Auto Co-dependance

June & July, 2001


Greetings, Kitchen Motorheads!

Strange things are happening in the Maloney kitchen these days. Wendy is working on a neighborhood project. There has been a suspicious looking plastic bag sitting on our kitchen counter for the last week, to which Wendy has been adding different things every day, while squeezing it. All I can be sure of is that all the ingredients were edible at one time or another. She calls it "friendship bread" and the typewritten instructions claim that the finished product will be an "Amish Cinnamon loaf." She tells me this, but you can't fool me-- the Amish don't use typewriters. Anyway-- the thing is supposed to sit undisturbed for several days while it---- I don't want to think about it. Right now the whole thing looks like the leftovers from a cloning experiment. I've been living in dread fear that the bag may break open and then it's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Come to think of it -- Wendy has been acting a little strange these last couple of weeks---- I'd better watch my step. When this mixture finally comes out of the oven it could resemble anything from a block of mahogany to a blob of Silly Putty. Besides that-- what kind of friend do you give this bread to? Maybe one who's not afraid of chemical spills or spontaneous combustion.

      Last month the Caravan and I went in for our bi-annual checkup at the "clean air" facility. (In the more populated areas in Illinois it is mandatory that all vehicles are checked for harmful exhaust emissions every two years.) So the Dodge got a probe stuck up its tailpipe and was forced to run on a treadmill so that the bureaucrats in Springfield could measure some hot air that wasn't generated on the campaign trail. I showed up for the test and got into line with the rest of suburbia, confident in the knowledge that I fit well into the middle-class minivan profile, and waited for my turn at bat-eager to prove my conformity with the Naperville standards. (Even the cars here are anal-retentive) So they
popped the ol' Dodge on the altar and in just three minutes flat it proceeded  to emit more unburned fumes than an entire battalion of soldiers on a low cholesterol diet. I knew I was in trouble when the guy in the booth looked at the test results and said, "Whoa! Did you actually drive this thing here?" He then gave me a printout that looked like a seismic reading of the Big Bang (with aftershocks included.) It was pretty humiliating, especially when the entire staff put on oxygen masks and evacuated the building. So I
was told that I had one month to fix the car or pay $450 to some auto-medic for a "waiver." I asked if I could cut out the middle-man and just sell the thing to a suicide club. After all it DOES seat seven people.
         I figured that I had better fix the van before it became a 'ward of  the state.' So I did a little troubleshooting and discovered that from amongst the Dodge engine's six cylinders, one of them was lame-- and unable to commit itself to carry its share of the burden. (thus the excessive discharge of toxins) My further investigation showed that a valve job was in order (due to low compression), and the local wrench-turner from Chrysler Corporation indicated that the situation could be rectified for a donation
of $2300. After regaining consciousness, I decided to take the job on myself. Why am I doing this, you ask? It's all a matter of logic. If I'm going to have my foot blown off, I might as well be the one holding the gun.  It is far cheaper that way. Besides that-- I have pretty good health insurance.
        I took a week off from my job at the plant, just to relax in a clammy, damp garage. It took me twenty hours to strip down the Caravan's engine and replace the bad valve. The valve itself cost $6, but the set of gaskets cost $140. Throw in a set of valve lifters for $90, and the whole job ran to $236- (10% of what my smiling Dodge dealer wanted.) It was a great ego-booster to know that I saved a couple grand on the job by doing it myself. Plus I had a measure of fun (if you don't count the half a week's worth of vacation
spent torquing my backbone into the shape of a corkscrew.)
       After all of this, I have come to the conclusion that in the relationship between Man and his automobile ---I am codependent. I seem to gravitate towards vehicles that "need me" to fix them up. I don't 'beat on' my cars-- most of them come to me pre-flogged --straight from some abusive relationships. I keep my tools polished and my garage neat because as sure as the law of averages sides itself with the hidden flaw, I will end up carrying the burden of a high maintenance existence. I ask you: What is the 
similarity between a 45 year old thrice divorced bipolar mother of five found sitting alone in a singles' bar, and a seven year old minivan with 90,000 miles on it found sitting in the back row of a used car lot? Answer: Underneath a fresh wax job, both have serious wear and tear, carry half a ton of baggage, and
need a major overhaul. Plus they both depend heavily on the regular use of alcohol additives.
     This is all very ironic because Western society has enshrined the automobile as the ultimate symbol of freedom. Yes we're free. Free to pay almost two bucks a gallon for gas. Free to sit fuming in traffic on the road of our choice. Free to pay through the nose to insure, house and maintain the silly thing while it depreciates and decays into toxic landfill. Free to pony up to pay for new roads, new laws and new lawsuits. But still we smile when we wash and wax our cars, we fight to defend our fenders and we drool over every new model that comes out onto the scene.
       Maybe we're all codependent. But we love it anyway. I love it so much that I made a command decision. I decided that a high(ish) stress job, mortgage, a wife and two kids, a crummy lawn and two temperamental cars wasn't enough for me. Tune in next week for the rest of the story. 

