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

The Van Whisperer

Doc Nigel was looking nervous as he leaned across the service counter and lowered his voice. "I'm sure you can understand that I wouldn't want word of this to get out," he whispered. "Some of my patie...

Doc Nigel was looking nervous as he leaned across the service counter and lowered his voice. “I’m sure you can understand that I wouldn’t want word of this to get out,” he whispered. “Some of my patients wouldn’t understand.” Nigel was a psychiatrist with a thriving local practice.

My hands were poised above the keyboard, ready to type in the service complaint, but I wasn’t quite sure how to word it. I cleared my throat. “Ahem…so, Nigel…you think your van is trying to talk to you?” He nodded. “Right,” I continued. “And how long have you been hearing these voices?”

He scowled at me. “Very funny! I’m not making this up, Slim.” He glanced around quickly. “Like I told you before, on a hot day my van’s security alarm will go off in the parking lot, and I have to disrupt my sessions to go out and turn it off. Then when I try to leave a few hours later, my battery is dead. It’s like my van knows that something is wrong with the battery and is trying to warn me!”

“Okay, okay,” I said quickly, “just calm down. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for this.” I reached for the keys of his 1996 Plymouth Caravan. “Does your battery go dead any other time, like when you don’t activate the alarm?”

Doc Nigel blinked in surprise. “Don’t be ridiculous! I’d never leave Martha alone without turning on her alarm. Why, it wouldn’t be safe.” He lowered his voice again. “You just can’t trust people; I should know. And besides, how could she communicate with me if her alarm was turned off!”

I sighed. Hearing voices from a talking van named Martha, and acute paranoia; I was beginning to think Nigel needed a little time on his own couch.

I turned the problem over to Basil, who’s been known to communicate with a few inanimate objects himself from time to time, but usually with better results. I gave him a run-down on the symptoms.

“Interesting,” he murmured. “And does Nigel re-arm the security system once he’s turned it off?”

“No, it won’t re-arm,” I replied. “I think that’s what worries him the most. He doesn’t like leaving ‘Martha’ unprotected.”

Basil ran his hand over the front fender. “She’s indeed a beauty,” he said. “Why don’t you leave us alone for a while and I’ll see what I can come up with.”

I left in a hurry. Things were getting just a little too weird for me. A short time later Tooner came into the front office. “What’s with Basil and that Caravan?” he asked, jerking his thumb toward the service bays.

I looked up from my paperwork. “I assume he’s running some tests on the charging system and other related areas,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

Tooner snorted. “‘Cause he’s talking to it like they’re old buddies or something. I think he half expects it to answer him.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if it did. Then as if right on cue a loud racket filled the air as the security system went off. We hurried out to the shop just as Basil disabled the system with the remote, a satisfied grin on his face.

“You’re looking smug,” I said. “Don’t tell me Martha has told you what’s wrong with her.”

Basil laughed. “Not is so many words,” he chuckled, “but I do believe I’ve located the source of the problem.” He opened and slammed the hood, and then reset the security system. Then by lifting up slightly on the hood, he was able to make the alarm go off again.

Once things were quiet, he explained. “The problem is with the hood switch,” he said. “It just barely makes contact with the hood when it is closed. That switch also operates the under-hood light, so even though Nigel turns off the alarm, the light stays on and will eventually run the battery down.”

“Cool,” said Tooner. “So are you gonna adjust the switch?”

Basil shook his head and reached for a printout of a service bulletin that was on his toolbox. “No, it needs more than that. According to this bulletin, (Alldata 08-51-95) the manufacturer did a recall on all Town & Country, Voyager, and Caravan mini-vans built in St. Louis (letter ‘B’ in the 11th position of the VIN) prior to November 17, 1995, and Windsor (letter ‘R’ in the 11th position of the VIN) prior to November 21, 1995.

“Apparently these early models had a ‘short stroke’ under hood lamp and VTSS/VTA switch installed. Body build variations, and thermal expansion and contraction of the hood due to temperature changes can cause these switches to not close properly.”

Tooner opened the hood to look at the switch. “How d’ya know if you’ve got one of the bad switches?” he asked.

“Measure from the mounting surface to the top of the plunger,” said Basil, pointing to the left hood hinge assembly. “It should be no less than 15/16 of an inch. If it is, order a new switch (part No. 4687594) and replace it.”

It was a simple repair, and we soon had Martha and Doc Nigel reunited. Personally, I was just glad that Basil had found the solution in a service bulletin, and not by talking to the van. Nigel isn’t the only one who wouldn’t want certain things getting out to his clientele.

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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