Five Men and a Little Laser

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2016  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a woman in a 1985 Ford Laser.

She was small, she was metallic bronze, she could go from 0 to 60 in 87.5 seconds, and she was all mine.

As we chugged up Greenmount Hill in the slow lane, I tried not to make odious comparisons between the company Camry I had just given up with my job on this spring day in 1997, and the 12-year old Ford Laser I had purchased with my accrued holiday pay. All she needed was a tune-up and we’d be dragging the boys off at the lights, I told the car as we wallowed in the exhaust of an overweight and underpowered truck.

Other than filling the petrol tank and booking the company car in for the odd service, I’d never had to really maintain a vehicle before, so it came as a shock when the Laser began to give me trouble.

All I knew about fixing cars boils down to: fill the petrol tank; have someone else change the oil now and then, and check the distributor for condensation. My colleague Dolly knows a fourth useful thing, which is to take her shoe off and pound the battery terminals with it. This gamut of self-help was run through fairly fast, and I was on my way to ring the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia when my husband and son strolled out to see what was going on.

I’m going to ring the RAC,” I said.

No, you don’t want to do that. We’ll just have a look. What’s wrong with it anyway?”

If I knew what was wrong with it, I wouldn’t be calling the RAC. It’s getting harder and harder to start.” I said, edging towards the phone. “It stalls on me”.

My husband ran through the usual check-points—was the tank full, was the car in “Park” when I tried to start it, had I put water in the battery recently? These questions at least were comprehensible, but when my son asked if the Venturis were working properly I went indoors, made a cup of tea, and settled down with the cryptic crossword. Either they’d get it fixed, or I could call the RAC when they gave up. Either way, my hanging around two men with socket wrenches would probably add nothing to the odds of getting back on the road today.

A while later I heard a tentative cough from my car. Then silence. My husband came indoors and said, “Your distributor is corroded. I chipped out what I could, but you need to replace it. You should get The Boy to buy you a new distributor and while he’s at it, get the rotor too.” He disappeared into the study. “The Boy”, all six foot plus of him, came in and poured a half liter of soft drink into himself before announcing he wasn’t working Monday and would get the required parts and fix my car. I resigned myself to a car-less weekend and went back to the crossword.

Monday, armed with a blank cheque, Eamon went off to the car parts store, motherly cries of “Remember a blank cheque is just like cash,” following him. He returned in a while and started installing the new distributor. “They’ve sold me the wrong one--the screws don’t line up!” he said. I checked the serial numbers of old and new parts and turned them around and upside down but they looked the same. Trying to be helpful, I measured the diameters of the two distributors. Dumb luck sometimes comes when you need it--the caps weren’t symmetrical, and therefore there was a right way and a wrong way to install them. The master mechanic gave a snort of disgust and re-installed the new distributor, which now fit perfectly. He tweaked various wires, and said, There”. I got into the car, turned the key, and nothing happened. Before, it always started eventually, but now, nothing.

Could it be a fuel problem and not an electrical one?” I asked. “Maybe I put the wrong type in by mistake--would that cause this problem?” I got a scornful look and a brief lecture on the properties of petrol, leaded and -un. I also was shown the inner workings of a carburettor, found out what a Venturi was (my car had two, fancy that!) and learned to identify a fuel filter. None of this got us any forrader, but I learned three more things to check if a car won’t run, which I reckon puts me way ahead of Dolly and her shoe routine.

I had nearly finished the Sunday crossword when my son came in, wiping goo off his hands. He informed me that the coil was leaking green stuff, it wasn’t normal, and no doubt a new coil would solve the problem. Off he went with another blank cheque. Hours passed, for no son of mine can just walk into a car parts store and make a purchase and walk out. Eventually he returned, installed the coil, and I again seated myself at the modest dashboard and turned the key. Again: nothing.

I am calling the RAC,” I said in a firm tone. “I pay for just such occasions as this. No more blank cheques until the RAC man has a look.”

