Herald Journal Columns
May 15, 2006, Herald Journal

Gentlemen, start your engines

By LIZ HELLMANN
What’s the difference between an alternator and a starter?

Don’t look at me.

My current position as a car-looker hoping to turn buyer, by definition, excludes me from knowing anything worthwhile about cars.

Although my current car has served me extremely well for the past couple years, I am officially starting my quest for another transportation apparatus (maybe using big words to define simple things will help me get into the car world).

Having never had any major problems with my current car, it is hard for me to part ways with it – for fear my next car will be a repeat of my very first car (which seemed to not run more days than run).

However, it would be nice to have a car that I could drive on the freeway without people staring and honking at me.

Apparently, other motorists like to go at least the posted speed limit. My little gray wonder can rarely muster the energy to stay above 65 mph for long.

As summer approaches it would also be nice to have a working air conditioner in my vehicle.

I could maybe sweat it out while I’m running errands, but when I’m going to work, I’d rather not – and if I ever have to interview you for a story in the middle of a particularly hot day, you’d probably like it if I’d rather not, as well.

So, I have made up my mind that it is time for me to buy a new car.

New is a relative term. Considering that both cars I have owned were rolled off the assembly line during years in which I was not even old enough to drive, anything made in the last decade seems new to me.

What I am worried about is finding a car that is within my price range, not too drab-looking, clean, with some power, and is reliable.

It’s not that these cars aren’t out there, it’s that I have zero faith in my ability to find one.

My knowledge about cars is completely based on what has happened to them while I am inside:

1) Cars don’t stop very well when the brake lines are rusted through.

2) Fan belts become frayed and break – this is usually not good, unless you planned on missing your basketball game and wanted to sit at a bus stop next to the freeway in the cities until help came from 45 minutes away.

3) Wires are very finicky creatures, and need to be connected properly. Sometimes, they can get out of whack – when this happens, your car can shut off at any time.

I’m all for saving energy, but there are better ways to live green than coasting down the left lane of 35W during rush hour without your engine on.

4) Alternators do something. I’m not sure what. But if they don’t do it, your car doesn’t do much either.

5) Stopping before the car in front of you stops you is the preferred way of doing it (although it did help me get rid of my first car).

Since the only reason I know the name of these car parts is because they have failed for me, I do not feel prepared to inspect a car or haggle a car dealer on a fair price.

In the old days, it used to be that most men knew something about cars.

That may have been for a variety of reasons, but I feel it no longer holds true today.

Fewer men are working on farms or with machinery on a regular basis.

However, psychologically, I believe I would hold more clout walking into a car dealership as a 45-year-old man than as a 22-year-old woman.

Right or wrong, in the minds of a person selling used cars, I make a pretty good target.

I might as well ask for the worst car in the lot, fork over my life savings, and be on my way.

“Excuse me, sir. Here is $5,000. Why don’t you give me that lemon over there? Or better yet, how about that blue little number that was in Hurricane Katrina?”

But I have a plan.

Even though the only thing I know about cars is how to check the oil, what pressure to keep the tires at, and to put in the gas with the 87 by the nozzle, no one has to know that.

It will just be a secret between me and the thousands of other people who get this paper.

Whenever I am in the market for a big purchase, like a new MP3 player, a cell phone, or TV, I like to study up on the jargon.

I read reviews from Consumer Reports, and then apply the jargon and the ratings that I read to the product I am looking for.

You never tell a salesperson that you don’t want something because it got a big black circle from Consumer Reports, and only two red half-circles.

Instead, you let them think you know why it is a bad model.

“Oh, I don’t want that phone, the mouthpiece is configured with a dual-pumping liquid decalibrator. I’d rather have the more stable tubular laser vision model.”

I tried this once when buying a phone (I actually used technology that existed) and the look on the salesperson’s face was priceless. It’s a whole other world when they think you know something.

(I did actually know what I was talking about at the time. You have to be careful when you use this strategy. You should know the basic meaning of what you are saying.)

Back to cars. It is possible, in our advanced society, that I might stumble upon a corrupt used-car salesman who didn’t get the memo about women’s lib.

To him, I’ll be a giant bullseye, and he’ll be thinking, “Let’s get this little miss set up with an expensive disaster.”

But when he starts mentioning what a pretty color the pile of junk in front of me is, I’ll just bat my eyes and ask him if it also comes with a pretty V-6 engine, and that I won’t take a 4-cylinder unless it’s a four-valve-per-cylinder design complete with twin overhead camshafts and variable valve control.

Once he starts breathing again, I’ll let him know I need to road test it for valve issues and fuel injector problems, and check the alignment.

And you thought I didn’t know anything about cars – maybe I should take up sales.


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