The Ultimate Lemon

( 1996 Quentin Bristow)

My new car had been back to the dealers once already to fix some sort of wiring error which had resulted in strange and unpredictable events. Since cars these days have more electrical gadgets than practically anything else, the potential for factory wiring errors to cause motoring mishaps is almost unlimited. I discovered the first error when I had to use the windscreen wipers for the first time. When they were switched to "intermittent" the horn sounded each time they did their single wipe and a cheerful little message flashed up on the hi-tech annunciator on the dash, which said


Oh charming, I thought, but didn't take it seriously. When the wipers were switched to high-speed, the radio suddenly came on at its full ghetto-blasting 200 watts or whatever and I nearly crossed the median (there was a three hundred piece brass band playing on the station at the time). Then almost as if that action had been anticipated, the four-way flashers started blinking and both the trunk lid and the fuel filler access flap snapped open. When I switched the wipers to the regular mode of operation, the engine backfired three times and then stopped completely. It was at this point that a I started to smell burning and saw smoke curling out from under the hood. Fortunately it was nothing more than some overheated wiring, but at least it proved that the sensors and message systems were in full working order (or at least that one of them was). As a result of this I arrived at the dealership on the back of a tow truck, following the first outing with the car in the rain. They were most apologetic and repairs were put in hand immediately.

After that the windscreen wipers were fully functional, but another problem developed. When I adjusted the left electrically operated rear view mirror, absolutely nothing happened to it, but my car seat moved back and forth and up and down instead. Further investigation proved that this was not what is called a reciprocal problem, that is to say when I operated the controls of my seat, nothing at all happened to the mirror. I could have lived with that situation, at least for a while, but what actually happened when I moved my seat forward was that the cruise control would cut in and we would be accelerated up to at least twice the highway speed limit wherever we happened to be. I had made an appointment with the dealership to fix that, but unfortunately I completely forgot about this little idiosyncrasy while I was sitting in the car with the engine running one day, waiting for my wife to reappear after dashing back for her shopping list. I had the automatic transmission in reverse with the brake on ready to go and absent mindedly fiddled with the seat controls.

I had absolutely no idea that the cruise control could work when the car was in reverse, but as it rocketed backwards down the driveway I was too busy with my head craned out of the window trying to miss the hedge and the drain pipes to think too much about that. What I really had to worry about now was which side of the road to reverse along on, that is if I ever managed to pull off the necessary high-speed right-angle turn at the end of the driveway to get into the road. I managed to do that (by the grace of God nothing was coming in either direction), by which time I had collected my wits enough to do the obvious thing and release and re-apply the brakes. I knew that just touching the brake pedal is supposed to disengage the cruise control, however the result in this case was that the left rear view mirror fell off into the road and I felt the accelerator pedal move even further down toward the floor under the relentless guidance of what was now quite clearly cruise un-control. The car was equipped with the latest ABS brake system, but obviously in my case this stood for "Anti Braking System". After streaking backwards through two intersections, running a couple of stop signs and narrowly missing a terrified postman, I finally had the wit to turn off the ignition which mercifully cut the engine and brought my backward career to an end.

Unfortunately something else must have gone wrong, because turning off the ignition also activated the power locks on all the doors as well, making me a prisoner in my own car. I wasn't too worried about that, after all there was a little button in the door to release them and then of course if all else failed, I could always open a window and insert the key from the outside. I should have worried; what the little lock-release button did was to activate the very efficient and attention-grabbing burglar alarm, but it did not of course release any door locks. Not surprisingly the resulting commotion with flashing headlights and whooping siren attracted a considerable gathering of passers by, all enjoying the spectacle of a car thief neatly trapped by sophisticated high technology (...see I told you so, they really do work) and eventually a police cruiser drew up.

