Sometimes, when it rains it pours. And January really was one of those months for our cars. In mid January, one of our cars wouldn’t start in the morning. Now, we live in North Dakota. A car not starting in the morning isn’t unheard of, and borders on common. Especially when the overnight low nears the -20 degree range. So, I wasn’t too worried about it, and figured it just needed a little warming up to get going again. Since we were expecting to get into the 20s that weekend, I just left it and tried it again when the temperatures warmed up.
As you can probably guess from the title, that didn’t work. So, my thoughts immediately go to the gas line. If the gas level gets low enough, the condensation in the tank can get into the gas and then freeze the line up so that the gas supply is either so low that the engine won’t run, or can stop the gas flow altogether. I ran to the gas station, grabbed a bottle of heet and dumped that in. When that didn’t work, I even went so far as to run an extension cord out to the car and use my wifes blow dryer to try and warm up the lines. Still, it would not start.
With anything like this, there is a point where you have to admit that you just don’t have the skills or the tools to do the job. If the line was frozen, it needed to be warmed, and I had exhausted my capabilities to do that. If we had a garage, I could have pushed it into the garage and let it warm up there, but we don’t have a garage. So, I had to have it towed to a mechanic. I don’t like doing that, but I have roadside assistance insurance so the tow is covered, and we do need the car to run.
Unfortunately, when the mechanic started running diagnostics on the car, they discovered a far worse reason that it wouldn’t start. They couldn’t get the engine to produce any compression. No compression, in an engine, means that the pistons are not moving. And if the pistons are not moving, that means there is something wrong with the engine. In the case of this car, the most likely culprit is that the timing chain broke. To add to the problem, the engine is what’s called an “interference engine”. Which means that it uses the interference created by the movement of the engine to help keep the engine moving. When an “interference engine” loses control by losing it’s timing chain, it basically runs amok. The pistons and lifters run however they please and start banging into the rest of the engine until parts start bending and breaking.
I know this because it’s already happened to this car once. Apparently, this particular model and year of car is pretty famous for it on the internet. The engine gets to about 69,000 miles and loses it’s timing chain, and, as a result, it’s engine. You’d think there would have been a recall at some point, but I guess it wasn’t a big enough problem. The first engine in the car blew at about 58,000 miles. We put in a used engine that already had 28,000 miles on it. The car is now at about 97,000 miles. If you do the math, that makes the second engine at about 67,000 miles. Right on schedule, I guess.
Depending on the severity of the damage, we either need a few new parts, or a whole new engine. And, until they tear the engine apart, they won’t know the damage. And, as luck would have it, the mechanic that I had tow the car doesn’t do engine work of that level. If it needs a battery, oil change, jump start, etc, they do it, but to get in and start replacing parts is more than they have the manpower or space for.
After making a few calls, I found a mechanic that specializes in engine work. Our options are to put a new to us used engine in the car, rebuild the engine (replace most of the old parts with new parts), or to put a whole new engine in the car. The mechanic was only able to find one used engine, but it has well over 100k miles on it already. But, it would only cost about $1700 to put it in. To rebuild the engine would cost about $3400. And a whole new engine would be about $4700. Did I mention that the cars value is only about $4500?
My wife and I have discussed it, and we’re a bit hesitant to put in a used engine into the car. We had the “should I sell my car or fix it” conversation as well, but it’ll be cheaper to just fix it. We’ve done the used engine bit once with the car already, and look where that got us. We’ve decided to have the engine rebuilt. It’ll cost twice as much, but we’re hoping that it will last quite a bit longer than the used engine might. We’re also hoping that we’ll be able to then keep the car that much longer. Also, the rebuilt engine would have an aftermarket timing chain to replace the one that broke, so shouldn’t have the same problem as the factory chain had.
The one bright spot is that we own our cars. We’re not making any payments on either, so we aren’t going to be hit with the double whammy of paying for a new engine on a car that we’re still paying payments on like we did the last time this happened. We may have to take a loan out on the car to pay for the engine, but it should still only be one payment. Hopefully.
The whole thing is going to be a major setback to our payoff plan. We had planned on using our tax refund to make a big dent in our debt snowball, but it now looks like it’s going to be put towards paying for the new (rebuilt) engine. I don’t like it, but the situation could be much worse. When the first engine blew, it was before we had started with any sort of financial plan. In fact, it was one of the larger contributing factors to our getting control of our finances. Now, it’s more of a setback and inconvenience than anything. It sucks, but we’ll get over it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of our January car troubles. Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon!
P.S. if you’re wondering, the car is a 2002 Oldsmobile Alero.
photo credit: fauxto_digit
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Your story makes me glad I live in southern California. My cars (16 & 14 years old) last longer because of it although it is more expensive in other ways than North Dakota. Car trouble is never fun nor cheap. Sorry to hear you had to go through this.
Yeah, unfortunately, it’s one of the downsides of living way up here. We get to benefit from the reduced cost of living, but the winters really take their toll some days.
Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog says
Wow, that sucks. I had some similar car issues last winter (I live in WYO), and it got so cold that it wouldnt start, and finally after repeatedly trying, it turned over, but that killed the battery. Once the battery was dead, the starter had to work even harder to turn it over, and finally one really cold morning (sub 0 temps, but not below -10) the starter just gave out. I’d had so many problems with the car and just wanted to be done with it, so I got a new one. I got a great rate, but I still had to take out a loan. It’s nice that I can finally sleep and not worry about it now, but I hate the debt.
Also, this is probably a dumb question (and irrelevant, I think), but do you have a block heater?
Jeff, I’ve lived here in North Dakota since 1997. The first car I was driving when I moved here, did that very thing. It got to -30 or so (-70 with the windchill) and the truck just wouldn’t start. After it sat for a few days, I traded it off and got something different that was a much more dependable car. I ended up with a loan for it as well, but the peace of mind was worth it, if you ask me. The current car does have a block heater, but we have to park on the street in front of our house, and the only electrical outlet on our house is at the very back. In this case, it wouldn’t have made a darn bit of difference, but I think we might start using it when it gets really cold just for the added comfort of knowing that the cold won’t kill it off.