Objects of Desire September 2013

Waiting for the punch line

By Emily Atkins

My car has good comic timing. Just as a great comedian has that innate sense of how long to pause before delivering the punchline, my car knows exactly when to break down. It seems to have developed this comedic ability recently, shortly after I did some preventive maintenance.

The 944  Turbo is driven almost exclusively on the track, and to get to and from the track. It’s almost never driven around town, except for regular visits to the mechanic for tech inspections.

Most weekends I’m at the track with it, so Sunday nights when we roll into the driveway all in one piece, with no mechanical failures and tires still showing a little tread, it’s been a great weekend of  lapping or racing. The car gets unloaded, refueled then parked until the next event. So it was unusual that it went for a short drive last Monday, the result of my delaying doing a car shuffle in my narrow downtown driveway.

On the drive home we stop for a light going up a hill. Putting the car into gear on the green there’s an explosive BANG, and it’s dead in the water. The motor’s running but no power is getting to the wheels.

Good thing I had the four-ways repaired recently, but why didn’t I deal with the non-functioning parking brake? My only way out was to roll backwards and over to the curb from the left lane into a miraculously available parking spot, and wait for a tow. But without the p-brake or gears, I couldn’t get out of the car without it rolling down the hill. I was left with no option but to call 911 ( I always laugh at that number – should be 944) and wait, with a trembling right leg, for the helpful cops to find me some bricks to block my wheels. Passersby found the sight of a mid-life woman driving a decaled-up 944 surrounded by cops with lights flashing pretty interesting. Did she steal it? Street racing?

Once my disabled ride was up on a flatbed the problem was obvious: the driver’s side CV joint had sheared right off the differential. I was shocked. This was a brand new part that had been installed only two weeks previously.

In the interim, my car had taken me to the track for four days of competition and had behaved flawlessly, hundreds of kilometres from home. It handled the stresses and abuse of high-speed cornering, hard acceleration and brutal braking on the track, and ferried me safely through weekend traffic on the 401, only to catastrophically break around the corner from the mechanic and while at a complete stop. How is this possible?

And it’s not the first time. Two weeks ago I got home from the track and parked on the street. Later, when it was time to park in the driveway, the car would start only reluctantly. Strange, since it was fine at the track. Next morning it wouldn’t start at all. It turned over, but couldn’t catch. Again, the car made it through days of strenuous track driving without a hiccup, only to fail at home.

If the CV joint had failed at the track, it could have caused a serious crash. Sudden loss of control on a corner can result in a rollover. On the highway it could have meant a major accident—imagine finding yourself suddenly freewheeling at 100-plus kmh in traffic. Good luck pulling off the road without getting rear-ended.

But none of these things happened. The car waited until pretty much the perfect time to quit. I even had my roadside assistance card with me when the joint sheared, and that’s not usual.

I asked my mechanic if the “timing belt” he had recently replaced was designed not to regulate the engine, but to cause a failure after immediately a track weekend. He laughed and said “only for clients who don’t pay their bills”.

I’m grateful and feel tremendously lucky that the car has developed this sense of timing. But if it happens again, I’m taking the car to Yuk Yuks to get it fixed.

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