‘Magic’ oil plug probably comprised mostly of snake oil

Dear Car Talk:

I write to you today about a mystery that has been bugging me for about 60 years. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I had never been farther west than Cleveland, Ohio. In 1957, I drove to summer school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a journey of 1,550 miles. In those days, radio reception was poor beyond the Mississippi River. In Kansas, the only station played the Everly Brothers and an infomercial for a product that would obviate the need for oil changes for the life of the car. For $5, I couldn’t resist. I soon received a box with an ordinary oil drainage plug; soldered to the end was a tiny chain of three or four links of a whitish metal. The oil had been only slightly discolored on the long road trip from Buffalo, but soon became darker and darker due to a lot of driving on dirt roads, then prevalent in the Boulder area. It soon became almost coal-black, so I headed to a nearby garage for an oil change. The grease monkeys doubled over with laughter when I showed them the oil plug, which

they dutifully installed. But the joke was on them: Even driving many miles on dirt roads, the oil remained clear. A year later, it was still clear. What was the composition of this drain plug and links? Thanks! – James

RAY: You found the Fountain of Youth, James. Ponce De LaSunoco spent years in search of that.

I have no idea what it was, but I’m sure it didn’t work. There is no magic potion or magic links – not even Jimmy Deans – that obviates the need for oil changes.

There’s a long history in this country of snake-oil products that separate otherwise-reasonable people from their money and don’t do diddly. And most people who fall for these scams use the same logic you did: “Hey, it’s only $5!” Although today it’s more likely to be, “Hey, it’s only $59.95!”

I don’t know exactly why your oil was filthy during that first change and less filthy a year later. It could have to do with the tremendous amount of blow-by you created driving at high speeds across the country with all of your worldly belongings in the car.

Whereas once you were in Boulder, after that oil change, you mostly were driving slower on local roads, for much shorter trips, and without all your stuff weighing down the car. And it’s not unusual for oil to get very dark very quickly once it starts to get dark from contamination.

Or maybe, like lots of other people who spend their money on this stuff, you see what you’re hoping to see.

But whatever happened, I can assure you that those magic links had absolutely nothing to do with it. However, if you don’t believe me, I’d be happy to solder together a new set of magic links for you for only $59.95. Let me know.

Front-end job might be too much for a novice

Dear Car Talk:

My parents have a ’67 Mustang that has been sitting for a few years. They’re going to allow me to drive it if I can fix it myself. The car runs and drives, but the front tires bend in. The top end of each tire bends in toward the frame. I really do not know what is causing this or how to fix it. I would love any advice on what to do or what to check. I don’t know where to begin. – Michael

RAY: You probably want to begin with a part-time job mowing lawns, Michael. That’ll help you earn enough money to take the car to a front-end specialist.

I know you want to fix it yourself, but since you’re dealing with the wheels that steer the car, you have to start by finding out whether it’s safe, or can be made safe. So the first thing you should do is take it – or tow it – to a shop and ask them to try to align it.

There are three planes of alignment: There’s toe in/toe out, which is whether the fronts of the wheels point in (like someone who’s pigeon-toed) or out (like a duck-walker). There’s caster, which is the forward-back position of each wheel. That determines how much the steering “self-corrects” back to straight after you make a turn. And then there’s camber, which is when the top of the wheel leans in toward the rest of the car, or out away from it.

So you have positive camber, Michael. That’s not necessarily a positive thing, but that’s what we call it.

And you want to know why. It could be something simple, like it just needs to be aligned. Or it has worn-out or broken springs.

Or it could be that, back in 1987, your Mom went flying over a 10-inch curbstone at 20 mph and bent everything under the hood. That may also be why your folks stopped driving it.

But in order to figure out what’s wrong, a shop is going to have to evaluate the condition of all the parts that hold those front wheels in place – the ball joints, the tie rods, the control arms, the control-arm bushings.

And then they’re going to have to prescribe a fix. And if you’re mechanical and you have access to tools and a mentor, then you may want to try to fix it yourself. Or if it’s beyond your capabilities, then keep mowing lawns until you can pay the shop to do it for you.

But start with professional help, Michael (don’t feel bad … a lot of our readers need professional help). Start by finding out what it will take to make the car safe, and then make your repair plans accordingly. Good luck.

Visit the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.

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