I have finally seen the day when my oldest child has left the nest and gone out in the world in search of his fortune.

Okay, he’s a high school teacher, so fortune might be a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, he’s earning his own paycheck, paying his own bills, and putting his own food on the table. One of his parting gifts from me was the title to my 1994 Ford Escort. He’d been driving it around at college for the past four years anyway, so I certainly wasn’t going to miss it, and it had been a good car.

Of course, one of the first things to eat out of his initial paychecks was–you guessed it–car repairs. His front brakes needed to be done, and he needed new tires.

He’s teaching in a little town in western Kansas, about four hours’ drive from me, so he’s been a frequent weekend visitor, and one weekend he decided he’d get the brakes, tires, and an oil change done at the shop I’ve been using for years here in Colorado Springs. A few hours and about $475 later, we went to pick up the car at the shop. The guy at the front desk was kind enough to point out that the clutch was in need of replacement (my son confirmed that) and gave us a $711 estimate for that work.

Well, I got to thinking about the clutch, and whether it made sense for him to drive a car with a bad clutch back to Kansas. Finally I offered to let him take my ’97 Pontiac Sunfire for the week and I’d get the car back into the shop for a clutch replacement. So that’s what we did. I drove his car back to the shop on my way to work Monday morning (and learned that his clutch was indeed in bad shape), rode my bike the rest of the way to work, and then picked up the car again on my way home that evening.

The good news was that the clutch replacement was successful.

The bad news was that the speedometer no longer worked, and the “check engine” warning light was now on.

I dropped it back off at the shop on Wednesday morning for them to fix the speedometer. I figured they’d forgotten to hook up a sensor or something, and that would be why the “check engine” light was lit, too. They called me later that morning to tell me that the speedometer cable was broken.

“Since the car’s got 120,000 miles on it, the cable might have broken on its own,” the guy told me. “But my mechanic might have broken it during the clutch replacement, so we’ll go ahead and take care of it for you. The problem is that we can’t get a new cable until Friday, and since the dash is completely disassembled right now, we’d like to just keep the car until then.”

I gave them the okay for that. Being short a car would require a little car juggling for everyone in the family to get where they needed to be, but I could manage that.

When Friday came, the shop called to tell me that the car was ready. I picked it up after work and drove it home.

The good news was that the speedometer worked again.

The bad news was that the “check engine” light was still on. Rats!

Out of curiosity, while the car was in the shop I’d been rummaging around on the web to see if the speedometer not working could be the reason for the “check engine” light being on. I didn’t find anything definitive. What I did find was that it was easy to read the trouble codes from the computer on this particular car. The only equipment needed was a jumper wire and an eyeball. Being an older car, it uses OBD-I codes, and by connecting two test terminals with a jumper, I could read the codes as they were flashed on the “check engine” light. Cool–especially since I knew the shop would charge me at least fifty bucks to read the codes for me.

I wanted to wait until my son returned before trying to read the codes, so on Saturday morning I decided to give the engine a once-over to see if there were any obvious reasons why the idiot light was still on. One thing I noticed immediately was that the oil was about a quart low, and it was also dirty. Knowing that my son had paid for an oil change the previous weekend, it was pretty clear to me that he hadn’t gotten one. When he arrived, we took the car back over to the shop and pointed out their error. They were suitably embarrassed and took care of the oil change for us.

So, let’s recap:

1) Shop is paid for tires, brakes, and oil change.

2) Car returns to shop for clutch replacement.

3) Shop breaks speedometer cable while replacing clutch.

4) “Check engine” light is on after clutch replacement.

5) Shop fixes speedometer. “Check engine” light is still on.

6) Shop does the oil change they failed to do the first time.

Now, to their credit, the shop never gave us any flack about fixing the speedometer cable or doing the oil change. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve taken my cars there for so many years–they’ve been honest and taken care of mistakes when they’ve happened. But my patience was wearing thin, and we still had the “check engine” issue.

While we were waiting for the oil change to be done for real this time, my son and I went over to the auto parts store and picked up a Haynes manual for his car. The information on the web about reading codes and what they meant was a little sketchy, and the manual was much more complete. When we got his car back, we gave it a whirl and tried reading the codes. It took a couple of tries before we really understood what we were seeing, but eventually we got a single code:

172: Lack of Heated Oxygen Sensor (HO2S-1) switches, indicates lean (Bank # 1)

Unfortunately, the manual didn’t really give us much of an idea about what to do about this particular condition. Neither did a web search, although I did find some information on the web that suggested replacing the PCV valve and inspecting the hose that feeds it. We ended up replacing the valve and those (for less than $10), but that didn’t take care of the problem.

The weekend was over before we figured out how to fix this problem, but the car was running fine so my son drove it back to Kansas. I continued to search for useful information on the web, and I gradually came to the conclusion that it would probably make sense to replace the O2 sensor. My son was coming back in a couple of weeks and he told me he’d like to get it fixed, so when he arrived we went out and bought a new sensor ($45!) and prepared to install it.

Job one was to figure out exactly where this sensor was. The Haynes manual wasn’t clear on this, but we’d gone to the library to pick up a Chilton manual for the car, too, and it showed that the sensor was located on the front of the engine. So, I prepared to remove the sensor (it wasn’t going to be easy because there wasn’t a lot of room for a wrench). First, I needed to disconnect the cable from the sensor.

You know what happened next.

I found that the sensor was already disconnected. Doh! and Yessss!!!

That was obviously the reason why the “check engine” light had been coming on. And it meant that we wouldn’t need to replace the sensor. My son returned it the next day, and the guys at the parts store laughed when he told them the story.

After a few minutes of searching, we figured out how to reconnect the sensor, and that was the end of the “check engine” light being illuminated.

I’m at a loss to explain why the sensor was disconnected. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would need to be done during a clutch replacement, but I could be wrong. Or, maybe the mechanic did it on purpose so that I’d have to bring the car back in for more work. I just don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that I had fun working on my son’s car. I had long ago stopped doing my own car repairs when I got rid of my old ’70 Ford Torino. Cars had just gotten too complicated, I thought, and I wasn’t really saving any money by doing my own oil changes. But I discovered that I missed puttering around with cars, and I also discovered that with the right information, even modern cars are accessible to the weekend mechanic. And now it’s easy to recycle things like used motor oil because many of the auto parts stores will do it for free.

Finding a reputable auto shop and getting repairs done right seems to be a real crap shoot these days. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this particular shop is over, and since I have a nice big garage and plenty of tools, I think I’ll be doing more of my own car work from now on.

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