Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2003   by Rick Cogbill a.k.a. Slim Shambles

It’s Gotta be Me

"Okay, this is the place," I whispered. "When I stop the truck, get out quietly, and don't slam the doors!"Our quarry was 20 feet in front of us, facing the other direction and seemingly oblivious to ...

“Okay, this is the place,” I whispered. “When I stop the truck, get out quietly, and don’t slam the doors!”

Our quarry was 20 feet in front of us, facing the other direction and seemingly oblivious to our presence. But I knew better. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mrs. Abercromby peeking out from behind her living room curtains, consternation written all over her face.

“Is it just me,” whispered Basil, “or does anyone else here feel like an idiot?”

I nodded in agreement. If word of this got out to our competition, we’d be the laughing stock. I motioned the others forward, and Basil pulled a spark tester out of his back pocket. This was one Ford Escort that wasn’t going to get away.

Basil crept around to the front of the car while I made for the open driver’s side window. I reached in, pulling the hood release as Basil braced the hood with a rag. We didn’t want any sudden movements to startle the beast in its dormant state.

Basil lifted the hood and installed the spark tester on one of the ignition wires. Meanwhile, Beanie lay down beside the car and put a stethoscope on the fuel tank to listen for any fuel pump action. I nodded at the boys, and we all held our breath. Fortunately, the keys were in the ignition. I turned the key, praying that the car wouldn’t start.

But it was all for naught. The devil-red compact roared to life, and purred like a kitten, even with one plug wire disconnected. I groaned, and Beanie rolled away from the tailpipe, choking on the rich exhaust. The front door slammed and Mrs. Abercromby scurried down the sidewalk.

“Honest, Mr. Slim, I did what you asked me to!” she puffed. “When it wouldn’t start this morning, I left everything just like it was and phoned you right away.” She wrung her hands on her apron. “Oh, I just know it’s me. It has to be me. Why won’t my car act up for anybody else?”

She had a point. Most of the time the ’95 Escort ran great, except that about every three months it wouldn’t start. Every time a tow truck or a mechanic arrived, it would fire up immediately. I was starting to wonder myself what Mrs. A was doing wrong.

I turned off the car and gave her keys back. “I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of this. Just give it some time.”

Her eyes lit up. “That’s exactly what I’ll do!” she exclaimed. “I’ll go visit my sister Irma for a month, and I’ll leave the car with you.” She dug in her purse. “Surely in that amount of time you’ll be able to find something.”

Ignoring my protests, she handed me a spare set of keys. “I’ll be in touch when I return!” she called out over her shoulder as she disappeared into her house. I tossed the keys to Beanie in resignation and we headed back to the shop to mull things over.

A couple of weeks later, Basil was solemnly dunking a donut in his coffee. “Maybe it’s me, Slim. I’ve started that Escort at least three times a day for the past two weeks, and it’s never missed a beat.”

“I hear you,” I said glumly. “I’ve taken it home on weekends and still nothing. I wonder if…”

At that moment, raucous yelling out in the parking lot caught our attention. It was Beanie, hopping up and down beside Mrs. Abercromby’s car. I could faintly make out his words. “…just cranking…won’t start!…”

Coffee cups and donuts flew as Basil and I scrambled for the door.

“Don’t let go of that key!” hollered Basil. “Open the hood! Quick!” Beanie complied, and without waiting for a spark tester, Basil pulled off a high-tension lead, put his screwdriver in the end and held it near the valve cover. “No spark!” he yelled gleefully.

“Can I stop cranking?” asked Beanie.

“Don’t you dare,” I growled. I wiggled wiring harnesses under the hood and tapped on things with a screwdriver handle. When I hit the Electronic Engine Control Relay, the engine suddenly roared to life, and Basil roared along with it, as a good jolt of electricity shot through his fingers.

Later in the shop, Basil was still grumbling and rubbing his injured hand as he watched me take the plastic cover off the EEC relay.

The contact points inside the relay were not aligned properly, and when the relay was energized, the top contact would occasionally slide down past the bottom contact, and fail to make a connection.

Our customer was pleased as punch when she picked up the car later that week. “I feel so much better, Mr. Slim!” she said. “I was really beginning to wonder if my car had a mind of its own.”

I said nothing, but inside I knew that as a technician I have wondered that same thing many times over the years. Some automotive problems seem to defy resolution. Maybe…

Then again, maybe it’s just me.

(Thanks to Joe Cornett-Ching of A.N.J. Automotive Service in Penticton, BC, for this month’s technical problem.)

About The Writer

Rick Cogbill is a freelance writer living in the Okanagan valley of Southern British Columbia. A licensed technician with over 25 years in the automotive repair industry, including ten years as a shop owner, Cogbill creates his comic scenarios with Slim, Basil, Tooner, and The Bean out of actual case histories. “What you have just read is true,” drawls Slim Shambles. “Only the names have been changed to protect my hide!”

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