Is it possible for a battery, voltage regulator, starter and alternator to all go kaput at once?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 1995

Dear Tom and Ray:

I would appreciate your opinion on a problem I had with my 1984 Ford F150. After shopping and returning to start my truck, I turned the ignition switch and the starter spun like an electric motor without turning the engine. AAA tried to start the truck with a jump start with the same result, so they hauled it to a Ford dealer. There, the service advisor wrote up the work authorization listing the problem as "no start, possible starter," with a preliminary estimate of $450. The next morning the service advisor called to say that they didn't think I had a starter problem after all, but rather a dead battery, and that they were going to try a quick charge. About half an hour later, the advisor called to say that my battery wouldn't take the charge, and it appeared as though something had wiped out my battery, voltage regulator, alternator, AND starter. It cost me $686. Does this sound plausible?

RAY: Gee, Bob. It's highly unlikely that your battery, voltage regulator, alternator and starter would all go bad at the same time by themselves. I mean, the chances of that are about the same as the chances someone would refer to my brother as "hey, handsome."

TOM: I would say there's a 99% probability that this was due to human error. The problem is, it's very hard to know who did it. But in the interests of vile innuendo, let us present three possible scenarios.

RAY: In the first scenario, Moe, the AAA tow truck driver, fries your electrical system. He had recently graduated from the work-release program, and his automotive skills are admittedly a bit rusty. And in the dark, he accidentally hooks up the jumper cables backwards. That sends a large jolt of electricity in the wrong direction, which puts the whole system in the meat locker.

TOM: In that scenario, "Larry," the dealership Service Advisor, listens to your desciption, and assumes correctly that you're describing a starter problem. In the morning, they discover that everything is fried, and you're out $686.

RAY: Scenario two assumes Moe is innocent. In fact, he was the Towboy centerfold in October, 1972. He knows that your starter gear isn't engaging and that you need a new starter. He knows a jump start won't help, but he does it anyway just to make you feel better (being the sweet guy that he is).

TOM: Then Moe tows your truck to the dealership where Larry, the Service Advisor, sizes you up, gives you an estimate of $450 for a $150 starter job, and watches your face. You don't flinch. He radios to the front office that he has a live one, and the next morning, they call you and give you a song and dance #38B and charge you $686.

TOM: Scenario three maintains that both Moe and Larry are innocent. Larry gives you a ridiculously high quote on the starter purely by accident. He means to write "1", but instead he writes "4" for some subconcious reason understood only by Larry's mother and Sigmund Freud.

RAY: Next morning, "Curly" the mechanic tries to start the truck and finds that, by coincidence, your battery is weak. Curly knows a weak battery won't cause the sound you described, but he doesn't trust you or Larry to give an accurate description of the problem, so he decides to start from scratch and jump start the battery.

TOM: So he tells "Shemp," the 19 year old "garage gopher" to hook up the jumper cables. Shemp has three jobs at the garage. He sweeps the floors, he gets coffee for the other mechanics, and he jump starts cars. But sweeping floors is the only job he seems to have gotten the hang of.

RAY: So Shemp hooks up the jumper cables backwards and fries the whole works. Then he plays Mickey-the-Dunce, and you end up paying $686.

TOM: You'll notice that all three of these scenarios have the same ending. And I'm afraid that's the ending you're going to have to settle for at this point. It's going to be awfully hard to prove what really happened, because the dealership and AAA can simply point the finger at each other.

RAY: You can try talking to them both, but without the help of Detective Sipowicz from NYPD Blue, I'd be very surprised if you get an admission of guilt from anybody. Sorry, Bob.

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