Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Tercel trouble

After more than 8 years and 220,000 miles, it may be time for me to get a new battery for my little blue Toyota Tercel.

It might not be the battery. It could be the alternator, maybe, or something buggy in the starter. The car worked fine on the 70-mile trip to visit my friends in the Poconos, where I helped my friend walk his property lines in an effort to locate the markers so he can get an idea where he can place the "NO HUNTING" signs, so that drunken idiot hunters don't pump any lead into him, his wife, their baby, or their two dogs, one of which bears a striking resemblance to a deer. Not that signs really have any effect on drunken idiot hunters. But I digress.

The car worked fine when I went to Wegman's on the way home, where I was stopping to pick up bananas and maybe some magazines and Key Lime seltzer and other stuff I didn't need. I was confronted on the way into the store by a man who called out "Hey, Big Guy" to me. (I find this nickname amusing coming from my friend's 9-year old stepsister, and sexy coming from any woman over the age of 18, but annoying coming from a total stranger.) He then approached me - I made eye contact, I know, I know - and began to explain to me that he wanted to make a deal, because he needed 20 dollars to buy food. As he approached me he probably noticed that I was bedraggled, unshaved, and kinda dirty and scuffed up from traipsing and tripping and sliding through the woods that surround my friend's house. I gave him my patented watery-eyed thousand-meter stare with sheepish grin and slight eyelid puff, and said "Sorry, no." But I did my shopping with a measure of guilt - I bought the bananas and just one magazine - which was made worse when I saw the man at the checkout, with a woman and several small children, including a baby who couldn't have been more than a week or two old. (As an afterthought, I am wondering if I should have gone back, bought a box of condoms, and given them to the man free of charge.)

No problems with the car getting home, though I did manage to lock the door with the dome light on again, although this was pretty obvious because it was completely dark outside. Besides, I had do go around the other side to get out my metal detector and GPS locater, both of which were useless in the property-line marker location project.

But this morning, problem. The car wheezed like a dying jalopy as I turned the ignition, but started up after a groan or two. Odd, I thought. I tried it again. Same thing.

Hmmm. Maybe I had let something trickle away battery power overnight, I thought. May as well run it the 33 miles up to work to see if the battery gets recharged along the way.

Got to work, parked. Shut down, restarted. The same thing happened. Maybe a little weaker this time.


Battery? Not accepting charge? But don't batteries usually fail gradually? I haven't noticed any gradual dimming of lights, and there were no idiot lights on my dashboard alerting me to this problem.

Alternator? I was with someone when her alternator died, in Washington, D.C., directly between the Washington Monument and, I think, the capitol. Nowadays her car would have been immediately towed and detonated, but way back then (in 1996, shortly before my car died) we had to find a pay phone (prehistoric times, before we all had cell phones) and call a tow truck. Besides, if my alternator were gone, I think my car might just stop moving, possibly in the middle of the highway. (Which is where my last car was when the engine blew. Never assume that just because you've paid somebody to change your oil, they've actually refilled it.)

Starter? Mmmmaybe. Wiring going kerflooey? If the starter were gone, the car wouldn't even crank. But if bits of it were going, it might start, but have a hard time starting.

Computer? Sure, why not? A messed-up computer can simulate almost any other problem.

So what's the best way to approach this? Well, my way is to take it to the dealer, throw a pile of money at them, and threaten to keep throwing money at them until they make the problem go away. Unfortunately, they're completely booked this week, but offered to pencil me in for next week. By which time I expect this problem will be resolved, one way or another.

The cheapest thing to do would probably be to run out to Sears and get the battery replaced. If this really is the original battery, then it's really overdue for a replacement. But if it's not the cause of the problem, that will just be a waste of money, especially if I actually got the battery replaced during my 180,000 mile service. I wish I could remember.

I warned my boss that I might be late tomorrow because of this. I also warned him that I might hang out late tonight if my car wouldn't start and I needed to call for a ride. Unfortunately, my partner is off this week, so I get to be the point man for shipping, receiving, asset management, DVD bit-budgeting, dubbing, and customer service for about half a dozen projects for clients spanning half the globe. Not a good time to take time off for car trouble. We'll see what happens.

UPDATE: It was the battery. I got it replaced at Sears, and the car seems OK. They said it was completely flat, so I was lucky I got the car to start as many times as I did. It was the original battery. After more than eight years, it had earned its eternal reward.

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