Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Old Car is Like a Wife

I get attached to cars and since I’ve never had the wherewithal to own a new one, they’ve always been old and cranky. They’ve always had their share of dings, marks, rattles and quirks, but I’ve never cared much about outward impressions. As long as their hearts and moving parts are in reasonable or fixable state, I just carry on. If it’s a Toyota, like my ’88 Camry, you kinda feel like it’s a pretty solid machine that’s worth putting money into and maintaining. Wherever you go and especially in Cambodia, the most popular cars will be easiest to keep running just because of spare parts and dependability, but that doesn’t exempt you from a myriad of bewildering and mysterious problems, more of which I’ve encountered with my car than any one human being ought to have. Just like women, bewildering and mysterious.
But better than buying a KIA Sportage. I’ve known two guys who bought them. The first had fuel injector problems which could only be solved with four new injectors at $450 a pop. When a second friend bought one I hesitated to break his heart with the sordid tale of the first Sportage debacle. I only broke the story after he recounted how he couldn’t leave town with his because of certain disaster if it was driven very far.
For this comparison I’m not suggesting your wife, or cohabitating girlfriend, is equivalent to an old beater car (though she might well be) but rather the kind of hell she regularly puts you through just because of the nature of the beast. In this case the more beautiful and snazzy they are the more likely they are to give you the most shit. (To be fair, it’s not like we don’t also put them through some trying times, but they’ve got to make their own analogies.)
You wouldn’t dump your wife every time she asks you for a new bangle or bead, or breaks down in tears for unfathomable reasons or freaks out for (what seems to you) trivialities so why begrudge taking care of such a handy device as your car just because the bugger needs new brakes or an alternator or a battery or a new headlight switch once in a while. Even when it eats up three right front CV joints in six years and only 18,000 miles - twice happening on the road – you just grin and bear it. However, I wasn’t so smiley when it stranded me 40 kilometers from Kampot without the money to pay for the repair. When the mechanic who I managed to locate, with some difficulty, found out I could only pay half of the $65 repair job, he put me on lowest priority and made me wait from mid-morning till nearly 5 pm before he returned to finish the job. It turned out okay for him since I made up the shortfall with everything of value I was carrying with me: a rim and good quality tire, jumper cables, set of wrenches and a jack. As I discovered later when I went to replace the tire and rim, they alone were worth about $50.
But that was truly an excruciatingly, mortifyingly embarrassing episode. It happened on a bypass where a new bridge was under construction, so everybody on Highway 3 had a chance to see the morose barang struggling to smile and be nonchalant as they filed slowly by. The only saving grace, other than the mere magical fact that the mechanic actually did the job not knowing what he’d receive in return, was that a giant overloaded truck, which had even been elongated by two meters, but which only had a single rear axle, got stuck in the soft bypass road surface trying to climb back up to the highway. It was a sight to behold and took hours of unloading his cargo before he could get the thing unstuck.
Now I wouldn’t travel without a spare C-note or two in my pocket except in direst emergency. To top it off, I was forced to drive home at night which is a terrifying experience on Cambodia’s highways. You’ve got pedestrians, bicycles without lights, slow moving carts, diesel farm tractors and such which you can’t see until you get real close – at least I can’t with my tired old eyes – combined with giant trucks which blind you with their high-powered headlights. Besides, I gave the mechanic every riel I had so went the last 10 kilometers with the gas warning light on and (I’m convinced) made it up to my driveway on leftover fumes and angelic intervention.
The second time the CV joint went out on the road was a piece of cake in comparison, not that any breakdown on the road could ever be pleasant. I broke down in a small town and found a mechanic who had worked for the UN for 14 years and spoke good English. Not only that, but there was a hammock out back overlooking a small river to wait out the repair time.
If you’re planning a road trip with your old beater, you thank your lucky stars when it breaks down just before you leave, rather than on the road. In similar vein wouldn’t you rather be berated, yelled and screamed at at home, rather than have the old lady barge in while you’re having a peaceful beer with friends at your favorite suds depot and start screaming insults there?
Dealing with Khmer mechanics is also a lot like dealing with Khmer wives or partners. If that’s your situation, you’ll understand when I tell you about replacing my master window switch. Power windows are a great convenience but a big problem when they stop working, especially if they stop working when the window is stuck in the down position in rainy season. Having spent a lot of years as a mechanic, though of the untrained shade-tree type, you get to see which parts break down the easiest and where the vehicles are most vulnerable. The master window switch is one of them, especially here in the tropics where constant heat and humidity play havoc with electronics. It would work fine for a week or two and then just get locked into place. Sometimes it would start working again after a day or two. Other times I’d have to go to my Kampot mechanic and he’d take it apart, clean it up and it would work again… but only temporarily.
At first my Phnom Penh mechanic (they are definitely not available in Kampot) said a used one cost $50, but he couldn’t find one since they were prone to problems, so I asked about a new one; at $280 that was out of the question. Later he located one that was used in America but new to Cambodia at $80. It’s from a ’91 and the wiring’s a little different, he says, but he’s the primo electrical man so no problem. Fine, I say, it has to be done. I go to pick it up, the driver’s window now has an automatic switch, which is very convenient, actually, but when I closed the door the automatic shoulder seat belt – a feature of American cars – doesn’t work. (The majority of cars in Cambo were brought here used from America when they were about 10 years old.) Without it you only have the waist belt, which really isn’t enough if you actually want to be safe, so I ask why it doesn’t work. You didn’t tell me to do it, he replies. WTF? It worked when I brought it there, but according to his logic I was supposed to remind him to hook up everything that worked previously just like it did before. Khmers will say anything that comes to their minds when they don’t have a proper answer. The switch has been okay with minor problems except nobody else but him understands the wiring so when my Kampot mechanic looked at it, he was completely befuddled… so shit out of luck if anything does go wrong with it.
