The first car I worked on was a 1948 Plymouth. Technically it wasn’t my car. It was Dad’s car. But I claimed it as my own. As I recall he bought it for $100 and when I was a sophomore in college he sold it for $75. It was a straight six. The turn signals were an after-market affair with the signal lever clamped on to the steering column. The defroster was a rubber bladed open fan. New passengers were amazed and delighted to see the driver stick his hand into the turning fan to stop it. Yes. The rubber blades were safety device! And of course the wipers were powered by a vacuum motor. That is, they were powered by the vacuum of the engine intake. So when accelerating the wipers slowed or stopped, and when going up hill, wipers were dead. Ah! Those were the days?
The last car I worked on was my 77 VW Rabbit. It wasn’t quite as simple as the Plymouth, but when you opened up the hood you could see where the spark plugs were! It was also the last car I owned that actually had a distributor. If I were to look around in the garage I could probably find the timing light and tach/dwell meter I used for tune-ups on the Rabbit. But no more.
Today I have a 2002 Buick Century, and after 18 months of ownership it has 45000 miles on it. Something the Plymouth probably accomplished only twice in its lifetime. Tuesday night, Terri and I got in the car to go out, and lo — the headlights did not work! As the temperature was about 15 degrees, and of course, it was dark, I thought I didn’t want to go looking for fuses so we took Terri’s Ranger. The following day, I was all set to do a little automotive maintenance. At noon, when temperatures were approaching 30, and the sun was shining, I went to the car and got out the owners manual. After a few minutes of research I found reference to headlight fuses. Yes fuses, not fuse. One for the left, and one for the right. Since neither headlight worked, I quickly jumped to the conclusion that this was not a job for Duane! We did not have a blown fuse. My thought was a bad relay, or some such.
I made a call to a dealership, and soon the car was in the shop. Two hours later, Dick, the service adviser called. He said, “Maybe I wasn’t listening carefully enough. What did you say was wrong with the headlights?” He explained that, of course, they worked fine. Since I intended to head out for St. George this weekend, and would definitely be driving after dark, his observation was not satisfactory. I explained that I knew how to turn on headlights, and that indeed, when I brought it in they did not work! I suggested that he keep the car overnight and try again in the morning, because one difference was that it was COLDER when they were not working!
This morning, Dick called again and said that momentarily they were able to duplicate the problem. They were “fairly certain” that the problem was the “multi-function” switch in the steering column. You know the one. The Hi-beam–Lowbeam, cruise control, turn signal, windshield washer, do it all switch?
I’ve talked to my share of service advisers in my lifetime, and I could hear the very cautious and careful approach in Dick’s voice as he explained the problem (this was not going to be cheap). He finally got to the point, and said that replacing the multi-function switch would cost $550. Rather than waiting for my gasp he went on to say that I might want to wait and monitor the situation, to make sure that the multi-function switch was faulty. But of course, he advised it would probably only get worse. I do wonder. How much worse can it get than to be driving down a rural highway on a moonless night and have your headlights go out?
I explained that I really wanted the headlights to work reliably and off-handedly said that it should be covered by warranty. Dick was quick to reply, “Oh! but you have 45000 miles on your vehicle. It couldn’t be covered by warranty.” I informed him that in fact we had purchased the extended warranty and everything should be covered for 75000 miles.
Dick’s voice fairly glowed with warmth as he responded, “Well then we should certainly replace that switch, shouldn’t we?” I had to agree. This afternoon, after the repair was complete, I asked him how certain he was that the switch was the problem. He said that he was very certain. It just had to be the multi-function switch. It couldn’t be anything else. It’s amazing how a $550 warranty payment can increase one’s certainty!
Tonight the headlights work, and the dealership has another $550 on its books. If it had been the ’48 Plymouth the problem would have been cured in the parking lot Tuesday afternoon for the price of a 5 cent fuse.