‘Genius’ mechanic pinpoints source of thunking sound

Dear Car Talk:

Please settle this question for my daughter Abby and me. Many years ago I bought her a Toyota Solara for her high school graduation. It was only a couple of years old, with power everything. She loved it (Dad wins points!).

All went well for a couple of years. Then, suddenly, she started hearing a “thunking” sound in the rear of the car. She took it to her mechanic, and the two of them went for a test drive. They took a couple of corners, and the noise was quite apparent. He then said, “I think you have a golf ball banging around in your trunk.” Sure enough, that’s what caused the noise.

My daughter was quite impressed by the fact that he identified it as a golf ball. I, on the other hand, was not (Dad loses all previously earned points). My position is this: Anyone can tell the difference between a golf-ball sound (compact and dense-sounding, with a slight “thwack” to it) and say a tennis ball (soft, with a slight fuzzy greenish timbre), a baseball (a good “crack” like Ted Williams hit it with a bat) or a football (depending on if it was in Tom Brady’s car, which would be a slightly softer sound due to lower inflation than the usual “thud”).

I maintain that in order to call this mechanic a “genius” like my daughter wants me to, he not only would have to identify the noise as coming from a golf ball, he would have to identify the ball’s make and number (like Titleist No. 2). Please give us the definitive answer so we can go back to talking to each other. – John

RAY: The guy’s pretty good, John. And even if he’s not a genius, he’s certainly watched a lot of reruns of “Columbo.” Here’s what likely happened: He heard something rolling around in the trunk. He probably tested his theory by taking a couple of sharp corners and seeing where the noise came from after each turn. That allowed him to narrow it down, generically, to “ball.”

I mean, it could have been a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup that fell out of a shopping bag, but a ball moves across the trunk more quickly and evenly than a soup can, based on my previous soup-can diagnoses. From its sound and timbre – as you say – he probably could tell it was small, and of medium weight. And then he made an educated guess. What’s the most likely ball to be rolling around a trunk of somebody’s car? A golf ball that fell out of a golf bag, right? In fact, he’s probably had other customers who came in complaining about the same errant golf-ball problem.

So, even if he’s not a genius, he’s an astute observer. He’s also honest. He could have said, “Oh, Abby, it sounds like your struts and struts mounts are all worn out. I’m going to have to keep it for a couple of days and it’s gonna cost you a thousand bucks.” But he didn’t. So I’d call him an excellent mechanic, John. And I’d call him a good guy. And I’d encourage Abby to call him whenever she has future car trouble.

YouTube is a good place to start for car-repair help

Dear Car Talk:

I have a question about my 2003 Buick Regal. I’ve been a diesel mechanic for 40 years, and I’m now retired. I need to change the rack and pinion on my Buick, but I need some instructions. Every time I try to ask this question online, all I get are listings of places that sell the unit. I never get the answer I need. Can you tell me where I can get instructions on how to replace the unit? – Bill

RAY: Yeah, pretty smart ad placement by Steering Racks R Us, huh? My first suggestion would be to add the words “YouTube” to your search. YouTube has become populated with a ton of how-to videos, where amateur mechanics, plumbers, appliance repairers and brain surgeons happily show you how to do something very specific.

When searching, it’s often helpful to know how many years your particular Regal was produced. In your case, that fourth-generation Regal was made from 1997-2004. So any of those years should work. It also happened to be essentially the same car as the Chevy Lumina (R.I.P.), the Chevy Monte Carlo (R.I.P.), the Pontiac Grand Prix (R.I.P.) and the Oldsmobile Intrigue (R.I.P.). So if you can find videos on any of those models from those years, you’ll probably learn what you need to know.

From my experience, the only thing that’s at all tricky about replacing the rack and pinion on your car is that you have to lower the rear section of the subframe to get at it. So you might want to recruit a friend to provide an extra set of hands, and help you line things up. That’ll make the job easier. Just pick someone you’re not that fond of, because the friendship will probably be over after this.

After you replace the rack, you’ll need to either reuse or replace your outer tie rod ends. And once you do that, you’ll need an alignment. Otherwise, your rack and pinion will work great, but it’ll only drive you in circles. It’s a job that’s within the grasp of an experienced weekend mechanic, Bill. But it might take a whole weekend, especially if you decide to tackle it alone. So make a bunch of sandwiches first.

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