Coming up-- Part 2: Germany invades my garage-- or-- when is a Mercury not a Mercury?

Gotta go--- I have to study for my emissions test. 


AND NOW................... part two

Continued from last week-----

When I was growing up- we kids used to categorize relatives, friends, neighbors and even total strangers by the cars they drove. This practice (which may be known today as automotive profiling) was well accepted by the members of motorhead society of my generation. Convertibles (or ragtops) were always hot, and their owners were all highly esteemed. Muscle cars were for tough guys, little foreign sport cars carried a measure of sophistication. Sedan-o-matics (sedans with automatic transmissions) were
'plain Jane' for the 'squares'. Any car that was 'hopped up' or modified for high performance would jack up the owner's social standing a few notches. 

       The lowest form of automotive life in my early days was the 'station wagon'. Even a set of mag wheels couldn't help boost its owner out of the 'slug box' category. Today it's pretty much the same. Convertibles are hot, muscle cars (and muscle trucks) are for tough guys and sports cars still carry a measure of sophistication. Sedan-o-matics abound and SUV's (Supposedly Useful Vehicles) give their 'square' owners the illusion of power over nature. The station wagon (in its original form) is all but extinct. Today's 'slug box' is the minivan-and I own one. (Wendy drives it).
       There is no way to make a minivan 'hot.' You could paint flames on it, customize the interior or even put a blower (supercharger) on it-- but you would end up with the same result-- a blob on wheels-- automotive ennui. Let's face it-- minivans are about as classy as a green leisure suit, and not quite as fast as an insurance settlement. Granted-- the box has its advantages: it can tow anything, carry everything, and operate as faithfully as a bill collector. But it's still a minivan.
        The car I usually drive is a small sedan, a Dodge Spirit (a motorized sedative). A slab sided sedan for sure-- with all the excitement of an Ingmar Bergman movie, coupled with the cultural sophistication of Xena the Warrior Princess. It's actually pretty quick as sedans go, and reasonably nimble-- but alas!--its styling is a study of Cubism - in plain English - it looks like something you could carve out of a bar of soap. I had to do something in the short time I have left before AARP, Zocor and arthritis become important facets of my life. I needed a toy to play with, something unique, something fast and something to challenge my resourcefulness and have some fun with prior to getting a prescription for nitroglycerine
The answer to last week's question-----
When is a Mercury not a Mercury? When it's a Merkur, or course! If you don't understand-- I will try to explain. Merkur (pronounced 'Meer Koor' -- not 'Murk Er') is the German word for 'Mercury'. It is also the
name of an automobile built by the Ford Motor Company of Koln, Germany about fifteen years ago-- a car that was subsequently imported into the U.S. (for about fifteen minutes). There are two models of Merkurs: the 'Scorpio' (a sport sedan that looks kind of like what a Ford Taurus should have looked
like if it were designed by rational minds) and the 'XR4TI' (a sport coupe that qualifies as the German antidote for the Ford Mustang.) The XR4Ti is powered by a four cylinder engine assisted by a honkin' big turbocharger and (believe it or not!) can pretty much blow the doors off most anything that gets in its path. I should know. There's a shiny white 1986 XR4Ti sitting in my garage right now.
     I say-- Why own a car that is just like one of 500 others in your neighborhood-- when you can drive one out of 80 in your state? The Merkur is a car that makes a statement, and the statement is, "I have a good mechanic."
