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.

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