Saturday, January 4, 2020

My Car Battery | Lefsetz Letter

Tesla met its delivery goal.

My first car was a ’63 Chevy. Passed down to me from my sister. It was a convertible, it was loaded, and if you didn’t keep your eyes on the road it would pull right off of it. On a cold day in January, right after New Year’s, it wouldn’t start. So I went to the gas station in Manchester, Vermont and they installed an Interstate battery. My brain said I needed a Diehard, but there was no Sears in sight, watcha gonna do?

My following car was a BMW 2002. If it wasn’t totaled by a drunk driver on St. Patrick’s Day, I’d still be driving it. As it was, I still drove that thing for 180,000 miles. The first 120,000 miles were hell, literally everything broke, even the steering wheel, but after that, it was a dream!

Except for the batteries.

It came with a Varta. Heard of it? Probably not. You probably know Bosch, if you’re old enough you remember Blaupunkt. But this was before most people knew what a BMW was. I’d drive it cross-country and people would stare. It handled like a dream, you could drive right into a dip and it would absorb it, and the visibility!! It’s like someone lost the formula, have you seen the recent Lexus RXs? How you supposed to see out of that thing? Anyway, the Varta only lasted three months. And they would not replace it for free. And the dealer said it was junk anyway. So they recommended a local replacement, a J battery. It was a quarter the price and lasted about a year. After that, I’d go to Sears. The Diehards died. And when they did, after you got jumped, the car would fart as you drove it, you thought the thing was gonna explode, you drove to Sears to get a replacement immediately, where people were lined up at the Ticketron window, that’s how long ago it was.

And after that 2002 got totaled, after ten years, I got a 325e. That car required fewer repairs, but by this point people knew what a BMW was and the repair prices were insane! Nothing major would break, but the cost of a minor repair would set you back just as much. People would ask me about buying used BMWs and I’d say NO!, they had no idea of the costs involved, even if you had an independent mechanic, and they started to fall by the wayside, because the cars became more electronic and they didn’t have the equipment to test and repair them.

The battery of the 325e was in the trunk. Supposedly there wasn’t enough room up front. If you wanted to jump it, there was an electrical stump under the hood that you’d attach the cable to. And despite jumping cars ad infinitum in the sixties in Vermont, by this point they were telling you to not attach the negative cable to the post, but to a body part. I only had to jump the 325e once, in a blizzard, on a surface that was not flat, it was an adventure. But luckily, by this point batteries were maintenance free, which meant you didn’t have to put water in them, which was a huge pain in the ass in the old days, especially if you have OCD and you’re worried about the acid.

Then again, in my 2002, when it wouldn’t start, I’d have to go out and clean the battery posts. My skin would be ravaged. But you didn’t want to call Triple-A unless the car was absolutely dead.

So now I’ve got my Saabaru. Yup, it says Saab, but really it’s a Subaru WRX. I wanted a WRX, but when I test drove it it was stiff like a race car, and after putting Bilsteins in my 2002, I knew there was such a thing as too stiff, so I passed. But then Jim Rondinelli told me about the Saab 9-2x, which was a WRX, albeit with a slightly less stiff suspension and the steering rack of the WRX STi, which is essentially a race car, you know, you see them on the street, the ones with the wing.

So my car drives fantastically.

But that’s all it does.

It’s got a turbocharged engine, from back when that was a rare thing, when only performance cars had them.

And it’s got four wheel drive.

And if you’re buying that much performance, of course you get a stick, all of my cars except for the Chevy were sticks.

And being a Japanese automobile… It breaks less and the repairs are cheaper. But it still breaks, which surprises me, because I know people with Hondas and Toyotas with hundreds of thousands of miles that have been essentially maintenance free.

And speaking of maintenance, at first it was free, and you had to go to the Saab dealer, where they knew absolutely nothing about Subarus. The service writer did me a favor just before the warranty wore out, he installed a new battery. But then a friend noticed the tail lights weren’t working and I brought it back and there was battery acid everywhere, they installed the wrong battery.

From then on I took it to the Subaru place.

Where I bought a new battery, sooner than I thought was necessary, but I didn’t want the car to die in the hinterlands.

And in 2016, when I got rotator cuff surgery and the car wasn’t driven, I called AAA for a jump-start and they said the battery was dead, or was gonna die soon. Once again, I didn’t want to run on fumes, so I told them to replace it. And the deal is they come to your house and there’s a three year for free replacement warranty and…what the hell.

So I got home from a trip and the car wouldn’t start.

Cool. They jumped it, and I drove it and let it idle for another forty minutes, which is even longer than you need to to recharge the battery, and it started right away, but the next morning it wouldn’t. I had to go to a doctor’s appointment, so I borrowed Felice’s car, and by time I was free it was dark so I waited until this morning to call AAA.

Jose came in less than thirty minutes.

