Sometimes it's just the car battery.
It was one of those overscheduled days when at exactly 1:16 PM, the car wouldn't start. Thus began the unraveling of a high-tech ruse that almost cost me.
The engine didn’t turn over. A ticking emerged from somewhere deep in the dashboard. Lights flashed across the displays in confusing order.
I sat and pondered this dark moment of frustration. Then I pulled out the owner’s manual, looking for clues.
I found the anti-theft system section. Within moments, I saw there were no instructions on how to disarm the anti-theft system.
I called the former owner. The former owner didn’t know anything about an anti-theft system that would electronically immobilize the car.
I called the dealership and described the sequence of events.
“We better send out a tow truck,” the nice woman said.
“Well, I’ll try jumping it off first,” I said. “That would be cheaper if it’s just the battery.”
“It’s not the battery,” she said. “Not with what you described. We need to run it through our computer.”
“I’ll try it anyway,” I said. “I’ll call you if it doesn’t work.”
I looked for jumper cables and couldn’t find any. I called a friend, who picked me up, and lent me her car after I dropped her off back at work.
The dealership service woman called again.
“Ready for a tow truck?”
“No, still working the battery.”
“It’s not the battery.”
I went by three convenience stores. Convenience stores do not sell jumper cables any more.
“You can use mine,” said a cashier when I asked at the third store.
He ran out to his pickup and gave me a set of worn cables. “Just bring them back when you’re finished.
I successfully jumped off the car, and took the cables back to the guy who lent it to me. I drove back to my friend’s car, and made a bad decision. I turned off my car, got in her car and went to an auto parts store to buy two pairs of jumper cables. The auto parts store only had one pair left, and sold it to me. I tried to buy a battery, but the manager looked up the vehicle and asked me if the posts were set on the left or right side. I didn’t know.
My phone rang. Dealership service manager again.
"How about now?" she asked. "Wrecker?"
"Not yet," I said. "I think I got it."
Time was running short. I picked up my friend and drove back to my car. I was surprised it wouldn’t start. But I was prepared, I thought, and hooked up the jumper cables.
The car alarm went off, the display lights flashed in confusing ways yet again, and then the car died. No power. Nothing.
I drove my friend to her appointment, calling the dealership as I drove.
“Ok,” I said. “Send a wrecker.”
I got back to my car as the wrecker pulled up.
“This is a four-wheel drive,” he said in disgust. “She shouldn’t have sent me. You need a rollback wrecker. I can’t tow you.”
“Shucks,” I said.
“Shucks,” he said. “She knew what kind of car you had?”
“Year, make, model.”
“What’s the problem?”
I went over the symptoms.
“I know what the problem is,” he said. “Pop the hood.”
He bent over the engine compartment.
“Yep,” he said. He went to his truck, and came back with a small shim and bent over the engine compartment for about two seconds, and then stepped back and nodded.
“It will start now.”
I disbelieved him, and was shocked when the engine roared to life.
I got out of the car.
“What was it?”
He explained the battery had a loose post, which caused a power fluctuation.
“And here’s the sneaky, sleazy part,” he said. He pointed to a small tiny square on the battery cable. “This is a security circuit. If there’s a power fluctuation, it causes the electronics to go haywire on your car. You call the dealership, they send me out, they run it through their computer, and charge you a minimum of $1100. If they’re not busy, they’ll make the bill even higher.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Call them up and tell them you figured it out and sent me away. I almost got fired the last time I helped someone out. Then go buy a battery.”
I thanked him. I think I was a bit stunned. He slapped me on the shoulder, got in his truck and drove away.
As I drove to the auto parts store, I found a message from the tow truck driver.
“Don’t forget to call them and tell them you figured it out and sent me away,” his message said. “Later.”
I called the dealership and asked for the service department. I talked to the woman.
“I got the car running,” I said. “I sent the tow truck driver away.”
“What was wrong?” the service manager asked.
“The battery,” I said. “There’s a little security circuit in the cable.”
“Oh yeah, there’s that,” she said, then regretted saying that.
“Yeah, there’s that,” I said.
I bought a battery. The guy at the auto parts store installed it for free. It was complicated because of how the battery was placed in the engine compartment. It took him more than thirty minutes.
The battery was overpriced, but I didn't complain.
Labor was free.