avoiding either of those Hitchcockian fates. Then I drew on my own experience as a Guy Who Has Owned a Few Cars and Hates Paying for Things. Then I compiled all that information into a list, because that's what we do at Cracked. Now you're reading that list. That about brings us up to speed.
You Can't Lie To A Mechanic, Because Your Car Is Watching You
Let's say you're busting along a dirt road in your 1992 Geo Metro, like a total boss, when suddenly some putz in a 2015 Mustang Convertible swerves around the corner. The road is technically a two-way street, but since you're both pretty much in the middle and driving slightly over the speed limit, you slam into each other head-on. The cops show up, and Mustang dude lies to the cops and says that he was driving cautiously and you were speeding -- he had no time to avoid you because you're the kind of reckless jackass that drives a Geo Metro. What can you possibly do? It's your word against his, right?
Wrong. Because the car is watching you. And like Frankie the Squealer, it's going to rat you out.
It holds allegiance to neither God nor man.
"Modern cars have what it s referred to as Freeze Frame Data. This is logged data that helps us pinpoint what caused the check engine light or airbag light to turn on," Taylor told me. "I had a co-worker of mine with a 2015 BMW M3. He told me he was driving up a hill and the engine just stopped running. I asked him if he had mis-shifted the engine. He said 'no.'"
Yeah, of course he did. A BMW M3 is a $70,000 car, and a mis-shift (shifting to the wrong gear by accident, causing the engine to "redline" and fail) is the kind of mistake a drunk high schooler makes that would completely void the warranty. So Ryan called up BMW and said the engine had failed due to some mechanical flaw and should be covered by them. But once those crafty Germans plugged their computer into the engine, they saw that the engine had failed at 9,152 RPM. "That is over 2,000 RPM above its maximum operating speed."
Like that, but on fire.
"I call it the high score chart," Ryan continues. "Every single fault, check engine light, or LED message the vehicle has, all the way back to the assembly line, can be accessed on demand." In other words, the Mustang remembers. The Mustang always remembers. And it will whisper its secrets in the Mechanic's ear, like an automotive Wormtongue. And all shall be helpless before its terrible judgment.
Read Your Goddamn Manual
So you're leaving the dealer in your new car. The "new car smell" is overpowering, as is the existential weight of your new debt. But at least the hard part's over -- aside from the radio and seat adjustments, there's no real learning curve to a new car. The vertical pedal on the right makes it go, the horizontal pedal on the left makes it stop, and you don't have a clutch because you're a filthy fucking coward. What else is there?
Everything, my friend. Absolutely everything.
If you can identify all those symbols without googling any of them, you can have my car.
See, gauges change. Symbols change. Because ... I'm not sure why, actually. Automakers want to kill you?
"We are really running into issues with new instrument clusters," Ryan says. "Since they are slowly transitioning to LED/LCD displays instead of the traditional gauges and bulbs, some of the icons have changed. On all the BMW's over the last five years, there is no coolant temperature gauge. They just replaced it with a yellow pop-up message in the LCD display that shows a symbol implying the engine is hot."
Too hot, that is. If your engine isn't hot at all, then you're from the future. But the symbols aren't the only thing that people are getting wrong -- some people don't understand the basics of their car. "One of my favorites is a customer who came in with a flat tire. I quoted a replacement and he told me no, he'd be fine because it was a runflat."
A runflat is a special kind of tire that's extra resilient to getting flat. It can generally go about 10-50 miles at about 50 miles an hour. Driving around with a runflat is like running with a sprained ankle -- you can do it, and it's advisable if a bear is chasing you, but you're going to make the problem worse. "I tried to explain how they work, but he wouldn't listen. He left in his barely held-on tire, turned a corner in the parking lot, and dug his rim into the pavement. Then he came back and blamed me and demanded I pay for it."
A car is probably the most complicated thing people own that they also don't think they need to know anything about. My car actually knows how far I can go before I need to refill it, but I didn't know that until I read the manual. Even a man as humble as I can still be vulnerable to the pitfalls of hubris.
Intimidated? Don't be. Because it turns out ...
It's Way Easier To Be A "Car Person" Than You Think
Watching a movie like The Fast And The Furious, it might seem like Gear Heads are dark wizards well-versed in ancient and lost arts. "Granny shifting, not double-clutching like you should," Dom Toretto tells Brian O'Connor during the first movie. "You're lucky the double shot of NOS didn't blow the welds on the intake!" Sure, except the first half of that is gibberish, and the writer would've known that with 15 seconds of research, because unlike Macintosh computers and the face your significant other makes when you suggest watching Pacific Rim again, cars are actually pretty straightforward.
"But it's a Valentine's Day tradition! Because I'm a fully grown pre-adolescent!"