Then there’s the headlight switch. You know, you’re riding merrily along and totally without warning your headlights go off. The brights continued to work, but it’s not a great idea to blind vehicles coming your way. Then it’d work for a few days and same thing would happen. Mechanic takes the steering column apart, cleans up the switch and it works for a while. Finally, after doing that twice and the problem still reoccurring, I asked how much for a new used one, new ones again being prohibitively expensive. $28? For that little why am I messing around trying to make the old one work? However, it wasn’t that long before the ‘new’ old one started acting like the ‘old’ old one. I had the new one cleaned up recently and now it seems to be working.
The humidity here corrodes electrical parts with abandon. Now the thing to remember about the headlight switch is that it’s always hot, that is, it has power going to it whether or not the key is in the on position. Which means if there’s a short somewhere in the switch it’ll drain your battery. In my case it used to take only two days without driving it to kill the battery and I took to unhooking the battery after every time I drove the car… a real bore.
 Of course, this is nothing new since the lovable rattletrap has not started when it was supposed to at least a hundred times in the six years I’ve owned it and maybe a lot more… I lost count a long time ago. At this point I always carry a set of jumper cables and battery charger with me, just in case. Actually, I should also have an extension cord in the event the nearest plug is not close or people nearby don’t have one. It wasn’t always the switch that was the culprit, just in the last couple years I’ve replaced everything having to do with the starting and charging systems. It’s got 140,000 miles – 220,000 kilos – so you have to expect things to break down, though this car has really tested my patience.
I asked a friend who has an identical Camry about his. Very dependable, he says, in four years it’s started every time he turned the key. I was incredulous. He did have to do a few things to it, he said, so I thought I could do a ‘gotcha’ with CV joints. First he said 6 or 7 but then thought about it and said 4. So my 3 in 6 years is not so bad after all. One of the other things he had to do was replace the engine for $400, so, old cars, like wives, you just gotta deal with them.
I’ve heard guys say they bought an old jalopy, drove it for two years never having put a penny into it and then dumped it when it broke down. That’s never, even remotely, been my experience. For me they always need something, at least partly because I’ve spent enough time with cars to know when things are not working right and partly because I always want to correct the problem, which in some ways is easy here since it costs so little in labor to repair them. Unfortunately, low cost also implies low talent, even if highly intuitive, and the absence of diagnostic equipment so that many mechanics here are no more than shade-tree types like myself.
This is represented by a persistent problem I’ve had. From the start it has had the shakes at idle and especially stopped in gear. It’s not a big fault, just really uncomfortable. I’ve taken the problem to three mechanics. All three started with timing, no problem there. Then the air intake was cleaned out and the plugs and wires replaced. No change. While the PP mechanic was doing other stuff he noticed that the transmission made a strong clunking sound when put into gear and suggested maybe I needed a new one at $240. He even assured me that that would correct the shaking problem. I didn’t really believe him but it was a time when I had money in the bank and since I knew that wouldn’t last it seemed a good time to do it rather than wait until it broke down with me broke also. Being a Toyota it’s entirely possible that it might have kept going long after I was in my grave even with the clunking sound, but I didn’t want to take the chance. Of course, it made no difference whatever to the shaking.
I think it has to do with the valves, though nobody seems to have a compression gauge, let alone a computer to do diagnostics and taking it apart to check would cost some money. Meanwhile, after all the peripheral work that’s been done, it runs really strong once it’s out of idle range. Hit the gas and it flies. And it’s really comfortable on trips and the upholstery is perfect and original - not that fake leather - and a pleasure to relax in, so I’m in it for the duration, it’ll probably last as long as I do. Believe me I haven’t begun to exhaust detailing its troubles, but I have run out of space in this article.
So whatever it needs, I’ll do my best to placate it. Trading it in for another old beater could be courting disaster, at least I know what I’ve got and what to expect. Relationships are always a hassle, whether it’s a car or a wife; no matter how compatible you are, you’re going to have a lot of learning to do. And valuable learning at that. All you wives, wives-in-waiting and girlfriends out there, I hope you don’t take offense, I don’t mean to belittle your contribution to our personality development. Having done the husband thing three times myself I can attest to its importance regardless of the torture it sometimes put me through. Though my most difficult ex is still giving me shit 40 years since we parted – we have a kid to connect us - whenever her fickle sanity dissipates, which fortunately, at least towards me, isn’t very often, I begrudgingly have to admit she also taught me the most.
In some ways it’s easier to go without a wife than a car: once you’ve gotten used to having wheels, you feel deprived without them, even when you don’t use the car that often, whereas you can take or leave being a husband. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to get rid of a car than a wife, it’s just a machine which can easily, if expensively, be replaced. But regarding a wife, if you ever cared about her, your parting will be extremely difficult, so until then it’s, Yes dear from now on I promise to pick up my socks from the floor and be more considerate of your often inscrutable feelings and listen to your nagging without going apoplectic with frustration and turning to the evil drink for solace.

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