The Key to the Key

July 25, 2008

I don’t understand how cars work. Gasoline explodes and pushes pistons. Plugs, and hoses, and pumps, and transmissions, and drive trains, and axles are involved. It all sounds like a damned hum to me.

I can’t service or repair cars either. When my wife and I were our twenties, and we were pretty broke, we desperately needed a car for a new job location,  so I bought an ancient Volvo for $100. It ran. A work friend of mine, a very nice guy even though he was very adept and macho, told me I should learn to maintain my cheap car myself.

Trying to live up to his expectations, I tried to change the oil myself. After several hours of frantically trying to get the filter off (with no success) so I could drain the old oil, I drove it to a nearby gas station where a mechanic got the filter off, drained and changed the oil, all in a few minutes. I sulked and hated myself.

Then the car started to spray gasoline over the hot engine. Terrified that I would be consumed by a spark turning the car into a giant fireball, I drove to a Greek mechanic (I think Volvos are from Greece, are they not?) who examined the carburetor. After his investigation the mechanic told me (through his thick Greek accent) that the previous owner had repaired the carburetor himself, and when the previous amateur mechanic had re-assembled it, he had left half the parts out. The Greek Volvo expert got the right parts and put it all back together properly and the car ran for a couple of years.

From those days forward I decided to leave my automotive life in the hands of qualified mechanics.

As we have never bought a new car, I have mostly used small, independent repair shops. By the principle that God loves fools and drunks (though I don’t drink much alcohol), I have been very fortunate for the most part in the auto mechanics I have used.

On the few occasions I took a car into one or another dealer’s service department (because I needed some specialized service), I found them officious, impersonal, unfriendly, inconsiderate, and people you wouldn’t send your worst enemy to.

When my wife bought her little used truck, she took it into a dealer a couple of times. My wife is a person of strong opinions and intense emotions (traits she obviously inherits from Random Granddaughter), and she swore she would have nothing more to do ever again with this dealer’s service department, whom she considered rude scumbags.

As we moved from impecunious and debt-ridden poverty to genteel and debt-free poverty, we bought a couple of nearly new cars from rental car companies. This method of purchasing is not a bad option for people in genteel poverty who need to purchase a pretty good but not completely new car.

With the last car, I bought an extended service contract. When the car started having an argument with the Check Engine Light (which eventually proved to be the result of an illicit relationship between the car and a pollution control device), the contract required me to use an authorized dealer for repairs.

Much to my surprise, the service staff and other employees of the dealer turned out to be courteous, thoughtful, competent, cooperative, good-humored, flexible and generally pleasant people to deal with. So I have used them ever since. (If you treat me nicely, I am very loyal. If you betray me or disgruntle me, I will hold a grudge for a long time and seek revenge. I tell people this when I enter a business relationship with them.)

My little car has held up well, but I am wearing it out. It is an interesting question whether the car will wear out before I retire next year, or I will wear out before I retire, or we all will be still operating.)

Recently, the key stopped opening the lock on the passenger’s door. To unlock the door, I had to open the driver’s side door and reach over. Not a disaster, but inconvenient, and if the driver’s side door did the same, we would be up the creek without a paddle.

I sprayed dry graphite lubricant in the lock. I sprayed liquid graphite lubricant in the lock. The lock leaked dry and liquid graphite all over the driveway, but the key still did not work.

I called the dealer’s service department, though I figured fixing locks was not their thing. A mechanic told me that all they could do was replace the entire lock.

“How much?” I asked with foreboding.

“About $200,” he answered.

When I took the car in for an oil change I asked them to look at it, but not to do anything heroic [expensive].

I carry two sets of keys with me. Over the years, I have locked myself out of my car and out of my house, so I always keep spare keys in a jacket pocket. When I take the car in for service, I leave spare key with the service department.

After my car was serviced, the service coordinator said, “I don’t find any problem with your passenger’s side lock. It opens fine.”

I said, “I have to see this.”

He opened the door, using the spare key. I tried my key. The door wouldn’t open. He looked at my key. He said, “The problem is not with the lock. It’s with your key.”

