Hello, I’m on Car Talk

December 6, 2009

(To hear my call in its entirety, go to http://ofsevit.dynalias.com:8081/ari/media/cartalk09.mp3)

On December 5—the third call of the show—I was on Car Talk. As previously discussed on this page, the power steering hose on my 1998 Corolla was leaking, causing the fluid to spray and smoke under the hood. I figured Tom and Ray could help. Here’s a short synopsis (minus various laughs and snorts):

“Hello, you’re on Car Talk”

Ari: Here’s my problem (hose, fluid, smoke)
Tom & Ray: Where there’s smoke there’s fire—this stuff can catch fire. Wear sneakers, and run like hell. Perhaps you could wrap it so it doesn’t spray—the hose is two pieces and a swaged fitting is leaking.
Ari: Could I fix the part myself? Otherwise I’m out $200.
T&R: This is a no-lose situation, if you junk it screw it up, you get a new car. How many miles does it have?
Ari: 135k.
T&R: Oh, it’s practically brand new. Don’t screw up. Buy yourself a wrench.
Ari: I have a wrench.
T&R: But you’ll need a flare nut wrench, pretty much anywhere. Unbolt the thing, and put the new one on, and fill it.
Ari: Can I solve this with, say, duct tape?
Ray: Sure, if you wrap it in duct tape, chicken wire and gauze.
Tom: What a bogus answer!
Ray: It’s almost like dressing a wound. Then the spray just drips down.
Ari: But what about the water?
T&R: Oh, yeah, it’s better to blow smoke in the air. How often do you have to refill the fluid?
Ari: Monthly or more often depending on how I am driving [note, it has been less frequent recently]. Or, long enough that I’d have to drive 200k miles to use $200 of fluid.
T&R: It’s not a lot, but it makes a mess. And you’ll clean up the planet, this may be the equivalent of taking a coal power plant off the grid.
Ari: Maybe two of ’em.
T&R: If nothing else, buy the hose before they stop making it. One end connects to the pump, the other to the rack and pinion. Call us next month when you still can’t get it apart.

And that was about it. Now, I need a flared nut wrench, and the time to go and tinker under the hood. Stay tuned.


Eight, double-eight, Double-two, Seventy-eight, Two fifty-five

December 6, 2009

Hello. You’re not quite on Car Talk.

Back in the early days of Car Talk, you dialed the number (a local Boston number) and if you were so luck as to have them hit the button of the line you were on, you talked. Half hour show (just one half to the show, with inflation there are now three), three calls per show, no pre-screening. They say it was painful. But if you wanted to get on, you’d just call the number a few times, they’d pick up, and, “hello, you’re on Car Talk.”

Not anymore. The show went national in the late 1980s and now has several million weekly listeners. They claim to receive 200010,000 calls a week (that’s as many as half a million a year, of which 1/10 actually leave a message, and of which fewer than 500 make it to air), which overwhelm the switchboard. So, the procedure is a bit more complicated now. I’ve been through the rigmarole twice, so here’s a quick rundown:

1. You call 888-CARTALK. (that’s 888 227 8255)

1a. You get a busy signal. If you call when the show is being broadcast—generally on the weekend—the lines are overwhelmed. You’ll have better luck during the middle of the week.

2. You get through and get—a phone message. It tells you that if you want to order merchandise, you should call 888-CAR JUNK. If you have a car problem, leave a message. Describe the problem, use as many sounds as you can to describe it, and then leave your name, email, voice mail, and any other contact information. And, if they’re interested, they’ll all you back.

3. Wait. I assume someone at Car Talk goes through all the calls (that’s, what, several hundred per day, making it a full time job if not more—perhaps they get them textualized and indexed by term) and they select out people they think might be interesting for the show. If that happens …

4. They call you. I won’t publish the number here, but if you get a random call from the 617 area code after you’ve called in, don’t ignore it. It could be Louie Cronin—that’s right, The Barbarian—calling to screen out the nuts. Two nuts is enough for the show. There’s a great article from the WSJ about Louie and her process for getting calls on the air. Be funny, have an interesting problem with a weird noise, and you’re golden. Smoke and fire help, too.