      I am not one to turn down a challenge, especially one that involves both tools and automobiles. (By the way, my Caravan passed the emissions test with flying colors-- after I finished its valve job) I figured that if I could beat Chrysler Corporation out of a $2300 engine rebuild, I could handle a foreign Ford product. So I bought the Merkur. A friend of mine owned a pair of them and decided to cut his stress level in half by selling one of them to me. I can tell you now that the Merkur is a good sport's car, because you have to be a good sport to own it. There are certain unique challenges involved -- such as procurement of parts, and availability of service. Merkur parts are sort of scarce-- like congressman Condit's friends.  My Merkur needed a muffler. For most cars, mufflers are pretty easy to install. Just go to a muffler shop and in sixty minutes or less you leave with a brand-new shiny silver can stuck under your car for a cost of about $35.00, plus pipes. That is, unless you own a Merkur. Then the job takes
about sixty hours (to get the muffler from the factory.) The cost of the muffler jumps to about $180.00, plus pipes-- and these aren't just any pipes. No sir! The exhaust pipes zig-zag around underneath this car like a tour bus full of amnesiacs. The Germans tend to over-engineer everything they touch. (Q: Why do Mercedes-Benz engineers design six seperate computers into their cars? A: Because they can.)
     I rose to the challenge. After visiting dozens of websites, muffler shops and auto parts stores, I finally found a muffler that would fit the car--- at a Farm and Fleet store. It is a true custom job. I may have the
only Merkur in the world with an International Harvester muffler. But it works.
       My Merkur's other vexation is common to all Ford products worldwide. Fords leak. (It's a feature!) After five years, anything produced by the Ford Motor Company will start leaving spots on your driveway. I used to own a Ford Taurus that dripped a new Rorschach (inkblot) test onto my garage floor every week. (I hated my Taurus-- so much so that my motto used to be, "friends don't let friends drive Fords)
The Merkur leaked fluids like an excited puppy until I started changing gaskets and seals. After a Sunday afternoon spent tuckpointing the beast, I can now testify that the XR4Ti's engine and transmission are now "tighter than a Baptist minister's budget."
     Don't let me kid you too much about the XR4Ti. It is a NICE car. (sunroof, leather interior, rear wheel drive with four wheel independent suspension, 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds, -- can you say 'fast'?) A modified XR4Ti holds the world's land speed record for production 4 cylinder cars (with a speed of over 200 MPH.) Even with an automatic transmission it's no slouch car. It's a BLAST to drive, and even the Corvette owners talk to me at stoplights. (saying nice things, too!)
     Getting the Merkur's title and registration was another matter. This involved a trip into the Illinois Department of Suspended Animation, (the Illinois Secretary of State) home of the amazing robot clerks. By the time I had convinced most of the automatons on duty that the Merkur is a real car (not just a misspelling of the word "Merkury" I could have circumnavigated the entire town of Naperville -- twice -- maybe even driving in reverse. But you never know-- They may surprise me --- I could possibly receive a
title in the mail in as little as three weeks-- and it may even be for my car. But don't bet on it. The last time it was titled (for my friend Alex, the former owner) the title called it a Ford. I may find out that I now own a "Ford Merkury" --- or a "Mustung XR"

I can hardly wait.

Gotta go---- lots more stuff to adjust!