Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Good Luck Mobile

Fancy Schmancy's post from yesterday reminded me of this story, I guess because her car's "symptoms" seem similar to what I experienced. I am hoping her car story will have a happy ending, too, and not just be a cash drain the week before Christmas.

Way back in the dark ages, when my husband and I were still "just dating," we took a vacation to San Francisco. We drove up the Pacific Coast Highway in my husband's Suzuki SJ-410. It was a tiny Japanese-made jeep-like car with a lawn mower size engine, that was the precursor to the Samurai. (Remember those? They were famous for rolling over in the '80's.)

Near Coachella, California, there is an area where the average wind velocity is 40 mph. In the '70's, they erected lots of wind turbines there, to harness the wind energy. There are thousands of them, in little rows on the hills surrounding this one town.

Something about the rows and rows of those huge, slow-moving and mesmerizing mechanical things always reminds me of the marching hammers in Pink Floyd's movie, "The Wall." (See the below video, starting at about 1:30).

Of course, the wind turbines are not scary like the hammers. (Unless you're a bird. Apparently a fair number of birds are killed each year by these wind turbines). I do not feel the abject terror that those hammers induced in the movie. It is just something about the mechanical relentlessness of the turbines that reminds me of those relentlessly forward-marching hammers.

Anyway, as we drove through this area, the SJ-410's engine was really straining. The wind blows in an Easterly direction, and we were driving West on the freeway. Even with the gas pedal floored, the car would not go above 40 mph. Although this was frustrating, it made sense and we weren't too worried about it because the top speed on the speedometer was about 80 mph, and we were facing at least a 40 mph headwind. Many people communicated with us by honking and waving and showing us their middle fingers. I think this is some sort of friendly driver code for "it would be ok with me if you drove a little faster." Or maybe it meant "Get off the road with that stupid lawn mower you f-ing idiots!" One of those.

Many hours later we stopped in a small town about an hour south of SF for gas. After filling the tank, the car would not start. Hmmmm. Strange. Let's try that again....

Still won't start. Very strange..... Again? No. Again? No. Again? .... you get the idea. (What is it that makes us think that after we have tried 38 times to start the car, it will actually start on the 39th try?)

People were starting to communicate with us again -- something like, "it would be ok with us if you moved your car away from the gas tank so we could get in there." Or maybe it was "Move that stupid lawn mower you f-ing idiots!" One of those.

We pushed the car across the street to the service station (the gas station we had stopped at did not have mechanic service), where we ultimately were told that the alternator was dead.

Normally this would not be a problem; they could simply replace the alternator. But I'd like you to remember what kind of car this was. An SJ-410. Have you ever heard of that? Of course you haven't. Well, maybe some of you who live overseas have, but those of you who live here in the US most certainly have not. They were not manufactured for sale in this country. My husband had bought it used from the Suzuki/Jeep dealer, who had taken it in trade from someone who had brought it back with him when he came home after military service.

The mechanic said he had called the manufacturer, and they could ship us a new alternator from Japan, which would cost something like $500 (plus labor for installation) and would take two weeks to arrive. Or he could charge the battery for us, and we could hope we had enough "juice" to make it to SF, where perhaps another service station might maybe have one in stock or be able to obtain one faster, or where we could perhaps buy a real car instead of continuing to drive a lawn mower. Not having two weeks to hang out in a podunk town in California, we took option "B."

They charged the battery for an hour, and we drove North toward SF. 45 minutes later, as we approached SF, it was getting dark and, as often happens in SF, it began to rain. We had no lights and no windshield wipers, and the car was starting to sputter and die, so the freeway began to seem like a bad idea. We pulled off at an exit ramp about 3 miles from our hotel. The car died at the bottom of the exit ramp. Oy!

Across the street was a AAA truck jump-starting another car that had died on the frontage road. Being a AAA member, I walked across and, after much arguing with the man that we should not have to walk 2 miles to a pay phone (this was before cell phones were ubiquitous) and then wait 2 hours for it to be "our turn" for a AAA truck, when he was only approximately 100 feet from my car right now, I convinced the man to drive across the street and jump-start my car, too.

We drove another couple of miles or so, then the car died at a stop light as we waited to turn left. We pushed it on around the corner and into a parking space in front of a large building. We walked the remaining half mile or so to our hotel, pulling our luggage in the light rain, checked in, had some dinner and drinks, and went to bed.

The next day, we returned to the car in the morning to try to figure out what to do about it. We figured we'd try to start it another 38 times or so, then call AAA again. Well, it turned out that it was parked right in front of the AAA of California headquarters building. Woo hoo! Things were looking up already.

We walked inside and explained our dead car dilemma, they had it towed to a nearby service station, and the mechanics there said they could rebuild the alternator for us for about $150 in about 5 days – exactly the amount of time we were planning to be in SF. Given that parking at the hotel was $25 per day, and we wouldn't have to pay that for the 5 days, we figured it was not a bad deal at all.

I consider this my luckiest car-breakdown story ever. We didn't have to worry about the car at the hotel, and we paid about the same to fix the car as we would have paid to park it for 5 days. We certainly did not need the car in SF with its fantastic mass-transit system and pedestrian-friendly tourist areas. We had a blast in SF for 5 days. The mechanics were true to their word and had the car ready for us when it was time to check out of our hotel for the drive home. And they did a good job. My husband had the car for several years after that, and never had another trouble with that alternator.

Fancy Schmancy, I hope your car troubles will melt away as easily as mine did that charmed week in SF.


That damn expat said...

Legal! You are back! I missed you!

That's a great story. I love those little unexpected troubles that make a trip more interesting.
For some anniversary you guys should find that same model and drive to SF!

SkylersDad said...

I remember those first Suzuki jeep thingys! I always thought they looked like an over-sized Tonka Truck.

Dr Zibbs said...

Loved the Wall album but movie sucked

Anonymous said...

Love the story. After 36 years of driving, I'm happy to report that I never had that kind of breakdown...knock on wood. However, last year's Christmas present for both Lin and I was a new furnace. The old one had a cracked heat exchanger...sigh.

Johnny Yen said...

In my trove of photos, I have a picture of those windmills, taken in 1983, when I was in college, visiting my folks, who were then living in San Jose. We were driving to San Francisco and I found the sight mesmerizing and hopeful.

Acutally, the bird death thing is a myth, no doubt promoted by the coal and oil industries. Birds who are killed by manmade structures are mostly killed by skyscrapers-- they fly into the lights.

Vodka Mom said...

holy crap. It could've been worse. You could've been stranded in small town with the children of the corn. right?

Kim Ayres said...

I know the SJ-410 well. I drove one for a couple of years back in the late 80s. It was a nightmare if you got it up to 70mph because it could suddenly start swaying from side to side, unable to cope with the air pressure.

That damn expat said...

Hey, I gave you an award :-)

Fancy Schmancy said...

That was an awesome story! I got lucky and got my annual bonus on the day I needed to pick the car up, thanks for thinking of me. Happy New Year!