Tuesday
Sep052017

#SaveEddie, Part IV: The Agony of Without

This is the fourth part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous Entries:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia
Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic

I have mixed feelings about Uber.

This does not regard their recent PR fiascos involving rampant chauvinism among senior management. It’s not about their investment in autonomous vehicle technology, which certainly isn’t in the best interests of its 400,000+ drivers’ long-term employment opportunities. I’m not even talking about the (until recently) utter absence of an in-app tipping system for drivers which, as a bartender, really should bother me.

My mixed feelings are about ride-share services in general, and Uber is just a good one to put in the first line of your post to grab readers’ attention.

On the one hand, it’s a great option for my nights out when I know I’ll partake in numerous libations. Definitely done that before, which my old roommate can attest. But as a commuting utility, it’s hard to justify the daily expense. I find travel time can end up being extended, since the driver may not know your shortcuts. I also find myself uncomfortable when in someone else’s car, as well as anxious, since I’m not the one driving.

Plus, most people who drive for Uber have rather dull cars. My heart sinks a bit when the app tells me Abdul will be here in 7 minutes, driving a Toyota Camry. But let’s be honest: nobody in an Audi A8 is gonna feel the need to drive for Uber to make some extra cash. In light of this, I have thoughts of winning the lottery, buying a Maserati Quattroporte and enlisting in Uber for fun.

The best Uber I rode in was also the last one before the insurance adjuster came the next day to drop the total-loss bombshell on my psyche. My driver picked me up from work driving a Lincoln Town Car, one of the last such examples of Ford’s Panther Body. A former hire car picked up at auction by my driver, this boat took only five of the thirty minutes I spent in it to convince me why it is what every cab and limo company used since their introduction.

The rear seat had the kind of legroom you get in the front seat when you’ve slid it all the way back. That’s impressive to someone of a 6’4” stature like myself. And the seat had some give at the edge, which eased entry and exit. The designers of my dad’s Honda Fit must have been aiming for seat support, so it’s stiff at the front, restricting already-limited movement when sliding to the middle seat. Not that I ever really sit in the middle-rear seat in any car since my final growth spurt somewhere back in high school; people now just look up at me and say, “Yeah, you should probably sit up front.”

Perhaps that’s my message to Uber: When you go to a fully-autonomous fleet (which you will eventually, let’s be honest), it’ll be in your best interest to equip a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars. This nearly-40 year-old platform nailed it for rear passenger comfort before your founders were allowed to use a pack of crayons with more than eight colors. At least I think so; I’ve never been in a 1979 Ford LTD, so improvements may have been made since then.

These are the thoughts that occupy my time as Eddie sits in my apartment complex’s garage, preserving his state until the insurance adjuster can take a look. Once he does and gives his verdict, I take the Sunfire down to my parent’s house, where the work can be done. Because my lease forbids auto repairs on the premises. On the one hand, I get it; they don’t want the place looking like a salvage yard with transmissions and orphaned bumpers littering the property. On the other hand, I had to be sneaky when Eddie snapped a brake hose in the garage before I’d set off for a movie date.

With Eddie squared away at la maison de ma famille, my dad can take a closer look at the damage. I defer to him because, despite my extensive YouTube tutorial viewing, he has far more experience with these things than I do. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always someone who knows better, and it’s usually Dad.

Dad’s eye sees it’s not too bad, frame bending aside. But that’s for another post. Until then, insurance has sprung for a rental, so we head to Enterprise, who must have seen that insurance is footing the bill and said, “Oh, you’re getting this car.”

The guy at the desk said, “Is a Cherokee okay?” and I’m thinking the Dart-based crossover, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” It hadn’t occurred to me he might have appended the “Grand” prefix to that model. With this behemoth, the insurance-backed rental budget will be depleted in about a week. Well, played, sir.

