Q: Can you tell me why carmakers don't connect the headlight switch to the ignition switch? Every morning or after a heavy rain, you drive into any parking lot and see a dozen cars parked with the headlights on, resulting in dead batteries and frustrated motorists.

-- Harold

A: RAY: Well, Harold, this is due to a concerted lobbying effort by the Battery Manufacturers of America and the International Tow Truck Drivers' Union.

TOM: There's no good reason headlights don't go off when you turn off the ignition key. And a number of cars have been doing it this way for years--BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo and Audi come to mind. Although some of them leave the parking lights on, which can drain your battery just as easily if left on overnight.

RAY: Other cars, like certain Toyotas, turn all of the lights off when the ignition is off and you open the driver's door. And that's a good solution, too.

TOM: I can't think of a reason these days why you would want your lights on without having the key in the ignition. So it seems like a feature every car should have.

RAY: It requires a little bit more wiring and one extra relay, but cars are so complex these days that one more relay is hardly going to matter.

TOM: So we're with you, Harold. Lights off with the ignition! You have the placards made, and we'll organize the march on Detroit.

Dear Tom and Ray:

My wife owns a 1995 Ford Contour. About three months ago, while driving, she began to hear a loud clacking noise. I inspected the engine and found that a spark plug had been completely ejected from the head. The threads on the head were completely stripped out. Then it happened again, only on another spark plug. Could it be that there is just too much compression in the engine and this is causing the spark plugs to be expelled? If so, what can be done?

-- Fred

RAY: It's definitely not a compression problem, Fred. No engine has enough power to blow out spark plugs. Certainly not an engine you'll find in an unadulterated '95 Contour.

TOM: It's an unusual problem, though. I've had spark plugs blow out on me before, but it's always been when I forgot to tighten them. And when that happens, they just slowly work their way out and then blow--with a frighteningly loud sound. But that never strips the threads. You just screw the plug back in and everything's fine (except for the dent on the underside of the hood made by the "launching" spark plug).

RAY: I have occasionally seen plugs that were mismanufactured--where the threaded part of the plug was slightly too small. In that case, it might not blow out right away, but might leave room for hot exhaust gases to erode the threads over time until there were no threads left. But the odds of that happening on two different cylinders are about the same as the odds of Bob Dole becoming a national spokesman for male impotence. (All right, bad example. But trust me, it's very unlikely.)

TOM: More likely, last time you were in for service, some rookie mechanic cross threaded a couple of your plugs. That means the threads on the plugs were lined up incorrectly with the threads in the cylinder head. And when he tried to screw in the plugs, he damaged the threads in the holes.

RAY: After he made the mistake, the kid probably tried to "re-tap" the damaged threads in the cylinder head. A "tap" is like a sharp, heavy-duty screw that goes in and "straightens out" damaged threads. But if he cross-threaded the tap--which is possible--then he could have destroyed most of the threads altogether. And that's probably what happened.

TOM: If I were you, I'd have your mechanic back out the remaining plugs and see what kind of condition the threads are in. If they've been damaged, too, he may have to drill out more of the holes and put in inserts. But by doing that now, if necessary, you'll at least save you wife from thinking she's being fired on by NATO forces when the next plug finally blows out.

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