To Stop a Car Thief

Nov 26, 2007

RAY: I plucked this one from the pile of automotive puzzlers. It was sent in about a year ago by a fellow named Roy Strong and I had to monkey with it a little bit to make it sufficiently bogus.

Back in the 1960s a mechanic I knew had a gas station / repair shop, which meant that many of his customer's cars were left outside in the lot overnight. He had some stolen and couldn't protect them from the hotwire thieves that came at night. You know back in the old days, before we had things like steering wheel locks and the like, hotwiring a car and driving it away was a pretty easy thing to do. So he came up with a quick, simple and effective way to discourage them.

He would pop the hood, reach under and in a few seconds render the car unstartable. The neat thing was that if anyone tried to start it, it would seem to want to start. It would cough and hit on an occasional cylinder, like vroom, vroom vroom, and even if they opened the hood, examination under there revealed nothing obvious. And these are cars that would be presumably coming in for a brake job or a muffler or some such thing, so the crooks assumed that's why the car was in for repair and they'd move on to the next car.

The next morning he would reach under the hood and in 10 seconds or less have the car running. The question is, what was he doing?

Now, he would do the same thing to just about every car. And the thieves would of course move on because they figured it's obviously not starting, we're not going to fool around with this. And they'd move to the next one and the next one, and they'd say, "Gee, he's got a bunch of cars here that don't start," and they'd move on.
RAY: What he did was elegant. He simply swapped two of the wires connected to the distributor.

TOM: Oh.

RAY: So he would take the coil wire and swap it with, say, number one spark plug wire. So all that would fire would be number one spark plug. So you turn the key --

TOM: And it doesn't start.

RAY: It doesn't start but it makes you think it's going to start. So you sit there, you pump the gas a few times, you turn the key and it goes va-va-va boom, boom, boom, va-va-va boom, boom, boom, boom, va-va-va boom, that does that several times and finally you say, oh this is a jalopy that's why they brought it in.

TOM: Exactly.

RAY: You go to the next car. It does the same thing, and you give up and you go home. Pretty good, huh? Do we have a winner?

TOM: Yah. The winner this week is Chris Birmingham from Nashua, New Hampshire, and for having his answer selected at random from among all the big pile of correct answers that we got, Chris is going to get a 26-dollar gift certificate to the Shameless Commerce Division at, with which he can avail himself of any of the 20th anniversary Car Talk gifts at our online Shameless Commerce Division.

RAY: And don't forget Chris, re-gifting season is just right around the corner, so if you're not that excited about winning a Car Talk CD collection or a T-shirt, remember you can always unload it on Uncle Fred in a few weeks.

TOM: That's right, and don't forget that you also get a free Car Talk Plaza parking permit with any order. They don't actually entitle you to park anywhere, but they do temporarily fluster meter maids.

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