25 September 2013

Car trouble

In my twelve years of driving, I have had relatively good luck with cars. My first car was a blue Chevy Corsica with many... idiosyncrasies, shall we say. But, regardless of its flaws, it never failed to start right up and get me where I needed to go. Then I got a new electric blue Honda Civic which performed admirably. (It was my fault that, on the day I was trading it in, I backed into a tree. Those are the breaks, as they say. And the brakes, as my then-girlfriend said.) My next car was also new: a black Dodge Caliber, my first stick shift, which did what I needed it to when it needed doing.

And, for the last two years, the pre-owned, well-driven Volkswagen Jetta I've been driving has really done remarkable things. It never ceases to amaze me how well it accelerates up hills, how reliably it gets around the sprawl that is Los Angeles County. That is, until recently.

I'd noticed little things before, like how, for a brief moment, the accelerator would cut out, but come right back as if nothing had happened. This never bothered me, since it happened infrequently, and it never caused more than a momentary "huh?" to stir in my mind. But then one day, it went out and stayed out. I was on the interstate, moving at a brisk pace up through a mountain pass, and all I could do was coast over to the shoulder and wait.

And wait.

The car took some considerable time to start up again. I'd popped the hood and taken a look, as if my ignorant perusal of the inner workings of this advanced machine would solve things. (Granted, if I'd seen something spewing or some kind of smoke, I could have guessed something was up.) I'd sat and watched as a motorcyclist up ahead had pulled over to adjust his saddle bags. Then, I decided to try one more time before giving up and calling AAA. And there it went, as if nothing unusual had happened.

This occurred infrequently at first, but then it began catching me at inopportune moments. And then, at a dead stop, the car stalled. On an interchange between two freeways. In rush hour. Lucky for me, it only took a few moments for the car to restart. It was a foretaste of things to come.

Fast forward to yesterday. I've learned that, if the accelerator cuts out at high speeds, all I have to do is shift out then back into gear to keep things running. I've also learned that it takes about five minutes for the engine to decide it will start up again after stalling out. So, when it stalled out about a mile from home, I knew what to do: push the car over to the side, wait five minutes, and restart.

Except this time, it took longer. Long enough for me to call AAA. After which... it started up again like a charm.

Later that night, on my way to an important rehearsal for which I was already late, it stalled again. I was two blocks away from the rehearsal studio, so I pushed it through an intersection to park it on the street. (Lucky again; there was an empty spot I could just ease into. I don't know anyone who's ever successfully parallel-parked by pushing.)

After rehearsal, all I was thinking was, please don't let there be traffic. If I could avoid stopping, especially on the freeway, I could have a smooth ride home, and then I could bring the car in for service in the morning, and all would be well.

Ah, but of course: there was an accident. Going through the pass. It was going to be a long night.

I was in the left lane. This was good because there were no trucks and, since it was stop-and-go traffic, no one was travelling very quickly at all. The car would stall, I would wait five minutes, then restart and go for as long as I could (about three minutes) before stalling again. I took solace in the fact that, five minutes later, there would be new people behind me who wouldn't be as mad at me for stalling out again the next time. I was most of the way up the pass when, suddenly, it seemed that the accident up ahead had been cleared. Now I was the one causing the traffic. And drivers, who give up all civility when they're enclosed in a few-thousand-pound vehicle, begin zipping around me on both sides. Patience was the game; I just had to wait the full five minutes before I could restart. Time passed slowly. I thought, well, if I get hit, at least I'll probably get a new car out of the deal.

The car did start again, and the rest of my journey home was uneventful. This morning, the car was brought in to get fixed up, and now, a few thousand dollars later, all should be well, and perhaps I can go back to having good luck with cars.

I've never been one to name my cars, but I know many people do (and I'd love to know what your car is called). I have now decided to name my car Mortimer. It just seems to fit.