Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tanks for the Rattle

What’s your diversion? Sports? Gourmet food? Clothes? High-tech gadgets?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. They all have a purpose and place in life when assigned their rightful priorities. And no, sports doesn’t take precedence over everything else.

My diversion is cars. Not the Formula One racing machines or customized street cruisers. Ever since I was a child, I been fascinated with regular, ordinary cars. How they’re designed. How they change from year to year. How tastes and expectations evolve and new concepts come to the market.

Some neighbors recently bought a 2010 Cadillac CTS, arguably the best-looking car made in American today. I also like the new Camaro and Malibu by Chevrolet, although after I had to go into arbitration over a bad Chevy purchase several years ago, I vowed I’d never buy another one.

Alas, my tastes tend to run towards the exotic when it comes to automobiles. A friend of mine is the executive assistant for the most exclusive car dealer in Dallas; his nameplates include Rolls Royce. After looking at her husband’s brand-new Mercedes she got with her special employee discount, I joked that I’d have to figure out some way of being adopted.

In One Accord

Not that my one-year-old Honda Accord is a bad car. Although we’ve had a stressful relationship lately. This morning, I just picked it up from the dealership where it’s been for the better part of the last month. And in case you think today’s Honda’s might be even better than old Honda’s, consider what has gone wrong with mine:

Initially, I took my Accord in to the local dealership because the seat belt mechanism for the middle part of the rear seat locked up, which was strange, because nobody has ever used it. However, the rear seat back won’t fold down unless all of the seat belts fold with it, and this one decided not to. So the dealership ordered a replacement seat belt and I went back to have it installed. Only they’d ordered the wrong color. So I had to take it in a third time.

On the third try, my service advisor helpfully asked me if there was anything else that might be wrong with the car. And I mentioned that yes, there is a rattle behind the rear seat, which may be related to the middle seat belt not working.

“Actually, Honda has a service bulletin out on rattles around the rear window. Maybe that’s the fix,” he offered. So I asked them to check into it.

I got the car back, and the rattle was still there. Innocently enough, I offered to drive around and show the service advisor what rattle I was talking about. We drove with a service technician, and we all heard the noise, but it didn't sound too serious.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Two weeks later, the dealership informed me that the gas tank in my car had been improperly installed. Something about tubes that hadn’t been clipped in place properly, which along with other parts were banging and rubbing against the gas tank. After practically deconstructing the rear half of my car’s interior, they traced the rattle to a place completely outside of the passenger compartment.

The gas tank, of all things! Those things can catch on fire, can’t they? Remember the Ford Pintos I kept talking about in reference to Toyota’s current problems? The Pinto’s downfall was its gas tank.

Now, while cars may be a diversion for me, I’m in no way a mechanic. My longsuffering brother – a helicopter maintenance manager - can attest to that. So to me, when I hear my gas tank wasn’t installed properly, there are no warm fuzzies running up and down my spine. What I’m feeling is something more along the freakish variety, with mental images of flinty sparks shooting from metal-on-metal friction underneath my car. And then big orange fireballs. Consuming my Honda. (gulp) And me.

Which, the guys at the dealership tried to assure me, would not have happened. They couldn’t exactly tell me how they could be so confident it wasn’t a safety issue, but at least now it was fixed. They double-checked everything and even put some padding between the gas tank and the floorboard. It isn’t fireproof, but then, I suppose explosions usually render fireproof stuff ineffective anyway.

The dealership knew I wasn’t happy, but hey – it wasn’t their fault the gas tank was installed improperly. I knew that, too, and I didn’t blame them. In fact, I was astonished that the service tech thought to check the mounting of the gas tank – all of the noises we heard came from the interior of the car. And the two weeks it took them to find the problem weren’t a terrible inconvenience for me – they had given me a luxurious version of the Accord for me to tool around in. Silver, with black leather interior, an audiophile’s dream speaker system, and an impressive V6 (mine’s a 4-cylinder). So I was stylin’ as the dealership’s mechanics were going crazy trying to find the rattle.

When I met with my service advisor and his boss to go over what had been done to my car, they gave me the phone number for Honda’s United States office in California. I called the number to tell them the reason I bought a Honda was to actually avoid such problems as improperly-installed gas tanks, but the woman with whom I spoke told me that’s what my warranty is for. She wasn’t impressed when I said something to the effect of, “well, my warranty isn’t going to do me a lot of good if my gas tank explodes.”

So after the dealership cleaned up my car and got everything put back together again, I picked up my car this morning. It’s been sitting in the garage all day – I’m actually not looking forward to driving it! What other hidden problem might just be waiting to rear its ugly head?

It's Trying to Tell Us Something

Which brings me to the rattle that led to the gas tank. If it wasn’t for the rattle, none of us would have known a problem existed. Now, I understand most rattles come and go according to changes in the weather and temperature, and as a natural result of aging. Like people, cars are only brand-new once.

But today, my mother, who has probably sat in the back seat of my car more than anybody, made an interesting comment.

“Thank God for rattles,” she mused as I told her the final resolution to my Honda’s saga.

Especially since the gas tank nests just under the back seat.

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