•Q. I write this letter as the rain pecks away on the windshield of my surveillance van. I’m a private eye. I live in Nebraska. I do a fair amount of surveillance, for which I use a gunmetal-gray, 1999 Chrysler Town & Country van. I use the van to surveil insurance fraudsters with bad backs; to track down cattle rustlers; to serve court papers; to conduct interviews with witnesses to malfeasance, mayhem and murders; and to shadow desperate housewives slinking over to the cheating side of town. The Case: I’ve got a problem. Not a big problem, as problems go. It’s more like a nuisance, like when your girlfriend keeps asking if you are married and your wife keeps asking if you have a girlfriend. But I digress. Here’s the deal. As I’m driving my surveillance van down the road, on occasion my gauges will flatline. It happens every so often. Usually the next day they (the gauges) will perk back to life, or they may jump to life while I’m barreling down the road after some knothead running from a repo. However, it should be noted that the warning lights continue to work during that time. What is odd, and perhaps it is the clue to the whole caper — or perhaps just a red herring — the ABS warning light will come ON when the gauges flatline, and the ABS warning light will then turn OFF when the gauges return to life. It is a mystery. So, I came to the best car dicks I know to solve this caper. Better than my local shade-tree shyster, who not only has a boat, but he also has a Harley. If you need a retainer, I warn you, work has been slow. Slower than a turtle wearing a tourniquet. Slower than a gazelle with gout. Slower than my brother-in-law on Monday morning. Slower than a – well, you get the picture.•
TOM: We were working the late shift at the garage. And this doll walks in. She’s got a ’99 Town and Country.
RAY: And guess what? She’s in a jam. Her dashboard takes a powder every so often. Just like yours.
TOM: And the goose she’s married to doesn’t know what to do, so he sends her to us. She’s lucky we’re gumshoes and not hatchet men.
RAY: Anyway, we listen to her sob story, and give her car the up and down.
TOM: My brother gets in, and sure enough, the instrument cluster has taken it on the heel and toe. Looks fried.
RAY: So I give it some serious chin music. I whack it with both fists on top of the dashboard, and, whadda ya know? It does a Lazarus — comes back to life. All lit up.
TOM: So he tells the dame, “You got a busted cluster, Buster.”
RAY: And she says: “Why’d you smack my dashboard? And don’t call me Buster.”
TOM: So I tell her that sometimes a bad connection on the instrument cluster’s printed circuit board can cause intermittent failure like that. Sometimes by whacking it, you can get it to come back to life temporarily, confirming that the problem is right there, in the cluster.
RAY: And besides, I tell her, even if you don’t get it to come back to life, giving it a hard shot in the beezer will make you feel a whole lot better.
TOM: Yeah, I tell her, if you really want to teach this bus a lesson, drive it into a guard rail, haha.
RAY: She don’t think that’s funny. So I tell her, look, if it’s not the instrument cluster, it could be a bad body control module, which is a little computer that controls things like lights and interior functions. But in her case, I was pretty sure it was the instrument cluster.
TOM: So she asks how much cabbage we’re talking about.
RAY: Depends, I say. If you can find a cat willing to take out the cluster and look for cracked solder joints on the circuit board and solder ’em back together, it could be an hour’s work. But you might not find someone willing or able to do that.
TOM: Another option is to grab up a used one from a junk yard. But, of course, that one could be halfway to the big sleep itself. You never know.
RAY: If you want to replace it with a new cluster, that’ll definitely fix it, but you’re looking at big money. A bunch of C’s. South of a grand, but maybe not by much.
TOM: “That’s a lotta spinach,” she says. “I may have to put this thing in the wooden kimono, along with my deadbeat husband.”
RAY: We nodded. “Good luck, ma’am,” I said. We never saw the broad again. So we’ll say the same to you. Good luck. And be careful out there.
•Q. What’s the minimum a car should be driven to keep the battery charged and the fluids doing what they are supposed to do? My daughter has taken a job 1,500 miles away and left behind her 2000 Nissan Maxima with more than 267,000 miles on it. It’s in pretty good shape, other than a small but persistent valve-cover oil leak and a power-steering-fluid leak and maybe a mystery leak contributing a few drops a day. I drive it to work one day a week, 12 miles each way, and maybe a mile or two at lunchtime. Is 25-26 miles, one day a week, enough to keep the car in shape if my daughter ever wants it again? Thanks!•
RAY: That’s perfect. You probably can get away with half of that.
TOM: What you DON’T want to do is just start the car, run it for a few minutes and shut it off. You’d be better off not starting it at all rather than doing that.
RAY: Once you use some battery power to start the car, you want to give the alternator a chance to charge the battery back up.
TOM: And, more importantly, you want to give the exhaust system time to heat up and evaporate the moisture that condenses out of the exhaust when the exhaust system is cold. Water vapor is a natural byproduct of the internal combustion process, and if it’s allowed to condense and remain in the exhaust pipes, the exhaust system will rust prematurely.
RAY: The easiest and best way to maintain the battery and the exhaust system is simply to drive the car a little bit. So what you’re doing — an occasional short drive — is perfect.
TOM: The one additional suggestion we’d make is to change the oil every six months or so. Even though you won’t be anywhere near the oil-change interval in terms of mileage, it’s not a bad idea.
RAY: So keep doing all that until something serious goes wrong with the car. And then call your daughter and tell her you suddenly don’t have room in the garage anymore, and she needs to come pick it up.
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