When 9 Volts Isn’t Enough

  • December 27, 2023

One of the many appealing things about old cars, in particular, those so old they don’t have computers (to find one without one, you’ll need to go back to the late 1970s) or at least old enough that they don’t have computer-controlled fuel injection, is that there’s a chance you’ll be able to start the engine with a weak battery, if there’s enough charge to turn the thing over.

Even if only just barely.

No such luck with a new car – like the ’24 Dodge Hornet I am test driving this week. Make that was test driving.

It is now sitting (as am I) because for some reason, the battery lost charge while it sat overnight the other night. I have read that some new cars have old batteries – a new phenomenon, the result of vehicles sitting a long time in between manufacture point-of-sale.

But the point is that a modern car with computer controlled fuel injection won’t even try to start if the battery’s low on charge – because the computer won’t let it. There’s not enough juice to power up the EFI (including the electric fuel pump and high pressure injectors).  I checked the battery with my multimeter; just 9 volts showing rather than 12. And so I sat – and waited – for my trickle charger to restore the battery to 12. (I’d have tried jump-starting it, but the Dodge isn’t mine – and I don’t want to risk fritzing out any of the electronics .)

Well, I got the battery charged up – but now the car won’t let me start the car. Apparently, the computer now thinks someone is trying to steal the car – and the horn honks furiously (and endlessly) as soon as the battery is reconnected to the car. There is some opaque ritual that must be performed to get the alarm to shut off and the car to start. It may involve a computer – and a tow truck-trip to the dealer.

Now, an old car – old enough to not have a computer – old enough to have a carburetor – might start even with a weak battery. Turn the key (remember them?) and eeeerrrrrr . . . . rrrrrr . . .rrrrrr . . .  and then – just maybe! – it’d fire. Because all you needed was fire. There was probably already gas in the carburetor’s bowl (remember them?) and if there was enough charge to fire the plugs and turn the engine over, just enough, the engine would fire.

If the battery was dead, remove and replace it. Two clamps, usually – and that’s it. No need to “reflash” or “pair” the battery to the computer or perform some arcane ritual of pushing lock/unlock buttons in just the right order and within a certain number of seconds and then do a Chinese fire drill around the car three times while saying four Hail Marys. 

This is an example of one of the biggest differences between the old and the new. The latter usually work as reliably as a digital watch. Until they day they don’t. And when that day comes, there is very little you can do. The screen goes dark – or the horn goes off –  and that’s all you know.

Old cars are like old watches – the ones that tell time mechanically. Gears and springs; hands that move. They are not as reliable as electronic watches; some have to be wound/adjusted every now and then. But they rarely just stop telling time. They may not tell you the right time. But they’ll give you a general idea – and that’s better than having no idea what time it is.

Also, they are comprehensible. In part because one can see their workings. This helps to understand how they work. And they are far more user-fixable. Sometimes, just by shaking them. If that doesn’t work, a little cleaning, some adjustments, usually bring everything back to good working order. A good mechanical watch is one that, with care, will outlast your time on this Earth. It will go on telling your son what time it is – and maybe his son, too.

Old cars are also like that in that – with care – they can be made to last generations.

The Orange Pumpkin (my 1976 Trans-Am) I often write about has been around for nearly three generations already. I’ve cared for it for the past 30 years and when I got it, it was already a generation (20 years) old. When I am no longer able to care for it, someone from another generation will (hopefully) take care of it and if the custodial changing of the guard is not broken, it is entirely possible someone will be caring for it another 60 years from now.

As for the Dodge sitting outside waiting for a tow truck – or a computer shaman – probably not. There’s just too much that’s not fixable, that can’t be jiggered with, cajoled and otherwise kept operational. The day will come when it won’t start for some other, more serious reason.

And when that day comes, it’ll be the little Dodge’s last day.

. . .

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