Tales from the New Hampshire Woods

Oct 26, 2002

RAY: You don't need to know very much about cars to get the answer to this puzzler.

Monday morning, I showed up at the shop and the phone rang. It was an irate customer.

TOM: Again! Is there any other kind?

RAY: It's Chuck. He says, "My Volvo's out front. I had it towed back from New Hampshire. It conked out. It won't run."

I asked, "What happened?"

Chuck said, "My wife, our son and I and my mother-in-law were going up to New Hampshire to look at the foliage. Suddenly, the car began to sputter, especially on hills, and lose power. It was even sputtering and losing power on the level ground. I happened to notice that the gas gauge was on E, so I figured I might as well get gas.

"I pulled into a gas station and filled up the tank. I drove away and everything was fine for about five miles. Then the same thing started happening again.

"That's when we decided to give up. We left the car. We had it towed back to your shop."

Chuck added, "About a month or so ago, you guys put in a new fuel pump and I'm pretty sure that that's what's wrong. I don't know how it happened, but the gas gauge isn't working any more either, because when I filled it up, the needle didn't move."

So, I pushed Chuck's Volvo into the garage and verified that it didn't start, and that it was not getting gas. I turned the key and it got a spark, but I put the fuel pressure tester on the fuel rail -- and there was no fuel pressure.

Next, I inspected the fuel line, thinking there might have been a break. It was fine. While checking the fuel line, I noticed that there were little spurts of gasoline and mostly air coming out of the line. I concluded that the pump was bad.

But before we ordered a new one, I called Chuck. I asked him to tell me what had happened.

I asked him one question.

He answered, "Yes."

And I told him, "I know what's wrong with your car."

In 10 minutes or less, I had his car running and the gas gauge working.

What did I ask Chuck?


RAY: As I said at the beginning, you didn't need to know very much about cars to this solve this. And in fact you don't.

TOM: That's a big hint.

RAY: And not only did I ask him a question which I already knew the answer to but I also told him what else he did. And the question was did you pay for the gas with a credit card. And he said, yes. And I said and while you were gassing up were you listening to your mother-in-law go on and on and on about how you should buy a new car, you shouldn't be such a cheapskate driving this old jalopy especially when you're taking her and her grandson all the way up to New Hampshire. And he said, yeah.

TOM: Um hm.

RAY: And what happened was the following. He didn't notice that when he put the nozzle in because his mother-in-law was running her mouth like she usually does that the thing shut off immediately. And in fact he put like 65 cents worth of gas in it.

TOM: How did you know that?

RAY: Well I knew that because the gas gauge read empty. So he went in with an empty tank and he left with essentially an empty tank having put in very little gas into it, and by not paying cash, if the attendant came over and said 65 cents, sir, he would have said, oh that can't be right, I'm on empty.

TOM: But if he just pulled a little slip out of the automatic machine ­-

RAY: Right, and he was just tired of listening to that mother-in-law of his. He just stuffed that thing in his pocket and off they went. He said, ah, those dopes, my gas gauge still doesn't work. So what we did very simply was put gas in it and off he went.

TOM: Did you charge him seven bucks a gallon?

RAY: And more. So who's our winner?

TOM: The winner is Millard Bockman from Euless, Texas.

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