5. You talk to Louie. (She’s super nice.) She tells you that they want to have you on the air and makes sure that your problem is, well, real. Fakery, or already-fixed problems, are out. If you pass muster (so either have a real problem or a good cover story), she schedules you to be on the show.

6. The show is taped on Wednesday morning. Eastern time. Yes, you’ll have to explain to your boss why you are cackling in to the phone. If you’re on the West Coast, you may have to drag yourself out of bed for the taping.

7. She calls you. In 2006, they were adamant about no cell phones. Now, they can be flexible, but land lines are preferable.

These next few steps I’ll take from the email you’ll be sent if you are going to be on:

8. Once Louie reaches you, you’ll be on the line for about 15 minutes. The first 10 minutes you will be put on hold and listen to the show on the phone. Depending on the call in front of you, it can be longer or shorter. It must be a madhouse that morning, which Louie calling each person, getting them in line, and queuing up other calls. I don’t envy that job.

9. They tape the show straight through. It sounds just like the regular show. And the most important thing of all … Tom and Ray do NOT know anything in advance about the calls or the questions. In fact, only Louie knows. As Tom and Ray pointed out, if they had to research in advance, that would be “work.”

10. This wasn’t in the instructions, but don’t say “good morning” or mention the time or day of the week. The show is aired at all different times of the day. When I called in, Louie told me this on the phone, and then they had to, at the end of the previous segment, rerecord the caller saying “hi guys” instead of “good morning” (it took her two more tries). It entailed Tom and Ray—who must have been of the transgression during the call—holding the caller on the line to get this information.

10. When Louie calls you, she will tell you the exact order of calls and when you will be on. When it is your turn, Tom and Ray will say, “Hello, you are on Car Talk.” (Yes, Louie, we know that.) That is your cue, jump right in and say, “Hi, this is ____, (first name only) calling from ___.” Then ask your question.

11. You should get your question for Tom and Ray down to a concise one or two sentences. They have no idea beforehand who is on the line or what the question is … so be brief and to the point so that they can get the gist of your problem quickly. Louie also tells you, on the phone, to talk slowly and enunciate. I didn’t do a great job of this.

12. Now you’re famous.

13. Well, not yet. They edit the heck out of the shows. In 2006, I was on the line for better than fifteen minutes, yet the segment on-air was under five. The guys are very talkative and probably more than half the time on the line winds up on the cutting room floor.

14. And … it takes a few weeks to produce the show. Generally, you record on Wednesday and hit the airwaves a week and a half later. Sometimes calls are held to put in to later shows, which was the case this time. I recorded on the 13th of October, and the show aired on the 5th of December.

The problem

December 6, 2009

Last February, my car started smoking. The first time I noticed it, I was with my folks, having driven from the Birkie Trail to the Nook (two of my favorite things). After three hours on the road, I parallel parked. And smoke started coming out from under the hood.

The initial concern that this was a radiator issue. In sub-freezing temperatures at speed, we figured, the airflow would cool the car. After a couple miles at low speed, however, the radiator might get hot and cause some smoke. But we were hungry, and went to eat burgers.

The smoke continued, on-and-off, for a while longer, and I looked under the hood to see if I could find the problem. I noticed that the smoke was generally coming from the rear of the engine compartment on the passenger’s side. Interesting. With the hood open and the engine on and warm (and the car stopped), I reached in to the car and turned the steering wheel, which, of course, was aided by the power steering system. And, poof! There was a cloud of smoke. I’d found the problem: the power steering system.

This was in late March. The snow and ice had melted off the streets and ski trails, and I started cycling to work. And pretty much everywhere else. I only used my car to drive long distances (to go hiking, say) and then only rarely. I doubt I parallel parked between April and August. From the first of April to the end of July I biked 100 miles further than I drove—and it was only close because of a 500-mile round trip to go hiking. The problem mostly rectified itself because I was almost never driving, and when I was, I wasn’t making sharp turns. I had the oil changed over the summer and asked for an estimate to replace the hose, which came to about $200. I bought a $3 pint of power steering fluid, added it to the reservoir, and solved my problem for another couple months.

Come autumn, I started driving a bit more. And needed to refill the power steering. Still, at the cost of about $1 every 1000 miles, I wouldn’t make up my money by getting it fixed. It left me two questions, however. First of all, it is a bit environmentally insensitive to drip or smoke fluid in to the water supply or atmosphere (although I am by no means the world’s worst offender). Second, there was, in the back of my mind, the concern that the fluid spraying around the engine compartment could, uh, spontaneously combust, and fry my car.

