July 5, 1990

A bit of fiction: My Car Has A Cough

To the ancient aphorism, "first do no harm," should be added a modern extension: compassion without competence is crap

Michael B. Shimkin

Many years ago my 1965 Dodge Dart developed a cough. At first, it was every now and then. Before long, it coughed all the time and it had trouble getting up steep hills. I decided to take it to a mechanic; but which one? A new shop had opened up about a month previously, some three blocks from my home. Since I had no regular mechanic, I decided to give it a try.

The sign above the door said "Car Doctor" and I was met by a man in his thirties attired in an immaculate white lab coat. A stethoscope dangled casually from his pocket.

"Your automobile is not well?" he asked.

"Not well at all," I replied.

"What are the symptoms?"

"It has a cough and doesn't have much power."

"Humm," he said, scratching his chin,"Coughing and lassitude."

"You might say that," I replied, "Can you fix it?"

"I'll have to examine it first. Start it up!"

I started it up and it coughed on cue. The Car Doctor lifted the hood and stood with his head inclined to the left. After a few moments, he took out his stethoscope and placed the rod at the end of it against the engine block.

"Sounds like a malfunctioning valve; of course we won't know for sure until we do a few tests," he pontificated.

"What kind of tests?"

"We put it on the engine analyzer and we also check the compression."

"How long will it take and what will it cost?"

"Our diagnostic work up costs thirty dollars; of course we'll be quite sure what is wrong with your vehicle when we're done. No sense in treating an ailment unless we know what it is. Leave it here and we can let you know by noon tomorrow."

I had some trepidations, but he seemed to know what he was doing and the cost didn't seem exorbitant; so I left the car.

At noon of the following day, I walked to the gar...hospital.

"Our first guess was correct," he said, "a valve in number two cylinder is indeed malfunctioning."

"What's wrong with it?"

"We wouldn't know unless we take it apart. However, we are a holistic shop and we believe in treating the whole car, not just the parts. We recommend a complete course of treatment before we resort to such a radical procedure as decapitation."

"Decapitation?" I asked, horrified.

"Why yes; that is the proper terminology for removal of the head."

"The cost of the treatments?"

"Oh, they're quite affordable: only ten dollars each."

"Do you think that the treatments will work?"

"We can't guarantee that they'll work, but we have been quite successful in freeing malfunctioning valves."

"When can you start?"

"We can start right now and you can bring your car back for a treatment every day for five days. Of course, you have to sign up for five treatments and pay in advance."

I handed him fifty bucks; not because I believed him, but because of curiosity combined with the conviction that here was a story worth writing.

He took off the air cleaner and blew it out with a jet of compressed air. Then he started the car and slowly poured a can of Rislone into the carburetor. He took out a white cloth and a spray bottle and cleaned the headlights.

"Why are you cleaning the headlights?" I asked.

"A car always feels better when it's lights shine brightly -remember, it's important to treat the whole car. Bring it back tomorrow."

On the following day, he sprayed something down the throat of the carburetor, cleaned the windshield and the tail lights.

On the third day, he discovered that the overhead light was out and he replaced the bulb. He also hosed off the tires and checked the air pressure.

On the fourth day, he poured some more Rislone into the gas tank and vacuumed the front seat.

On the fifth day, he listened to the engine with his stethoscope.

"Sounds a bit improved," he said, "One more course of treatment and it will be running like new."

"It still has no power," I said.

"We've been treating the cough. We have a different course of treatment for the lassitude. Of course, you could opt for the radical treatment."

"Decapitation?" I asked.

He bowed his head and muttered "Yes, decapitation!"

"How much will that cost?"

"Three hundred and fifty dollars and the car will have to remain here for at least a week."

"I'll think about it," I said and drove my car home.

That day, I phoned around and found a place that would do a complete valve job for $250 and it would take three days. A week later my old car was purring like a kitten, its power restored.

Of course, I was never sure whether it was the valve job or the fact that my wife had cleaned all of the grime off of the inside of the windows.

Oh well, what's the difference? Everyone knows that a car that purrs is happy. If the car is happy, so am I.

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