The Empty Brake Fluid Can

Nov 11, 2000

RAY:: Ha! We're back. You're listening to Car Talk with us, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, and we're here to discuss cars, car repair, and, duh, the new Puzzler. Now, you may have noticed at the beginning of this Puzzler season, the paucity, the dearth, the downright nonexistence of the automotive Puzzler. None of the Puzzlers has been automotive in nature.

TOM:: Really? I hadn't noticed that, no.

RAY:: Well.

TOM:: But I believe you. I know you would never lie, nor would you obfuscate.

RAY:: I'm not so sure I believe it either, but I don't think I've had an automotive Puzzler this year. So, the first automotive Puzzler of the season.

TOM:: Of the automotive season.

RAY:: This was submitted by Jeff Matthews of He's in the army.

TOM:: .com. Oh, .gov.

RAY:: No, .mil.

TOM:: .mil!

RAY:: Mmm.

TOM:: Oh!

RAY:: Yeah. I can't read all the other stuff, because then they'd be able to triangulate on it.

TOM:: Yeah. OK.

RAY:: "Some years ago," he says, "my significant other complained that her Honda Accord would occasionally commence bucking, snorting, and choking after a stop. It would keep that up for a couple of minutes, then the problem would go away for a few weeks. I looked at the usual things, but since I was never there when it happened, and I didn't really care because it wasn't my car..."

TOM:: Right.

RAY:: I added that. Sorry, Jeff. Hope I didn't get you in trouble. "I couldn't figure it out. Then one fall," he says, "I was getting the old jalopy ready for the state safety inspection, so I jacked it up and jiggled the wheels and did all the kinds of things that you usually do, and when I let it down off the jack stands, a nearly empty can of brake fluid rolled out from under the front seat."

TOM:: Mmm.

RAY:: "I said, 'Hmm. That's interesting.' I went into the house and asked my wife one question. When she gave me the answer, I knew what was wrong with her car."

TOM:: Mmm-hmm.

RAY:: The question is: What was the question?


RAY: It was not "What's the neighbor's brake fluid doing in your car?" "I asked her one question, and when she gave me the answer, I knew what was wrong with her car."

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: What was the question?

TOM: Mmmm.

RAY: And the question was: How often...

TOM: Do you replace brake fluid?

RAY: Do you add brake fluid?

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: And the reason he asked that question was this. Somewhere along the line, he surmises...

TOM: I've got it!

RAY: She went to the gas station and her brake light was on because the fluid level was down.

TOM: Mmm-hmm.

RAY: She buys a can of fluid from the attendant and watches him fill up the reservoir.

TOM: Mmm-hmm.

RAY: Figuring this is part of the regular maintenance of the car, whenever the light goes on she tops it up, never bothering to ask, "Where's the brake fluid going?" It's like, well, you add oil from time to time.

TOM: Sure.

RAY: It's not unusual to add brake fluid from time to time.

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: And as such, she had this can under the seat. It may have been one of many cans that she used.

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: And she was constantly adding brake fluid to a leaking master cylinder. And the master cylinder was leaking into...

TOM: The booster.

RAY: The power-brake booster. And every once in a while, when she came to a stop, especially an abrupt one, or if the level of fluid in there--where there's not supposed to be any--was high enough, that fluid would get sucked into the engine and make the thing try to combust the brake fluid, which would cause it to stumble and choke and maybe even stall. And then, once it worked its way through, accompanied by this belch of smoke out the tailpipe...

TOM: It ran like a dream.

RAY: Everything would be right. And the subsequent stops wouldn't be a problem, because she'd have to wait until enough fluid accumulated in the booster to cause the problem again.

TOM: Oh, man! That's very good!

RAY: So the question was: How often do you add brake fluid to the car?

TOM: Yeah!

RAY: So, who's our winner?

TOM: Nathaniel Meyers from Berkeley, California.

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