I knew there was a damned good reason I didn't become a mechanic back in the '80s when I went to college for it. I quit because auto makers were putting computers in cars, and I didn't want to be responsible for telling a customer that they needed a $400 computer replaced, only to find out it was something else (and that happens, even to the best mechanics).
So, I have this different minivan now, and hadn't driven it at night until Friday night. We drove out to look at the Christmas lights, and used the heater and headlights. So the next day, we were out doing some shopping, and I drove by the dealership to see if they had the missing part for the liftgate. My wipers were off according to the control, but they kept wiping intermittently, the left turn signal wouldn't shut off after I turned (and the lever was where it should have been for it to shut off), and the brake light on the dashboard was on. Oh yeah, and the damned bell for "fasten your seatbelt" was dinging, even though seatbelts were fastened and the driver's side window wouldn't roll down (electric windows). The dealer said it was probably some multifunction switch gone bad, he'd see if the guys in the shop could get it in to look at it. While we were waiting, I shut the van off (big mistake). When he came back to tell us to bring it back, it wouldn't start. Just clicked and flashed the headlights when I turned the key. Battery was dead. So we got a jump start, were told to take it home and put the battery charger on it (good thing DH has one of those). Who would have thought that the battery being low would have caused all of that shit to happen? Because when we got it started, everything was fine (evidently the alternator was charging the battery).
So, when we got home, I looked at the battery, and evidently it's the original battery that came from the factory when the minivan was new (it's a Ford Motorcraft battery and has no place on it to punch out a purchase date). The label on the top of the battery says it's replaced free in the first 18 months, 19 to 84 months and customer pays pro-rated cost of replacement. So it's a 7-year battery, van is almost 8 years old, I'm betting the battery is a POS and needs to be replaced. But the dealer's first thought was a part that costs anywhere from $50 to $200 to replace, plus $70 an hour for labor. I don't think I'll be taking the van back to them any time soon for any diagnostic work. I'll stick with the mechanic I know and trust (not to mention, his shop is just 2 blocks from our house). This is the kind of shit that makes me long for the days of carburetors and no computers (I can rebuild a carburetor, have done it several times). Fuel injectors - I don't want to have to replace those, you practically have to tear the engine apart to get to them, and don't even get me started on replacing valve cover gaskets on a front wheel drive vehicle, all the shit you have to remove just to get to the valve covers.......man, what a hassle. I've replaced timing belts (Pinto and Horizon), replaced front and rear brake pads/shoes, replaced/patched exhaust systems, hell, I even replaced the head on my Pinto (in the winter, in a carport). I've replaced radiators and thermostats, replaced and rebuilt starters. Of course, this was all on older cars, the ones built before 1980 (I've owned cars built between 1961 and 2001, the Windstar is my 26th vehicle in 37 years of owning cars). A lot of those cars were ones I paid less than $500 for, drove for a 6 months or a year (till they died beyond resurrection) and then bought another one (was a lot cheaper than payments and upkeep on a new vehicle, not to mention license plates and insurance was a LOT cheaper).
But, we can afford to pay a mechanic to do the work on our rides now, so I guess I'll just have to learn to deal with strange shit happening on computerized vehicles.
ETA (on 12/19/08) - Well, got the van checked out, and it's not the alternator, it's the battery. Arnie called the dealership where we bought the van to see how old the battery is, it's 7 months old, which means it qualifies for a no-cost-to-us replacement (well, it would if we had bought the battery). Because the battery was purchased by the previous owners of the van, the parts guy at the dealership isn't sure they'll replace it free for us (and the one who can make that determination is out sick today and won't be back till the 22nd). Now I don't think it should matter who bought the damned battery, the dealership will get another battery (at no cost to them) from Motorcraft parts if they replace the battery, no matter who bought it, simply because the battery is bad and went bad within the warranty period. So Arnie is going to check back with them on Monday and let me know what he finds out. In the meantime, he put a new battery in the van for me (no charge until we find out what the dealer is going to do, see why I like him so much?). Personally, I would have foregone the bullshit with the dealer and just paid Arnie for a new battery, but Arnie's way may save us $75 (another reason I like him, he does things the most economical and safest way they can be done). He's a gem, for sure.