Bob and the Miracle Car

Dec 08, 2003

RAY: This puzzler is a little story that's rife with hints, but not obfuscation. That's a big hint. There's nothing here to trip you up. Everything is designed to help you.

It's entitled, "Bob and the Miracle Car: April 1974."

Bob steered the old sedan down the open interstate, one finger on the wheel, his left arm resting on the windowsill. The spring air was warm and the breeze carried the scent of fresh cut flowers and grass. The glass and chrome reflected the brilliance of the late afternoon sun, which cast a golden glow through the cabin. Soft music wafted from the radio, the motor thrummed, the tires clopped a syncopated rhythm on the highway's expansion joints, and the speedometer needle hovered at 80. All was right with the world, or so Bob thought.

He passed a sign proclaiming, "No gas, no food, no water, no hope, next 114 miles." It barely registered. Bob had made this trip dozens of times in this very car. He'd inherited this 14-year-old sedan from his grandmother. It was a tail-finned relic, anachronistic as she had been, but it cost him nothing, was in good shape, and went pretty far between fill-ups.

An hour went by, and the day slipped toward evening. The inky shadows were creeping in. Suddenly, there was a loud rapping sound from the motor! Bob strained to hear, but the sound was gone. He glanced at the instruments. A red, telltale light was glowing. It read, "ALT", a-l-t. Bob pulled over to the shoulder, switched off the motor, got out, and opened the hood. He pulled a shredded belt from among the pulleys, and leaned over to see where it had come from. He was no mechanic and had never even changed his own oil. Still, he knew a little bit about how cars work, and he knew that a broken belt was a big problem, especially out here in the middle of nowhere.

The only pulley that seemed to be missing a belt was the alternator. He reached down, and he spun. It was free, but hot to the touch. He withdrew his singed fingers and blew on them. He looked at the rest of the belts. They were in bad shape, all probably original. Grammy had never replaced anything. The broken one had died of old age.

Okay, no alternator. If the battery wasn't too far discharged, he could maybe get the car started again. If he drove with all the electrical accessories switched off, he might get another half-hour down the road. It was getting dark though, and he would have to use his lights. They would kill the battery in no time. Help was almost an hour away in any direction. He wasn't going to make it. Bob put his hand on his hips and stared down that long, deserted stretch of highway. The buzzards were circling. He had no choice but to try.

He got back in and turned the key. The old motor rattled reassuringly to life. He ran the column-shifted manual up through the gears, and settle down to a steady 50 miles per hour. When it got too dark to see, he reluctantly put on the headlights. They began to dim almost immediately. He drove along, nervously, eyes shifting from the road to the instruments, ears listening for the motor to sputter. The red "ALT" light dimmed, and it too, finally went out.

He made it to an off ramp, and downshifted as he took it, amazed that the motor still sounded so healthy. When Bob finally made it to a service station, the car's lights were out, the radio was dead, the electric windows wouldn't budge, but the motor still ran fine, clattering a little at idle, as it always had. The station's mechanic had a belt that would fit. While the guy worked on the car, Bob told him about his anxious ride. "No way did you drive 50 miles at night with a dead alternator," replied the mechanic. Then he leaned close to the motor, and sniffed. He said, "Ah, I stand corrected. Maybe you did. Lucky for you that you were driving one of these."

The question is, what was Bob driving that night?


RAY: Here's the answer. Bob was driving a diesel.

When the lights go out and the windows and radio won't work, it matters little to the diesel, which has no ignition system. It's igniting the gasoline not with sparks, but with the heat of compression. It can run all day long without electricity.

The hints were there: the clattering engine went far between fill-ups, an anachronistic relic, etc.

TOM: No lights. Even the ALT light went out!

RAY: Yeah, that's pretty bad, if you don't have enough juice for that little light.

TOM: If this had been a real car, the buzzards by the side of the road would have taken care of him a long time ago.

RAY: Exactly. Who's our winner?

TOM: The winner is Meredith Wilsdavy.

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