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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. My questions are threefold. How can a person tell if the engine timing belt is about to fail? When the timing belt does fail, is a dealer or an independent mechanic better? How can a person spot a good mechanic or repair shop?
M.O. Norfolk, VA

A. Usually the belt that drives a camshaft or camshafts on an engine gets slightly "raggedy" on its inside surface before it fails - but not always. The belt is the cheapest part of the job, so the sensible thing to do is to change it as recommended by the factory since having it fail means the additional cost of a tow truck at best and expensive engine work at worst. A shop is only as good as its mechanics. Some independents are ripoff artists and some dealer shops employ only the best available talent. The only reliable way to spot a good shop or mechanic is to look at the faces of their customers. They'll usually smile when you ask them about "their" mechanic.

Q. I ride with a person who grips the steering wheel with just one hand at the 12 o'clock position. Another person I know holds the wheel with the tips of his left thumb and forefinger at seven o'clock. When I express my concern about the possibility of losing control of the car if a tire fails or if another vehicle were to bump us, the response was to not worry. With power steering it is very difficult to change the direction of the car unless the steering wheel is turned.
N.N. Seattle, WA

A. Recent photos and TV shots of sport/utility vehicles upside down after defective tires gave out at highway speeds should demonstrate the fallacy of thinking that modern vehicles can't get into trouble during an emergency. Having gone through a couple of racing driver schools as well as a police driving academy (as a guest and not as a policeman), I've always tried to be prepared for the worst and keep my hands on the wheel at the 11 and two o'clock positions. For the most part, modern steering systems are not "reversible" (the road wheel pulling the steering wheel from the hands of the driver) but a blown front tire can pull it pretty hard. I think it's best to be able to put shoulder muscles into steering a vehicle and neither of the driver positions you describe can do this. A "panic" hit on the brake pedal often precedes a blown tire rollover which shows that ABS (anti-skid brake systems) and power steering can't be relied on to come to the rescue. The driver has to be prepared for anything.

Q. I have a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta Royale two-door sedan. I'm the original owner. Is the car considered to be a special automobile or maybe a collectible or a classic?
N.S. Fontana, CA

A. We get lots of letters asking if a particular old car is considered to be a "classic" or something of more value than being just another old car. Recently we've gotten a plethora of letters from Oldsmobile owners asking if their car is now more valuable due to the fact that the company is being rapidly phased out by its parent, General Motors. A classic car is a tough thing to define and to purists, it means a custom-bodied or very expensive car usually built before or just after World War II. That definition has blurred over the years and now means almost anything an owner wants it to mean. "Collectible" also means different things to different enthusiasts and maybe "Special Interest" is a better label but that too is in the eye of the beholder. According to one of the used car value books we use, your '73 Delta Royale is worth $4500, roughly half that of a Delta Royale convertible of the same year. At that, your car would have to be in perfect original condition and you'd have to find the right buyer.


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