Dear Tom and Ray,
I share with you today a story of romance, heartbreak, perseverance and machismo. I am a first year grad student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I moved there this summer from Minneapolis, MN where I had lived for 6 years. My girlfriend and I decided that we were going to try a long-distance relationship for the two years that my schooling would take.
Two weekends ago, my girlfriend was flying out to visit me for the first time since we had parted 6 weeks earlier. I was looking forward to going and picking her up from Dulles airport, a 30 minute drive from my apartment. It was 9:30 at night and it had been raining outside as I walked to my car, a 1999 Chevy Cavalier that my girlfriend had sold to me for $500 the year before when she got a grownup job and bought a grownup car (a hot little Nissan Altima Coupe). Two friends of mine asked if I could give them a ride to a bar on my way to the airport. Fine by me.
So we all hop in the car and start driving through the city, and no more than a quarter mile into the drive, a light pops on saying “ETS Off” and the entire car shakes whenever I apply the brakes. Something is clearly wrong. Shortly after, the “check engine” light pops on. I pull into the first gas station I find and we all get out to check for what’s wrong. None of us know what “ETS” stands for. When I pop the hood, I can see the entire engine shaking as if it’s trying to burst loose from the frame of the car and fly away. There is also a burning smell that none of us recognize. I quickly turned off the car, not knowing what step to take next. My friends begin calling their friends to try to get advice while I have the unpleasant task of telling my girlfriend, who has just landed, that I am currently incapable of picking her up from the airport. At this point, she may be looking at a $40 taxi fare to get into town.
After 15 minutes, I decide that I can at least drive the car back to my apartment and try to find a neighbor who will loan me their ride. I tell my friends to go on to the bar by foot. I get back in the car, start it up, and there’s no shaking! Though the “check engine” light is still on, the ETS light has disappeared and the car feels normal again. I drive it back to my apartment, and everything still feels OK.
I now face a decision. Do I play it safe and stop driving, preventing this problem from coming back while I am on a backwoods road or on the highway; OR do I drive the 30 miles in the dark and the rain and hope to make it in one piece to the airport so I can pick up my fair lady in person? No guts, no glory. I begin the drive, praying that I can at least not have the car break down until I’ve reached Dulles. Sure enough, I made it to the airport, found my girl, gave her a big kiss in the rain, and I’m pretty sure there was a movie soundtrack playing in the background. I drive her home, and the car doesn’t do a darn thing wrong.
Now the original itinerary for the weekend had included driving to Raleigh the next day to visit my sister, but I promised my girlfriend that I would have a mechanic look at the car first. I dropped the Cavalier off that morning and got a call a few hours later. The mechanic informed me that I had a cracked cylinder head, which had allowed antifreeze to enter the engine, creating the burning smell from the night before. The ETS, which was actually the Enhanced Tracking System, had turned off as a coincidence related to the other engine troubles. He then informed me that the cost of truly repairing this engine was not worth paying for a Cavalier with 163,000+ miles.
However, he did put a sealing product into the system that he said was far and away the best material he had seen in the market, the name escapes me now. He made it clear that this was only a stopgap that would buy me the time needed to buy a new car, which I have no intention to do as long as I’m living in DC. That being said, the gentleman also said that if I only used the car on a limited basis and kept it in the city, which is the general nature of its use at this time, anything is possible.
So my question is twofold. First, what’s the longest amount of time you think this car could last with the one-time application of the product (the mechanic assured me the procedure would never be worth doing again because the crack will just continue to grow). And second, is it disrespectful to the car to take wagers on which month it will become scrap metal once and for all? I love the character of this vehicle, but it’s been diagnosed with terminal illness and I am a starving grad student.
Thanks for reading, love the show!
-Chris, Washington DC
Dear Tom and Ray,
Tom and Ray don’t post here. You’ll have to settle for the peanut gallery
The sealing product could last 20 miles, or 2,000. It all depends on how good it is, how big the crack is, and how lucky you are. Were I you, I’d be shopping for another vehicle tomorrow morning. If you weren’t in a new place where you probably haven’t met the local Chevy club, I’d tell you to get a junkyard engine and buy them pizza and beer to put it in for you, but I doubt that will be an option for you.