2009.08.12 There's more than one way to create a clunker

Written by David Green.


Has anybody out there turned in their “clunker” for a new vehicle yet? There’s almost as many opinions about the program as there are clunkers. I read one the other day that fascinated me.

This particular writer called the program a failure as its goal was to replace gas guzzling vehicles with more fuel efficient ones, saving the country energy. But this person claimed the amount of energy used in producing the steel, plastics, glass and other raw materials needed to make a new vehicle far outweighed what could be saved by the somewhat better mileage the new vehicle gets over its life span.

What concerns me is the thousands of perfectly good vehicles that are being scrapped simply because their retail value is less than the government is offering for eligible trade-ins. I saw a beautiful late 90’s Cadillac Eldorado being towed away from one dealer, its only fault that high miles made the program’s offer of $4500 higher than what the dealer could offer as a normal trade-in.

A lethal dose of sodium silicate, also known as “liquid glass,” in the engine, and the Caddy was soon destined for the scrap yard. It could have made someone a safe, dependable vehicle for several more years, but no longer.

Many “clunkers” aren’t nearly that nice, of course. One article referred to a 1987 Chevy Caprice being scrapped as “the kind of land whale that once dominated the roadways.” Long-time readers will remember I once owned a 1985 Caprice. If It’s still out there, it would be a candidate for the clunker program. So would my 1987 Ford Aerostar, that is, if it hasn’t totally rusted away by now.

Of course, there’s more than one way to create a clunker. The easiest way is just to do nothing. Don’t bother to fix minor damage, skip most scheduled maintenance, and sooner than you might think possible, you’ll find yourself driving a clunker.

Or, perhaps make one stupid move like a guy I used to know, and boom, instant clunker, just like that. I saw it happen back in 1987 when I was living in Adrian.

My friend Jim invited me to go with him to a sports collectibles show in Wauseon. He was driving a Plymouth Reliant “K-Car,” not a big surprise since his family owned four or five of them. The trip went fairly smoothly until we were almost at our destination. We stopped at the intersection of Shoop and Linfoot and, while waiting for the light to change, Jim was struck with one of his occasional bouts of goofiness.

With no warning, he suddenly floored the gas pedal. The little four-cylinder engine began revving probably far beyond it’s redline while Jim laughed. I asked him if he thought he should stop. “Why, am I scaring you?,” Jim asked.

“No, you’re not scaring me,” I told him, “but you’re going to blow the engine if you keep that up.” You don’t have to be Nostradamus to know what happened next. Before Jim could answer, there was a big bang under the hood, the stoplight turned green, and Jim suddenly owned a car that could only go about 10 mph. He’d ruined the motor with his foot, no “liquid glass” required.

We limped to our destination and Jim made a call for a tow truck, then a somewhat more difficult one to his parents. A bit later, Jim reported that the tow truck driver said there was a hole in the engine block and it was leaking oil in massive amounts. Gee, what a surprise.

Finally, his mother arrived, and not too happy, either. After talking to Jim separately, she then talked to me, her first question being, “What did he do?” The evidence was pretty clear, and she said my story made a lot more sense than whatever excuse he tried to tell her.

The drive home was the best part. It had started snowing during his mother’s trip to Wauseon and she handed me her keys when we got to her car. “I don’t like driving in this weather, and he’s not touching MY car,” she said. So I drove us back to my apartment in Adrian, then she took over for the last few miles to their home.

The last I knew, Jim was living in South Carolina. Unless he’s improved his driving habits, maybe he should carry some sodium silicate with him. The next time he creates a clunker, he could at least put it out of its misery on the spot.

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