Some while later up rolled a man of mature years in a van full of gadgets, who said he was the RAC subcontractor for our part of the outer metro area. He and Eamon conferred about what had and hadn’t been done. The verdict was that while it was in the long run a good idea to replace the things we had replaced, the real culprit in the piece was the ignition module. The RAC man told me they cost $260 and while you could get reconditioned ones, he didn’t recommend it.

After the departure of the RAC man Eamon said he’d bet you didn’t have to pay $260 for an ignition module, and set about combing the Yellow Pages to prove this. After a while on the phone he said he’d found the exact unit we needed at--surprise, surprise--his favourite car parts place, and if I’d hand over another blank cheque, he’d just pop out and make the purchase. Oh, and could I underwrite some petrol for his car, as all this going up and down the hill was getting a bit expensive.

While my mechanic was out, I stealthily rang my son-in-law, who had found the car for me in the first place, and who is a dab hand at fixing cars. He listened to my tale of woe and said he was all but certain that my stab in the dark had been correct--it was a fuel problem not an electrical problem. He said he would come up that night and have a look at the car.

The more the merrier, I thought. What the first three men hadn’t been able to fix would no doubt be dead easy for the son-in-law. Meanwhile my son was back with a tiny gadget which he assured me was the only thing between me and a lifetime of cruising the roads. He spread sealant on the gizmo and inserted it where the old one had been, tightened it up, and said, “NOW start it.” With no great confidence I turned the key and.....well, you know.

The son-in-law arrived and for an hour he and Eamon conferred with their heads under the bonnet, with occasional interventions by my husband with good ideas. At nine o’clock they all came in and announced that it was probably an electrical problem after all. “The best thing is to ring my brother, the mobile mechanic, and have him look it over,” said Jason, somewhat mortified that the solution to the problem had not been revealed to him, but confident his brother would fix it.

The following morning I rang the mobile mechanic and he said he’d call around in the afternoon. I was now pawing through old stacks of newspaper in the shed in search of cryptic crosswords I hadn’t yet done.

Justin arrived with a van fitted out even more impressively than the RAC man’s, and set about investigating the innards of my Laser. Shortly thereafter my son came home and the two of them went over everything that had happened to this point. I went indoors and turned on Sesame Street.

Bert was reprising “Rubber Duckie” when I heard a loud “Aha!” No-one with a mobile mechanic on the property could resist going out to see how many hundreds of dollars of future expense were contained in that sort of “Aha!”

My son explained, “Justin says they’ve sold us the wrong sort of ignition module--the outside is identical, but the inside is wrong way around.” Oh. This means the third, no longer blank, cheque, had just gone up in smoke, I thought. “But Justin thinks he can fix it,” he continued. Sure enough, Justin did fix it. Some little bit slid out and was re-inserted the other way, and the ignition module was now, the mechanics assured me, properly configured.

With little optimism I got again behind the wheel and turned the key. Four little plugs did their thing and four little pistons chugged up and down and I was mobile again! For a while I didn’t want to turn it off, for fear it wouldn’t start again, but Justin said it was properly fixed and should run like a top for years to come.

Just why did you get into all this replacing parts in the first place?” Justin asked, “What was happening?”

Well, the car was hard to start, and it stalled over and over when I backed out of the driveway, and half the time it died in the roadway when I shifted to ‘Drive’ and I’d have to start it again,” I explained.

Why didn’t you just give it more choke?” he asked.


This knob here--you pull it out, it feeds a richer mixture into the firing chamber, and old cars like this need to have that or they’ll do just what you described when you start them.” said Justin.

I mumbled something and busied myself writing a cheque to Justin for his work. He left and I remained sitting in the car looking at my chequebook, now poorer by quite a few hundred dollars. Occasionally I looked at the little black button with the odd symbol on it. Choke, huh? Use it when starting the car, eh?

Well, that would explain why it hadn’t made my windshield wipers go any faster.

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