Car questions beget car answers in the world of Tom and Ray

By Tom and Ray Magliozzi
Saturday September 29, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray: 

I am horizontally and vertically challenged. Yep, that's right - I'm fat. I am as tall as I am wide (5 feet 3 inches in both directions). I would like a no-nonsense practical car like a Camry or an Accord, but I have discovered that they don't have enough room for ALL of me. I test drove a '94 Lexus this weekend, and it, too, left me looking for more room (although the car was so beautiful, I wouldn't mind if half my rear dragged out the front door, but the neighbors might!). The practical side of me would like a car that is about a year or two old, reliable and roomy. I can only spend about $18,000. What would you suggest? - Isabel 

TOM: Well, Isabel, we have a friend, children's author Daniel Pinkwater, who has similar problems. He refers to himself as "circumferentially challenged." 

RAY: I don't know if he's quite as wide as you are (or even if YOU'RE quite as wide as you suggest), but his biggest problem was always getting himself in and out of cars. 

TOM: No. His biggest problem was always getting anyone to buy his books. But getting in and out of cars was a close second. 

RAY: Then he called us one day and said he'd found the car of his dreams. It's a VW New Beetle. We were kind of skeptical, since we think of that as a small car. But according to Daniel, it's got very big doors, nice, big door openings and a tremendous amount of room inside due to its unusual "bubble" shape. He didn't say anything about the size of the seat itself. But I presume that if it can contain Daniel without a breach, it can probably hold you, too. 

TOM: And it happens to sell for about $18,000 brand new. So I think the Beetle is definitely worth a "test sit." 

RAY: If the Beetle's seat does prove too small, then I'd suggest you look at a few cars that come with bench seats in the front. In that category are the Toyota Avalon, the Ford Crown Victoria and the Mercury Gran Marquis - any of which can be had used for $18,000. And I've never seen anyone NOT be able to fit on a bench seat. 

TOM: And when your search is complete, post a note in the Special Needs Zone of our Web site (the Car Talk section of www.cars.com) so that other overextended people can benefit from your experience. Best of luck, Isabel.  




Dear Tom and Ray: 

My wife drives a Toyota Camry. Recently, it was stolen from in front of our house and abandoned, rather banged up. The locks, however, were undamaged. The cop said Camrys are so common that car thieves have master keys for them. Yikes! It's very disturbing to think that anyone who wants to can just get in our car and drive off. My wife feels that a good solution would be to replace our Camry's locks with a set of locks from a '78 Pinto or some car that thieves are unlikely to have keys for. How tough would that be for a mechanic to do? --Jacob 

RAY: Well, it's true that master keys are available. In fact, I have a set of them at the garage that allows me to get into just about any car. We have them on hand for those not-so-rare occasions when customers lock their keys in their cars. 

TOM: At least that's his story, and he's sticking with it. 

RAY: The keys are made of plastic or thin-gauge metal -- and there's usually a different one for each manufacturer. They work better on some cars than on others. Some locks require patience and a bit of careful jiggling, and some locks are nearly impossible to open. Unfortunately for you, the Camry is one of the easier ones. 

TOM: And I agree with you that it's unconscionable that, for about a hundred bucks, some enterprising teen-ager can get his hands on a set of master keys like this. 

RAY: Unfortunately, installing a lock from a different car isn't easy -- whether it's on the door or the ignition. Most locks are not interchangeable and won't fit other cars. The more cost-effective thing to do is to get an alarm system with an ignition-kill device. Or a deadly snake. 

TOM: And more importantly, you need a decal that lets people know that you HAVE an alarm system ... or the aforementioned deadly snake. You want potential thieves to see your decal, decide it's not worth it and go on to another car. Because even if they realize once they get in that they can't start your car, they might vandalize it in frustration. 

RAY: In fact, if you could buy JUST the warning decals, that would probably be enough. 

TOM: Hey, we should sell them. A set of four for $39.95. They could say: "Warning, Please Do Not Feed My Anaconda." 




Dear Tom and Ray: 

How do automatic gas-pump nozzles know when the car's gas tank is almost full, and therefore when to shut off? This question has bothered me since I was 16 and gas was two bits a gallon -- neither of which is true anymore. -- Ross 

RAY: Great question, Ross. The nozzle uses a simple mechanism that's been around for decades. 

TOM: Basically, there's a little hole near the end of the nozzle. You can look for it the next time you fill up. And attached to that hole is a tube that's connected to the handle. 

RAY: When gasoline is flowing freely (i.e., when the tank is not full), the moving liquid creates a vacuum as it pours into the tank, and air gets sucked freely through that tube. But as the tank gets full, the vacuum is reduced. 

TOM: And there's a mechanical, vacuum-activated switch in the handle that -- get this -- senses when the vacuum reaches a critical low point and then switches off the gas flow. 

RAY: This system is far superior to the previous method used to determine when the tank was full. My brother remembers using that system. 

TOM: Yeah, when you felt the gasoline trickle down your pant leg into your shoes, you knew it was just past time to stop squeezing the handle.  




Dear Tom and Ray: 

I need your help in solving a problem that really has me stumped. My 1992 Nissan Sentra has a few strange habits, most of which I can live with -- but not this one: When the car sits in the sun with the windows closed, it just will not start. I turn the key and get absolutely nothing. If I open the window and wait about five minutes, it starts up just fine. I replaced the battery, the starter and the battery cables. Nothing worked. Then I took it to a shop, and the mechanic wanted to replace the battery, the starter and the battery cables. Naturally, I declined. It started fine all winter. But now every time I go to the beach, it won't start. -- Erik 

TOM: You gave us two excellent hints, Erik. Now, wouldn't it be impressive if we could actually put them to some intelligent use? 

RAY: It would, wouldn't it? Well, one hint is that it's related to high temperatures inside the passenger compartment. So that would limit it to parts located where, Tommy? 

TOM: Inside the passenger compartment! 

RAY: Very good. And the second hint is that absolutely nothing happens when Erik turns the key. And that means what? 

TOM: It means Erik's sleeping on the beach tonight. 

RAY: Thank you, Dick Tracy. It means it's got to be a part that can completely interrupt current to the starter, because otherwise you'd get at least some sound or hear some effort by the car to start. 

TOM: So my guess is that it's a bad ignition switch. 

RAY: Good guess, but probably wrong. My guess is a bad clutch interlock. Assuming this car has a stick shift (you don't say, but many Sentras of this vintage do), there's a switch on the clutch pedal that prevents you from starting the engine unless the pedal is fully depressed. My guess is that the contacts are being affected by the extreme heat. 

TOM: It's an easy thing to test, Erik. Have your mechanic remove the clutch interlock and just shunt those two wires together -- taking the interlock completely out of the circuit. If the problem goes away, have him install a new clutch interlock (it's cheap), and you'll be all set. 

RAY: Just be careful during the test period, when you're driving around without a clutch interlock. You'll be able to start the car with the transmission in gear. And your delight in having the car actually start might dissipate quickly as you realize you just "started it" into a sand dune.