I don’t know anything about engines. Pretty much nothing. I know a little bit about combustion as a physical act, so I conceptually understand the basic premise of an engine. But in reality? I’m lucky to know which side of the car has the engine in it.
Periodically throughout my life, I have undertaken efforts to remedy this shortcoming. I learned to change my oil. I’ve changed headlights and replaced a few other dodads and thingababobs. I got some jack stands and some books and really dove into all the material I could find. But I quickly reached a point where the learning just wasn’t taking.
The jack stands collected dust for the most part, I still don’t get why some parts in metric and some parts are imperial, and most of my experiences with changing my oil was spent inventing cuss words after burning my fingers. For the most part these days, the technicians at my local auto-shop are just wizards who may vroom-vroom box go and that’s about the long and short of it. I don’t really enjoy automotive work, although with how much I rely on my car, I feel that’s a serious short-coming. And yet when I consider enrolling in some classes to figure out how to fix my car, or at least better understand what a transmission is, I get filled with (at best) apathy.
This all has come to a head recently. And by recently, I mean in the last 48 hours. I found myself driving on the interstate, which I think is how most terrible stories begin, when my car decided it was tired. It informed of this by decelerating. That, in and of itself, was not particularly worrisome, but it did this while I was actually in the process of merging into traffic. When, you know, you actually want to be accerlerating. Just in case you aren’t up on your prefixes, accelerating is the opposite of decelerating. So there was a conflict of interest at a time when me and my car really needed to be on the same page.
I’m not going to lie, there was some profanity and more than a little bit of shrieking. There was also some stomping on the gas pedal, I think. I don’t know. My recollection of the moment was filled with blinding hot terror as I was forced to contemplate my own mortality as an 18-wheeler blew its horn at me for – one must assume – just the fun of it.
So I managed to avoid dying via flaming vehicular catastrophe and found myself on the curb of the interstate, only slightly frazzled. It’s at this point that I was grateful I was in the semi-civilized world (in North Carolina, with our General Assembly, one can claim only so much civilization). The exit behind me was only a few hundred meters back. There was another exit a few kilometers away, a walk yes, but hardly a herculean feat.
But no, things took a turn because a passenger bus arrived. See, North Carolina isn’t one of those sophisticated states with that there snazzy mass transportation. No, no, we have three buses that run round-the-clock-ish to take people between the cities of the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). I say this because those buses are exceptionally rare, often running less than once an hour at a given stop. It’s one of the many reasons why public transportation in the Carolinas isn’t viable, necessitating just about every single adult own a car. Does that conflict with what I said above about being in a walkable location? It doesn’t. It should underscore just how lucky I thought I was. That said bus arrived RIGHT BEHIND ME ON THE SHOULDER should underscore how lucky I really wasn’t.
So there I am, on the side of dense but fast-moving traffic, with a big-ass bus right behind me. It was at this moment that I looked at my car and I said ‘now or never, buddy’. I slipped my key in and cranked the car. And wouldn’t you know it, it cranked. Step one, taken care of. I shifted into drive. Cool, great, no problem. Here came the big challenge. I stepped on the gas.
My car, miraculously, began to accelerate. To a whopping 15 miles per hour. So that was a victory. But here’s where things got weird(er). If I accelerated any higher than 15 mph, the car would lose all speed and come to a complete stop. I had to very carefully keep the car at 15mph and allow it to attempt to go no higher. I managed to get my car to the next exit where I pulled off (with a municipal bus giving me a municipal finger as it swore municipal profanity as it went on its municipal way).
I puttered into a store parking lot and turned my car off completely, and went and bought some Reese Pieces. Because when your car breaks down and an 18-wheeler nearly crumples you, the diet can go to hell. I let the car cool off for abut twenty minutes. Cranked it, put it into gear, no problem. When I tried the accelerator, it worked like normal.
So with the rest of my plans for the day shot, I took my car to my preferred mechanic. Now, I know a lot of jokes in the world that center on mechanics being unreliable, but I generally trust my shop. The prices seem reasonable, if not competitive, they’re work has always been good, and they’ve just generally done right by me. So I pulled the car up, gave them keys, and then just kind of waved my hands at my car while explaining what had happened by means of interpretative dance and creative expletives.
I left it with them and went off in search of more Reese Pieces because – and I cannot stress this enough – the diet can go to hell.
I come back, having put on two kilograms after having bought all the candy an adult can legally purchase in the state of North Carolina on a weekday, to discover that the shop did not fix my car because they don’t fix timing belts and that appears to be the problem.
Cool, great. My question is: wait, y’all fix somethings but not others? And what the f*&k is a timing belt?
See, this is one of the things that really confuses me about cars. There doesn’t appear to be a one-stop place you can go to get something addressed. There doesn’t seem to be a place you can take your car and say ‘fix it’ and they do. One place does tires, one place does transmissions, one place does…I don’t know, something other than tires and transmissions. Are car’s really so complicated now that shops can specialize? I didn’t think so, but I was clearly wrong.
So what is a timing belt? Well, I looked it up and, turns out, it’s a pretty critical element to the machine. Also called a camshaft for some reason, it’s basically what allows the engine to move correctly. Cool, great.
So, after nearly dying, I’ve learned that my car needs three or four digits worth of work. So yeah, it’s been a fun few days.