Where’s Steve When My Car Is Sick?

wpid-IMAG0265.jpgI need Steve! Really. Steve, I need you.

For at least 25 years in Connecticut Steve kept my cars running. Yes, we became friends, but first he was an honest auto mechanic. He was my honest auto mechanic.

I sent Steve a text this weekend. Could he drive over?

There’s a problem with my SLK230. The car’s 15 years old. It’s entitled to need some attention from time-to-time.

The car drives well when driven gently. But, if you really step on the throttle the car hesitates and misses.

So, zero to 80 in 30 seconds, no problem. Zero to 80 in 10 seconds–not gonna happen.

My guess is it has to do with air to the supercharger. I like that solution because the symptoms fit similar experiences online and it’s not too expensive to repair.

Not having Steve makes the problem more troubling.

I looked online to get a sense of who’s liked. With 171 reviews on Yelp, almost uniformly positive, The Auto Clinic was chosen.

We just dropped off the car. Geoff, smiley, friendly and wearing clean overalls, traded my little car for a piece of paper.

Does his properly spelled name serve as a good omen? The verdict comes tomorrow.

My Car’s Battery As Collateral Damage


The battery in my car is dead, collateral damage from the move. My car rode out west on a trailer, but the alarm cutoff switch was never thrown. My little SLK230 honked and blinked coast-to-coast.

When it finally arrived in California the battery was dead. No clock. No lights. No electric door locks. Dead!

Luckily the car came west with jumper cables in the trunk. After a quick boost it’s been starting fine.

That ended last night. I went to start it and heard “click, click, click.” It’s that frustrating sound cars make when there’s not enough juice for the starter (or something more technical I’m incapable of describing properly).

I texted my friend Steve who’s been my go-to car guy for nearly 25 years. I asked if he wanted to drive over to give me a hand? I offered to make coffee when he was crossing Utah.

We’re in a new place with no doctor, dentist, passable pizza or car genius! I’ll call AAA later this afternoon, then drive to get a new battery installed. I’m not even sure where to do that.

It was assumed when we moved checks would be flying out of the checkbook nonstop. Good assumption. At this point adding a battery to the outflow will hardly be noticed.

Back To Manhattan To Fetch My Car

Of course I had “Clicky” with me to document the day.

As you might remember a few weeks ago I left my totally dependable Subaru Forester in the garage to spend one sunny day with the top down on my 12 years SLK230. Oops. Today Helaine and I headed to Manhattan to put an obscene repair bill on my credit card and drive home.

For the curious it was a crankshaft position sensor and some other related stuff. I plead ignorance. My guess is someone’s child has just had their college tuition paid by me.

Weatherwise it was the perfect day for a trip to New York City. The temperature was comfortably mild. The sky was deep blue.

Metro North is back up and running after Hurricane Irene. We hopped the train to Grand Central.

My car was repaired at a dealership on the far west side of Manhattan. On this day Helaine and I walked the 1.6 miles from GCT.

If you wanted to sell New York City as a destination today would have been the day to use for your pitch! The streets were full of people. Restaurants burst out onto the sidewalk. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Of course I had “Clicky” with me to document the day including

  1. A bodega with a watchcat
  2. A TV actor on location yelling so scarily Helaine thought he was a real New York City screaming crazy person.
  3. The world’s strangest and probably most expensive satellite dish installation
  4. Manhattan street trees

The drive home was uneventful. Phew.

A Clean Car Is Almost A New Car

“You should get it detailed,” Helaine suggested a week ago. She wanted her car ‘spiffified’ too and getting mine done too might have had some psychological value.

I remember the day I got my current car. It was pretty exciting. I’d been driving a nondescript Toyota. I was moving up to something a lot sportier. My little two seater convertible turned heads.

It still does though it’s 11&#189 years old now.

Even a Mercedes can be a practical purchase if you’re willing to drive it forever. It’s been mine free and clear for years. The state has even stopped charging its yearly property tax on it!

“You should get it detailed,” Helaine suggested a week ago. She wanted her car ‘spiffified’ too and getting mine done too might have had some psychological value.

I called Leroy, one of the guys I work with who runs a side business bringing cars back to that new car look. All I can say is “Wow.” For Helaine’s car “Double Wow.”

You can easily judge a car’s relative condition the same way a woman judges a man’s relative condition–by the shoes. My tires are back to the tough, hard, semi-glossy black they were before the road and brake debris got to them. The body is fully glossy. Inside the carpets are clean and fresh and the dashboard supple. The engine block looks just as it did when it was first shipped to America.

If it weren’t for the 11&#189 years of dings and pits on the hood you’d never know this car wasn’t just off the lot! That goes doubly for the windshield. I need a rock to hit it so I can get a new one (Please–don’t help me fulfill my wish in this regard).

There is one problem which has so far evaded repair. I’m only posting it here with the thought that one of you might have an idea. A few years ago I left some change on my dashboard. As I drove and then braked it flew into the little slot between the windshield and body where it now lives. The slot is too small for me to reach. Now every time I make a sharp turn I hear the coins moving across car!

Getting My Car Rebooted

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.

Uh oh.

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:

To whom it may concern,

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.


Geoffrey Fox

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.