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Behind the Wheel

When It Rains, It Pours Into the Car


What a year for a leaky car.

With El Nino storms, motorists with less than watertight vehicles are getting swamped. It isn't just the junkers that are affected.

Take the case of Joel Schrier, whose 1991 Lexus 250 moon roof proved to be a nasty leaker. After repeated trips to a Lexus dealer, who could not solve the problem, he finally tore out the interior side panels.

A drain hose from the roof opening is supposed to carry the water through a hole in the bottom of the car to the ground. In Schrier's car, Lexus had improperly installed the hose, leaving a kink that backed up water. With nowhere to drain, the water came through the seams of the moon roof. During one particularly bad storm, the entire floor well was flooded.

The problem was not a fluke, says Kenneth Zion, an auto body expert who runs Automotive Collision Consultants in Long Beach. Zion said that new and old cars are subject to leaks from a wide variety of original defects, collision damage and aging.

Zion recently was hired to examine leakage from a sunroof in another new Lexus, ultimately finding that the drain tube was routed into the trunk of the vehicle.

Auto makers also sometimes fail to properly install rubber plugs in body panel holes used during the manufacturing process. In other cases, caulking compound is applied poorly.

In older vehicles, collision damage sometimes leaves body panels out of alignment. One easy test for this problem is to close the door or trunk lid on a piece of heavy paper and see if it fails to grip the paper. Also, as cars age, rubber seals become brittle and crack or fall out.

Leaks occur from water running down from the top of the car or water thrown into the car as it travels down the road. Both problems can be maddening to diagnose.

Sometimes, it takes a virtual detective to find a leak. The first guess most car owners make is that their windshield is leaking, but more often the problem is somewhere less obvious.

When a floor or trunk gets damp, chances are the leak is occurring from under the car rather than from a leaky window or door. One easy way to check is to park the car under the spray of a garden sprinkler and see if the "rain" causes leakage.

If not, Zion says, then put the sprinkler under the car in various positions in an attempt to simulate the problem that would occur on a wet road.

Areas of antennae, doors, trim pieces, rear bumpers, windows, body plugs and welded seams are all prime culprits in car leaks.

Small leaks may seem minor and many motorists may ignore them. But the constant dampness of a wet carpet or trunk liner can cause accelerated corrosion and major damage.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006, or e-mail to

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