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Madman and the horror of the smog check

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Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:58 am, Sun Mar 18, 2012.

The chilly October air nipped at my ears as I opened the front door and headed to the mail box. It was getting close to Halloween and everyone had decorations up.

As I thumbed through the mail I noticed an official looking letter from the DMV. I hate those letters. They never send me a notice telling me what a fantastic driver I am or how well I parallel park. The DMV usually wants me to pay registration fees on one of the cars – they want my hard-earned cash. This is a pain in the rear, but it is … what it is.

I sit myself down at my desk in the den and pull out the check book. How much can it possibly cost to register a sixteen year old Honda Civic, I think to myself. As I peruse the letter and spy the amount I find it will not cost very much. I fill out the check and begin to tear off a portion of the form when I see “smog test must be completed” printed boldly on the form. Oh, come on, I mumble to myself as I scratch my head vigorously. I scratch my head when I get really stressed out … it is my tell.

Normally I don’t sweat a routine smog check, but to get a car with 350,000 miles on the clock smog-test ready is hardly routine. After feeling sorry for myself, I began preparing for my date with the smog man. I went through the cars vital systems one by one. I replaced a couple of parts and tuned her up. There were a few issues that might have impacted my smog score so I fixed everything. Then I discovered steam coming from the tailpipe…this is bad.

Many years ago the Civic had a serious cooling issue that resulted in it overheating. When the little car blew her top, she warped hear cylinder head. The cylinder head, the top portion of the engine, was warped just enough to prevent a perfect seal between the cooling jackets and combustion chambers. In simpler terms the Civic burns a little coolant. Unfortunately, she was not ready for smog and I didn’t have the time to repair her.

The Civic’s tags expired as she sat in front of the house….time passed. I would wash the old girl every week and keep the battery charged. I promised myself that she would run as soon as I found a cylinder head and some free time.

After scouring eBay and Craig’s list, I finally hit pay dirt. A guy about an hour away had a freshly rebuilt engine that would be perfect for the Civic. I called my father and told him to gas up the truck; we were hitting the road. Looking at the engine I knew that it would be perfect, but I had to score this lump on the cheap. I used negotiation skills I learned from watching the TV show “Pawn Stars” and got the engine so cheap I felt guilty. I was motivated by my shiny new engine, but life quickly reminded me … free time was not as easy to come by.

Fast forward to last week - as the Civic sat in front of the house, and the pain of seeing all of my hard earned cash being dumped into my gas tank. The Civic is the gas-miser in the family while my other two cars are not. I had to come up with a compromise, how long would it take to do half the job? I hatched a brilliant plan … remove the cylinder head from the new engine and place it on top of the old engine. I had the old engine torn apart in no time and everything looked good, so I proceeded. Checking tolerances on both cylinder heads confirmed what I had surmised. The old head was in need of serious machine work, but the new one was beautiful. The head swap and fluid transfusion went swimmingly.

Two days later I was at the smog shop. The smell of exhaust was making me sick and I already had butterflies in my stomach. Having a professional technician smog test my Civic is like taking an exam. The smog tech will give the car a thorough visual test examining every hose and connection. His unforgiving diagnostic computer will sniff out every drop of unburned fuel or faulty converters. As the smog guy pulled at the hoses and checked the ignition timing I could feel my confidence fade. I was a little boy again … taking a test I hadn’t studied for.

He pulled the car out of the shop and walked up to me with the clip board of doom. “Adam?” he asked with a stone face. I thought the worst and rightly so. I had failed. It was the first time I had ever failed a smog test and I was absolutely gutted. My smog guy is a really kind soul. Actually he is a saint. He explained that the failure was minor and easily fixable. “Timing, you’re off a little,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders. In my haste I had missed a step in setting the ignition timing … I guess haste really does make waste. The smog tech offered to retest the car, if I could do the repairs in a timely manner. So I rushed back to my garage. Working like a madman I reset the timing and brought the car back for the win.

As a car guy, there are few things that get me down … flashing blue lights in the rear view, bald tires and smog checks. While the first two are easily avoided, the third is as inevitable as an empty gas tank. Despite my distaste for smog checks, I do support our clean air regulations. They are important. The best way to pass a smog test is simple - even if you are not mechanically inclined. Be sure to keep up with your manufacturer’s suggested maintenance schedules. If you manage to keep your car running well, you won’t sweat the smog check.

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