Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Automotive Letter to NPR's Car Talk

Dear Click and Clack,
I just bought a used, year 2000 Daihatsu Hijet minibus from a Japanese import lot here in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It measures 5 feet wide by 11 feet long and is 6'3” tall and is a 5 speed with a 660cc, 3-cylinder motor and uses lots of regular gas, which costs $3.50 a gallon here. In 5th gear at 60mph it runs at a little over 4 grand but it is adorable.

It's been “tuned up” a couple of times now by street mechanics who each owned one wrench-the 10mm is ubiquitous- a pair of bent pliers, a screwdriver and a piece of cardboard or burlap to lie on in the street lieu of a creeper. The timing was set by ear. When I have asked whether that thing that they are tweaking is a fuel injector or a carburetor they tell me it is “somewhere in between” and keep on turning the four adjustment screws on and near it until it idles smoothly and restarts easily. After one bout of adjustment one mechanic shrugged and suggested that I should start it cold by not touching the gas pedal and when starting hot that I would need to keep it matted until it started and this system has worked fine except for on New Year's Eve when, thankfully--because drinking while driving is not discouraged here-- it would not start at all. One of the muchachos spent about 3 hours New Year's Day underneath it installing 3 new spark plugs and now it starts again using the methods described above.

In the city it runs great and is peppy when weaving in and out of traffic-which is essential here to avoid being run over by gigantic guaguas (busses) making left hand turns across your bow from the far right hand lane through busy intersections but on the highway, after about an hour of driving at a steady cruising speed, it sometimes shows the unnerving symptoms of running out of (or maybe of being flooded by?) gas and jerks, I mean IT jerks, and it almost dies but this symptom is not at all predictable. Occasionally I think I detect an increased smell of gasoline in the air when this happens but, since the motor is directly under the front seats, this may be expected from time to time due to proximity. I have, so far, always gotten to where I was going. One of the mechanics working out of a grease pit found the fuel filter under the chassis and blew it out from both sides with a compressor and proudly announced that it had been installed backwards and reinstalled it the right way, but this seems to have made little or no difference. I have also poured an assortment of carb-cleaners and dry gasses into the gas tank and just when I think that did the trick I find myself lurching toward the breakdown lane again. I do not want to spend much time standing around in the breakdown lane because when the street thugs here steal your sneakers they don't wait for you to take them off, they remove them at the ankles with a machete-- without damaging the sneakers.

My real question is why am I getting only 22MPG? I am certain that I am converting from kilometers accurately and I have confirmed that the gas stations here indeed sell the stuff by the normal gallon and I have checked the odometer by using a handheld GPS unit and it agrees. I was hoping for more like 50mpg. One “mechanic” tells me that 22 is normal because my model of Daihatsu has a turbo, and, indeed, the van does have the word Turbocooler written on the side in what appears to be factory lettering but I do not know what an actual turbo looks like or how much one might drink.

What do you think?

Well, I thought that the new plugs had cured the “dying on the highway” problem but three days ago it died dead in a backwater village far from home. A mechanic who materialized out of the bushes determined that I had a bad “pita de abajo” which was failing to control the flow of gasoline. He described this pita as a small vertical pin that works like a float and is next to the real float and is located in the lower half of the carburetor. He then adjusted the carburetor for highway driving, so that I could get to where I was going, which meant that the thing ONLY ran at 3500 rpm or above and stalled instantly at idle but could be restarted. This strategy worked (at the expense of much of the clutch while negotiating speed bumps, traffic lights and craters and goats in the road) for 200 miles when it died dead again in a smaller village, even farther from home, and so the next mechanic had to be fetched by a friendly stranger on a Honda 50cc Club Special motorbike and he determined that the fuel pump was working erratically. So, after finally locating a new-used fuel pump we changed it on the side of the road-and it is a submerged fuel pump so we had to drop the gas tank and he figured that maybe a wire was bad too so, after stripping the ends of a found length of insulated wire with his teeth he ran it from the tank to the fuse box where he jammed it in alongside one of the live fuses. The motor idled and ran at normal rpm for 5 miles, even though the screws on the carburetor had not been reset, but then reverted to its custom-highway tuning of before-- but I made it the 80 neck-jerking, backfiring miles back home, and boy was I glad to get there.

So now what do you think?

I have taken the Daihatsu minibus to a real Daihatsu dealership to be worked on. They tell me that there has been a spate of bad gas in the country and that this could easily be causing all of my problems. The bad gas evidently came from the National Refinery which, fearing fuel shortages over the holidays, topped off their supplies of gas with an, as yet undetermined, although clearly detrimental to the fuel delivery system, substance- garages have been reporting ten-fold increases in fuel pump and pita de abajo replacements in the past weeks.

I just retrieved my minibus from the Daihatsu dealer because they refused to work on it because, evidently, none of the running system is Daihatsu-they did not know what it was, but it was nothing they had seen before and did not appear in their computer. So I bucked and burned the clutch back to Moto Plaza where I had purchased it in the first place and I will find out more on Monday how this is going to be resolved.

Jan 30, Monday--
Moto Plaza, in a last ditch effort to get the guaguita running smoothly, removed all of the vacuum tubing as well as disconnecting the air filter and the turbo-cooler. But the guaguita ran worse.
Motor of the guaguita denuded of vacuum tubing.
Moto Plaza replaced the motor with all its adjunct  parts with a motor from a similar guaguita in their lot and the guaguita ran worse.
Moto Plaza has painted me up another minibus from their lot. This one is white, does not have a turbo, has a simpler motor and is supposed to be ready for me this Friday.

The post above was written in 2006. I still have (in 2012) the guaguita that Moto Paza gave me that Friday in a straight swap for the original one. Aside from the fact that the timing belt breaks and warps all the valves annually (repair about $150 usd see post entitled Culata http://santodomingodiaries.blogspot.com/2012/03/culata-mechanical-nightmare.html) it has been a fine vehicle.

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