Whack whack, Vroom vroom!

In the late 1990s I worked for an IT consulting firm in Manhattan.  The company employed two types of people, account executives who served customers (what I did) and recruiters who found the consulting talent.  Recruiters were usually hired right out of college and to find them we would travel to different colleges to recruit… well, recruiters.

One Friday in the spring of 1996, my coworker Norman and I traveled to my alma mater, Lehigh University for an afternoon of interviews.  We drove separately since we were headed in different directions at the end of the day.  We arrived at almost the same time, me in my 1993 green Saturn SL1 and Norman in his 1993 green Pontiac Bonneville, parking next to each other in the new ramp garage right next to the business school.

 Pictures of the aforementioned green 1993 cars found somewhere in cyberspace.

Pictures of the aforementioned green 1993 cars found somewhere in cyberspace.

It was a sunny day, and the Lehigh campus was beautifully painted with flowering shrubs and lush new leaves on the trees.  When our schedule of interviews was complete we walked back to the garage and got into our cars.  But, as I drove away I heard a funny noise.  Looking in my rear view mirror, I saw that the noise was Norm, running after my car and yelling.  I stopped and rolled down my window.

“Naz, my car won’t start” he said, “you gotta help me,” so I returned to the parking spot from which I’d just come. Norm explained what was happening and I listened, asked a few questions, and instantly knew what the problem was.

Now, there are a few conditions where a recently running car won start.  They are:

Symptom Cause
Dim or no Dash lights or Head
lights – Clicking sound when you try to start the engine
Dead battery
Engine cranks & cranks but
does not start
Either no gas or no spark
Bright dash lights & head lights, but no sound when you try to crank the engine Stuck starter solenoid

I’ve always had an affinity for cars, but growing up I had very few opportunities to turn a wrench since the Nazarian approach to car maintenance was completely laissezfaire. The first car I ever owned was a 1975 Post Office Jeep that I bought for $100.  One Sunday afternoon while cruising around Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore, my starter died and I learned, out of necessity, exactly how simple some car repairs can be. I was staying with my cousin and he had but a single adjustable wrench to offer me.  I crawled under the Jeep, removed the starter by detaching one bolt and one wire. I walked a few blocks to an auto parts store, and plunked my dead starter on the counter.  Sixty-five dollars and five minutes later I was walking back to my Jeep.  I replaced the bolt and the wire, turned the key and off we went.

Typical Car Starter

Typical Car Starter

Car starters have two basic components, the motor that does the actual starting and the solenoid (an electromagnet) that moves the starter gear so it can interface with the flywheel on the engine to start it.  Most of the time this all works without issue.  You turn the key, the solenoid pushes the gear against the flywheel, the motor spins, the engine cranks and as soon as you hear it catch, you release the key back.  Sometimes, silly people try to start an engine that is already running.  When that happens, the solenoid pushes the starter gear into an already fast-turning flywheel resulting in a nasty grinding noise.  I’m sure none of you know what that sounds like.


Norm had described the classic symptoms of a stuck solenoid.  He had full dash lights, and when he turned on his headlights they were bright.  However when he tried to start the car nothing happened, no cranking, no clicking…nothing.

A stuck solenoid is caused by wear to the plunger part of the mechanism. It gets stuck in such a way that the electromagnet can’t overcome the friction.  Fortunately, the temporary fix is really easy.

Trolley Jack Handle

Trolley Jack Handle

I asked Norm to open his hood while I went to my trunk to get what I needed. My roommate had destroyed the jack that came with my Saturn, so in my trunk was a 2-ton trolley jack.  I removed the handle from the jack, which is a gray, 2.5 foot steel pipe with a handle grip on one end.  As I rounded the front of Norm’s car with the jack handle, he jumped back and yelled “Yo Naz, what’s with the freak’n lead pipe?”  What’s funny about this is that Norm is a good 2 inches taller than me and outweighs me by at least 75 pounds.  The idea that I could physically threaten him is well… funny.

I looked under the hood and traced the thick red (+) wire from the battery down to the starter.  Using the jack handle (or freak’n lead pipe) I gave the solenoid casing on the side of the starter two solid whacks.  The conversation then went like this:

Me: Go start your car.

Norm: You’re shitting me!

Me: I shit you not, start the damn car.

Norm got into the Bonneville, turned the key and it started right up, first try.  Leaving the engine running, Norm got out of the car, calmly walked over to me and quietly said “Naz, you are one seriously scary skinny white man.”

I bid him farewell, since at this point I was running late, but I was sure to tell him that the problem wasn’t actually fixed and he needed a new starter. But as long as he didn’t stop the engine he’d get home, and he might be able to overcome the problem by whacking it a few more times, but that’s all.

The next Monday at our weekly sales meeting, Norm announced the following to the entire sales team “Naz has some serious voodoo skills… never doubt anything he tells you.”  I accepted the complement with grace.

This may read like a story about a guy who knows about cars just fixing a car, but it is more than that.  If I’d never been stuck on LBI with my Jeep and been forced to figure it out, I never would have known what to do with Norm’s car.  So when you’re presented with the opportunity to fix something small on your car, a headlight bulb, a wiper blade, anything; do it yourself.  Every time you fix something on your car you will get more comfortable fixing things on your car.  You will be amazed at what you can do and shocked at how much money you can save.

There are thousands of videos on YouTube that show you how to do hundreds of different car repairs.  My favorite is doing brakes.  It is pretty easy and will save you hundreds. The best part is that you get to walk into work on a Monday morning and proclaim “I replaced my brakes this weekend, and it wasn’t that hard.”  You will feel like a bad-ass.  It’s good to be a bad-ass.  Good luck!

Here is a sample of one of those videos:

Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved – Whack Whack, Vroom Vroom.

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