A few Saturdays ago, my dad called me up. “Just bought a brand new Silverado and I need a lift to the dealership to pick it up. Can you help me out?”
My four-year old daughter Katie was pretty excited to see her grandpa’s new truck, so she came, too. We cruised past the gas station for a quick fill-up and started toward my dad’s place, just six miles away. But we only made it about a half mile from the gas station — and into the heart of traffic — before my 75k-mile ’06 Charger SRT8 lurched hard and rolled to a stop. It was dark and raining, and we were on a four-lane bridge with no shoulder. Of course.
With traffic piling up behind me, I cranked it over and prayed, and it finally coughed to life again. Only now I had no throttle, and all the dash lights were on, with the drive-by-wire lightning bolt icon flashing like certain death was imminent.
The cause of all this — and I didn’t know it at the time — was a bad cam sensor, which took out all the other sensors on the same circuit and put the engine into what’s known as limp mode. I had no control over the engine’s speed, which varied between 1,000 and 1,500 rpm. It’s the kind of failure that gives no warning.
Rather than blocking the road all night waiting for a tow, I idled it home at 3 mph through traffic. While Katie grilled me over what was the matter, I dreamed of a carburetor and an actual throttle cable. Later, I went and picked up my ’72 Cheyenne, which does have a carburetor and an actual throttle cable.
Once I finally figured out what had happened to the Charger and replaced the sensor, everything worked normally again. But now I’ve become skeptical of the car’s reliability. It’s nine years old now, and modern computer and sensors are aging — and there are a lot of them under the hood and inside the car. Every time I drive it I notice low and high idles, measure the time it takes to start, and hear all kinds of taps, clacks, and squeaks, half of which probably aren’t real. But that’s what happens after a car lets you down at the worst possible time.
This morning, as I was inching my way to the office through traffic and worrying about a weird wiggle at idle I hadn’t noticed before, I started dreaming of a simple ’64 Impala wagon family car, dropped down on modern rubber and fitted with big brakes and a motor I built myself. When I finally decide to sell the Charger and buy something else, it’s either going to be that or a new computerized Silverado. But hey, newer isn’t always better.