COAL: 2000 Oldsmobile Alero – By Any Other Name



If you don’t want to form an irrational emotional attachment to a car, don’t name it. That may be the lasting lesson of this car. I wasn’t even the one who named it–that’s the fault of the actual owner of the car, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. So perhaps it shouldn’t even be included in this series, but I drove it pretty regularly for 3 years and then exclusively for a few months, and maintained it that entire time. In fact I almost certainly have more time invested under the hood of this car than anything I’ve actually owned. So – here it is.

By the time I met my future wife in 2007, she had already owned this 2000 Alero for quite a few years. Her previous car had been totaled in an accident in the spring of 2003, right around the time of her graduation from college. So her parents gave her this Alero, with which to start her professional life. The Alero has been covered in decent depth here, but to briefly re-introduce the car, it was Oldsmobile’s compact/mid-size offering from ’99 to the end of the road for the brand in 2004. The styling was quite attractive, looking like a slightly scaled-down version of the W-body Intrigue, and it offered the choice of 4 or 6 cylinder power. This one was the middle GL trim level, including such niceties as alloy wheels and power windows, with the 2.4 liter LD9 “Twin Cam” 4-cylinder and a 4-speed automatic.


GM clearcoat cancer in full evidence.

This particular Alero hadn’t had the easiest life though up to that point–it had over 140,000 miles, and had already fallen victim to the poor-quality GM paint work of the era, with the clear coat delaminating badly on the hood, driver’s side fender top, and A-pillar. The gray interior showed quite a bit of wear also, and the materials were mostly unimpressive. Not the best initial impression…  In the first year I knew her, the Alero suffered a split radiator hose (the first of many things I would fix), a cracked thermostat housing, a failed power window, Plus a water pump just before we met. This combined with the many other little issues–the dash pad had partially delaminated and rolled up, neither the CD player nor the cassette player worked properly, the turn signals had a peculiar quirk where they would start and stop clicking for no apparent reason, it had a slow coolant leak, and to top it all off, the key was very difficult to turn in the ignition. I would have expected a lot better of a 7 year old car, so my already iffy opinion of GM around the turn of the millenium was lowered further.

However, it should be noted that I hadn’t actually driven the car until sometime in late 2008 or perhaps even early 2009. And the first time I drove it, I started to see that the attractive styling wasn’t the only thing that sold these cars. For a humble I4, it actually felt peppy. No, you weren’t going to win any drag races, but it had quite acceptable pickup. The handling wasn’t bad, either. This was a car with 150k hard miles on it, no less, so I could imagine that when new it was a pleasant little car to drive. “Fun” might be an overstatement but it wasn’t bad at all, contrary to my expectations. Sometime in this vicinity was when the car, heretofore unnamed, acquired its nickname from my girlfriend–The Crabmobile. A silly name, but amusing, and added a little personality to this otherwise flawed automobile.8523461742_73c5afd12c_k

My discovery of its driving virtues was handy as, in late 2009, I found myself driving the Alero to work daily. My girlfriend had taken a job as a social worker, which often took her into undesirable parts of town. With the somewhat precarious reliability of the Alero, I suggested that we trade cars for work, since my Marauder was newer and considerably more reliable. Thankfully she was agreeable to this, so the Alero was my primary vehicle from late ’09 through mid ’10. And, for all its faults, it worked just fine as a commuter vehicle. The A/C blew ice cold, the seats were comfortable, and it got pretty good gas mileage. It wasn’t exciting, but I still had the Marauder for after-work use and travel, so the Alero served well enough in the interim. In the middle of 2010 her agency reorganized and laid off all of the case managers, at which point she decided to go back to school. I got the Marauder back for my usual work commute, though we would switch cars freely depending on who needed the more reliable car for several years afterward.


This wasn’t to say it was trouble-free. Issues came and went with some regularity–another window failed, slowly sinking whenever the car was in motion. I found that it wasn’t due to a regulator in the usual sense, but instead the way GM had decided to attach the glass pane to the regulator. The window was attached the regulator assembly by two plastic clips which connected to the cable. As the car aged, these clips became brittle and cracked, allowing the window to sag and eventually move on its own. Fell all the way down into the door one day unannounced; lucky the glass didn’t break. So the door panel and window had to come out, and replace the clips with new ones. Not only was this annoying, but they had the temerity to charge almost $40 for two small plastic clips that weren’t even half the size of a credit card. Not cool, GM.


At some point it started running quite poorly and stalling. After lots of troubleshooting with an ex-mechanic friend, and replacing plugs, wires, coils, fuel filter, and fuel pump, it turned out to be a vacuum leak. This was follwed by a more serious issue; the Alero developed an unnerving habit of completely cutting off while in motion. My girlfriend would be driving down the road and, with no warning, the engine would cut off, taking with it the power assist on the brakes and steering. Thankfully it didn’t cause an accident, but after the third time, she refused to drive it and it became mine again until I figured out what was going on.

