Michael Perry: Crowdsourced truck repairs

February 19, 2019
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Michael Perry

Back in the spring of 2017 I wrote a column about our old plow truck and how every now and then it wouldn’t start. Battery fine, fuel supply fine, but when I twisted the ignition key the truck either sat silent or cranked and cranked without firing. Three of my go-to mechanics were baffled (to say nothing of anyone I could corner at the cafe, the feed mill and family reunions), and the standard interventions — new plug wires, distributor, fuel pump rehab, and so on — didn’t fix the problem, which was all the more maddening for its intermittence. Symptom-free for months, then dead three times in a week, but never when it was in the shop. Most vexatious? Twice when it refused to start I had it towed to the mechanic, and the moment it was unloaded from the flatbed it fired up like it was fresh-bought off the lot.

These days all the cool people say crowdsourcing is the way to go, so I asked readers for help, and you responded. Some of the suggestions — replace the coil, check for a dead spot on the solenoid, vapor lock, gas cap issues, catalytic converter — were good ones, but had already been fed into the equation and eliminated via automotive algebra.

Some solutions were colorfully proposed, and wrapped in wit: “You may have a relay with an independent streak.” “Wanna sell it for $500?” “Cut your losses and get rid of that ’94 boat anchor and get a new truck, preferably a great big one that you need a step ladder to get in.” To the specialist who suggested “ball peen hammer to the solenoid,” I promise I was way ahead’a ya on that one.

Meanwhile, the mechanic and I had a meeting in which we reviewed all the remaining treatment options, cross-referenced by my checkbook. We settled on replacing the computer module. Believe it or not, a ’94 Silverado has one, and several readers had pointed in that direction, some referring to it as the “black box.” The plan was to get a used module, which would save some dollars. If that didn’t resolve the issue, we’d pull the plug.

I’m happy to report we didn’t even get that far. In the process of removing the old computer, the mechanic discovered an obscure little wire that had rusted through in such a way that every now and then it wiggled out of contact. All that trouble, down to a few pennies worth of conduction. He replaced the wire, I didn’t have to pay for a replacement computer unit, and the truck has started and run fine ever since.

Until this week. The four-wheel-drive failed during a major snowstorm. More specifically, while my wife was plowing and I was 1,700 miles away in a state full of sun and cacti. Friends and neighbors came to the rescue, but that truck may be in more trouble than it knows. If the problem can be solved with WD-40 and a ball peen hammer, it will live on. If not, it will be allowed one two-wheel-drive trip to the mechanic, where we will run the numbers specifically as they pertain to diminishing returns.

This time there will be no crowdsourcing. But I thank everyone who wrote. Whether or not you identified the problem, you joined me in the hunt. And the unifying theme was frustration, which really warmed my heart. Nothing makes me feel better in my bafflement than knowing others — including others far more mechanically inclined than I — are suffering the same blood pressure spikes. We are in this together. Or so I told my wife over the phone from Tucson.