Now it can be told…
Sabotage in Indianapolis

You may remember that I was unable to get the Atom started in the morning when staying in Indianapolis. I posted a brief summary at the time, but now that I’ve been home for a week, it is time to tell the full story…

I went out to the car, took the cover off and stowed my luggage as usual. A fellow walked over and asked me the usual questions about the Atom. After chatting for about 10 minutes, I said “I have to get going” and started the car – or at least I tried to. All I got was the starter motor – not even an attempt to run. That was embarassing, and set the tone for the rest of the day. I also noticed that the throttle body didn’t cycle when the ignition was switched on (you can usually hear this on an Atom, but not in the Cobalt SS this engine comes from – in the Atom the throttle body is right behind your head, while in the Cobalt it is out of earshot).

I checked all of the fuses and relays (swapping relays) with no change. I didn’t have Tom Smurzynski’s phone number with me (silly) so I called my business partner and had him look it up on the web. I then called Tom and he talked me through a number of troubleshooting steps, but nothing got the car started. Tom then suggested I take it to a GM dealer, since the shop computer (Tech 2) “should” make diagnosing this easy.

I went back to the hotel and got a phone book. The closest dealer’s phone was disconnected – I guess they’re one of the ones that was closed as part of the restructuring / Federal bail-out. The next closest one answered their phone, and after I explained the situation they said “Sure, we’ll be glad to look at it – how does a week from today sound?”. They had no other appointments available, so I asked them if there was another dealer they could recommend. They suggested Andy Mohr Chevrolet, about 11 miles away.

I called that dealer and explained the whole story from scratch. They said they could look at it right away if I brought it in. I asked them if they had a flatbed tow truck, and they recommended an outfit that they use all the time.

I called that towing company and they said they could do it, but their driver was having lunch. After a series of increasingly frantic phone calls on my part, the driver arrived (about 2 hours after my first call). We loaded the Atom and drove the 11 miles or so to the dealer, arriving there around 2 PM.

The dealer had us drive the flatbed with the Atom on it into their service area (which was quite large – 36 service bays or thereabouts). As usually happens when an Atom is in sight, all work stopped as everyone came over to look at it. We got the car unloaded and as I was paying the tow truck driver, the dealer techs hooked up the diagnostic computer to the Atom. I showed them how to “start” (in this case, just crank) the engine.

The computer didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. I gave them Tom’s number and left them to work on it (insurance rules prevent customers from hanging out in the service area, and besides there is nothing more annoying than having a customer hover while you’re trying to work on a car).

Around 4:30 PM the tech came out and said that they weren’t getting any spark. The tech asked me if I thought it could be sabotage, and I said I didn’t think so – it was under a car cover parked right out front at a good hotel (Hampton Inn). Little did I know… They said that they’d need to work on it tomorrow, so they had an employee drive me to a rental car agency so I could get a rental. I called Tom back and told him that the dealer suspected someone had sabotaged the car and it was kind of freaking me out, and he said that this was a very unusual problem and if it wasn’t something intentional, he wasn’t sure what else it could be.

While I was waiting in line at the rental agency, the dealer phoned me and asked if I had a spare PCM (engine control computer). I obviously didn’t – while I had spares, they were at home, 750+ miles away. Of course, the software in the PCM is from GM Racing and dealers don’t have access to that, so they couldn’t put in a standard PCM and reprogram it.

I called up a friend of mine back home to go over to my house, pull out a pair of spare PCMs, and pack them for FedEx to overnight them to me. Of course, this was a complete panic because it was about 15 minutes before FedEx stopped accepting pick-up requests for the night.

The next morning the PCMs arrived at the hotel and I drove back to the dealer with them in the rental car. I spent the morning in the customer lounge at the dealer wondering what the heck was going on. I made a few trips back to the service area, and discovered that the PCM wasn’t the problem and that they had the back of the Atom in pieces (necessary, but upsetting nonetheless). They were tracing the wiring, one wire at a time, with an old-fashioned indicator light probe (since the Cobalt wiring diagrams don’t match what is in the Atom).

A little after noon they asked me to come back to the service area. One of the 2 techs working on the car explained to me that for some reason, the powertrain control relay wasn’t engaging, which was causing the no-start problem. He rigged up a jumper wire to bypass the relay, but that meant that I needed to shut the car off with the master disconnect switch. He said he normally wouldn’t give a car back to a customer in this condition, but since I was planning on meeting up with Tom at Laguna Seca, the tech felt that Tom would have a better chance of finding the underlying problem.

They got the Atom re-assembled by 1 PM and I handed in the rental car and drove the Atom back to the hotel to pick up my luggage (which I’d emptied out of the Atom when I discovered it wouldn’t start). Part of the delay in finishing up at the dealer was their computer refusing to accept the Atom’s VIN. They finally managed to override the computer somehow and got my VIN and other info entered.

Tom had offered to look at the car at his shop in Oregon and then bring it down to Laguna Seca in his trailer. I told him I’d consider that – I wouldn’t have to made a decision until I got to Utah (turn north to Oregon or south to San Francisco).

After I got a couple hundred miles down the road I noticed that my GPS wasn’t on. (I’ve driven this part of the trip many times as I have a friend who was attending med school at UIUC, who I’d visit often, so I wasn’t using the GPS as I had the route memorized). I hit the power button on the GPS and it powered up, then immediately said “low battery” and shut down. I thought that was odd as it was hard-wired into the car power (by me). I pulled into the next rest area to look into the problem, and I then noticed that my on-board video cameras weren’t recording (the indicator lights were concealed by my luggage). I thought that this was all very odd, but that perhaps the dealer had pinched the wire to the rollbar camera when they had the rear deck off – the camera gets its power down the same cable it uses to send video to the recorder.

I checked the fuse box I’d installed for all of my add-ons, and the fuses were all Ok. I moved to the passenger side and looked up under the windscreen panel, and noticed that the GPS power adapter’s connector was unplugged. I said to myself “that’s strange”, since it is a locking connector and you have to press two tabs while pulling the connector apart to get it to release.

I looked around under there and discovered that the power plugs for the two video recorders were unplugged as well. At this point I was wondering what the heck was going on, since the dealer didn’t work on this area of the car. Looking around, I noticed that one of the push-on connectors for the master disconnect switch was also unplugged. I plugged everything back in the way it was supposed to be.

At that point I was getting pretty irritated. I decided to remove the jumper wire the dealer had installed and put the relay back, just to see what would happen. The car started right up – apparently the 2 smaller wires on the master disconnect switch disconnect the powertrain relay.

I could believe that I knocked the wire off the disconnect switch with my luggage, since it is piled pretty high in the passenger footwell. But there is no way this could have happened to the other wiring, since it all uses locking connectors and is held tightly against the windscreen panel, well out of the way of any luggage.

Apparently someone went to the Atom that night at the hotel, un-clipped the front strap that holds the car cover on (the clip is right at the spot where all the wires were unplugged), and disconnected everything they could see. Why someone would do this, I don’t know. I’ve got nearly 30,000 miles on the Atom and have never had a problem like this – in fact, I usually don’t even bring most of my luggage inside – there was about $10K of camera stuff in a camera bag on the passenger seat. (I thread the seatbelt / harness belts through the carrying handles on my luggage, but that’s just to avoid a “grab and run” opportunistic theft at gas stations, etc. – not for any real security).

All together, this escapade cost me over $700 – $450 at the dealer, $125 for the FedEx overnight shipping, $100 for the tow, and $50 for the rental car.

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Sabotage in Indianapolis

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