In a few months I will be celebrating 10 years with one of my favorite cars. My 2012 Smart Fortwo is proof that dreams can come true. But it’s also now the only car in my fleet incapable of moving under its own power. How did my car die? I let it sit outside for too long without driving it.
The story you’re about to read should be a warning. If you’ve parked a car for a minor issue, fix that issue as soon as you can. If you don’t, when you finally do get around to fixing it you may find a whole host of other issues. Please don’t be like me.
This little Smart Fortwo has been by my side for much of the biggest moments of my life.
It’s been there with me through my times of uncertainty and heartbreak. It’s been there as I began transitioning and navigated the world as I found my new self. What I’ve done with it has given me some of the biggest boosts of confidence I’ve ever had in my life. The little car is as much of a best friend and wingman as a car could be, so I feel like I let it down.
Our trouble begins in 2019. The Smart is seven years old with 155,000 miles, but still running like it just rolled off of the showroom floor. Over those miles I’ve only had to replace the head unit, a side skirt, and the rear bearings.
In September of that year I took the Smart on its third Gambler 500 rally.
The car’s lack of overhangs, a narrow track, a short wheelbase and its factory underbody pan make it better off-road than it looks. I gave the car a two-inch lift through tires and have found it able to reach just about anywhere a two-wheel-drive pickup could go.
This rally took place in Tennessee and it was perhaps the best environment for the little car yet.
Where 4x4s got stuck in the mud, the little Smart and its snow tires practically skipped through. When the trails got narrow with sharp rocks, the Fortwo drove around the obstacles like a side-by-side. It even drove down then back up a small waterfall. The car wowed the event’s organizers enough that I won an award for doing the most with the least.
My first mistake came when I didn’t wash the car when I brought it back home. I drove around with the car wearing its Tennessee mud with pride. Unfortunately, the engine bay was absolutely caked with the stuff and it wreaked havoc. In addition to accelerating rust on some parts, the mud also found its way into the car’s alternator. It didn’t take long for it to seize up.
A mechanic got the car running, but it never was the same. The alternator was low enough on output that the battery light would often illuminate. But it ran and drove.
Eventually, the alternator seized up again and I was forced to park the car while I figured out how to change it.
See, the alternator on a Smart is in a tight spot. It can be changed out with regular tools, but it requires you to remove a motor mount then lower the engine slightly with a jack so you could get enough room.
Some dealerships will disconnect the car’s whole subframe just to replace the alternator. As a personal rule, as soon as a job requires messing around with lowering the engine or transmission then I take it to a professional.
Unfortunately for me, the only professionals willing to work on Smarts in my area are ones that quote me multiples of the car’s value for the job. So I let the car sit while I took multiple cracks at doing the job myself. Eventually, the car stopped starting at all.
Fast forward to now and I’ve thrown in the towel. My attempts at DIY over the past year have failed and in waiting so long the car is even more broken than before. So I went back to looking for professional help. This time, I have an ace up my sleeve.
Remember JET Mobile Auto Service, the mobile mechanic that fixed my Touareg? Jack was not only willing to take on the challenge, but he was seemingly excited.
To prepare, I decided to move the car out of where it sat for a year. In doing so I learned things have gotten much worse than just an alternator and a starter. Now, the transmission appeared to be stuck in park, even though the gear indicator said otherwise. The wheels were locked up thanks to sticking brakes, too. It took dragging the car with my Touareg to free them up.
To give the mobile mechanic the best shot at this, I bought a new alternator, starter, battery, engine mounts and serpentine belt tensioner. I figured there was a chance that the engine mounts were already shot, so I picked up a set, just in case.
It took Jack basically no time at all to get through the wheel, subframe and engine mount to loosen the engine enough to lower it to get at the alternator.
Along the way, my thoughts about the engine mounts proved to be true as not only were the mounts shot, but they were so bad that the engine was basically connected via Bluetooth.
The alternator itself wasn’t any better; looking like it was fished out of a sunken ship. I beat the alternator on the ground and a mix of rust and old mud spilled out of it.
Jack made the replacement look easy. He had the new alternator and the new tensioner in before I even got back from AutoZone with a belt. The mechanic I hired when the alternator first seized couldn’t even get the old tensioner off. It looks like I could have done this myself, but I had mentally made myself think it was a bigger job than it really is.
Last on the list was the new starter. The old one proved to be just as much of a disaster as the alternator. The plastic housing that was supposed to protect the starter’s studs was filled with mud and rust. We tested it on a bench and it worked, but it was clearly no longer strong enough to start the car.
Jack took just a few minutes getting the new starter in, then the car was ready to start...or not.
While the new starter was engaging — a vast improvement over the old one — it wasn’t turning over the engine. We were baffled at what was going on.
He first found that the air-conditioner compressor was seized, so off came its belt. No change. Next he found that the hubs were locked, so he turned the hubs with a crowbar until they loosened up. No change.
Then Jack found that the engine itself appeared to be seized. He hooked a ratchet onto the crank pulley and there was no movement. It would move with a pipe slipped onto the end of the ratchet, but not without some major resistance. It took a while of turning the engine with the cheater bar before things finally loosened up to where they should be. He figured that some rust probably developed in the cylinders, binding things up.
We both kept on finding little problems here and there but the fixes made no change. The engine will turn over easily with a short ratchet, but the starter does nothing.
We bench-tested the new starter and while it’s quieter, it seems nearly as weak as the old one. We then tried running the starter with it connected to the car, but not installed; spun over the same.
The car turns over by hand easily and the car attempts to start when you hit the key, so by our logic, it should turn over.
My next step will be to find an OEM starter and see if that’s the cause. But outside of that, we’re not sure what could be going on here. We’re going to reconvene next week to try to get it running again. In the meantime, I’m going to be breaking out my handy Mercedes-Benz STAR diagnostic machine to see if it can improve the situation.
The good news, at least, is that I didn’t waste money firing the parts cannon. It definitely needed a new alternator, engine mounts and starter. Now it’s to find out what else it needs.
Dear reader, don’t let your cars sit around for too long. I parked this car with a single, simple problem and am now facing a major headache. Let this be a lesson to you as it has been for me. I will see this through to the end because I love the car. This car will be back on the road before its tenth anniversary.