Roadside mechanic: One man’s heroic battle to open and prop up car hoods and refill his radiator

August 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2016

A few weeks ago, I took a long drive that got interrupted by something pretty annoying. The interruption was then in turn disrupted by something rather amusing.

This was one of those really hot days that we’ve having this summer. Roughly two-thirds of the way into my trip, I noticed that the air conditioning in my car was no longer working. This was annoying, but it wasn’t an interruption.

That came about an hour later, when the check-engine indicator lit up on my dashboard. I was only an hour or so from my destination, so I briefly contemplated driving the rest of the way and bringing the car to a repair shop the next day. However, I quickly reconsidered after I happened to glance at the engine-temperature indicator and saw that it was redlining.

That would not do. Fortunately, there was a rest stop coming up. I babied the car for a mile or so until I could get off the highway and pull over on a stretch of gravel along an access road by a gas station.

I popped the hood release and fumbled for an embarrassing couple of minutes with the latch before managing to uncover the engine. When I glanced at the radiator coolant fluid reservoir, it appeared to be empty. I realized that I needed to let the engine cool down before I did anything else, and I hadn’t gotten many steps in that day, so I started walking in circles in a quiet part of the rest area that dead-ended to a locked gate at the back of some residential neighborhood.

After 20 minutes or so, I went back to my car and got out some gloves and consulted my owner’s manual. Shortly afterward, I opened up the radiator. (Fortunately, it had cooled sufficiently; unfortunately, there was a trick to opening the cap that eluded me on my first few tries.) Like the reservoir, the radiator also seemed to be completely out of coolant. I also checked my engine oil level and decided that I wouldn’t hurt to add some oil, especially because I knew I was overdue for an oil change.

I went into the convenience store attached to the gas station and examined the different brands of coolant on offer. I ended up buying two one-liter bottles of coolant and a pint of my car’s recommended brand of motor oil.

Then I went back to the car and began the messy process of filling the radiator and reservoir without a funnel. I also emptied the bottle of motor oil into the appropriate engine orifice.

While I was adding fluids, a minivan pulled up on the shoulder a few feet ahead of me. Shortly afterward, a man came over and asked if I could help him with his engine.

“Well,” I said, “I guess I can take a look, but I’m really not an expert.”

“You seem to be doing OK,” he told me.

I tried to shrug off this compliment, since I was making an ungainly go of some of the easiest tasks in the car maintenance manual. I told him I’d come over to his minivan in a minute.

When I did, he said his engine was making some kind of noise and he wasn’t sure why. The driver of the minivan, a woman whom I never saw get out of her seat, popped the hood. After another session of fumbling with the latch, I tried to prop up the hood. And here I ran into difficulty.

Like most automobiles, this one had a rod that was meant to hold open the metal panel that covers the engine. But I just couldn’t figure out the way to place the piece of metal so that it would prop up the hood unaided. After experimenting with a bunch of different methods, all fruitless, I pulled the rod out and tried turning it around. I still had no joy.

As I was fumbling around, the man and I took turns holding up the hood and inspecting the engine. Nothing about it looked (or smelled) awry to my extremely inexpert senses. I asked for the driver to turn on the car; she did, and everything continued to look, smell and sound absolutely unremarkable.

The man told me that the vehicle had been making noise when the minivan was traveling faster than 30 miles per hour. Naturally, I asked for the driver to rev the engine.

Seconds after making this request, I suddenly had visions of my career as a freelance volunteer automobile repairman coming to an abrupt end as the minivan ran me over. “The car’s in park, right?” I asked urgently, referring to the transmission.

It was. The driver stepped on the gas for an instant, and the vehicle didn’t move. The engine continued to seem normal. I tried to get the driver to step on the accelerator for a sustained period of time, but I had trouble communicating this request clearly, because each time she touched the pedal she would let up the pressure almost immediately.

Throughout this process, the man and I kept on telling each other that we didn’t notice anything out of place — anything, that is, except for the metal rod that was supposed to prop up the hood. So finally, I turned to the man and said that my only theory about the source of the noise was that it was the rod itself, which might have been rattling around because it didn’t seem to be attached properly.

I tried to stow the rod securely — not so it would prop up the hood, mind you; just so it would stay in place — and again failed. But the guy said that he would just put it in the trunk for the rest of the drive. (I got the impression that he and his family were returning from a trip and were not too distant from their home and their usual mechanic.)

And with that, my work there was complete. “Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful,” I said apologetically. “Safe travels!” He thanked me and I went back to my car to finish cleaning up.

I reached my destination about an hour after finishing my top-offs. A few days later, I paid a hefty fee to a mechanic to address the radiator and other issues. The stereo speakers still don’t work properly, but at least the car should run smoothly for tens of thousands more miles.

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