But that Jeep is nice. Like, ole-timey gangster-nice. Every fiber of my being is screaming, “Don’t get used to it, don’t get used to it…” But it’s so nice…

Objectively, the interior is well-constructed, electronic amenities are plentiful, and it has an opulence-inspiring sunroof. Subjectively, driving dynamics aren’t as direct as my Sunfire, especially with the eight-speed gearbox and high center of gravity. But it’s still so very nice…

Bear in mind, however, that my list of luxury features still includes “power windows.”

It’s also overkill for one guy commuting. So, I look forward to getting Eddie back to driving condition. Until then, I comfort myself in the knowledge that I can park just about anything as big as that Jeep.

As a side note, does anyone else find rear-view backup cameras disorienting? I found myself just turning my head around to park using my own depth perception every time.

Sunday
Aug202017

#SaveEddie, Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic

This is the third part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous Entries:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia

I’m put in mind of the Soap Opera: so named for their mid-day time slot being so easy to market to housewives, which led to their primary sponsorship coming from cleaning product manufacturers.

First, if I may keep my Man Card valid, I never watch soap operas. Instead, I occasionally tune to them during a slow lunch shift and invite coworkers to provide their own dialogue. All I know is I see old interlaced camera sensors capturing underprepared actors in too much makeup under uninspired studio lighting. Spend five minutes watching one of these and you’ll find yourself mocking them. Three minutes, if you’ve already had a beer or two.

But if you find yourself sitting through an entire episode or two, suddenly you’re invested in the characters’ story. All at once, you’re worried who really fathered Zoe’s secretly-adopted twin brother and whether Skyler will ever come out of his sixth coma. Trust me, it happens. Not to me, obviously, since I keep it muted and supply my own material. But watch these long enough and follow along with everybody sleeping with each other while denying you a chance to get in on the action, you’ll start to get flashbacks to high school.

Without a doubt, the stories are formulaic and the cinematography is basic. But I have a bit of admiration for these daytime drudgeries: anything that can suck people in and get them engaged within 22 minutes plus advertising time, should be commended. They should also stand before a firing squad for abusing this power, but commended all the same.

So it is with Eddie: see him on the street or take a short trip, and this is just another late-90s economy car from GM. He makes a general racket as he rattles and whines at idle. The interior is a bit spartan, awash with hard plastics accented by the modern convenience of an aftermarket Bluetooth head unit. Power from the 134 cubic-inch motor is far from abundant, and is again hampered by the three-speed automatic. You’d be forgiven for dismissing this Pontiac Sunfire for the Smith-era, Canadian-built budget car that it is.

But then, you haven’t taken him on a road trip, taking most of it using cruise control at 70mph, letting the motor thrum along at 3200rpm for 400 miles and getting up without much fatigue. You also haven’t taken him down the Blue Ridge Parkway on a fresh set of summer tires. You’ve never goosed the throttle into second gear and rode the torque curve up to cruising speed as you enter the freeway. And you most certainly haven’t spent several hours with an odd assortment of tools trying to hold the engine from pitching forward while you install a new torque strut mount.

I’ve done all this and more. As such, I am emotionally invested in this car’s fate. It’s hard to shake the feeling that his destiny is tied to my own.

Cheesy as it sounds, there’s a communication here. In early 2012, the starter motor was failing, struggling harder to turn the crankshaft with each successive turn of the key. I learned to listen to these cues, so when I heard the fuel pump’s sickly whine four years later, I was able to replace it before it failed. And again, when he idled rich after driving some distance, I was able to diagnose a failing coolant temperature sensor before a check engine light ever illuminated itself.

So with that in mind, and considering everything I’ve poured in to maintain this car and all he has given back, you can imagine how much it hurts when the insurance man values Eddie at a paltry $1757.

Words hurt feelings, but numbers can crush a soul.

But I have to think objectively.  The car was purchased on Craigslist for $2600 back in 2008, meaning a depreciation rate of about $100/year, requiring only occasional repair, considering its methods of manufacture.  This may have been the deal of the decade for me, ranking up there with some $1200 speakers I once bought for a mere $200 (legitimately, I assure you) and the time I provided positive affirmation to a coworker and wound up dating a smart, sexy redhead who enjoys watching Doctor Who with me.

