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Cone of Silence

Claim:   A flavor of ice cream being transported affects a car's performance: every time vanilla is the driver's choice, the car stalls.

LEGEND

Example:  [Collected on the Internet, 1998]

This is a weird but true story ... A complaint was received by the Pontiac Division of General Motors:

This is the second time I have written you, and I don't blame you for not answering me, because I kind of sounded crazy, but it is a fact that we have a tradition in our family of ice cream for dessert after dinner each night. But the kind of ice cream varies so, every night, after we've eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it.

It's also a fact that I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then my trips to the store have created a problem. You see, every time I buy
vanilla ice cream, when I start back from the store my car won't start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine.

I want you to know I'm serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: 'What is there about a Pontiac that makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream, and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?'"

The Pontiac President was understandably skeptical about the letter, but sent an engineer to check it out anyway. The latter was surprised to be greeted by a successful, obviously well educated man in a fine neighborhood. He had arranged to meet the man just after dinner time, so the two hopped into the car and drove to the ice cream store. It was vanilla ice cream that night and, sure enough, after they came back to the car, it wouldn't start.

The engineer returned for three more nights. The first night, the man got chocolate. The car started. The second night, he got strawberry. The car started. The third night he ordered vanilla. The car failed to start.

Now the engineer, being a logical man, refused to believe that this man's car was allergic to vanilla ice cream. He arranged, therefore, to continue his visits for as long as it took to solve the problem. And toward this end he began to take notes: he jotted down all sorts of data, time of day, type of gas used, time to drive back and forth, etc. In a short time, he had a clue: The man took less time to buy vanilla than any other flavor. Why? The answer was in the layout of the store.

Vanilla, being the most popular flavor, was in a separate case at the front of the store for quick pickup. All the other flavors were kept in the back of the store at a different counter where it took considerably longer to find the flavor and get checked out. Now the question for the engineer was why the car wouldn't start when it took less time.

Once time became the problem — not the vanilla ice cream — the engineer quickly came up with the answer: vapor lock. It was happening every night, but the extra time taken to get the other flavors allowed the engine to cool down sufficiently to start. When the man got vanilla, the engine was still too hot for the vapor lock to dissipate.

Moral of the story: even insane-looking problems are sometimes real.
 

Variations:
  • Sometimes Ice cream cone the mystified driver complains to the car dealership; sometimes he contacts the car's manufacturer.
  • The dealership sends a mechanic; the manufacturer sends one of its engineers.
  • The trouble-causing ice cream flavor is either vanilla or pistachio.
  • In older versions the troublesome ice cream flavor is the only one that requires packing by hand, hence it takes longer to purchase.
Origins:   This legend surfaced in print in 1978, but an anecdotal sighting places it even earlier than that, in 1971. Though its exact beginnings can't be pinpointed, according to Brunvand:
The June 1978 issue of Traffic Safety magazine printed the story, citing as its source the car magazine Automotive Engineering.
It's interesting to note how the "vapor lock" explanation reversed itself over time. Earlier versions mentioned a flavor of ice cream that required handpacking (while all the others were prepackaged and ready to go); the vapor lock was said to form because it took so much longer to get out of the store with this one flavor. In newer versions, we're told that vanilla was a popular flavor and was kept in a special case near the door, making purchasing it and getting back out to the car take considerably less time; the car then wouldn't start because the vapor lock did not have enough time to dissipate.

Barbara "rocky rhodes scholar" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend also shows up as a Car Talk puzzler.

Last updated:   11 April 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 121-122).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 296-298).

    Hendry, Allan.   The UFO Handbook.
    New York: Doubleday & Co., 1979.   (pp. 268-269).