Question: I have a 1977 Chevrolet Impala 305 with 46,000 miles on it. About every three months, my spark plugs get wet, and, of course, the engine won't start. My mechanic suggested I drive the car on the freeway several times each week until the engine gets hot enough to burn off the oil. A second mechanic informed me of the need for a head overhaul. Who is closer to the truth?--R.R.F. Sr.
Answer: When you say the plugs get wet, I assume you mean they become fouled with oil. If that's the case, you have oil seeping into your engine combustion chamber, either through your valve guides or through the piston rings.
Freeway driving may help clean oil-fouled plugs to a minor extent, but it will not solve the basic problem. In some cases, the fouling can be worse in freeway driving.
Your mechanic should perform a compression test of each cylinder in the engine. To do this, he will remove one spark plug at a time and screw in a gauge that will measure the pressure inside the cylinder during the compression stroke.
If the compression is adequate, you can suspect the oil is coming from the valve-stem area. Poor compression will mean that the compression rings are shot or the valve seats are burned. Correcting this problem requires a complete overhaul of the motor, a very expensive proposition.
To check the valve stems for oil leakage, he will remove the valve cover and inspect the valve guides and seals. The seals prevent oil that lubricates the camshaft and the valve guides from seeping into the engine.
If the seals are shot, you can have them replaced at far less than the cost of rebuilding the entire head. But new seals will wear out or break quickly if the valve guides and stems are worn out. In that case, you'll need a valve job, which will run into the hundreds of dollars.
Now, if your problem is that the plugs are wet with gasoline, you have a fuel problem. If the plugs get wet only after you turn over the engine, then your carburetor mixture is too rich. You should check the choke and check the idle mixture.
If they are wet with gasoline before the engine is turned over, you have gasoline leaking out of your carburetor and seeping down into the cylinders. You may need a new or rebuilt carburetor.
Q: I own a 1982 four-cylinder Oldsmobile Omega with power steering. My problem is that in late fall and all winter, when the weather gets cold, my steering feels like it has no power when I start the car and drive the first few miles. I have no problem when the weather is warm. What is happening?--D.J.
A: The condition you describe is probably normal. Power-steering systems get their "boost" from a hydraulic pump driven by the engine. It operates on oil that is the consistency of transmission fluid, which is very often used in power-steering systems.
Since this oil is not typically a multiweight oil, it is thicker when it is cold. The thicker oil doesn't move as readily in the boost system, giving you a stiff feeling or a lack of power.
If you had a mechanical problem with your steering system, such as an oil leak, it most likely would show up when the oil is warmed up. Usually, leaky seals in a power-steering system are worst in hot operating conditions.
Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.