‍CAR GAMES - The Five Stages of a Car Breakdown

October 25, 2021

We all know old cars break down, yet we love them all the same. There’s a reason Hagerty includes towing in their policy coverage, and that we keep our AAA memberships topped off: a breakdown is inevitable at some point. This is the one unwelcomed and unspoken initiation rite of our secret collector car society. Last week, the Car Gods took the ceremonial wooden paddle and decided to whack me on my bottom. 

Some of you may know that in grad school I studied international military policy. Since it was still the Cold War, I really did study nuclear war and other sunny topics. The term DEFCON, short for “defense ready condition,” was the system the U.S. military used to signal a crisis heading toward global thermonuclear war, where "1" is bad. You may also remember it as a key plot device in the ‘80s movie classic WarGames. 

It just so happens that I have also adpated the DEFCON system, to track the alert level I have when a car is starting to misbehave. It works surprisingly well but I'll let you be the judge. See if any of this sounds familiar to you. 

Note: To protect the innocent, the offending vehicle will remain anonymous.

DEFCON 5 - No Threat

It starts with me simply just driving around, having a great time on a perfect autumn day in the Pacific Northwest. My internal dialog sounds like this:

"This car is amazing! I love how it kicks up the falling leaves. They swirl in my wake -- it must look like a TV commercial! I wouldn’t want to be anyone but me right now. I am one with this glorious machine. I am pure joy." 

When I go to accelerate from a stop light, I wind out the engine just a bit longer so I can hear the symphony of combustion, induction, and mechanical noise. Just another thousand RPMs.... 


It is so short as to be almost undetectable--a tenth of a tenth of a second. The moment passes.

DEFCON 4 - Increase Intel, Monitor Closely

The moment doesn’t just pass. My conscious brain is actively rationalizing away the split-second hesitation:

"Just some bad gas or a bubble in the fuel line. Totally harmless. Time to resume our normally scheduled programming...of fun!" 

However, my subconscious is lit up, searching for bogies. Every sense is activated. My eyes diligently scan around all of the gauges for anything amiss. All clear.

     <another hesitation> 

DEFCON 3 - Prepare for Breakdown

Shit is starting to get real. There was about a 30-second gap between hesitations. Note that. The adrenal glands are starting to pump stress hormones. Heartbeat and respiration increase. Senses are further heightened. Time starts to slow down. 

Ten seconds pass.

     <longer hesitation>

That came sooner, so the decay in performance is accelerating and the system is in collapse. Now I am laser-focused on every RPM. It was okay when the engine was cold, but now it’s warming up. Is that the cause? Too early to tell; need more data.

     <engine begins to run rough>

DEFCON 2 - Breakdown Is Imminent

Things are quickly going in the wrong direction. It’s time to ready contingencies. I'm about a half mile from my garage and making it is not out of the question. While the car is struggling, there are no signs that continuing to operate it would do any harm. Rapid assessment: Likely fuel delivery and/or an electrical issue.

On the downside, I am coming through a part of town where I definitely would not want to be standing next to my broken down classic car. My adrenals give an extra squirt for good measure thinking about the very real possibility of public shame. 

     <backfiring and sputtering>

The rate of decay signals that we are approaching the endgame. I am on a busy thoroughfare where blocking a lane would be bad. Like, really bad. I start looking for a place to turn or pull off safely. Some possibilities ahead -- at the top of a little rise. Erp.

     <engine stalls>

DEFCON 1 - Global Thermonuclear Breakdown

And so it goes. I am stalled in the aforementioned busy street but fortune has cut me a break. It was immediately after some ongoing road work with a lane closure -- so at least I’m not the big turd blocking traffic. Things are looking up…yay me. I wave to the flagman that I’m going to be coasting in reverse and will cut into the side street which he is controlling. He makes way and it works like a charm. I breathe. Situation report: stable. 

Time to take a moment and flush out the adrenaline rush. With a pause, I can analyze the situation. The issue was progressing and got worse the more the engine warmed up. I am now only blocks from the garage. I devise a route utilizing nothing but side streets in hopes that the engine, after a few minutes of cooling, will behave.

It does as I had hoped. The engine cranks and fires. Not great, but it is operating better. Not wasting a moment, I turn around and take the back way to the garage, praying that every light will be green. I have a short fuse before it goes again. In two minutes, I arrive and click the door opener. At this point, I can make it on gravity alone. I slide into my parking space. It is over, at least this time. 


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