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Mirror quest

No, this post isn’t about some new Mirror Universe story I’m writing, but about my efforts to replace the cracked side mirror on my car.  My sister suggested that I should find an auto salvage yard and get a used mirror there, then get a garage to install it, which would be cheaper than the alternative.  I found the prospect a little intimidating, but I researched it.  I found a relatively nearby yard with a “self-serve” policy — you bring your own tools, pay a small fee to get in, and detach the desired parts yourself.  Okay, but did I have the tools?  Hmm, I realized, I have that emergency kit I bought for the trunk — that probably has some tools in it.  I checked, and indeed it did — plus I realized it also included jumper cables, which would’ve been useful to know when my battery died a few months ago.  I haven’t used the kit since I bought it a couple of years ago, so I’d forgotten what was in it.

However, one thing I was hoping to get was a new wheel cover (why don’t they call them hubcaps anymore?), since the one on the front left wheel has some noticeable cosmetic damage.  And the emergency kit didn’t have a socket wrench attachment big enough for the wheel nuts.  Okay, I thought, that won’t work.  But then later I thought, Wait a minute — logically the car itself would come equipped with the necessary tools for changing a tire.  So I went back out to the car and checked the manual, and it took me a few minutes to figure out where the tire-changing tools were kept — behind a flap on the left wall of the trunk that I’d never realized was there.  I really should’ve put more effort into figuring all this out when I got the car.

So now that I knew I probably had the right tools, I checked the yard’s website this morning to make sure they had my make and model of car — plus I noted the location of another one from a year earlier as a backup.  That didn’t guarantee they had the parts I wanted, though, and the person I talked to on the phone confirmed that they didn’t keep track of that and I’d be taking my chances.  Still, I decided to go ahead and drive up there.

The cars were all laid out in rows and I had to track down my target vehicle myself; it was just at the far end of the row, wouldn’t you know it.  And it was missing both mirrors and all its wheel covers.  Darn!  I half-heartedly looked to see if it had anything else I might find useful, but no luck.  Then I remembered the other car from a year earlier, and made my way over to it.  No wheel covers, but voila, there was an intact driver’s-side mirror!  Carefully, remembering how my mirror had come loose and how I’d been able to pop it back on and pull it off again (which I shouldn’t have done because that’s what broke it), I pried loose the mirror from the mechanism that reoriented it, and that left it dangling from a pair of blue wires.  Okay, so how to disconnect the wires?  I didn’t see any way.  The connectors looked fused to the mirror.  I remembered some instructions I’d looked at online about how to dismantle a mirror, and I pulled off the panel inside the door, exposing the wire connections within.  I managed to unplug a set of five wires in a plastic thingy, but I couldn’t figure out how to disconnect the two blue wires from the thingy.  I tried detaching the entire mirror assembly (conveniently, it was the right color), but the bolts were too rusted for my toolkit pliers to work, and they must’ve been metric since none of my socket wrenches would fit them.  (Is there a non-metric size between 3/8″ and 7/16″?)  So much for the handy-dandy ready-for-anything emergency kit.  (I should look into getting another one, maybe.)

Finally another patron walked by and I asked him if he knew anything about how to disconnect a car mirror.  He took one look at it, asked for pliers, and pulled out the blue wires from the connectors in the mirror (apparently for its built-in heating element).  I had misread what I was looking at before; the parts that were fused to the back of the mirror were the bits that the wires clipped onto, not part of the wires themselves.  The connectors were of a type I’m not familiar with, so I hadn’t recognized how they worked.

So now I had the mirror, but looking at it, I wasn’t sure it was the right shape; it seemed too wide.  I told the guy who helped me that it was from a year earlier than my car’s model and wondered if it would fit, and he said it probably wouldn’t.  “Think about it,” quoth he.  “That would make it too easy.”  But it was the only option I had, so I went to the checkout place and told the clerk that I was unsure of the part’s suitability.  She let me leave my license with her while I checked it out, and it turned out to be a perfect match.  The reason it looked too wide is that I was used to looking at my mirror from an oblique angle rather than head-on, of course — and probably because the shape of the housing made it seem rounder.

Satisfied, I collected my license and paid for the mirror, then wrapped it carefully in rags for the drive home.  I would’ve liked to try installing it then and there, before I had to drive anymore, but there was a sign saying not to work on cars in the parking lot, so I had to wait.  Also, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to risk installing it myself.  What the guy at the yard had done looked simple enough, but I’d broken the other mirror trying to reattach it; maybe it took a more skilled hand to do it right?  Maybe I should stop by the local garage and ask them to do it?  But then, the “skilled hands” at the garage in Pennsylvania had cracked it even worse than it had been before.  And it did seem pretty simple, so long as I was careful.  But wait, I wondered.  How do I avoid getting the two blue wires mixed up?  But the answer quickly came to me.  There was a roll of electrical tape in the toolkit; all I needed to do was mark one of the wires with a bit of tape.  And what if it turned out that, despite having the same shape, there was some difference in the rear connection and it wouldn’t go on easily?  But no, I figured that since it was the exact same shape, and only one model year off, they probably just reused a standardized component.  So I decided that I would try to install it myself.

And it was quite easy.  It was so quick and simple to disconnect the one mirror and attach the other that I hardly even needed the tape to tell the wires apart.  (I’m not even sure it would’ve mattered if I swapped them, but better safe than sorry.)  And it did click into place properly, although I was too tentative the first time and it didn’t fully engage.  So I pushed a little more firmly, but carefully, and as far as I can tell, it’s now properly attached.  Then it was just a matter of spraying on some glass cleaner and gently wiping it off, then getting in the driver’s seat and adjusting the mirror angle.  The replacement mirror still has a couple of tiny smudges or scrapes on it, but that’s a whole lot better than the multiple cracks on the old one.  (Come to think of it, it’s hard to believe I could’ve broken the mirror just by removing and reattaching it.  It doesn’t seem they’d be that fragile.  It seems more likely that the impact caused a hairline crack or two, and my subsequent handling exacerbated them.)

So I feel relieved and kinda proud now, and grateful to my sister for the idea.  I have an intact mirror again, I can feel safer when I drive, and I was able to achieve it for just over ten bucks, a lot less than I would’ve had to spend otherwise.  And while I didn’t get a new wheel cover, I gained a better understanding of my car and its onboard tools.

Now the one lingering issue I have with the car (aside from the slight cosmetic damage here and there, most of which was already there when I got the car from my father) is that the ride seems bumpier since I left the garage in PA.  I wonder, did they somehow tighten the suspension when they did the alignment after replacing the tires?  Or is it like my bicycle, the way it transmits the shocks more when the tires are freshly filled and rigid?

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