And at the same time, there’s the emotional component.  $1700 barely begins to cover the cost of the work done to this car.  $1000 was dropped early on an entirely new air conditioning system.  Last year I bought new wheels and summer tires, totaling $900.  I’ve saved money by installing the replacement fuel pump, alternator, radio, cooling fan motor and gaskets for the valve cover and transmission pan myself, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a value on sweat equity.

I’m not turning the car in, so instead the insurer cuts us a check for what it’s worth and we set to work.  But first, I’m gonna need a rental, since Eddie isn’t quite street legal right now.

Friday
Aug112017

#SaveEddie, Part II: The Consequence of Inertia

This is the second part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous entry:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction

I’ve been in traffic collisions before. Never at high speed, only ever in stop-and-go traffic. That’s when you’re paying less attention, because there’s less at risk.

Nearly ten years ago, I failed to stop my hand-me-down ’93 Dodge Caravan. Normally, a 10mph collision would be nothing. But I drive in an area with pickup trucks, which just happens to be what I hit. And this pickup just happened to have a trailer hitch mounted perfectly level with the Caravan’s front grill.

A trailer hitch needs to be strong, so they tend to be forged from substantial steel and either bolted or welded directly to the vehicle’s frame. This makes them very immobile compared to the rest of the car or truck, which is why there is no flex in them when you whack one with your shin. It also makes it much stronger than the ABS plastic that makes up the crosshair grill of the early-nineties Chrysler AS platform minivan. And the air conditioning coil behind it. And the radiator behind that. So much stronger, in fact, that it pushes said radiator far back enough to punch a hole in the battery.

Nowadays, I might have tried to salvage my Caravan. It might have been easier then, given automotive engineering at the time of its manufacture. Instead, we, the insured, accepted the insurer’s verdict of a total loss and surrendered the minivan to the wrecker. Some time and a Craigslist search later, we found Eddie.

Flash forward to today’s age on that slick road in Arlington. Friction has failed to overcome momentum, and carnage is the result.

Time doesn’t really slow down like in the movies. Instead, it’s just over. Expletives are uttered and on go the hazard flashers as I step out to check on the other driver. In hindsight, it’s curious the other driver was on his phone before even opening his door, but Eddie is my primary concern now, as it was then. He’s up and moving around, not complaining of any injury, and I’m fine, so I get on the phone to my insurer.

While I’m describing the event and damage in triplicate to the claims agent, a county cop pulls up behind us, confirms we’re okay, and instructs us to turn onto a side street, out of the way of traffic. He takes our information, writes it up on an incident report, gives us copies, and goes on his way. I’m on the phone another twenty minutes, if feels like, before the agent asks if I need a tow truck.

Eddie isn’t leaking any fluid and there’s no apparent suspension damage or misalignment, so Eddie is drivable, even with only one headlight properly aligned. I drive him the remaining two miles to my apartment’s garage, where I take multiple pictures with my phone for an initial damage assessment.

Immediately noticeable is the driver’s side headlight lens, broken free from its mounting points, is tucked up underneath the hood, which has crumpled under the stress of impact. Paint flicks off the bumper in spiderweb patterns at the whim of a slight breeze. The left fender is creased at the leading edge and bows out above the front wheel, and the black plastic inner fender is in two pieces.

These are all relatively easy fixes, and good news is the windshield washer reservoir and the battery, both in close proximity to the impact, are untouched. However, some measuring shows the subframe is bent back, so new parts may not fit properly if we attempted to install them.

Two things worked as advertised, however: the bumper reinforcement, a tube of steel protecting the radiator from damage in all but high-speed crashes, and the front absorber, which is a grid of plastic designed to collapse before any structural metal takes damage.

All signs show relatively minor damage, save for the bending in the subframe. I’m not a professional mechanic by any means, so I suspect I won’t be able to fix that by myself. Doesn’t mean I won’t try.

