Ode to a rice-burner

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois, July 21 -- A lot of people treat their pets as members of the family.  I do the same thing with pieces of machinery -- or at least, with some pieces of machinery.  Exhibit A: the car I've been driving for almost 11 years now.

I bought this 1988 Hyundai Excel brand-new, for the princely sum of $5,295, from a Needham, Massachusetts dealer.  I picked it up on October 19, 1987, better known as the day the stock market dropped 508 points.  That gave me the opportunity to say "I got my white Hyundai on Black Myundai," but the car has proven to be a much better investment than most of the shares of stock traded that day.  The odometer claims that as of today, it's got 137,594 miles on it, but the real mileage is probably some 15,000 miles more than that -- the speedometer/odometer cable has a design flaw that, on occasion, causes it to break in very cold weather.  I've replaced the cable three times, but given how long it usually takes me to make a non-essential repair like that, the car was driven for a total of a year or so with no miles being tallied, during the three broken-cable periods.

Waste Not, Want Not

People make fun of my car (Meg calls it the "Korean Cadillac"), but I laugh all the way to the bank.  Besides having saved thousands of dollars the day I bought it -- compared to the price of almost any other new car at the time -- I've probably saved around $50 a month (for 11 years, remember) on gas, compared to what I used to spend feeding my previous set of wheels, which was a '76 Olds Delta 88 with a 350-cubic-inch V-8.   In its early days, the Hyundai used to deliver something close to 40 miles on a gallon of gas -- these days, it's more like 30, but that's still not bad.  The drop may be partly due to compression loss caused by wear and tear on internal parts -- I haven't checked the compression myself, but I had it checked during the course of some other service awhile back, and the mechanic told me it's a bit low in one cylinder.

The guy who writes about cars for the Boston Globe once wrote, "Driving in snow is democracy: money and power don't count."  In the ten Snow Belt winters I've had the rice-burner, I've never been even close to getting stuck -- it'll go through just about anything, even if the plow guy is still sipping coffee back at the garage.

Besides its frugality and agility, I've come to appreciate a lot of the little design features it's got, that never garnered much attention in the press: the sight lines are the best of any car I've ever driven -- there are no blind spots.  The rear compartment is ideal for carrying a tuba.  And you can change a headlight, taillight, or any one of a bunch of other small parts with no tools.

Inline-4?  Nah -- it's a sideways-8!

The best part of the Excel, though, is the engine.  Aside from starting up and running like a top since Day 1 with no trouble whatsoever, the 1.5-liter four-banger is bulletproof -- you can't kill it.

One afternoon about five years ago, I was coming home from work, when all of a sudden, the engine grumbled to a stop.  I pulled over and re-started it for about a second or two -- but when the oil-pressure light didn't go off, I immediately shut it down again.  I pulled the oil dipstick and discovered that there wasn't a drop of oil in the pan.  Further investigation revealed that the drain plug had somehow worked itself loose and fallen out -- allowing all the engine oil to leak out onto the road!  Apparently, when I'd last changed the oil (which was at least a couple of months before the incident), I must have neglected to torque the plug enough to keep it where it belonged.

I had the car towed to a gas station, which replaced the plug and refilled the oil pan.  I expected the engine to have suffered major, if not terminal, damage from having been run with no oil, but not so -- it didn't use any more oil after the incident than before (which wasn't much to begin with).

When I took a three-month cross-country motorcycle trip in 1994, the rice-burner sat patiently awaiting my return in the parking lot behind my apartment building.  This was not a great idea -- I found that various moving parts had become sticky while I was gone.  The brake rotors were stuck to the pads, probably because of corrosion on the rotors themselves.  That was no big deal -- but unfortunately, the brakes weren't the only part that had suffered ill effects from the long layoff.  Shortly after I started driving the car again that fall, I was on the Mass. Turnpike, on the way to Hartford, Connecticut to meet a friend, when again the engine ground to a stop -- this time, from overheating.  I sat there awhile, got some water into the radiator, and restarted -- but almost immediately, the engine overheated again.  Heavy smoke started coming in through the defroster (I have no idea exactly where it was coming from, but it smelled like burning oil -- see below).

I didn't make it to Hartford that day -- I did manage to get home, though, after waiting for the car to cool, then re-starting again, and sneaking off the turnpike when I saw an open gate with one of those "Authorized Vehicles Only" signs.  I decided my overheating problems authorized me to get the heck off the big road and head home.

