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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. I have a 1990 Plymouth four-door sedan and notice smoke coming out of the ignition key opening when I start my car. Smoke comes out and my air conditioning goes down. I had more refrigerant put in and had it driven home. The man who drives for me since my illness told me that he too smelled something burning. I checked further and couldn't find anything burning. It's time for my registration sticker to be replaced. Who should I get to find out what's wrong. Is it too dangerous to drive?
T.H. Norfolk, VA

A. When you see smoke coming out of something on your car or truck that isn't supposed to smoke or burn, you have a big problem. Take your car to a shop that has a good reputation for troubleshooting. You can get help here by asking friends, neighbors, etc. if any know a good mechanic. They're usually very happy to share the information. Do it soon, and don't drive it until it's fixed. I'd suspect that your car has a bad grounding system and that your ignition switch is having to carry a very heavy load that should be getting back to the battery through a cable. It could create an electrical fire that could easily destroy your car's wiring (an expensive problem) or even start an underhood fire. Several years ago, I had a customer with a Datsun sedan that had a broken engine ground strap and the starting system grounded through its choke cable. The cable got hot enough to melt the plastic choke knob.

Q.I own a 1993 Roadmaster Buick. It has 130,000 on it. I take care of this car and haven't had any problems and it's in a class by itself. Lately I have heard a "pumping" noise coming from somewhere under the engine as I accelerate or idle. I took it to a local Buick dealer and they had it for three days. They could not find a reason for the noise. It is not a metallic sound but instead is a steady pumping noise. The Buick dealer's garage finally gave up on it. One mechanic there mentioned that l probably needed a new engine. I find this hard to believe. I've never had any major problems with the car but I've had the starter, alternator, water pump, and the battery replaced. At the time, it was determined by the automotive repair people that these changes were needed. I am baffled.
A.N. Waldorf, MD

A. If a shop full of factory-trained Buick mechanics can't find the source of a sound coming from one of their own engines, it would be pretty hard for me to pinpoint it from this distance. I'd start with any factory service bulletins that pertain to your particular vehicle to see if there's been any reoccurring problems during the past five years. If your dealer is in doubt, he can also call the service hotline for more information. In the shop, a mechanic could put the car up on a lift, put it in drive at a fast idle (maybe 2000 RPM) and check out the various ancillary units (water pump, power steering pump, alternator, etc.) with a mechanic's stethoscope to locate the area of origin of the noise.

Q. I am a Spanish Navy officer working in Norfolk, VA. A year ago, I bought a Nissan Quest and am considering taking it back to Spain. Nissan Customer Service there guarantees the maintenance of my car in spite of not having the Quest in the Spanish market. I know the American specifications are more strict than the Europeans, however I know that American vehicles don't accomplish European headlight specifications because of different beams. I don't know if there is a technical solution like changing the bulbs or regulating the headlights, etc.
I.N. Washington, DC

A. Get an official OK to take your Quest home in writing from your equivalent of our Department of Transportation. The Spanish embassy can find it for you. I once helped a friend "Americanize" a Fiat he brought in from Italy and it eventually cost him more than a new U.S. version.

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