If this sounds familiar, it should–the Alero had one of the infamous ignition switches that got GM into so much hot water a couple years later. This was well before the recall, but searching the web and the forums (yes, there is in fact an Alero forum online) revealed the issue. So I undertook to repair it myself, and replace the ignition cylinder while I was in there, as the troublesome key had become a major annoyance by that time. The ignition was in the dash, rather than on the column, and consequently that turned into a Major Job. What a complete pain in the ass. I think I had to take *everything* on the driver’s side and in the console apart to get to the damn switch, in the middle of winter, in an unheated garage. About a year after the car was gone, we got a recall notice from GM, good for a laugh.


It was in this very same time period that another memorable issue struck the Alero, and that one wasn’t even the car’s fault. It started when, on a Sunday, I had again enlisted the services of the same ex-mechanic friend who had helped me previously with the coils and fuel pump. Truth be told I no longer even remember what the problem was. While leaving his work area (a friend’s garage), another car was blocking the driveway, so I drove onto the grass to go around, and hit a deep rut or hole of some kind. The suspension bottomed out and something scraped, but everything seemed OK so I drove on. About a mile down the road was the on-ramp to Interstate 40, which would take me home. Just before getting onto the highway it occurred to me that I should stop for gas, so I pulled into a gas station.

That decision to stop for gas saved the car. As I pulled into the brightly lit gas station from the road, I noticed that I was trailing smoke. I stopped at the gas pump amidst copious smoke from under the car; one quick look underneath revealed that I was leaking something, and lots of it. The leak turned out to be transmission fluid. As the fluid escaped during my drive down the road, it blew all over the exhaust manifold and pipe, causing the smoke. I’m sure that, had I gotten onto the highway, I would have lost the rest of the fluid in short order (it all leaked out in a few minutes) and blown up the transmisson before I even knew what was going on.

We discovered that at the spot where the car bottomed out was a mostly buried landscaping timber, with just the corner poking up through the grass. That must have hit just right and holed the transmission pan. My friend, being a stand-up kind of guy, told me to have it towed back to his garage, where he beat out and welded the hole in the pan, replaced the trans filter, and refilled the transmission. Despite it being kind of late, he took care of it so I could get to work the next morning. When leaving after the work was done, I was sure to stay on the driveway! The trans didn’t give me any trouble afterward; no permanent damage thanks to a BIG stroke of luck.


A coupe version parked in the same lot as I did at work.  There was also a gold-colored sedan.

As I noted in my Marauder COAL last week, in the fall/winter of 2011, I came up with the plan to replace the Marauder with a car that would be my girlfriend’s long-term, and I would take over the Alero in the interim. So the Marauder was traded in November ’11. I drove the new one from time to time in between November and May, but starting in June, it was just me and the Crabmobile. I had proposed to my girlfriend on New Year’s Day, and she accepted. But she had decided to pursue her master’s degree, and her final decision on which program to enroll in led her to Richmond, Virginia, about 160 miles away from our home at the time in Durham, NC. I was more than ready for a change of scenery and tired of my current job; however, by the time she was ready to start her new program in late May, I still hadn’t found employment there. So I stayed behind in Durham and moved into a month-to-month room rental while my fiancee moved up to Richmond and started classes.

The coolant and oil leaks had worsened again by this point, and while the Alero was still getting it done for the day-to-day work commute (as long as I kept an eye on the fluids) it kept me from visiting my fiancee in Richmond as I didn’t trust it on a long trip. No matter; I was working two jobs at the time as we had two rent checks each month, so I didn’t have much free time anyway. But it was driven daily, and never once let me down. It got to the point where I had to top up the coolant pretty much every time I drove it to keep the temperature gauge out of the red, but it got me where I needed to go. Finally, in mid-September, I got a call from a recruiter that resulted in a phone interview the next day, and I had a job in Richmond and could rejoin my fiancee.


So on the last day of September 2012, I packed all my belongings into the Alero, and after topping up the fluids, embarked northward with some trepidation. The car hadn’t been on a long trip in ages, and I wasn’t quite sure if it would make it. To my relief, it was flawless, and I arrived in Richmond on time and with no drama. That drive was, essentially, the Crabmobile’s last and greatest feat. We kept it for a while afterward, but it was rarely driven, as my fiancee took the bus to school and I took the other car to work. In December we acquired another car (future COAL) and the Alero was no longer necessary. I considered selling it, but it seemed an awful lot of effor for a little return (with all the outstanding issues I doubt I could have gotten $500). So in the end we decided to donate it to a charity, which would then sell the car at auction.


Farewell and good luck.

With all the problems the Alero had in our ownership, you’d think I would have been glad to be rid of it. My fiancee was; she’d put up with the car’s shenanigans for far longer than I had, and had a not insignificant amount of money into it in repairs. But despite all the trouble, I had gotten to kind of like the thing by the end, and I think the name had a lot to do with it. The Alero was just a car, and not a great one at that. The Crabmobile name gave it a personality, in spite of all its flaws and all the time (and skinned knuckles and mumbled expletives) invested. So when the driver from the charity showed up on a rainy February day to pick up the Alero, and drove it up onto a trailer and out of our lives, I felt some legitimate sadness. There was a lot of inconvenience along the way, so much so that my wife swears she’ll never drive another GM product. But in the end, through almost 10 years with my wife and 5+ with me, that car became part of our lives. And so I bade farewell to the Crabmobile, a character beyond its flaws and one that made good in the end.