A trip to Saturn

Before the bad weather was about to embrace us, my neighbor Larry asked me to schedule some time to look at his daughter’s Saturn. It was running rough and dying when you came to a stop light. Her 16th birthday was coming and they were giving her the Saturn so the plan was to put a few bucks in the car to “dress it up”. Her sister drove it faithfully until her graduation from high school and it was now time for the old girl to carry another Fisher to and from high school. The mileage on the Saturn revealed that it had probably been driven to Saturn, the planet, and back at least once. 172,000 miles and some change.
[Editors note: I know as you do now, that Saturn “the planet” is 1.2 billion km from earth at its closest point. Not the paltry distance of 172,000 miles which isn’t even a one way trip to our own moon (238,857 miles on average)]

I offered to buy this car from him when his first daughter graduated on to a new car and college. He said he couldn’t, not wouldn’t, couldn’t sell it to me. It wasn’t worth anything and he couldn’t replace it for that. I know exactly what he means. You know these cars. 10 year old cars that have nothing seriously wrong with them that the bank and the people like Kelly Blue Book say are worth about a thousand dollars.

You couldn’t buy a thousand dollar car that is reliable if you wanted to. No matter what you bought you’d immediately be dumping a thousand dollars in it to get it back to running. Its simply economically not worth selling. I didn’t have any hard feelings about that. My buddy JagGuy wouldn’t sell me his Ford Contour beater either. Sadly the Contour was destroyed in the huge hail storm of 2009.

He came over on a Thursday evening to ask and I said we should look at it now. He described the symptoms:

  • Rough idle
  • Coughing and choking
  • Acceleration problems

He also said it tends to die when you corner hard if the level in the fuel tank dropped below 1/8th of a tank. He had a very elegant solution to this problem…He told his girls never to let the fuel drop below 1/8th of a tank. Genius, a man after my own heart. I had a similar request of my girls. I told them if I ever get in your car and it’s below an 1/8th of a tank on the fuel gauge, your driving privileges will be revoked for a week.

Well back to the car problems…Does this problem of rough idle sound familiar? If you drive a Range Rover Classic you know this to be a problem with the air idler valve. A dirty air idler valve will cause rough idle. So I told him this would be no problem. I told him we should check that out first and that my confidence level in this solution was pretty high. The trick was finding the silly thing. He had the Chilton’s book so we found the section with the throttle body and right there was a picture of the air idler valve. It is the same one we use on a Range Rover Classic. I told him it should be easy to find.

I told him if we can find it, it’s an easy thing to clean. We started looking for it and it was not to be found. Finally I told him we should take the throttle body off and the valve would reveal itself. We removed the throttle body. And there was the problem. An eighth of an inch of oily carbon deposits on everything on the engine side of the butterfly.

These photos were shot after a few beers with a cell phone and trouble lights, in the dark, on a moonless night. We took a picture of the inside of the intake and every surface was covered in the carbon oil goo. The detail is not there that would reveal how bad this really looked. I’ve never seen anything like that. I scraped it with a screwdriver. Wow.

I was amazed the thing ran at all. It became pretty obvious that the butterfly was not closing securely. So we proceeded to clean it up. A little brake fluid cleaner and a stiff toothbrush made short work of the majority of it.

The air idler valve was different from the picture. It wasn’t the same as the Range Rover’s. I wasn’t surprised. We removed it and cleaned up the seat. You can imagine it was pretty dirty as well. We got it cleaned up and reinstalled the assembly.

As you can see, it is shiny and clean. It made a pretty good difference in how the Saturn idled. Larry’s other complaint was the acceleration. So I got in the Saturn and drove her. The throttle response was great. Press the peddle and the revs went up. But in first gear of the automatic transmission, you could tell the acceleration didn’t match the revs on the tachometer. Second and third gears behaved as expected but first gear, in my humble opinion, was slipping.

I drove it home and asked when the last time the transmission fluid was changed. “Probably, never.” He hadn’t done it and was unsure if it had ever been done by a previous owner. I recommended he have a transmission service. A batch of fresh fluid might, and I told him might, bring several thousand more miles of Saturn-y goodness and if he was lucky the slipping would stop.

It was fun to find a problem and solve it. It was really, really fun to help a friend make one of his cars more reliable for one of his daughters. I have two daughters and I know the trepidation he feels each time one takes a car out of the driveway.

I could tell you a dozen stories about this daughter, like the one when she was five years old. She was feeling oppressed because she could not run around the neighborhood topless like all the other kids (all boys). But I’ll let her mom post them on her knitting blog. Happy Birthday Laurianne.

Thanks for reading and thanks Happy Rovering.

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