Ten Memorable Miscues, Misadventures and Motoring Maladies

When you get to play with a different car every week of the year — over 850 cars and counting — there are bound to be various misevents, accidents and episodes of failure. Some have been self-induced; several have been beyond my control. In the spirit of lists, here are 10 of the more memorable (not illegal) adventures with cars that I have experienced over the past few years.

Mechanical failures are apt to happen even with the best cars. The manufacturers don’t design flaws, but they occasionally happen, so you have to be flexible and cultivate a working relationship with the repair shops that understand that these cars are not mine, but actually belong to the manufacturers of the brand that they fly the flag of.

Some of these mechanical failures have resulted in tow-truck rides. Perhaps the oddest was the failure of a new VW Jetta to run anything — the electrical system just went dead. Deep into Belfast, the car had no lights, no clicking ignition, literally nothing. After a thorough inspection at Darling’s in Bangor, the mechanic found that the backing nut had come off the fuse panel behind the dash, terminating all battery power to every device. A thousand jump starts would never have gotten that car running.

Darling’s Ford also had to rescue a brand new Flex one summer night. This car too was experiencing a painful electrical issue, as the battery was going dead and the starter was turning slower and slower each stop. Since the car was literally brand new, there were no parts available. It was a Friday night and the car would be dead for several days or a week before parts would arrive. At the behest of the dealership’s general manager, parts were scavenged off a for-sale Flex on the lot so I could be on my merry way. Great service and great attitudes sell cars.

This would not be the outlook of the Chrysler dealers, plural, that released a certain 300 sedan for consumer use after several scribes complained about the ill-handling car. When it was delivered, it was clear that something odd was going on in the chassis, a symptom that progressively got worse as my miles accumulated. Finally, after feeling like I was driving drunk, the car handling like it had four-wheel steering, I headed into Harmon’s Tire for a look-see. They immediately found that the car’s multilink rear suspension had several loose connections that allowed the rear wheels to actually pivot a few degrees whenever the road surface tugged on that side of the car. Hence, the four-wheel steering feel. A quickly fabricated remedy vastly improved the car’s handling until it went back to Chrysler for a proper fix.

Harmon’s Tire helped me out of another jam as one very swift Volvo R70 AWD wagon slid off the end of my driveway one snowy morning. The low-profile summer performance tires on the Volvo were no match for any kind of precipitation, surrendering grip at the first hint of snow. A bent rear suspension arm made one wheel wobble like an antique tricycle, but Harmon’s once again fabricated a temporary repair.

That Volvo proved to be cursed as only three days later I put it out of its misery as a 10-mile-per hour snowstorm crash underneath a box truck rendered the Volvo motionless. One wheel broken, the brake caliper broken, as well as the hood, fender and door on the driver’s side were smashed. No airbags deployed and I walked away chagrined and wounded only in pride. The Volvo dealer said I was the third R70 victim to those “horrendous performance tires.” Driving that Volvo in the snow was like operating on ball bearings — it was that bad.

For all of you AWD fans who revel in the fact that you have traction at all four corners, recognize that you aren’t wearing flip-flops in the winter so why should your car wear the same tires that it does in summer?

Another Friday night brought more inconvenience (a lot of bad Fridays have been common) as a brand new Land Rover Range Rover arrived during a snowstorm. The handsome truck proved to be more than capable of handling the elements yet the simple step of inserting the ignition key stymied the whole operation of the vehicle. Some special parts inside the console-mounted ignition had failed to gel together, leaving the $70,000 truck useless in a Bangor credit union’s parking lot for the whole weekend. In this instance no garage, not even AAA, could help me as Land Rover had the truck flat-bedded back to Boston and then shipped back to me once remedied!

Through the years ignition keys have often played an ignominious role. There was the time that both sets of keys got locked into a brand new Oldsmobile Aurora. Only after getting permission from GM, on a Saturday no less, did they allow a local locksmith to fabricate a new key.

The worst key event, though, was the time that I was returning from a GM event in Virginia. Just as they announced boarding for the flight home (another Friday event) I had the sinking feeling that something was amiss. Sure enough, as I rummaged my pockets, the keyfob for the shiny new Infiniti waiting for me inside the Portland Jetport parking garage was gone — I had inadvertently left the keyfob at the security check-in. It was too late to go back through the Dulles shuttle system and still make the flight, so all the way home I knew I would arrive with no way to finish my journey. After a night in the airport hotel, a bus ride to Bangor in the morning and frantic calls to Dulles, Infiniti and our car delivery staff, I was able to get the second keyfob Federal Expressed to me — the same day that the TSA staff in Dulles admitted that they had the fob and would send it back to me for $25.

Portland would be the scene of another memorable operator issue. After attending a family gathering (on a Friday, for sure) and embarrassing the heck out of the assembled relatives with one monster burnout, my Cadillac XLR-V refused to render access to our stored luggage deep inside the power trunk. The manual system failed, the override failed — the Cadillac just wouldn’t relinquish its hold on our gear.

It took going to the local Chevrolet dealer in the morning to remedy the Cadillac’s fail-safe sensors, electronic detectors that are designed to prevent inappropriate trunk and power roof operation if cargo is in the way of the sensitive motors. Well, our cargo had apparently moved quite a bit during my exuberant driving, and we paid the price in inconvenience. The Chevy guys got much glee from fixing the high-powered Cadillac.

Living in rural Maine you have to expect that sooner or later you are going to have an encounter with Bambi — it’s just inevitable if you drive a lot of miles, especially at night.

My first incident was with the second-generation Toyota Prius. It was dusk and the road ahead was clear, yet a racing figure from the right caught my eye and I got into the brakes heavily. The Prius slowed rapidly as the doe glanced right by our front end in a full gallop. Just as I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to make another call to Mr. Lawlor about a damaged car, the right rear door exploded with a thunderous noise as the chasing buck rammed into the car. The deer got up and ran off — according to witnesses — but the Prius would need quite a bit of body work.

A certain Ford Taurus also would need significant repair after it was sliced open by an errant snowplow. The Taurus was resting, minding its own business, when a woman driving her husband’s plow truck raced into the parking lot at an unreasonable pace. Apparently unaware of the giant piece of sheet-metal attached to the front of her vehicle, she sideswiped the whole passenger side of the Ford, gashing the shiny metallic paint unlike any test dummy crash ever would. Fortunately, the Ford was at least still drivable, but now wearing a Maine tattoo.

There have been flat tires, door dings, and cracked windshields, but overall, I’d have to say that 17 years of driving someone else’s car every week has worked out pretty well.

I hope there are many more memorable adventures and stories in the years ahead.

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.