auto maintenance February 07, 2018

Word Perfect

When you take your car in for repairs it is important to use the correct words to describe your problem. ” The more precisely you can describe the problem, the more likely it can be fixed it with minimal time and expense. For instance, a car may begin to spew antifreeze out under the hood and the customer may say it’s overheating, when in fact the temperature gauge has never left normal range. I know that sounds nit-picky and that you would think that in checking for an overheat you would find the problem, but you never know.

Persistence pays off

A guy stopped by the shop today and I really didn’t have time to pull his car in to do a proper check. But he wouldn’t give up, so I asked him what exactly his car was doing. He said that as he pulled it out of his driveway it was “wobbling.” His description was so clear that I walked out to his car and pointed out an extremely bad tire that was almost cone-shaped on the tread area instead of flat. A wobbling at such a low speed as pulling out of his driveway is almost always a bad tire or a wheel getting ready to fall off. His perfect wording saved me time – and him money.

Won’t crank or won’t start?

If a car won’t “crank” it most certainly won’t start, but many cars that will crank won’t start. Cranking is the starter motor turning the engine to get it to start. The word comes from the old days when cars were started by means of a hand crank. It’s the wrwrwrwrwr sound you hear when you turn the ignition key to the start position. If you don’t hear that sound, the car is not cranking. If you hear that sound but the car won’t start after a reasonable period (normally 10 seconds or less, but up to 30 seconds max) your car cranks but will not start. Often these conditions are intermittent. You stop at the store, and when you come back out it won’t start. A half hour to an hour later it starts fine. Naturally when you get to the shop it starts fine. That’s when it’s very important to be able to tell the mechanic whether it wouldn’t crank or it would crank but not start.

Miss Information

Engine performance problems are often the most difficult to describe. A lot of people misuse the term “stall.” A stall means the engine turned completely off, necessitating restarting the car. The how and when of a stall often reveal more information than the stall itself – so take notes. Did it stall while stopped at a light, or as you tried to pull away, or while climbing a hill? Could you tell something was wrong before it stalled, or was it as if an invisible hand simply turned the car off with no warning?

A “miss” or more correctly a misfire is when one or more cylinders on the engine fail to produce power, causing the engine to jerk or vibrate accompanied by a dramatic reduction in power. Often certain conditions such as accelerating or climbing a hill can aggravate it, and often you can make it stop by letting off the accelerator pedal slightly.

A “hesitation” is when you step on the accelerator and the engine fails to pick up speed for several seconds. This typically occurs from a standing start but can occur while driving also. Transmission problems are often mis-described as hesitations. A person stops at a stop sign, goes to accelerate, but the car won’t move. Then there is a little bump and off it goes. In a hesitation the engine fails to gain speed.

If the engine appears to or sounds like it is gaining speed but the car is not moving or not moving in accordance with engine speed, your transmission might be “slipping.”

If at a certain speed the whole car seems to vibrate with one resonance you would say it “shudders” at (name your speed).

Because they occur with such frequency even in a normal car, people seem to be really good at describing brake problems. If as you come to a stop you can feel the brake pedal moving up and down under your foot you might say it “pulsates.” Other than that, brake problems are just a matter of describing the feel or the noise that bothers you.


It’s our job to diagnose the problem, but much like a doctor we need information from the patient.  The better the information we get, the more efficiently we can do our job.  So don’t be afraid to describe what the car is doing or not doing not in automotive jargon but in words you are comfortable with.  You are likely to give a better description that way.  And don’t let anyone, be it friend, relative, tow truck driver or even us put words in your mouth.  We are much better off hearing your description of your problem then someone else’s interpretation of what’s happening!

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