Car leprosy, an insidious automotive disease allegedly first described in a newspaper column by Dave Barry, is a growing threat to the individual car owner. The average car owner will see at least one case if not more in their lifetime. Car leprosy is a devastating disease, affecting the health of millions of cars. Owners, who emblazon their cars with bumper stickers, window suction-cup Garfields, personalized license plates, and back windows phrases like "Almost an Angle" (sic) are often blissfully unaware of this horrible condition which steals the life and function of their vehicles bit by bit.
Car leprosy is usually suggested by the discovery of various portions of car anatomy rattling about on the floorboard of the car while driving. In newer cars, a predisposition toward car leprosy may be revealed by the presence of small screws, plastic rivets, or other unidentifiable car parts during the examination of the car at the dealership. This, however, is not always a clear indication of future problem, and may simply be the natural shedding of vestigial car organs prior to purchase. In older cars, more serious symptoms include the loss of major components such as mufflers, wheels, driveshafts, or entire engine blocks while traveling at high rates of speed. (Oil or coolant leakage is not considered a sign of car leprosy).
Applying pressure to the brake will often result in a stray window handle knob or ashtray lid shooting out from under the seat and lodging under the gas pedal foot of the driver (a positive kinetic sign). Driving the car over a rough roadway will often precipitate observable parts loss. Washboard clay-surfaced roads and parking lots with several successive speed-bumps are particularly suited to this purpose. The criteria for a positve diagnosis are:
- Mild disease - the presence of three or more small car parts (less than 10 grams each) on the floorboards of the car at rest, or discharge of one minor car part during active testing. Also may be diagnosed by demonstrating three missing identifiable parts such as radio or window knobs, small handles, switches, etc.
- Moderate disease - The presence of six or more minor parts or one major internal part (eg: a rear-view mirror or entire door/window handle) loose within the car, or separation of a major internal component during active testing. Demonstration of an absent major component can, in some cases, substitute for the actual presence of the parts.
- Serious disease - Demonstrated absence of three or more minor external components (eg: external mirrors, hubcaps, front or rear lights or light covers) or of one major external component (eg: muffler, bumper, fender, or front grill) along with criteria for either minor or moderate disease as described above. External parts must be lost spontaneously, not through impact or intentional abuse. Terminal disease is clear if the engine, drive train, or front or rear axle with wheels is lost during travel.
Unfortunately, in most cases long-term treatments fail, resulting in loss of the vehicle. Diligent use of duct tape, superglue, bondo, and metal-bonding epoxy can often minimize suffering. In more severe cases, prosthetic parts are often available to replace OEM parts, but usually come at great cost, and are not usually covered by Autocare or Autocaid.
Car leprosy is a gradual process that occurs over the lifetime of an automobile. Most experts believe that there are dual processes which, when combined, result in the manifestations of the disease. Chronic vibration, which tends to loosen components; and cyclic heating and cooling which loosens metal-to-metal joints by expansion and contraction. New cars are generally immune to this process, although when left unsold on car lots for extended periods, may begin to show early signs when first driven. This disease can often be prevented by frequent lubrication, tightening of visible fasteners, and regular maintenance. Avoiding curb-hopping, driving on two wheels, and becoming airborn will also lessen the relative risk of contracting car leprosy.