He examined both keys. He pointed out some imperceptible flaw (to my eye) in the bits that go in and out on my key. Because my keys worked on the driver’s door but not the passenger’s door, it never occurred to me that the problem was not the lock, but the key. I put the spare key on my keychain as my main key. (I still don’t understand why the worn out key works on one side and not the other.)

The service invoice charged me the normal charge for an oil change and lube. There was no charge for “fixing” my lock. I figure if they had added a $10 charge for “helping clueless customer” I would not have complained, but there was no charge and they didn’t even chuckle, much less guffaw, at least not in front of me. Although their location is less convenient now that I live on an island, I remain a loyal customer.

9 Responses to “The Key to the Key”

  1. pandemonic Says:

    Too funny.

    First of all, Volvos are from Sweden. Vulvas are from Greece.

    Two: The key to my car doesn’t have to be in the lock, which makes it nice. Plus, the key to my car doesn’t even have to be in the ignition (it just has to be somewhere near it) which makes it super nice. (I have a push button ignition.) I can carry the key in my purse and never lose it.

    What will they think of next? Transporter travel?


  2. modestypress Says:

    Those modern keys are way too modern for me.

    For a long time, one Toyota key would work on almost any other Toyota. Once I was near a woman who had locked her keys in her car. My Toyota key opened her Toyota door.

    Unfortunately, a homeless couple used a Toyota key to steal my daughter and her partner’s key, so it’s probably a good thing that Toyota finally figured out how to make more than one key.

  3. modestypress Says:

    “steal my daughter’s and her partner’s car” my dyslexic brain meant to say.

  4. I am absolutely with you on the loyalty to a good car guy thing. I tell people we once bought a house because it was within walking distance of our mechanic, and they think I’m being funny! Their ethic was so good they now have 50 franchises, and anyone wanting to franchise with them has to agree to it, and can be turned in by customers for not adhering. I’d say there’s probably little chance of that happening–I’ve since done business with the one here, and it was just like doing business with the original. They even called them, when they found out we were customers of the original place, and we were pleased to find out we were remembered! 🙂 Your key story sounds like something that would happen to me, lol…I once closed my door and had the window just slide into the door and break…

  5. That is really, really odd about the key. My theory is that they were playing some strange mind game with you to see if you’d crack.

    Plus, I never knew there was such a thing as either powdered or liquid graphite. I don’t know what I’ll do with this information now that I have it, but rest assured, I am appropriately amazed.

  6. modestypress Says:


    I don’t know: there may be something really interesting with some form of graphite. They may be a gaseous form you could inhale for your nasal problems. (Warning: such an activity might be fatal. I think this is found on the manual page titled “kill or cure.”)

    The strange mind game to see if I will crack is under the control of my supervisors. They are befuddled because they don’t realize I was cracked long ago.

  7. truce Says:

    I learnt to drive and bought my first car at the age of 30, and my biggest mistake was to assume that all garages and all mechanics must be alike in offering a ‘we’ll fix your car’ type service.

    As it turns out, of course, I could not have been more wrong.

    Some garages and mechanics offer a ‘can’t you see that we’re very busy here with people whose cars are much larger and more expensive than yours’ service and some even do specials on the ‘yeah, we’ll just tell you we fixed it – we know you don’t know one end of an internal combustion engine from the other, so how will you know any different’ type service.

  8. vroni1208 Says:

    Pan cracked me up! Vulvas…

    I don’t know anything about the mechanics of a car. I am fortunate that my honey has vast experience in this field, though he does not repair all types of vehicles. I do know that when the car won’t start and none of the lights will go on, it’s the battery and if I “jiggle” the thingies that go to the battery, it might start, or I need to get a jump. Car stuff frustrates me beyond belief. I don’t know what it is, but it does. Hence why I am trying to go without a car. Today I rode my bike to work. The only unpleasant part was that at the end of my lovely albeit short commute, I was at work.

  9. Pete Says:

    Absolutely! I tell people I do business with that if I like their service I will tell everyone in the free world. And if I don’t like their service, I will tell everyone in the free world. And buying a slightly used (Under 10,000 miles) car is a good way to save a lot of money. Heck, it still smells new! My first car was a 64 rambler and the lock was gone from the driver side. I just stuck my finger in the hole in the door and pushed a thingy and it unlocked. Good enough to fool really dumb people!

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