What the hell is wrong with my car?

by Brian Clarey

How hard can it be to fix a car anyway?

This is not a rhetorical question – I really want to know. I mean… it’s just four tires and a motor when you get right down to it, and I’m a reasonably intelligent guy (though you could find people who disagree with that statement without too much trouble).

So when my car wouldn’t start on a mild morning last week, I was thinking it had to be something pretty simple. Nothing that a good set of jumper cables couldn’t fix, anyway.

I should say here that until a couple years ago I never even would have attempted to fix it myself, but that’s when the 2001 Subaru Outback I bought from my in-laws crossed the 125,000-mile mark and it started having… problems. Alternator problems. Alignment problems. Acceleration problems. And that’s just the As. It was around this same time that I started to resent the money I gave to people for things I could do myself. It was in a fit of righteous parsimony that I managed to change my own brake pads that year. Shit made me feel like a man.

Then, with the help of a couple friends, I diagnosed a problem with my alternator and replaced it with one from an auto-parts store. Sure, my friends did most of the work, but I was in on it. For sure.

And it was all by myself that I fixed that noise under my hood, the one that sounded like a chorus of loud, hungry baby birds, by tightening a belt – I don’t know which one, but I remember I had to grow a mustache first.

So a car that won’t start… I can handle that, right? I mean, it’s practically starting all the way anyway. It just needs a little push to get over the hump.


My first step was to try jumper cables. They never failed me before. But this time they were impotent against whatever ailment my car was suffering.

Then I knocked some corrosion from my battery cables. It wasn’t much, but a car, I told myself, is a delicate piece of machinery and even the slightest variable can knock it off its equilibrium.

That didn’t work either.

Then I started asking people who know something about cars. Each one had a different diagnosis – a bad starter, a wet solenoid (whatever the hell that is), bad spark plugs, popped fuses.

They asked me questions I was unable to answer like, “Are you getting any fire?”

Fire? It’s not on fire, it just won’t start.

Or, “Is it turning over?”

It wants to start, but it seems hesitant to commit. I don’t know what kind of childhood it had.

“Can you hear a click?”

If I listen hard enough, I can always hear a click.

“Have you tried to jump it?”

Yeah I tried to jump it. Maybe I should paint it.

I sucked it up and bought a repair manual, no small feat. It took me four stops and three phone calls before I found a parts store that carried the manual for my car. I read it in my garage with the car hood propped wide open.

“It says here that I need to test my sparkplugs,” I said to my wife. “Where are the sparkplugs on this thing?”

She didn’t know either.

I kept reading the manual.

“What does a starter look like?” I asked her. “Is this the distributor cap? I thought this was the distributor cap.” And, “Do all cars have spark plugs?”

I don’t know why I thought she would know.

Still, I read. I learned. After a couple days I had the air intake manifold off and with it the air filter chamber. I scraped my knuckles ratcheting out the spark plugs, buried deep inside my motor. I pulled fuses and examined them. I considered buying a metric ratchet set for my Japanese car, but I made do with a slide wrench for the bolts I couldn’t get. I tested my plugs, disconnected the starter coil and tested it with an ohmmeter. I examined my belts, reset my electrical system and contemplated removing the back seat to get a look at the fuel pump.

And I still don’t know what the hell is wrong with my car.

At one point I thought I had it: The readings I was getting off my starter coil bothered me a bit – the 1-3 was much stronger than the 2-4… you see, the engine cylinders fire in a specific order and – oh, forget it.

So I tracked down a new starter coil – tough to find for a Subaru – and right there at the store I tested it with my ohmmeter, which I bring with me everywhere now. And dammit, I got the exact same readings off the new one as I did the one I thought was the reason for my car’s advanced case of rigor mortis.

Situations like this, my friends, are what the F word was invented for.

I said it loud and proud, and then apologized to my kids because I heard one of them tell the other one he played a “great fucking game” of Chutes and Ladders the other day. And then I got the number of a shade-tree mechanic who makes house calls and charges a minimal hourly rate for his knowledge and its application.

And when he comes over I’m gonna watch him like I watch those kids of mine when they’re in a store with breakable items. I’m gonna soak up as much information as I can, and the next time something like this happens I’ll be ready with my sockets and my ohmmeter and a studied gleam in my eye.

Because how hard can it be to fix a car anyway?

I’ll keep you posted.

For questions or comments e-mail Brian Clarey at