Monday, February 05, 2007

Car Rant

[posted by Callimachus]

This was my first car. It's true; you never stop loving them.

Oh, she didn't look all shiny new like that when I got her; she was 22 years old, in fact, and there was no Jeannie Shrimpton type leaning on the hood in gear gear. And in fact, with six cylinders, this was a little old lady car, and it would have been Jeannie Shrimpton's mum leaning on the hood. Probably because she forgot to take her arthritis meds.

This is what I saw when I opened the hood. I'm not a mechanical guy at all, but when I looked in at that, I pretty much knew what was doing what, and I could make certain adjustments and fix simple problems. I could replace belts and hoses and plugs. Sometimes if it had trouble starting cold, I could coax it to life by propping open the choke plate on the throttle. I'd get out, look around for a suitable twig, pop the cover off, and jam the stick in the choke.

Yes, I could fix the car with a twig. Like Robinson Crusoe I was. Like Gilligan.

With each car I've owned since, I've watched that pool of ability shrink. Electronics and technical sophistication have been a mixed blessing. I appreciate being able to lock or unlock the entire vehicle with a click of a button on my keychain from 30 yards away in the pouring rain. On the other hand, having to turn the key in the ignition just to crack a damn window drives me nuts, in a crotchety old man kind of way.

The book slammed shut on my Robinson Crusoe days when we bought a Prius a couple of years ago. I usually have two motives for every decision I make, and the decision to convince my wife we should buy this car was a perfect marriage of self-interest (gas mileage!), eccentric grudgework (take that, Exxon; take that, Saudis!), social consciousness (save the earth!), and generally not thinking about any of them so hard that I thought myself out of doing it.

I've opened the hood of that car once since I bought it. I had no idea what I was looking at. It doesn't even look like an engine to me, though I detected parts of an engine in there, mixed in with other things; as though space aliens found a car engine and a Sony Playstation and a dehumidifier all in pieces in a junkyard and mistakenly tried to assemble them into one piece of machinery. It's covered with "do not touch!" warnings and black-and-yellow graphics of stick figures getting zapped that seem more pertinent to nuclear reactors or the tags on new mattresses.

Well, last week something went wrong and the Prius started misbehaving. I didn't even consider twigs; I just called the dealership and told them to come get it. Which is another thing I hate. Back in the day, part of your manly skill was finding a good independent grease monkey and cultivating a relationship with him, for those times when twigs alone were not enough. You never, ever took a car to the dealer to be fixed; you'd get charged too much and they'd find something else that "needed" to be fixed. Nowadays, forget the grease monkey. The technology is so complex that the manufacturers can effectively block any independent mechanic from fixing it.

So the dealer has my car, and it will take two weeks to put a new computer in it and get it checked out. A car that can't run without a computer!

In the meantime, after I bitched out the service manager, they agreed to underwrite a rental. They probably thought they were putting me in my place, because the rental is a very basic Ford product, a Probe or a Focus or something. It's got zero frills, an actual old-style turn signal that clicks on and off, and -- saints be praised -- you roll down the windows by hand, with a crank.

Labels: ,