Don't get me wrong. I'm not belittling the work of mechanics. Fixing a car is hard. Diagnosing complex car problems is also the kind of difficult thing I will never know how to do very well, even though I'm pretty good at mumbling "sounds like a belt is slipping" to myself when a screechy car goes by. But knowing how a car works, knowing whether it's running well, and knowing what to watch out for is easy. So next time you're buying a new car (or even just trying to figure out what's wrong with the one you have), do yourself a favor and type the following words into Google:
" common problems."
See, you have the advantage. A car dealer is trying to sell 30 different kinds of cars per day, but you're only trying to buy one. I bought a new Honda Civic a month ago, and I spent the test drive politely correcting the dealer on the details about the car he was selling me. This wasn't obscure stuff; it was "how much horsepower the engine has" and "whether the model was available with a stick shift." Stuff available on Honda.com, because this punk was either a dolt or actively lying to me.
So I vowed vengeance. That's a later column, though.
The older the car, the more important this is. Say you wanna buy a Honda or Acura made between 1998 and 2004. If it's an automatic, you're gonna want to make sure the transmission was replaced, since they tend to fail in a lot of models at about 100,000 miles (even though the rest of the car can hit 300,000 miles easily with basic maintenance). That's a pretty goddamn expensive problem to get slapped with when buying a car with 98,000 miles on it. Especially if it can be solved by taking 20 minutes out of your masturbation routine to research the second-biggest expense in your life.
It's Easy to Stand Out By Being Cool To Your Mechanics
Maybe it's easy to assume that mechanics are tough badasses. After all, they're usually covered in oil and know how to use torque wrenches. The only comforts in life they require are a cold beer, a hot lover, and a beat-up VHS copy of Smokey And The Bandit, right? No. They are real humans, and they need your appreciation, your love, and your affection. Or if not that, then least the bare minimum in professional courtesy. My point is, before you leave your beloved whip at the mechanic, make sure there's not a snake in the car.
"One time we found a snake in the car," Taylor said. "It was a pet she let live in the car. It wanted the warmth of the heater and crawled into her dashboard to sleep."
Your transmisssssion fluid needsssss changing.
Alright, I guess that makes sense. I mean, a car is just a terrarium that you commute in, right? If you trust your snake not to choke you or sink its fangs into your delicious thigh as you merge onto the highway one morning, why not let your reptilian friend join you on your adventures, you fucking Beast Master. It's not like your car is full of knives or anything.
"Just a month ago, I followed the "look before you reach" procedure and found a one-foot Crocodile Dundee knife that would have for sure cut me," Ryan said. Ha! OK. Finding weapons has got to be rare anyway, and it's not like he found a- "Most of the time, I find guns in the door panel or center armrest. We generally don't touch them, especially being in Durham, North Carolina. There is no telling what it's been used for," Ryan said, interrupting me, somehow, even though I'm writing this article several days after the interview was conducted. He's still comparatively lucky -- Taylor lives in Washington, where the gun laws are a bit less permissive.
"If we find a firearm in a car, we do everything we can to avoid touching it or relocating it," Taylor said, " we become felons if we touch it. Politics!"
If you're like me, this is kind of a dealbreaker. Removing all the weapons and wild animals from your car could take hours. So why not fix the stuff yourself? Well, that's more possible than you think, because ...
In An Emergency, You Can MacGyver A Simple Fix
"I have seen customers use duct tape as hoses. Bendy-straws as vacuum lines, dryer sheets for air filters, tape to fix an oil leak, etc," Taylor said wistfully. "Most of the time, if they jerry-rig their cars, they let us know and admit to it, and we usually look at it and say, 'If it's dumb and it works, it's not dumb.'"
That's good to know, because some of the shit I've done to my cars have been crazy dumb. I used to drive a 1990 Toyota Pick Up, and when it sprung a leak in its fuel line, I slapped a $2 strip of hose on there and forgot to fix it for three years. Then, instead of fixing it, I sold the whole car, because I'm a piece of shit. I like to think that car is still out there, though -- and statistically speaking, it probably is.
It's basically the Rasputin of cars.
You can also use pantyhose as an alternator belt. But there's all kinds of crazier stuff I'd never even heard of that Taylor went into detail about: "For example, egg white in your radiator will seal it in an emergency, but you will still need to replace your radiator. Same with pepper in the radiator."
Oddly enough, the weird, outside-the-box shit sometimes works better than the stuff you'd buy at a store. "Never use stop-leak or headgasket repair from an auto parts store," Taylor said. "You will need to replace much, much more. Such as your heater core, and all your hoses and usually your engine."
That's this part.
Anyway, like I said at the beginning, owning a car is a lot like being in love: exhausting, expensive, requiring a lot of specific know-how, and you're going to screw it up a few times before you get it right. But don't worry, because once you're old and driving around a reliable-but-boring Corolla, you might be able to put some time and effort into a hot new Miata to bomb around in on the weekends. Ew. Maybe comparing lovers to cars is kinda sleazy.
For more, check out 6 Mistakes You Will Make When Buying Your Next Car and 6 Scientific Reasons People Drive Like Assholes.
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