Question: We have a 1985 Mercury Topaz automatic. After a cold-engine start, it dies immediately. We have had the car in the shop seven times but were told it is not a problem common to the model. The car also dies when slowing down, lurches, pings, can't decide what gear to go into and idles too fast. What's your advice? --J.L.
Answer: Your car has just about every performance problem in the Guinness Book of World Records, and your mechanic should recognize the symptoms as a common problem for Topaz and Tempo cars.
The problem with the poor idle and performance is related to the fuel injection system, which is controlled by a microprocessor. Under certain conditions, the computer was providing incorrect commands to the fuel injectors, causing the problems you describe.
Ford has developed a new microprocessor, which should be available at your dealership. It's a relatively quick repair and should be covered under warranty.
Q: I have a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. After a recent brake job, an annoying rattle developed in the front end. It seems to be coming from the brakes, whenever I go over a bump. What causes this noise? --M.B.
A: The noise is most likely caused by the disc brake pads rattling around inside the brake caliper.
Disc brakes consist of two opposing friction pads that are squeezed against a rotating disc. The pads are pressed against the disc by a hydraulic piston assembly, called a caliper.
The pads are held inside the caliper by little metal tabs that wrap around the caliper. When you put your foot on the brake, a piston causes the pads to squeeze against the disc, which is connected to the wheel.
The rattle occurs if the pads are not securely tightened to the calipers. Whenever you hit a bump, the metal back of the pad rattles against the metal caliper. You should have a mechanic examine the pads as soon as possible, because the rattling could weaken the metal tabs and cause serious safety problems.
You can easily check to see if the rattle is being caused by loose pads. The next time you hear the rattle while you are going over a bump, lightly apply pressure to the brake pedal. If the rattle disappears, there's a good chance the problem is a loose pad.
Fixing the problem is relatively simple. Your mechanic will remove the car's wheel and bend the metal tabs so the pads are held tightly inside the caliper.
Q: I have a 1985 Toyota Camry LE with 5,000 miles on it. The first month or so after I purchased it, I noticed a click or clunk sound coming from the front end whenever I started out from a stop or even accelerating after slowing down. The dealer says nothing is wrong. It doesn't sound normal to me. What do you think? --H.Y.
A: A new car often produces a lot of unusual noises, many of which eventually will disappear. In this case, there's no well-known problem of this type with Toyotas.
However, you might want to have your mechanic examine underneath your car for parts that may be interfering with the drive train. For example, it's possible that a plastic shroud that covers the underside of the engine is hitting the transmission case under heavy loads. You'll be able to spot such contact points, because the plastic should be frayed or dented.
Q: The owner's manual to my Honda Accord recommends that I take my car in for service every 7,500 miles, which costs more than one hundred dollars for each visit. Other than oil and filter changes, I think these visits are a waste of money. What's do you think? --P.W.
A: Some people do successfully follow the philosophy of taking their car to a garage only when it needs a specific repair, but there are risks to limiting regular maintenance to oil changes. One day your brakes pads will wear out and you won't know it. By then, you may have ruined them. Your engine valves need to be adjusted every 15,000 miles and eventually they may be damaged. Then, the several hundred dollars you would have paid for this service over the life of your car will seem very cheap. Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.