Car-mageddon: Halloween Edition

Jason makes a face a bolt which annoyed him while removing it.

What follows is the spooky account of alternator belts and cooling systems, which I can only imagine was caused by an automotive poltergeist.

October 29th: It was a seemingly normal Saturday evening, two days before Halloween. I did something which many people so on such a Saturday evening, and attended a Halloween Party. On my way home from said party, at around 2am Sunday morning, the alternator belt in the Audi started screeching and was having a hard time catching. This shouldn’t be happening as the belt and the tensioner bolt were all new. It was only a couple miles home, so I vowed to check and tighten belt in the morning. Then, a mere two blocks from home, the Battery light Came on, the Voltage check circuit lit up and the lights got dim. Uh-oh. I was already fighting a weird issue with the battery where it wouldn’t reliably hold a charge, leading to random hard/no start issues. As such, I didn’t know how long it could run only on battery power. As we’ve seen in various Star Trek episodes, I took the last resort of diverting power from Life Support, i.e. I shut down the ventilation fan, and the rear defroster. I made it the two blocks home back to Space Dock, with some extra dim headlights.

The next day, we took a family walk and found the alternator belt on the ground in front of a neighbors house, chewed up and crispy. Not a pretty sight.

Inside out, twisted, and burnt

Deciding that I couldn’t put that one back on the car, I found that I actually had a spare alternator belt in the garage, score! I also found that the brand new whacky looking adjustment bolt had gone missing.

Sadly, the threads which used to inhabit the ear of the alternator, where mostly missing as well. I found a nut and bolt to substitute, got the new belt tensioned up, then had to re-tension the AC compressor belt as well — The Audi has this very bizarre intermediate adjustment bar that goes between the two and influences the tension on both, for some reason. I haven’t looked up the proper procedure for tensioning all the belts as I’m sure its an irritating 15 step process that involves at least two special tools. I have a 13 mm socket and a long screwdriver — good enough.

October 30th: With a repaired car, we made a trip to South Seattle to an architectural thrift shop, to pickup some period correct light fixtures for the Mid-century house we currently call home as well a matching door for one of the bedrooms — and yes the Audi can fit an entire door in the back with the seats down. We get to the place, a good 35 minute drive and find what we need. I go to get the Audi to pull it into a loading bay and — there’s not enough juice in the battery to start the car (again). Thankfully, Lisa bought a little booster box a couple weeks back when this started happening intermittently. With the car started, I pulled it around, left it running, we loaded it up and took off for home.

About 1/2 way home, I got a scary looking alert in the Check Module. A temperature symbol with a big red triangle. The second time in as many days, the self-diagnostics of the car alerted me to something. I interpreted this symbol, as overheat warning…yet the actual temp gauge was normal. We were cooking at about 70 mph, so I slowed down and the warning went off. Sped up, warning on, slow down, off. The temp gauge was steady the entire time. As the gauge and the check circuit are driven by two different sensors, I figured one was either marginal or just straight up lying to me. We made it home without incident, modulo the need to pickup the kids from school on the way without room for them, due to the bedroom door, but that side adventure doesn’t really come into it.

November 1st: Lisa comes home from her class and says, “When I shut the Jeep off, there was a weird gurgling sound. Also when I was getting gas it seemed like there was a of steam coming off the hood, but it was also raining, so wasn’t sure.” I was getting over a cold, so was in no shape to do much about at the moment.

November 2nd: Feeling myself again, before running the kids to school, I popped the hood on the Jeep. A cracked radiator — well, this car ain’t going NO WHERE.


So, I hopped in the Audi, and miraculously it started without the booster box, however the temp warning alert in the check module went off immediately. Okay, everything is stone cold, something doesn’t make sense. On a hunch, I though that maybe the symbol was actually a poor representation for a low coolant level warning, so dropped some water in the reservoir, light went off. Fine, onward, were almost late for school.

It turns out the local NAPA had a radiator and hose kit in stock for the Jeep. Lisa took the Rx-7 to pick it up, then continued on some other errands including taking one of the kids to an appointment on the East Side. Half way there the phone rings, “I’m on the 520 bridge and all the warning lights just came on in the car.”

It was at this point, we figured we’re under a curse this week or something. I said as long as the gauges look good, continue on the to appointment. No reason to stop the car unless the temp gauge spikes.

After she sent me a picture of the dash, I noted that the volt meter was REALLY low. I advised to do as I had done a few days earlier with the other car, “Okay, drive home with no headlight, defrosters, etc — I think you’re running on battery power only. It’ll probably be okay.” I wasn’t as worried as there are no real electronics in the Rx-7 to power, just the ignition coil.

Good News: It was, she made it home, volt meter showing about 10 volts. The two of did the radiator swap on the Jeep later in the afternoon in record time, 90 minutes start to finish!

It was a completely uneventful procedure and was done Just in time for her to go grab the kids form school.

After she left, I popped the hood on the Rx-7.

Yep, that’s the alternator belt, no longer very belt-like, laying across the top of the engine. At least diagnosis was easy.

In 25 years and probably close to million miles worth of driving I’ve never lost or broke a belt — and here we lost two within 5 days.

November 5th: I brought the brand new battery for the Audi back to the store to for a warranty replacement. It’s only 6 months old and it just won’t hold a charge right. The car produces a solid 13 volts regardless of how many electrical accessories you turn on, hence it’s not the car. I knew I was in trouble at the store as soon as they brought out their battery tester. It is, of course, one of those new fangled electronic units, which perform a “Simulated Load Test”. We had a lot of issues with these when I worked at the BMW shop. It turns out that you can have a Lead Acid battery that holds a surface charge for a little while, but then will experience a voltage drop and doesn’t have the Amperage it needs to actually start the car, but that surface charge will fool the simulate load tester.

Of course, the test procedure for these is, Step 1: Charge battery. Step 2: perform the simulated load test. In the old days, we had a test machine that would induce a true load on the battery, and you could see how it would recovery from a load — or not. Anyway, not surprisingly, after the parts store insisted on charging the battery for two hours before testing….it passed!

I lamented to the guy how we used to get this all the time in the BMW shop and relayed the following experience. That we used to see the same symptoms, battery randomly doesn’t have enough juice to start the car. We’d charge it, we’d do a draw test to be sure there were no parasitic drains, and the new (at the time) tester would always pass the battery. And the customers would always come back, pissed off because their car didn’t start the next morning. He swapped the battery, thanks man!

The part I didn’t tell him, is that in the shop, I figured out how to “cheat the test” in order to get BMW to pay for a new battery. I’d turn on a bunch of accessories, then run the “Simulated Load Test”. By pulling a little bit of that sweet sweet surface charge off the battery, it was enough to get it to fail. I believe it’s been long enough, that information is no longer actionable in a court of law.

Anyway, we’ll see what the coming week brings with regards to the Audi’s battery.

One Week Recap:
2 – Alternator Belts
2 – Low coolant situations
1 – Blown radiator
? – Random no starts
1 – New Battery

That’s quite enough for me for a while.

Update: A week later, and the intermittent no-start in the Audi seems solved. The starter spins the engine with gusto every morning!

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