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August 1991

Act 1

A couple of months after I bought a BMW from a departing site member, it didn't start. Although we hadn't used it in several weeks – decent transit can spoil one – there was no reason it should have run down. No problem, I thought – the advantage of having a stick shift is that I can just coast it down the next level of the garage and start it. When that didn't work, I realized that a carburetor and mechanical fuel pump sometimes have an advantage over fuel injection and an electric fuel pump – there may actually be gas available in the cylinders to start the car when the spark fires!

Fortunately a MITRE colleague lives nearby and arrived just in time to give a jump – renters of the lower level spaces were starting to arrive and weren't very patient with my blocking their entry. He also loaned me a 220 volt battery charger, but when I noticed that the existing battery water level wasn't visible (it took a liter of distilled water to fill), I decided it probably wasn't a bad idea to start anew. A nearby auto parts store was having a sale on batteries for $55 – sound like Sears? Except here there are laws about how often you can have sales and how many items you can have on sale at any one time. (Two general sales a year are allowed, in January and July.)

Act 2

This time there was a reason the battery was dead – I'd left the parking lights on and four days of drain had done their part. The 10-amp battery charger acted strangely – the gauge showed a maximum of 2 amps was being drawn, and in the morning my hydrometer said the fluid was still water. Another overnight charge at my local service station, followed by a load test, gave the same result. Oh well, $55 isn't that much. (The battery was again – still? – on sale; maybe the laws aren't that strictly enforced; or maybe I was lucky.) But then I realized that I still had 8 months left on my 24-month warranty. Expecting to hear that I could get 1/3 off the "normal" price of, say, $100, I was surprised to hear that I'd actually get a free battery for the life of the warranty, if it was bad. However – this was Saturday (not a "long" one) and they needed to test it for 8 hours, which they couldn't do until Monday.

As I had a moderate need for the car the next week (I was going to be observing tests of the ATC simulator at the ATC school south of Frankfurt. Testing could only be done the second shift and train service gets spotty towards midnight.), I asked if I could just buy a battery and if (when) the old one tested bad they could refund my money. They said it was impossible; German law, no doubt.

Acts 3 through ...

When I brought the battery in on Monday (the bicycle rack was already paying off), they said, "Oh it's that brand of battery – we can't test it here, it has to be sent to the factory." After calling a couple of times the next week (getting access to the one phone with a tie-line to Frankfurt wasn't always easy) with no further information on the battery's status, they told me on Friday that it might be another week before the test would be completed! When I said it sounded like they didn't want to honor the warranty they told me it was a good thing it wasn't a Bosch – that might take four weeks!

I had an inspiration and said that since I had lawyer insurance I would be forced to take them to court unless they gave me a good battery. (Cautious Germans buy insurance for almost everything. Our previous site leader had to pay $600 to "the prosecutor's favorite charity" after somebody ran into his car from behind when he stopped quickly to avoid hitting somebody in front of him! And another colleague collected on his "glass insurance" when a bird smashed through his window. As we have a half-dozen 4-by-10 foot double-glazed windows, you can bet we also have that coverage. It also covers any other flat glass: mirrors, coffee tables – crystal is excluded. And the travel agent was surprised that we weren't going to purchase insurance in case we got sick and couldn't go to the Canary Islands – two days later!)

They said they'd call the factory, and call me back on Saturday; Saturday they said the battery would be back Monday. Monday they said their driver had been sick so they hadn't been able to get it. ("The factory" didn't make a Monday run – another reason why they couldn't have had any information when I'd called the previous Tuesday.) In the meantime, Betty Lou actually had talked to a German lawyer at the Army base where she was teaching. He said, yes it was a shame that more people didn't do something about such things – he'd had similar problems. However, to be of any use, you almost have to assume that any transaction is going to be unsatisfactory from the beginning – the recommended procedure is to send a certified letter demanding delivery of the goods within a reasonable time – say 48 hours after receipt of the letter.

Tuesday they said the battery would definitely be there Wednesday, but since the factory had determined that it only needed to be charged, it would cost me $6. When I asked if they would demonstrate to me with a load test that it was all right when I picked it up, they said that was not necessary – a factory certificate would attest to its condition! I surmised that they would ship me another battery they had lying around, but which would work long enough that I could then start all over again.

On Wednesday there actually was a battery, there was no mention of cost to me, and I took it immediately to my service station where it passed a load test. When I examined it carefully, I was convinced it actually was my battery – I recognized marks made by my screwdriver when I had pried up the "maintenance-free" caps to test the fluid. It started the car and continued to do so for the remaining three months until I sold it.


Is this the Twilight Zone? Did they find some way to temporarily supercharge my battery (although long enough that it's the next owner's problem)? Would I still be waiting if I didn't threaten to sue?

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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