Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meanwhile, with the Thousand Dollar Car...

It occurs to me that perhaps I shouldn't call her the Thousand Dollar Car because of her fully depreciated street value, but rather because that's about what she costs me per year in parts and maintenance.

When we last saw her during the arrival of the Car of the Decade, she was resting safely in the garage awaiting some healing in my back and hips.  Once I was off my operating table, I could get her on it.  Autozone was nice enough to replace her dead battery under warranty, but I was pretty sure the alternator had murdered the battery in the first place.  Eighteen years, 255k miles, and no small amount of seeping engine fluids accumulated into her guts.  Not bad.  I've known Mazdas (all of them) whose alternators lasted five or six years.  Of course, that's pretty much the only damned thing that goes wrong with Mazdas.

I had young Toadroller (Tadpole-roller?) Henry help slide the battery into its planting station in the rear wheel well, which is no simple feat.  The battery weighs an easy thirty-five pounds and has to be slotted into place vertically.  The big challenge is that the cables themselves are short and stiff and you can't really get them out of the way.  With enough ceremonial cursing of German engineers and some clever use of screwdrivers as levers, we managed to get it in.  I polished up the inside of the cable clamps for a clean contact surface and tightened them down. 

It was time to test the bad-alternator theory.  You just start the car and let it run on the good battery, testing the voltage at the battery.  If it's in the 13+ volt range, good alternator.  Less than 12.5 volts, bad alternator.  Probably.  Don't over-analyze these things. 

Of course, with the car backed into the garage, I wasn't about to sit there testing things while inhaling exhaust fumes.  A twist of the key and she sort of stumbled into life.  Huh.  I pulled her into gear and nosed her haltingly into the driveway and swung around to the far side and down to the parking corner.  She stalled along the way.  She'd covered about twenty feet.  Huh.

I had Mrs. Toadroller come out to start her again while I watched my voltmeter from the trunk.  Except Mrs. T couldn't get Ms. TDC to start.  Nor could I.  Huh.  I wouldn't expect a bad alternator to overpower a good battery.  Crap.  I hoped it wasn't something deeper, because then it would be a significant diagnostic challenge.  Who wants to start working through wiring harnesses on a fancy German sedan?  Hand-wiring my own fuel-pump relay from toggle switches on my first car, an 83 GTI, was challenging enough,* I didn't want my masters thesis in ignition wiring.  No, it's not lost on me that I didn't learn my lesson with the first car.

Time to call it a night.  I unhooked the battery to prevent unwanted drainage and locked her up.  I needed to think.  And I sure as heck didn't want to have to push or pull a two ton beast halfway across a driveway to get it back into the garage in a service position.  Shit.

"You know," I said to Mrs. Toadroller on Monday, "that thing acted like it didn't have any gas.  Which is crazy because it has half a tank in it"**

"Mmm hmm..." came the non-committal reply.  She probably heard me and processed what I was saying, but then again, the same response would apply to most of my rambling, verbalized problem-solving.  Let's just assume she both heard, understood, and knew a lack of gas to be the cause of my problem, but chose to let me find that out on my own and feel proud and clever about it.  She is wise, that Mrs. Toadroller.

Twenty-four hours later found me in need of a mental break from work. 

"You know," I said to Mrs. Toadroller on Tuesday, "that thing was at a heck of an angle getting onto that flatbed.  And then again, getting back off.  That fuel pump hates it when that happens."

"Mmm hmm..."

So out to the beauty again*** carrying my five-gallon tanks and a funnel.  With this car, you have to prime the fuel pump by filling the downspout of the tank.  It takes more than a quart.  I erred on the side of too much and added an easy eight gallons to its presumed eleven or so at half tank.  If that wasn't enough to rule out the fuel pump, then nothing would be.

I hooked up the battery again and went round to the driver's side. Crankety, crank.  Crankety, crank. Crankety, crankety, crankety, crankety, stumble, crank, stumble, stumble, varrrroooooooooom!  And there she was, running again albeit with a solid battery light.  As a car with a good battery and a bad alternator should.  I fetched the voltmeter.  12.1 volts running, 12.6 sitting.  That alternator was not only dead, it was taking others down with it.  

I backed her up the driveway and parked in an out of the way spot from which I could coast into the garage if necessary.  I'll fish out the alternator at some point in the next few days.  Just a small matter of loosening the accessory belt snaking around the engine.  Which may or may not require taking the entire front end off the car.  Again.  There's a place around here that will refurbish an alternator, which would be an interesting experiment.  Otherwise they can be found for $139 to $289 at all the car places. 

All part of the price we pay for a thousand dollar car.  Annually.

* That's a story for another time.  Suffice it to say that leaky Rabbit windshields drain into the main fusebox/relay panel under the dashboard.  Oh, you can dry a wiper relay out using the GTI's heater fans while driving 65 mph north, through the rain, on Route 3 near Chelmsford, MA.  Thank goodness Rain-X works pretty well.

** Didn't I run out of gas just this past February a mere six miles from home?  I did, didn't I!

*** She's nineteen, and a really good looking dame, that 1997 Audi A8.  Seeing her parked there all week I had many opportunities to admire her curves and lines.  A dem-fine girl, sir, dem-fine.

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