Monday
May292017

#SaveEddie, Part I: The Coefficient of Friction

Summer tires are a fine thing for driving. When I talk about my seasonal tire strategy, I’m often confronted with the inquiry, “Why don’t you just use all-season tires?”A part of me wants to tell them they’ll never understand. However, years of working in the service industry has trained me to temper my snippiness. Instead, I’ll illustrate that four-season tires are a compromise that results from convergence.


I’ve observed for many years that when the features of two products are converged into a single unit, the merits of these features always become compromised. The most successful convergence to my mind is none other than the Clock Radio: take a standard tabletop radio, glue on a digital clock, and interconnect the two such that the radio can be turned on at a specified time. Low and behold, it works! You set the trigger to five minutes before you head out the door for work in the morning, and sure enough the radio turns on at 7:55 A.M., thus waking you to the sound of morning talk show antics. You stir, looking for the source of the noise and see the current time displayed on the chronograph. Your half-asleep brain does a bit of arithmetic, then fires a surge of adrenaline through your body to get your lethargic ass energized to shower, shave, dress and sprint out the door while praying a power outage scrambled the time clock at work last night so you can slip into your office undetected by the higher-ups.

 

The Clock Radio works as advertised, even if your body clock doesn’t. However, you probably aren’t listening to Sublime’s new single on this thing. No, you want the good stereo your older brother bought with money from selling midterm answer sheets, don’t you? So, while the Clock Radio is a perfectly functional clock paired with a perfectly functional radio, it failed to exemplify the best attributes of either product. Sound quality is rather limited, given the single speaker. And, for many, many years, it wasn’t a particularly attractive clock, never destined to hang upon the wall alongside Great-Uncle Charlie’s self-portrait.

 

And so, we have the all-season tire: functional in summer, functional in the snow, but failing to match the potential in either when asked of it.

  Summer tires can’t cut into the snow because the tread pattern is meant to displace liquid water rather than powder, while the knobbly tread on a snow tire allows for some flex, meaning decreased grip in dry conditions.  As such, many drivers elect for a best-of-both-worlds approach, and have the dealer bolt on four all-season tires, and they won’t have to worry about it until they wear out.

I take a different approach.  Last year, I purchased a new set of rims and had some Bridgestone summer tires installed on them. I took off my stock rims, which had winter tread on the front axle and still-good all-seasons on the back, and bolted up the new ones for a transcendent experience in traction. These tires provided me with a spirited driving experience all through spring, summer and fall, until early December when I switched them back. Some may see the twice-annual change as an inconvenience not worth having, but I consider it time well-spent for an engaging driving experience nine months out of the year and peace of mind during the other three.

Back to squishy, cold weather compound for a few months, which brings me to late February.

Conditions were moderate in temperature, but high in humidity due to earlier rainfall. Much of that moisture was still on the asphalt as I crested a hill to find someone stopping quickly to turn left off the busy street. The duty then fell to me to modulate braking pressure to avoid a lockup. Normally, the anti-lock brake system’s computer would do that for me, but thanks to a break in the wire leading to the front-right wheel sensor that I haven’t been able to chase down, my ABS is inactive. Locking up the brakes would be bad for me, since I have moving traffic on my right, while there’s oncoming traffic to the left, and if I were to spin it would be far worse than unfortunate.

So modulate the brakes I do, and I can hear these winter tires howl like a wounded animal; a sound generated by combining the flex of rubber under stress with turbulent airflow around the tire’s tread. My heart stops, hoping to inspire the car to do the same, but it isn’t enough in these greasy conditions to prevent Eddie from colliding into the back of a late 2000’s Nissan Sentra.

 


Thursday
Dec222016

How to Enjoy Egg Nog

The holiday season is upon us.

No, not Christmas. Or Hanukka. Or Kwanza. Or Festivus. Or whatever else normal people do at the end of December.

No, it's "Being with Family Makes Me Drink" season. Nice to finally drink for a socially acceptable reason.