I have two intertwined stories about my car. They both, unfortunately, came to a head today.
A little background. I drive a 1999 Mercedes Benz SLK230 – a little 2-seat convertible. It’s a snazzy car – not as good for impressing women as a puppy on a leash, but impressive none the less.
The SLK sounds pricey, but after driving it for seven years it’s got the same cost basis as a Plymouth Scamp or AMC Pacer.
Friday, I came home from work, pulled the car in the garage and walked in the house. The only thing I didn’t do was turn off the headlights! By Saturday morning the battery was totally dead.
No problem. We have jumper cables. But the weather wasn’t too nice this weekend and I put it off.
As Helaine headed out to the market Monday, she realized my car was still in paperweight mode. I pushed it out of the garage, popped the hood and threw the cables across the battery terminals.
Within a few seconds the Benz was running, but running roughly. It was also throwing off enough white smoke to elect a pope.
I pushed my foot down on the accelerator to rev the engine and – nothing. The pedal went down to the floor but the engine’s speed remained where it was.
I shifted into Drive and attempted to move. The car ran more smoothly, but it wouldn’t do much more than a few miles per hour, and again the accelerator pedal did nothing.
There was little to do but go to work, leaving Helaine stranded. On my way I called Steve, my friend and mechanic. It’s good to have a mechanic for a friend.
He said he’d drop by on his way home from work. When he did, he found exactly what I’d found and was equally adept at fixing it.
Last night I began to research the problem on the Internet. Having the car go stupid after a battery failure or replacement was commonplace and there was a solution.
With the engine running, turn the steering all the way left, then all the way right, then center it. It seemed too simple… because it was.
I tried it. Nothing.
I called the dealership. It wasn’t long before John came by in his Mercedes SUV holding a computer. He opened my hood, unscrewed what I thought was the opening to refill the oil, and plugged in a cable.
The computer and my car immediately struck up a conversation. I heard little valves and switches click into place. As John looked down, every sensor… every sensor… was marked with an “F” for failure!
It was then that John did something I never expected. He told the computer to reset everything in my car’s onboard computer. My car was being rebooted. Within 30 seconds, the SLK was back to its old self… except for one thing.
And so begins my second car story.
I didn’t notice it until John was gone but both my brake lights were out. There was still the 3rd brake light, a long string of red on the trunk lid, but the conventional tail lights for braking were gone.
This is something I’d been having trouble with for a while. My left brake light had become intermittent. I replaced the bulb and even went into the dealer for service. Five minutes later the problem was back.
I checked the NHTSA website and found a similar recall on cars just like mine. The site said to call Mercedes. I did, but they had no clue what I was talking about, so I called NHTSA.
Oh my God! Here’s my email that followed the call:
My name is Geoffrey Fox, (address). I have just gotten off the phone with one of your representatives concerning my 1999 Mercedes Benz SLK230, vin: (redacted).
I have never, ever, been treated in such a surly manner by any telephone agent for any company or agency.
I called to ask about a recall, which your agency’s website says “is expected to begin in July 2006.” Mercedes Benz claims no knowledge of this recall (using the number you provided on your website). The NHTSA agent said she had no information. So, I asked to file a complaint on the vehicle.
Your agent did everything humanly possible to prevent me from filing this complaint. In fact, she originally refused. Only after I pressed did she grudgingly allow it, demanding the smallest of facts.
As an example, she asked how I knew my brake light wasn’t working! When I said another motorist had signaled me while driving, she said that wasn’t enough. She wasn’t asking for clarification. This was my punishment for wanting to file this report.
Somewhere along the line there is a disconnect between what your agency should be doing and what this particular agent is doing. I hope you’ll reconsider whether this person should have direct dealings with consumers.
cc: Nicole Nason
Nicole Nason is the person who runs NHTSA. At the close of business today, my email hadn’t been acknowledged, much less answered.
There’s little I can do now other than replace the bad parts which are causing my brake light failure. That’s $300 plus labor for a housing which had gotten ‘bent out of shape’. It was designed for temperatures lower than that produced by a standard brake light!
If there’s a recall, I’ll get the money back. As I found today, there’s really no way to know.
Now you’re caught up with my two car stories.