Automatic Pilot to Tennessee

This was a comment from one of my facebook friends about a book called “North Toward Home.”  I loved it, because it spoke to me as someone who drove back and forth to Tennessee so often last year.  The part about “automatic pilot” really got me:

“It’s the title of one of my favorite books – a perennial summer read. One of my favorite passages is the one I thought of when I posted my status last night: ‘In a fast car, a man can almost make it to Tennessee on automatic pilot, driving the straight, level road in a kind of euphoria, past the cotton fields and the tenant shacks, the big plantation houses and the primitive little Negro churches, over the muddy creeks and rivers, through the counties with the forgotten Indian names – Leflore, Coahoma, Tallahatchie, Tunica.'”

After I left law school, I could not drive to Nashville without feeling terrible…nauseated, even.  In fact, I only made the trip to Nashville twice in maybe six months afterward, in both cases to help Mike and Ashley with their moving process.  After that, I avoided making the drive to Nashville for years, unless I had to go to the airport.

After last year, I have a lot of practice making that drive.  Now, the trip to Nashville seems to fly right by–funny how that works.  All it takes is the right motivation.

The Jetta’s Final Weeks?

For almost ten years, I have driven the same car: A silver 2000 Volkswagen Jetta. This was my first new car, purchased shortly after I started with 3M in the summer of 2000.  Considering its age and the miles it has seen, it’s been a great car. This car has been to Bismarck, ND in the dead of winter for New Year’s Eve; over to Richmond, VA for a consulting gig I did;  down to Wilmington, NC to visit friends; and even all the way down to Orlando and Destin, FL.  This car has seen some things–and it’s hit two deer, two cats, and at least one, maybe two dogs in the 300,000 miles that are on its odometer.

I always say that there are two types of Volkswagens: Total lemons, and those you can drive for the rest of your life.  This one is probably the latter–as long as I can get it to start.  While this car is “a great runner,” it recently developed a problem where it doesn’t want to start, but only intermittently.

The Jetta in the Great Ice Storm of 2008
The Jetta in the Great Ice Storm of 2009

Here is what happens when it acts up:

  • I can almost tell as soon as I turn the key to start cranking the starter that the car is going to give me problems. It sounds like everything is normal, but the engine does not “catch” and start up. It sometimes seems like the engine is trying to start “harder,” but that could just be because I’m bucking it with the starter longer than normal and hoping it will finally catch.
  • If it won’t start, I can “roll start” it by letting it go down the hill and then popping the clutch. When I do this, it will start up immediately.
    When the car is going to start, it does without hesitation.
  • Generally, the problem seems to be more of a “hot restart” issue, meaning: If I drive to the grocery store, I park and stop the car for 20-30 minutes. Shopping done, I get back in…it won’t start—but not all the time. However, if I drive to work in the morning, leave the car for eight or more hours, come out at the end of the day…it starts right up. So far.

I posted this problem to facebook a week or so back, and got some suggestions from some of my more mechanically-gifted friends:

  • Get a VAG-COM and read all the sensors, look for things out of spec
  • Check the Mass Air Flow sensor
  • Maybe a weak fuel pump? (But why does is start when I pop the clutch?)

My dad suggested I call a local retired mechanic who used to work on Volkswagens. I finally felt like I found someone who at least knew about basic troubleshooting. His advice was to perform some of the following procedures the next time the car acted up in order to try to isolate various systems and determine where the problem might be:

  • Spray some starting fluid into the air intake and crank. (Fuel flow or air mixture problem?)
  • Pull the center wire from the distributor and see if it will spark (be careful!)
  • Put the same wire back, but only insert it partially—see if it will “pull spark.”

Ok, so these sounded like reasonable ideas to me. Here’s the thing: All of these procedures are to be attempted while the car is in its “stubborn state,” refusing to start. Since I talked to the guy, the car has not refused to start. Not once. I turn the key, the engine lights right up. Naturally. So, I’m driving around with a car full of tools ready to troubleshoot a problem that is refusing to present itself. Needless to say, this is very frustrating.

I think I’m going to give this car another week or two. Beyond that, I simply have to consider another vehicle. I can’t keep driving non-stop to every destination and refueling with the engine running. I can’t go on not knowing when I might get stranded. A “good runner” it may be, but if I can’t trust it to get me home from the grocery store, it’s not much use to me. God help this car if it ever causes me to miss a Predators game. I’ve got a streak to keep alive.