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Always investigate strange noises
Dear Tom and Ray: I have a '95 Oldsmobile Achieva with less than 64,000 miles on it. A rubbing noise that sounds like doves cooing can be heard (especially at parking-lot speeds) when I am turning the car. It sounds like it's coming from the dashboard area. I mentioned it to the last guy who changed my oil, and I could see visions of sugarplums and dollar signs floating above his head. He said that he'd have to take apart the dashboard and steering column -- a few hours of labor -- just to diagnose the problem. The noise hasn't affected the steering, as far as I can tell. I'm cheap, by the way. Any suggestions?
Ray: Well, normally, my cheapskate approach is to turn up the radio. But first you want to be sure that, whatever it is, it's not dangerous.
Tom: I would absolutely not pay this guy to take apart the dashboard and steering column. I'm not at all convinced that that's where the noise is coming from. You say it sounds like it's coming from the dashboard area, but noises can be tricky. If we agree, instead, that it's coming from the "direction of the dashboard," then that leaves the whole front end of the car and the engine compartment as possibilities.
Ray: When we get a problem like this in the garage, we strap my brother to the hood -- or the underbody, if need be. Then we drive around until he figures out where the noise is coming from. Or until his forehead gets overly pocked from road debris.
Tom: If you don't have a brother -- or a mother-in-law -- you can strap to the car, ask an interested mechanic to try to listen as you drive slowly around him in a circle. You say you can hear the noise at slow speeds while you're turning, so he should be able to hear it if it's coming from outside the car somewhere.
Ray: I'd suspect one of the wheels before I'd suspect the steering column. It sounds like it could be a sticky caliper or a brake pad that's hanging up. It could be a wheel bearing that's starting to go, a power-steering pump that's failing or even a tire with tread separation.
Tom: The most common dashboard source for a noise like this is a worn speedometer cable. But we know that's not your problem, because this car doesn't have a speedometer cable. It uses a vehicle-speed sensor instead.
Ray: Whatever the problem, more diagnosis is needed before anybody tears the dashboard apart. You need to find a mechanic who's interested and willing to put in a little bit of time narrowing it down. Bake some brownies, Stephanie. That'll significantly increase most mechanics' interest.