On October 9, I drove up to Duluth to stay over with a friend before running a marathon on Saturday. Around Moose Lake, a cop was waving to slow down. Up ahead was a car, its engine compartment engulfed in flames. We waited for fifteen minutes as the fire department wound through the traffic and put out the fire, then all slowed to a crawl to gawk at the burnt out shell of a car. I decided to call in to Car Talk to see if this could be my fate, too.

I was on Car Talk

December 5, 2009

On December 5, 2009, I was on Car Talk. (For the second time, actually; the first was in 2006 but there was nothing particular for me to fix.) I called them in October about my ’98 Corolla which, for several months, sometimes spews smoke out from under the hood. I know why it does, but wanted to see if a) it was dangerous and if b) my remedy of topping off the power steering fluid every 1000 miles or so will work indefinitely. They gave me advice. It’s time for me to follow it.

Listen to the clip, if you want (thanks to my dad who digitized it and sent it to me before I heard it on the air!), and I’ll tell the whole story in the next post.

What do I know?

December 5, 2009

Not much.

About cars, at least. I work for a car sharing organization and know a decent amount about Priuses, and I can solve minor problems. The problem, however, is that our cars are all new. Nothing goes wrong with them. Never has anyone called our office and said their car had smoke pouring out from under the hood.

My car, the 1998 Corolla, is slightly older. Things go wrong. And I don’t really have a clue what to do. It’s that I’m a mechanical dimwit, but I just don’t have much experience. I can handle a wrench and a hammer, I’ve taken apart and put back together a computer, but I’ve not done much with cars. The two things I can do “under a hood” rather well are jump a car (I do this for work dozens of times a winter) and change a tire. But that’s easy stuff—I’ve never replaced a part, or wired a radio, or replaced a master cylinder. It’s not because I can’t (well, except maybe the master cylinder), it’s because I’ve not had the chance. Now, perhaps, I will.

How it all started …

December 5, 2009

In 2005, I was returning to college for my senior year. The Twin Cities do not have the best transit infrastructure in the world, and biking in the winter is, well, less than ideal, so I pestered my folks to kick in for a car. In the mean time, my sister was starting college and my dad was looking at being in the hole 80 grand for our educations, so he contacted the schools and pled for their mercy. My sister’s school told him to pound sand. Mine said after consideration they’d be willing to chip in five thousand towards my education. It was found money. And five thousand just about buys a new car.

So I hit Craigslist. Since my folks are a Two Prius Family I looked at Toyotas. I wanted something dependable. I also wanted fuel efficiency, but couldn’t afford a Prius. But Corollas get in the upper 30s (I’ve gotten over 40 several times) and seemed like a fine choice. I found one in the neighborhood, got it checked out, kicked the tires, and bought the car. Then I drove up to the RMV to get plates in another car, lost a gallon of oil on the highway (the guy at the shop hadn’t screwed in the oil plug) and barely got the plates that day. No matter. Two weeks later I headed west, stopping in Chicago, got the car towed for parking too close to Wrigley, and then drove on to Minnesota.

My first Car Talk experience was in early 2006. I drove to campus once all semester because my car was full of skis, and had to find a parking space. I found one right out of class which was the exact length of my car. But it was icy enough that I was able to scoot in, touching the other cars’ bumpers (the boys called it “The Braille Method.” The assistant to the dean of students, whose car had been nudged, accused me of “ruining her transmission.” I said, and Tom and Ray agreed, that by tapping a bumper a la Boston or New York you could not damage a transmission. If a bumper wasn’t meant to be bumped, it wouldn’t be called a bumper.

The car came with me after college, and I’ve put 40,000 miles on it in the last four years: it now has 135,000. It went from Minneapolis to Colorado to Louisville to Boston and back to Minneapolis, where I’ve been working for a car sharing organization for the past two years. It’s seen its fair share of snow (a couple of skids in to snow banks) and has a few quirks (most notably the broken driver-side interior door handle has been replaced by a neon pink string) but drives like a charm, gets 40 on the highway in summer, and, from April to November, generally sits idly by in favor of a bicycle.