It’s all contracted out. And if you have a battery problem, they come in a pickup, not the whole tow truck. And the alarm went off when I opened the door, however softly, because the remote would not work. And Jose went about testing and…

I asked him how long he’d been doing this.

He said ten years.

I thought this was kind of an intermediary stop, you know, something people do for a few years and then move on. Which drives me crazy, because no one’s an expert. I figured Jose was an expert.

And yup, the battery was dead. How can this be? Other than the 2002, batteries lasted five years, it’s barely been three, I noticed it occasionally didn’t start on the first turn of the key, but I figured it was a deeper problem, like the starter, and I didn’t want to get it checked out, I’m anal about my car, if the service center says to do it, I do, and I’m trying not to put money into this car, even though my original goal was to drive it until we had driverless cars, which I now know will not happen.

And if I get a new car, I’m gonna get something I want, but I don’t want to spend the money, which leaves me driving the Saabaru.

But in a car-based city, I’m uber-uptight about a new machine. So having an old one…I’m less uptight.

As for leasing… That’s like setting a match to money, unless someone else is paying. And I don’t need to drive a new car every few years. That’s one thing about getting older, you stop worrying about impressing people, you are who you are. Actually, when people try to keep up with the Joneses you laugh, you figure they’re emotionally retarded.

So Jose likes his job. He looks young, but he’s over forty. And he’s married with two kids. And his wife manages a supermarket. I ask him if that’s a hard job, and he says it’s a good job, but I wouldn’t want to manage all those people, there are always one or two bad apples that make your life hell.

I asked Jose how he met her. He told me he’s Nicaraguan. And although he was born here, he met her on a trip down there.

You see this is de rigueur in California. We’ve got no problem with immigrants, sometimes it seems they outnumber those born here. And I wasn’t born here, I immigrated here, albeit from the east coast. I got here before the tide turned, before people became so jealous they had to denigrate the place. I can bitch all day about Los Angeles, but there’s nowhere I’d rather live. Sure, the traffic is hell. But it’s a land of freedom. The only person who ever asked me my SAT scores was from the east coast. It’s a fluid society, and everybody treats you like maybe you’re floating to the top, even though everybody’s so into their own trip they ignore you, which is exactly what I want.

So Jose has got two kids and as we’re talking he asks me if I have the receipt for the old battery.


Turns out, on a prorated basis, I’ll have to pay just shy of eighty bucks. Cool, install it.

And then I’m thinking of battery installations previous.

They’re fewer than those in the 2002, but they still happen.

Why does the damn car need a battery, why are there so many moving parts?

So I was talking to Ron Stone’s kid Zach the other night about his Tesla 3. Ron said Zach loved it, couldn’t stop testifying about it.

I asked about charging. Zach said it was a non-issue. And that the charging curve was steep, you got a lot of miles right at the beginning, it’s only if you wanted the last couple that it took a long time.

But what stuck with me was when I asked Zach about maintenance costs. You hear all these stories about build quality.

Zach had driven it for 31,000 miles and the only money he’d spent on maintenance was for window washer fluid.


Now Teslas need no tuneups, there are very few moving parts. And the acceleration/performance is of near-supercar quality.

And sure, the batteries in a Tesla are more voluminous and integral than they are in my Saabaru. And if you drive a Prius long enough you need a new battery pack, which ain’t cheap.

And the right wing can’t stop laughing about electric cars. As for pollution, there is less, even though you’ve got to create the electricity, because electric engines are so much more efficient, i.e. the energy goes to power, whereas with gasoline internal combustion engines, a lot of the energy is thrown off in useless heat.

And supposedly Tesla would be eclipsed by the major car companies when they got up to speed, but the truth is Tesla’s battery technology is far superior.

So, does Tesla win?

Damned if I know. Look at WeWork. As for Elon Musk, he’s got a credibility problem, he’s demonstrated that nerds are not normal, but he is a visionary. If you want to make America great again, it will be about pushing the envelope of the future, not returning to the past.

And in the future I don’t want to own a car. And people won’t. Because it’s a bad use of a resource, it sits parked most of the time.

But I can’t get a Tesla anyway, because I’ve got to park my car on the street, we’ve only got a one car garage.

But it’s funny to be living on the cusp of the future, caught between two worlds. I’m replacing my car battery, Zach Stone has never stopped at a gas station, his car won’t need the fuel injection cleaned.

We expect everything to work right out of the box, until it doesn’t, then we throw it away and get a new one, which bugs oldsters, they’d rather repair, but that’s a bad use of human resources. Furthermore I don’t trust humans, I trust machines. Yup, straight off the factory floor, that’s how I like my products, as soon as a human touches them…they oftentimes screw them up, like I said, they’re only in the gig for a while and they’re low-paid with little expertise.

But I’m confident Jose did a good job.

But I’d rather not buy another battery for this car.


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