Phantom Noises

Ron Karpinski  1997


In the spring of 1971, I bought a new Fiat 124 Spider sports car.  It had green paint with tan interior and came with a one year or 12,000 mile warranty.

Eight months into the warranty period, the transmission began to growl.  I happened to be in Texas at the time, so I drove the car to the nearest Fiat dealer in Fort Worth and asked them to take a look at it.  They found nothing wrong.

A week later, the noise started again.  I drove back to Fort Worth and put the car in the shop; and they gave me a second receipt, stating "no noise found."

The next month, it came back once more, and, again, the mechanics could find no source for the phantom noise.  By this time, the service manager had lost his friendly smile.  I wondered myself if the noise might not have been in my head.

Then I drove home to California.  Along the way, the noise returned once, but, after a few miles, it disappeared again.  Frustrated, I took the car, along with a wad of receipts, to the dealership where I had purchased it.

No surprise, they couldn't hear any noise either.  Also, the service manager pointed out that the 12,000-mile warranty had just expired.  He saw the look of exasperation on my face and offered a proposition.

"We'll tear the transmission apart," he said, "and examine it.  If we find a problem that existed during the warranty period, we'll fix it for free.  If not, you must pay the entire cost of the project."

"Okay," I said. "You've got a deal."

Two hours later, the phone rang.  They had, indeed, found a problem, and the dealer would cover all costs.  The riddle had been solved.

A large ball bearing had popped out of its track and fallen to the bottom of the transmission case.  When the car hit a big enough bump, the ball bearing bounced up and lodged between the spinning fifth gear and transmission case, forming a deep gouge in the gear.  With the next big bump, it fell back down, and the grinding ceased.  The mechanics had never seen anything like it.

Then it dawned on me.  Back in Texas, the dealership had a large dip in the entrance to the service department.  Each time I drove my car over that dip, the ball bearing must have been dislodged, and the noise went away.  On the drive home, I hit another bump, the bearing bounced back up, and the noise returned.

I wrote a long letter to that service manager in Texas, explaining what the mechanics in California had found.  I also suggested that he be more sympathetic to his customers in the future.  After all, I pointed out to him, some phantom noises are real.


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