Monday, December 12, 2011

Subaru dipsticks, the intertubes, and me

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.

Like 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 or take.

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.

Having 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.

I mean, what's with the twist? Is this a dipstick or is it sculpture? Check out the photo (with thanks to Lone Ranger, from ndondo's thread on, linked below). See what I'm saying? It's like the guy who designed it imagined some gnome down there riding the crank shaft who might appreciate a dipstick with a certain je ne sais quois.

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. S.O.P., right?

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.

Not helpful.

I'm not the only one who has complained about Subaru dipsticks. I learned this from the intertubes quickly enough.

Strabismo asked on 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."

Diabolical 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, 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?

No, 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.

He 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 sides.

But ... that's not how it worked for me!?!! There had to be a trick!

Okay, 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???)

Maybe I hadn't tried quite everything. Maybe I hadn't even read everything. See, on that 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?

After 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 home.

No dice.

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

1 comment:

  1. I know that feeling, Steve. For some reason, mechanics do seem have a trick to get things running the way we can’t. I imagine it must have been frustrating for you to be capable of almost every DIY car repairs except one. Nonetheless, I hope you have figured out that ‘magic’ for Subaru dipsticks. Good day!

    Diana Hayes @ Baldwin Subaru