Niagara Gazette

January 10, 2014

TOM'S CORNER: Even more ways to 'kill' your automobile

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Here are some more sure-shot ways to kill your car …

The neutral drop

A neutral drop is when you rev the engine high in neutral and, at the peak of revving, you drop the transmission into low gear. In the case of a car equipped with a manual transmission, you dump the clutch in first gear after revving the engine high. This action causes the tires to squeal as you speed off the line. The problem with this practice is that it puts excessive stress on the drivetrain components. Driveshafts break or bend, universal or CV joints snap, differentials are damaged, axles twist and break or strip out, transmissions break internally, and clutches burn out. In short, it’s a high price to pay just to experience a little tire squealing. Not good.

Installing a snow plow On a vehicle that cannot handle one

This kind of vehicle abuse often occurs in parts of the country that get a lot of snow. In recent years plow makers have come out with what they call “personal plows” for regular-duty vehicles such as small or mid-sized SUVs. Usually these plows are made of lightweight materials such as Plexiglas, aluminum, or a synthetic material that the maker claims will not overtax the vehicle. So what’s the problem? Although these types of plows are not too heavy for the vehicle, they are intended for light use. The problem is that people tend to overwork them beyond their capability.

Often a driver will plow so hard into a snow bank that the air bag deploys. In addition, although the driver is not aware of it, the vehicle also sustains frame, suspension, steering linkage, and some body damage that can be attributed directly to the plow installation/use.

In this scenario, let’s say this guy gets away with using the personal plow for a couple of years. During year three he notices a high-pitched whine coming from the transmission; then it quits altogether. He takes it to the shop. The diagnosis? The transmission is burned up due to excessive plow use. What happened? The transmission in his light-duty truck was not intended to push several hundred pounds of snow and ice around. It gave up the ghost after just three years of plow work. The damage was a result of the hard impacts of the plow into snow banks, ice, and other obstructions hiding under the snow. Had he installed the plow in a vehicle capable of handling it, there would have been no damage.

Rocking the vehicle out of snow or mud

Ever get stuck in snow or mud? Rather than calling a tow truck, what’s the first thing we do? We rock the vehicle back and forth, switching from forward to reverse while gunning the engine. This action often causes the vehicle to gain enough momentum to get the vehicle out of the rut. It often works, but at what expense? The stress on the transmission and drivetrain can cause internal hard parts (case hardened gears and sprockets) to break under the pressure. CV joints, universal joints, and splined parts such as axles can twist and break apart. Save yourself some money -- dig out or call a tow truck.

Driving with the temperature gauge on hot

You’re driving on a country road out in the middle of nowhere when you notice that your temperature gauge is buried in the “hot” zone. Rather than stop and call a tow truck, you keep driving, hoping you can make it to a repair shop. The engine overheats, coolant spews out of the overflow tank, and the engine gets so hot it stalls. You have to call a tow truck anyway. The shop tells you your engine’s got a blown head gasket and cracked cylinder head. The cause? A $12 thermostat. The repair would have cost you $12 plus the cost of installation and coolant and the cost of a tow job (unless you have AAA or the equivalent). Instead you end up with an $800 repair bill because you were too stubborn to call a tow truck. Many a good vehicle has been undone because of this mistake.

Driving with low or no oil in the engine

While driving at highway speed the oil light comes on. You either don’t see it or choose to ignore it. Sometimes an engine noise (usually a “knock”) can be heard when the light comes on. You hear the knock but choose to turn up the radio (don’t laugh; people actually do this). All of a sudden the engine starts to lose power and it eventually stalls, leaving you stranded on the roadside. You call a tow truck and the vehicle is towed to a repair shop. The diagnosis: The engine has seized because there was no oil in the system and you have to replace it.

How can this scenario be avoided? Stop at the first sign of low oil, whether it’s the low oil pressure gauge, a lit oil light, or a knocking sound. Often major damage can be averted if the engine is shut off in time. Sadly most people choose to ignore the warning signs.

Ignoring automatic transmission warning signs

The warning signs that something is wrong with your automatic transmission are quite distinct. Whining, dropping out of gear, and banging into gear all fall under this category. If you observe any of these symptoms, stop driving and check the fluid levels. Driving an automatic transmission on low fluid results in greater friction and more heat. The longer the transmission is driven in this condition, the more likely irreversible damage will occur. Remember, heat hardens the rubber seals and crystallizes the clutch glue, compromising the system. When you first notice any of these symptoms, check the fluid, and proceed with diagnostics before driving any farther to avoid costly repairs and down time.

Overshooting a turn and hitting a curb in the snow

When you drive too fast on snow-covered roads, your vehicle slides rather than tracks through the snow. This action can cause frame, suspension, and steering damage if it occurs while trying to make a turn. For example, let’s say you are approaching an intersection and realize at the last minute that you have to make a left-hand turn. Because your vehicle is going too fast, it slides as it turns and slams into the curb on the right side of the cross street. Overshooting a curb in the snow is a common occurrence, costing anywhere from hundreds to even thousands of dollars in repairs. 

As you can see, there’s a lot of vehicle abuse that can be avoided. Use common sense, know your car, observe changes in sounds, vibrations, warning lights, and other detectable variations, and don’t ignore possible problems or put off getting them diagnosed. Your car is a major item on your family’s budget. You can’t control the price of cars, or the cost of car insurance, or the cost of gas, but you can control how much you spend to maintain your car, and how long it lasts, and how safe your family is when they ride in it. Take charge in these areas where you have control and you’ll always have a reliable and safe vehicle that performs well and lasts long enough to make you feel like you got your money’s worth.

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin.’

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.