A very large and very tense police officer advanced toward my car while I did my best to look relieved and convey a "thank-goodness-you-are-here-officer" demeanour, to counter my circumstantially incriminating situation. He made an unmistakable order in sign language to get out of the car, an order with which I was of course unable to comply. His next move was to grab the door handle in an attempt to open it, when that failed there were more unmistakable orders in sign language to activate the lock releases. All of this was going on amid the deafening din of the siren alarm, and in front of an ever increasing crowd of onlookers, obviously eager for the final denouement when I would be taken away in handcuffs and leg irons. By this time the Fuzz was clearly angry, and it didn't take a clairvoyant to work out that I would probably get about six months for attempted car theft and at least six years for jerking a police officer around and attempting to make a fool of him in public, thereby bringing the justice system in general and law enforcement agencies in particular, into serious and lasting disrepute.

Finally with a flash of inspiration I realised that the only way to establish communication was to write him a note and hold it up for him to read through the window. I searched feverishly around for a pen or pencil and some paper. Not a damn thing to be found, just the stupid owners manual, which like most such manuals had a single and universal remedy for any sort of trouble on the road - "take the vehicle to an authorized dealer for rectification of the problem". The only thing I could find was my wife's lipstick in the handbag that she had left on her seat when she had dashed out again at the last minute. The Officer's expression changed from anger to utter disbelief as he saw me take out the lipstick and then take off the cap (What the helluv we got 'ere, a gay car thief takin' time out to put on his bloody makeup), but he quickly caught on when I started using it to write on the window.

There was of course one considerable drawback to this mode of communication, in order for him to be able to read what I had written, either I had to write it backwards, or he had to find some way to decode it from his position on the other side of the window. This was solved by his coming round to the other side of the car and looking through the passenger side window and reading over my shoulder so to speak, as I wrote on the inside of the drivers side window. Like all well equipped police officers he did have a pen and notebook and his first message to me was to put down a window and give him the key (In my panic I had forgotten this "plan B" strategy). I tried all four window buttons, two of them produced absolutely no result, the third caused the engine to restart and the fourth set the air conditioner to galactic deep freeze and all the blowers to hurricane force.

His second message told me to try and release the hood latch so that he could do some sort of force-majeure to the works, like cut some crucial wires or throw in a monkey wrench. I hoped against hope that the hood latch was strictly mechanical and with fingers trembling in fear and trepidation, reached under the dash and operated the device. Strike four, I knew that at once, because the windscreen washers, hitherto unused, now operated continuously both back and front, but predictably there was no sign of any hood latch having been released. His next message asked me if I had a spare key at home which he could get to let me out. I dipped into my wife's handbag on the seat beside me and produced the only other set of keys which I held up for him to see, he rolled his eyes and put his hands up in despair (Now I've seen everything, how could this cretin get himself locked in to his own car with all the keys). He then scribbled another note to the effect that there was nothing for it but to call the dealership and have them tow the car in and extract me from my predicament.

Some time later I arrived at the dealership riding on the back of a tow truck for the second time, but this time with a police escort. Just as well, because what the mechanics saw being towed in was a car with the engine running, the burglar alarm operating at full blast, both front and rear washers spouting fluid in a continuous stream over windows that were covered in red hieroglyphics, and inside, a shivering maniac holding a large lipstick. My friend and saviour the policeman (now wearing ear plugs) explained my predicament and assured the mechanics en passant that my apparent delirium tremens was not the result of a drug overdose but acute hypothermia and too many decibels, and that I would either pass out, or pass on, or even both of the above, unless they could find a way to get me out of there. They did, and after about seven brandies the blue hue left me and I returned to the land of the living. I left the wretched car there for them to sort out and they drove me home in another new car (a couple of models up from mine) which they said that I could use until mine was fixed.

A few days later I saw a headline in the local newspaper which read "Local dealership repair shop demolished by freak accident". A picture showed the very shop to which I had been towed, now reduced to a pile of rubble. I read on;

The accident was caused by a car on a hoist which was in for repairs for assorted electrical malfunctions. It seems that when a mechanic was making adjustments to the electrical controls of the driver's side window and car seat, the engine started and the cruise control was activated. This caused the vehicle to leap off the hoist and slam into the main roof support for the building. The impact tore the support from its moorings, bringing with it several roof trusses and causing the entire roof to collapse. Damage to the building and other vehicles was extensive but there were no injuries.

A few days later I got a letter from the car manufacturer via the dealer, telling me I could keep the borrowed car as long as I didn't sue anyone - or write this story.