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A Pox Upon All Automakers

I am not a mechanic. Not even of the shade tree persuasion. Yeah, back in high school and college I’d replace the odd starter or water pump or radiator hose in whatever I was driving, but tell me to change the brake pads or check the timing and I’m useless.

However, I’ve always been a car guy, and I’ve felt very strongly that, no matter how complicated our vehicles or how decadent our society became, there are certain things about your car you should be able to take care of yourself: User Serviceable Parts, as it were.

Foremost among these are the battery and the light bulbs. There is no — NO!!! — acceptable excuse for these not to be easily and quickly changed out by the car owner.

Apparently, automakers on at least two continents disagreed with me, at least in 2001.

Awhile back, I got pulled over whilst driving my ’01 VW because, the officer informed me, it looked like I had just about zero working headlights. Well, it turned out that one of the low beams and one daytime driving lamp were out (both on the left), along with one of the little running lights on the fender. No problem! Next day I went to the local auto parts store, got three bulbs, and proceeded to not install 66 2/3% of them.

To get at my low beam headlight on the driver’s side, you have to take out the battery. Yeah, that’s right: The engine compartment is so crammed full of stuff, the battery must go before you can replace a bulb. Plus, there are some finicky and difficult wire clamps holding in the sockets for the bulbs that, if you don’t have the special tool that the folks in Zuffenhausen get custom-made by dwarves living under the Alps, you must extract using your bare fingers while you’re holding a flashlight in your mouth and sticking your head upside-down into the battery space.

Once you do that without losing said wire clamps (easier said…), you find that you can extract the low beam socket and replace it with comparative ease. But the driving light? Noooooo… you can get the socket maybe halfway out before you realize you apparently have to take off the fan housing, or maybe remove the radiator. At which point I must refer back to the “I’m not a mechanic” point above.

And the running light on the side? Oh, hey, all you have to do, it seems, is either remove the entire front fender OR a number of components from the engine bay and the wheel well. I couldn’t really decide which, so I just called it a day.

Last week, Girlfriend’s ’01 Saturn failed to start. I figured the cold had killed the battery, but when we popped the hood to give it a jump I discovered that powdery residue that says “leaking acid.” So a new battery it was — simple, right, especially in an American car?


There is a special place in hell for engineers and auto designers who, for no forgivable reason, mix metric and standard. When you get your socket set out and spend five minutes trying to figure out which fiddly little part fits that nut, only to realize NONE do, then go back into get the metric sockets and remove it, only to find when you go to remove the next bolt that NONE of the metrics fit it…. I’m sorry, that’s grounds for justifiable homicide, right there.

Furthermore, let me add that while it’s perfectly acceptable to clamp a battery in place with some kind of metal strap, it is perfectly unacceptable when one of the bolts on that strap is placed so inaccessibly that you can, at best, get a quarter-turn at a time with a wrench or socket. What moron came up with that design? Did they consult with the National Association of Dealer Service Departments, who asked for a minimum amount of billable work for the removal of a bolt? “I think five minutes to extract at $60 an hour is good. But make sure it doesn’t go back in any quicker, you understand?”

Finally, what sense does it make for there to be no — repeat, NO — extra play in the length of a battery cable? The replacement battery for the Saturn was, it turned out, slightly taller than the original. I’m talking less than half an inch here. Well, after getting the positive cable on, I discovered the negative cable simply would NOT reach the terminal. WTF??? I had to unscrew that dollar-a-minute bolt from the restraining clamp again and tip the battery forward enough to get the negative cable attached, then bolt everything back down. (Note to Girlfriend: THIS IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT, I SWEAR!)

When it was all put back together, her car started up and hummed like a top. And I can see after dark again when driving my car. So on some level, the frustration was worth it. But for all that these cars are quieter, smoother, more fuel efficient and reliable than those of yore, this kind of exercise actually made me long for my ’72 Pontaic Bonneville, which had enough spare room in its engine bay to stick your arm in there up to the shoulder, and my ’77 Nova with the short-block Chevy V8, the most blissfully simple engine to work on ever devised. I don’t remember any simple act of maintenance on one of those that left me foaming at the mouth like working on our newer cars sometimes does.