Tuesday, May 03, 2005

My Stupid Truck

I lose track of time. Was it really so long ago that TV commercials proclaimed that "you're in the Pepsi generation"? Yes. Yes it was.

So I'm not precisely sure about the timeframe occupied by Ford's "quality is job one" and "have you driven a Ford lately" ad slogans. But I know they both occurred within the lifetime of my rotten, no-good F150.

I bought my 1988 F150 new, seventeen years ago. I still drive it. Why? Because it still runs. Because there are currently no major problems with any of its major systems. Because new trucks are a very expensive and rapidly depreciating asset. And finally, because it reminds me never to buy another Ford. If quality is "job one", that job was never completed. Not with my truck.

With this vehicle, the litany of problems, large and small, is almost unending. It has been a perpetual maintenance nightmare, an unending irritant, a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe, a burr under my saddle, salt in my wound, insult and injury.

This truck has been nothing if not consistent. Consistently bad. The problems began immediately. At 500 miles, with the new car smell still lingering, the windshield wipers began to misbehave. This on again off again (literally) malfunction has come and gone throughout the truck's entire miserable lifetime. It is with me as I write this.

Basically, the intermittent and slow settings work only occasionally, when they feel like it. (Perhaps this is Ford's idea of intermittent.) The high speed wiper setting almost always works, but there have been times when the wipers refuse to move at all. Sometimes the intermittent and slow speeds are fine for months at a time. But then they've also been broken for over a year straight. There have been other periods where they'd cycle through working and not working on an almost daily basis. There is no discernible pattern to why they do or do not work.

No mechanic has been able to understand or permanently fix this problem, though not for lack of trying. Trips to the dealer for warranty service on the wipers were commonplace early in this truck's life. Every time the truck returned home I would open the hood and look for signs of repair activity, each time extracting a new tool that the hapless mechanic had left in the engine compartment. They were mostly screwdrivers and thus a small loss to him, but since these screwdrivers were the long-shafted variety they were a welcome addition to my toolbox. You take consolation wherever you can find it.

Later, with the warranty long since expired, I paid good money to have this problem addressed yet again. The truck was returned to me with the wipers working, but later on they reverted back to their old ways. Out of frustration I even tried my own hand at a fix and replaced the wiper switch, but to no avail.

When this truck was middle aged, an entirely different wiper problem emerged. There commenced a woeful moaning and groaning as the wiper arms struggled sluggishly in their burdened sweep across the windshield. The mechanic said the wiper motor was tearing itself apart, and needed to be replaced. So we replaced it. I'm very used to replacing things on this truck.

But enough of wipers. At around 12,000 miles, just as the warranty was about to expire, the manual transmission refused to shift into reverse. I sometimes need reverse, so I took the truck to the shop, where it languished for three weeks waiting for parts. According to the service manager, F150 transmissions were dropping like flies around the country, and so parts were in short supply. The problem was eventually fixed, but the fix resulted in a permanently leaky top cover seal, and so I've had to keep a close eye on the transmission oil level ever since.

Sometimes it's the little things that get you. The tailgate latch has been replaced a couple of times, as has the shifter knob. The sliding rear window latch broke, even though I hardly ever use it.

Much as I despise this truck, I must admit that it has been good for some real excitement. I was descending a steep grade at fairly high speed in the mountains west of Denver when the truck decided, all on its own, to accelerate down the slope. The engine screamed, wrapped in high RPM ecstasy, even though I had removed my foot from the accelerator. This insane machine seemed hell bent on launching the two of us--me and it--on a short ride through space into the rocky mountainside below the next curve. I frantically turned off the engine and braked to a stop. (Dangerous! The steering column can lock when you turn off the ignition.) The experience was repeated several more times that evening before I reached the safety of the flatlands. Around Burlington, I peered under the hood and noticed that an air conditioning hose had worked its way up under the throttle cover. Tying the hose back out of the way permanently fixed this little glitch that could have cost me my life.

What else? The flasher unit had to be replaced. The emergency flashers had to be fixed. The headlight switch failed. The fan clutch had to be replaced. Twice. The seedometer cable had to be lubed. I'm on my third heater core, but I suppose we can only blame the first one on Ford. The parking brake cable broke. A big gust of wind from a passing semi-truck unseated the windshield. The oil pressure gauge usually reads dangerously low, but the service manager thinks the problem is in the sending unit. I think it's in the gauge, because giving the dash a good thump sometimes causes the needle to come back up.

The first alternator (I'm currently on number three) only lasted 70,000 miles, but in its defense a T-junction in some cooling system hoses hangs immediately above it, and coolant leaked into the alternator. Seems to me that when quality is "job one", you should anticipate little things like that.

The power steering pump started leaking. But no worries: a new seal and touching up the pitted shaft with fine sandpaper helped considerably. (The shop manual actually describes this sandpaper treatment, so the problem must be common.)

One of the horn elements had to be replaced. The ignition switch had a safety recall. A leaking spindle seal in the differential case had to be replaced. The U-joints have been replaced more than once, but I do pull a trailer from time to time. And I'll grant that the worn out tie rod ends can plausibly be chalked up to normal wear and tear.

Did I mention the paint job? It seems that in '88 Ford tried a new technique and eliminated the primer coat. So said the dealer, anyway. The consequence of this shortcut was that the finish began to peel badly when the truck was a little over three years old. Apparently the problem was widespread in F-series trucks, and Ford had no choice but to correct it. They paid to have my truck re-painted, even though it was technically out of warranty.

This truck has two gas tanks. A switch on the dash lets you select the tank you want to use. The redundancy struck me as a nice idea, and each tank has its own fuel pump. But lately there's been a problem in the switch: you never know for sure which tank you're using, regardless of the switch position. That would be less of a problem if the fuel gauge worked, but it failed long ago for both tanks. The gauge quit working first for one tank, and then the other. The dealer quoted me $350 per tank to fix the problem, so I get by without a fuel gauge.

There's more, of course, but I'm worn out. You probably are too.

Some day this truck will really die, and when it does I'll have to replace it. I'm considering a Toyota Tundra. But in the meantime, when they ask if I've "driven a Ford lately", I can reply that yes, I have. And it's all the Ford I'll ever need.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Thu May 05, 11:16:00 AM, Anonymous Michael J. Wheeler said...

I'm not a big fan of fords, but, having driven one for 4 years, I can't say many bad things about my escort. Just don't buy a ford if you want something "nice". Buy it because you're too broke to get something nicer :)

1995 Ford escort, 4cyl, 5-speed manual transmission. Sure, it was an econo-box, but I never had any major problems like the ones you describe. I purchased the car with 48,000 miles on it, right now it has 147,000+ . In that time, I've had to replace a couple of tie rod ends, an alternator, a timing belt, and a belt tensioner pulley. All of those things I would attribute to 'wear and tear'.

So, while your ford truck may be a piece of shit, they do seem to make pretty good econo-boxes. Even with 147,000 miles on it, my escort still gets 40mpg on the highway.


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