The overheating turned out to be caused by a gummed-up thermostat -- which had had plenty of time to get congealed and uncooperative during the three months the car had sat undriven.  Despite this and a couple of other rather serious overheating incidents that occurred shortly afterwards, though, the engine didn't miss a power stroke.

Who's smoking?

Here in Illinois, they don't require any kind of periodic mechanical inspection to keep a car on the road, the way they did in Massachusetts.  However, they do make you pass an emission test every two years (although if your car won't pass but isn't too far over the emission limits, and you can show that you've spent a bunch of money trying to get the exhaust levels down to spec, they'll usually give you a waiver and let you keep driving the car, or so I'm told).  A couple of years ago, the Korean Caddy failed the test, the first time through.  But with the transfer of a few hundred bucks from my bank account into that of the Bernardi brothers of Highwood, Illinois -- Meg's and my nominee for World's Greatest Pit Crew -- we got through the test the second time.

(By the way, in case your own wheels ever need work, the Bernardis are great mechanics who work fast, get the job done, and never, ever do any work that doesn't need doing.  No inflated invoices or snow jobs from these guys!  Bernardi Auto Service can be reached at 847/433-2158.)

This time around, though, I was getting seriously concerned, on account of the car had started to smoke visibly upon startup and, sometimes, when decelerating or idling -- and because the exhaust system was all rusted out (ergo, I'd have to replace it before I could even go in for a test in the first place).  Given the state of my bank balance this spring (not great), I was faced with a decision: spend a bunch of dough to get the car ready for a test it might not pass, or concede the inevitable and put it out to pasture.  Complicating matters was the fact that my pickup truck, a 1974 Chevy C-10, was also due for the smoke test, I decided on a strategy: I'd take the truck in, and if it passed (thus getting by without costing me any repair money), I'd have the faithful rice-burner fixed up and tested, one mo' time.

Turned out the truck passed with flying colors.  So I once again entrusted the Hyundai to the care of the Bernardis, who replaced the offending exhaust system parts, cleaned the carburetor, and adjusted a few other things.  They also tested it for emissions.  When I picked up the car last Thursday, Ray the mechanic said, "It'll pass the test, but just barely -- it's burning a little oil.  When you take it in, make sure it's thoroughly warmed up, but don't race the engine or shut it off.  Just keep the revs down and relax."

I got in the car, ready to take off for the testing place.  Started the engine and noticed some smoke.  No big deal, I decided -- it's been sitting for a couple of days, parked on a slope, so it may be that some oil seeped into some place where it doesn't belong (that frequently happens to my BMW motorcycle when it's been parked leaning over on the side stand), and now it's burning off.

Well, after a couple of miles, I noticed the car was smoking much more -- like a race car that slows down, coming out of Turn 4, and the announcer says, "Dick Trickle's blown an engine; that's the end of his day!"

I wasn't sure what to do -- take the car back to the garage?  Take it home and try another day?  I decided to give it a few more miles and see how things went.  Sure enough, as I got closer and closer to the testing facility, the smoke trail began to diminish.  A couple of miles away, and it was down to a puff or two.  By the time I pulled into the testing place, there was no visible smoke at all.  I remembered Ray's advice: "Don't race it, just let it idle, and chill out!"  The EPA guy waved me in and stuck the dreaded exhaust probe into the end of my muffler.

I kept my eyes glued to the test-machine monitor for what seemed like an eternity.  Finally, the screen lit up: "Congratulations!  your car has passed!"

So the rice-burner has a new lease on life and an opportunity to make a valedictory tour before heading off into the sunset.  When I got it, my goal was to make it last ten years, then trade it in for a new one.  Awhile back, it didn't look as if it were going to make it -- in fact, when I bought my pickup truck back in '95, the idea was to use it as an eventual replacement for the Hyundai.  But sometimes, it's hard to let go -- especially when you're talking about a member of the family, and one that's performed above and beyond the call of duty for so long.  Sooner or later, it's going to reach the end of its useful life -- perhaps suffering an enforced retirement at the hands of the smoke police, or for who-knows-what other reasons.  On the other hand, last year, I saw a '70s Ford Pinto racing at Road America in the Sports Car Club of America's June Sprints.  Hmmmmmm.  If a lowly Pinto can take to the race track, anything can.  Maybe if I gave the rice-burner a top-end rebuild, some performance suspension, a roll bar, and a couple of racing stripes....

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

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