Sunday, May 6, 2012

Car to Owner: "Fix Me"

Over the strenuous objections of my wife, I have opted to repair rather than replace our aging automobile.  The reasons for this are several, but suffice it to say that it's a lot cheaper fixing an old, payed-off one than taking on five years of car payments.  Plus I don't drive that much.  Where I'm from, there's no shame in driving a filthy, rusty car that may double as a waste paper basket - cars are transportation, essentially a necessary evil.  Here not so much - most folks take great pride in their cars, and keep them well scrubbed.

The poor car has had three main problems plaguing it: 1. locks, 2. rust, and 3. overheating.  I'm scheduled to get the body work done this week.  About a month ago, I finally sprung for a new key, which means I no longer have to stand there jiggling the key in the lock for five minutes to open the dern thing.  Expensive, but worth it.

Which leaves item 3, the overheating.  This has been a horrible plague of a problem that has been haunting me for a couple years now.  Intermittently, unpredictably, the car will overheat as I am driving and I have to stop and let it cool, bleed off the boiling water and replace it, turn back or even abandon the thing until the engine block cools.  This means that I've been in a near-constant state of edginess every time that I drive, eyes glued to the temperature gauge, unwilling to take the car out of the city and also generally only driving at night, as it was more prone to happen in stopped traffic and during the day.

My mechanic, a decent enough guy, was completely flummoxed by this problem.  He tried fixing and replacing various things but nothing worked.  I went a couple months with no problems but then it overheated again.  And then I planned a trip out of the city, two hours drive each way.  The problem had to be resolved.

I actually considered calling the Car Talk guys, I don't really listen to their show so I don't know if they take skype calls from Brazil, but I didn't really want to be subjected to ridicule so I didn't call.  So I did what any modern, essentially non-mechanical type without a decent mechanic or a lot of money to spend would do - I went to the internet.  Crowd-source the problem, that's what the internet is good for.  Answers to all your problems only a google away.

So I googled.  And lo and behold - I found a match.  Same car, same engine, same intermittent, inexplicable problem.  Better yet, the poster stated that the mechanic informed him that the fix would not solve the problem, but it did.  It said I needed a new heater control valve.

Part of the problem of being an expat is having to translate something obscure like heater control valve.  Direct translations rarely work, and make already suspicious 'professionals' even more so.  I mentioned what I read to my mechanic and he was extremely skeptical - he also had no clue what I was talking about.  I called an auto parts place, intending to buy the part and then find a mechanic to install it, but they also got confused and told me I needed a mechanic's recommendation.  But the mechanic doesn't know shit I wanted to say, but didn't.

My mechanic told me he had an electrician friend who I should take the car to, and would tell me what the problem is.  In response to my proffered solution, he told me is 'wasn't done that way,' so I went to the electrician, who had no idea what was going on.  When I told him about the heater control valve, he said it was working properly.

So yesterday I leave town with Lucas in the car, and sure enough, it overheats about half an hour out of the city.  I considered turning back, but decided to press on.  Another half hour into the trip it happened again.  I really should have turned back at that point, but I was feeling stubborn, and I was half-way there.  I drove a bit further into a town called Catu, and I saw an auto parts store.  What the hell, I thought, and stopped.

I don't want to bore you with all the details, but essentially I was determined to buy the part, which I had discovered is called a válvula termostática, and get someone to install it.  Enough with the flailing mechanics.  I found the part, and conveniently there was an adjoining garage that was still open, and I said let's do this.  The mechanic said I probably needed a much more expensive repair, but was willing to install the new valve.

So here's the kicker.  When the mechanic removed the housing to swap out the valve, there was no valve in there.  I'd been driving around for a couple years without an essential part of the engine. My googled solution was apparently correct, and the mechanics are idiots.  Mind you, this is the part that the second mechanic said was working properly.  The part was installed and I drove the rest of the trip with no problems.  I'm not going to say the problem is fixed, I'll need another month of driving to feel confident of that, but it's hard to imagine that this wasn't what needed doing.

And my mechanic?  As of yesterday he is officially my ex-mechanic.

No comments: