Brain hits `E' as it runs up against car maintenance


LET'S BE totally candid here: There is no human being on the face of the planet who knows less about cars than I do.

What I know about cars is: You get in, turn the key and it's supposed to go. If it doesn't go, you call the mechanic. Every once in a while, I pop the hood and poke around the oil filter and fan belt, but that's strictly for show, something to fool the neighbors.

So it was with all this ignorance and feelings of inadequacy that I found myself at the Firestone Tire and Service Center in Timonium the other day, listening to a woman named Pat Brown give a seminar on basic car maintenance.

There were 35 of us sitting in folding chairs in front of Brown's rental car, a Pontiac Aztec, which she acknowledged as being the single ugliest car ever built.

Personally, if I drove an Aztec and something went wrong with it, I'd be tempted to stuff a flaming rag in the gas tank and be done with it.

But Brown had the Aztec's hood up and, after assuring everyone that we weren't going to be overhauling any engines or working on any transmissions, she launched into "Car Care 101 - How to Keep Your Car Alive."

An attractive woman with dark hair who wore a blue Firestone T-shirt and black slacks, Brown lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two kids. She's a former race car driver who travels the country giving car-care talks for Firestone.

She began by saying that the newest car she owns back in Austin is 10 years old, a Ford Festiva that she services regularly and that now has 140,000 miles on it.

"Imagine what you could do with a real car," she said. (Oh, this was my kind of seminar; after taking shots at the Detroit automakers, I hoped she'd go after the Japanese and Germans, too.)

Brown said that the key to basic car maintenance is following the recommendations in your car owner's manual.

"There's probably one of these living in your glove compartment," she said, holding up the Aztec's manual. "You use it once to set the clock and the radio and you never use it again."

At this, a chill went up my spine. I knew there were people who could actually look into your soul. But I'd never been face to face with one before.

From there, she segued into tires. Most people, she said, will read the tire pressure printed on the side of their tires and inflate their tires to that number.

But Brown said a better idea is to go by the pressure printed on the sticker inside your car's driver-side door, and then to use a tire gauge to make sure the tire's properly inflated.

"Do not trust your eyeballs as to whether the tire is properly inflated," she said, effectively ripping yet another of my time-honored car-care practices. "Radials are deceiving."

From there, we talked about the importance of balancing tires (every 4,000-6,000 miles), rotating tires (every 6,000) and alignments (every 12,000).

Now when I say we talked about this, I do not, of course, include myself.

As is my practice, I sat near the back of the audience sipping coffee and eyeing the tray of chocolate chip cookies in the other room.

But there were several audience members who seemed knowledgeable about cars, and one woman in particular who looked like she couldn't wait to slip on a pair of overalls, grab a wrench and get that Aztec up on a lift.

"OK, let's talk about fluids," Brown said, and we rolled into a free-wheeling discussion about oil, gasoline, windshield-wiper solvents, you name it.

Among the interesting things we learned:

Four signs of a dirty fuel filter: hesitation, engine knock, loss of power and the car suddenly becoming a pig on gas.

Regular gas is fine for most cars. When a woman in the audience said she's always used premium gas in her '87 Ford Bronco, and that when she uses regular gas the engine knocks, Brown shook her head mournfully and said: "You've developed a premium-gas junkie."

If you don't change your oil every 3,000 miles, you're just setting yourself up for the day when a man in a grease-stained Chet's Sunoco shirt hands you an engine-repair bill for two grand.

If your car's engine has developed an unsettling noise, the best thing to do is turn up the radio so you don't hear it.

At this, my chest swelled with pride, because this is a practice I've engaged in for many years.

In fact, when the engine in my Taurus began whining on a recent trip up the New Jersey Turnpike, I played a Van Morrison CD at a volume that would make your ears bleed. And sure enough, the whine went away.

In any event, the seminar ended 90 minutes later, although not before a man raised his hand and asked Brown for her opinion on Slick 50.

My initial reaction to the banter that ensued was: What the heck is Slick 50?

But everyone else in the audience seemed to know what he was talking about, so I kept my mouth shut.

Oh, no, they weren't going to be looking at me and whispering: "What a dope!"

I get that enough as it is.

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