My car’s been getting old (I’ve had it for over 10 years) and it lately started acting up. The air conditioner was making noise, it was creaking and not steering properly, and other weird things. Then last week I drove to Modesto and Fresno to visit my Aunt Joann and go to the eye doctor (my first visit in over two years). I had planned to get an oil change but when I went they were closed: it was Labor Day, the morons. So I left without having my car checked out. I was nervous, but everything worked great until I got to Fresno. Suddenly the car started making weird sounds (the engine was snorting during idling), the air conditioner made screeching sounds so I had to turn it off, acceleration pooped out, and then a strange bell began dinging randomly. I thought the car was toast for sure.
That evening I headed for home. I got on the highway and the bell began ringing again. It’s the same warning bell that rings when you leave your keys in the ignition and open the door. I thought something wasn’t working right with the system. I couldn’t see any warning lights on the dash. Then I noticed that the temperature gauge, which I’ve never seen above 30%, was at max. As I watched, it went all the way to the top and the bell rang. That happened again and cleared up the bell mystery: it was telling me my car was overheating.
I got off at the next exit and went to a gas station. There I sprayed water on the engine and after a 20 minute cool-down, added water to the radiator. Then I called my Uncle Phil for advice (I know less than nothing about cars) and added some oil (it seemed low). The odd thing was that after the car was cool, just sitting and idling made it overheat! I had to cool it down a second time (after turning off the engine, of course).
Once I got on the road, the wind kept the engine cool and I made it home just fine. But idling for more than a few minutes — in a parking lot, in traffic, etc. — would make the car overheat.
I dreaded taking the car to a shop. Who knows how much I’d be charged? Probably they’d tell me the engine was dead. Except the car did work fine on the highway. I was so nervous I actually checked out the prices of new and used cars. What I found was depressing, because used ones that I could afford were in even worse shape than my Neon, and because new cars are way out of my price range (which is pretty close to zero).
Finally, I decided I at least had to know how much it would be to fix, so I took it in. The shop had given me a $108 estimate to find the trouble and called a couple hours later. “You car’s fixed!” they said.
“What? Seriously? What was wrong?”
“It was simple: the relay to the cooling fan was bad. So the fan wasn’t turning on when needed. We replaced the relay and everything works great now.”
The total bill came to $88 labor/diagnostic and $12 for the part. Not bad at all. The odd thing is the overheating seemed to be the problem all along. The air conditioner now works fine (no more weird sounds), the engine noise I’d been hearing in retrospect was water boiling, and the sluggish acceleration is cured, probably because higher RPMs generated more heat. I don’t understand why overheating would effect the steering, but it’s fixed now, so I can only assume it was also related.
Weird the way a single problem could create such a variety of symptoms.