Months ago I wrote about my "new" car. New to our household, anyway. New as of July 2010, that is, when I posted Elegy for a manual transmission. It's a Subaru Legacy wagon, vintage 1991.
I explained summer before last, we don't drive much. Maybe 2500 or 3000
miles per year between the two of us who share the vehicle. It's easy
in our Berkeley neighborhood to leave the car at the curb: we walk; we
ride our bikes; we live about a mile from where each of us works, give
I used to do my own car repair. Oil changes, sure, but
most everything else too, from installing brake pads to replacing
clutches to fixing blown head gaskets. I rebuilt a couple of engines
even, though they were Volkswagon engines, way over on the simple end of
the spectrum. As a used-to-fix-his-own-car kind of a guy, I'm not going
to forgo checking the engine oil even if my crawl under the chassis
days are naught but a fond memory.
In this car, our '91 Subaru,
it turns out you can check the transmission fluid and the fluid
lubricating the differential gears as well. There are more dipsticks
under this car's hood than I've seen in all my born days. But let's let that go for now. Let's stick to checking the engine oil.
had intimate relationships (as it were) with a variety of dipsticks
over the years, I didn't think I could be surprised when I checked the
Subaru's oil the first time. But in the event? Let's just say I was
puzzled. It's like some engineer designed the Subaru dipstick while on
very strong hallucinogens.
Okay fine. I pulled the
dipstick out of the engine block, got over the twist, wiped, reinserted,
waited a few seconds, pulled it out again, and looked at the oily end.
And what did I see? Well, there's a kind of
U-shaped thing going on, oil climbing way higher on the edges of the
stick than in the middle. But worse? What's worse is that the oil level
reads differently on one side than it does on the other.
I'm not the only one who has complained about Subaru dipsticks. I learned this from the intertubes quickly enough.
Strabismo asked on LegacyGT.com forums about three years ago, Has anyone figured out the oil dipstick yet? He got testier in the body of his post: "I've
owned a Subaru for 4 years and I still can't figure out how to get a
clear reading from that diabolical engine oil dipstick."
indeed. Strabismo must have read Milton, who associated straightness
with God and anything bent or twisted with Satan. Did you notice that
when you read Paradise Lost? A useful bit of arcana pointed out
to me by an excellent professor, the late Julian Boyd, who led me
through Milton's epic for the first time.
On SubaruForester.org, ndondo asked a similar question. That post, Oil Change - how to read the Dipstick, is chock full of advice. I tried a number of the suggested methods, but none of them worked for me.
So I asked my friend Bill. Bill owns a Subaru Outback, and has for about ten years. He'd know, wouldn't he?
it turns out, he wouldn't. Bill hasn't been able to figure out how to
check his car's oil for about ten years, despite the fact that he's a
licensed engineer. A civil engineer. By this time, I was not feeling
particularly civil toward my Subaru's dipstick, but it would have been
wrong to blame Bill for that.
After a while I went to see my
mechanic. Not for the dipstick thing, for a minor service. But I was
there, right? So when I picked up my car the next morning I asked my
mechanic to show me the trick.
There weren't any tricks, he told me.
pulled out the dipstick, wiped, inserted it, pulled it out again, and
there it was, just ... fine. You could more or less tell where the oil
stopped and the no-oil began. And the dipstick read the same on both
But ... that's not how it worked for me!?!! There had to be a trick!
okay, there's a trick, my mechanic explained. He hadn't started the car
yet that day. Leave it overnight, he told me. Check it in the morning,
before you drive. Stone cold. All the oil fully drained into the oilpan.
(Hadn't I tried that? Had I? Hadn't I tried everything???)
I hadn't tried quite everything. Maybe I hadn't even read everything.
See, on that SubaruForester.org thread, somebody with the handle lfdal
had written, "The only way I can get a reliable reading is to get a reading first thing in the morning."
Must have missed that somehow. Was that the trick?
all those failed attempts, a long surf through the intertubes, giving
up, then asking my mechanic -- which is what I should have done in the
first place -- I gave it a shot. I tried the leave-it-overnight thing at
Was it my mechanic's shop rag, imparting some magical quality to the dipstick that my cheap paper towel couldn't match?
No. No way. That's looney.
How hard can it be to engineer a dipstick that just ... works?
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Fifteen authors: reflections on a Facebook 'you show me yours' list
Elegy for a manual transmission