License plate frames are illegal, technically

Plus: Smelly A/C, bearing noise at speed

By John Paul Columnist / May 20, 2009

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Q. Did I miss something in the news? I live in Massachusetts, I had my vehicle inspected today, and the technician removed the rear license plate bracket, saying that they are no longer legal and the penalty for having one is similar to receiving a speeding ticket. I'd love to know when that regulation went into effect.

A. Many years ago when I inspected cars, motorists were not told they couldn't cover the license plate. This included plate frames as well as clear covers. Although it was the law, in my opinion it was not particularly well enforced. The following information is from the Massachusetts RMV website: Regulations require that all letters, numbers, stickers, and symbols must be clearly visible on the number plate. A number plate frame that obstructs any part of the plate is illegal, and you could be fined for having an obstructed plate. For more information about inspection procedures, visit as well as

Q. Sometimes when I turn on the air conditioner in my car there is a cheesy/stinky smell for a minute or so, then it dissipates. What is wrong, and is this an easy fix?

A. The smell is most likely mold and mildew built up in the air conditioning system. There are a couple of basic items to look at first. All air conditioner systems have a drain to eliminate moisture. These drains can clog with leaves and other debris. When using the air conditioner, always use the fresh air setting. If this doesn't solve the problem, try spraying a liberal dose of a disinfectant spray into the air ducts and the air intake. There are also commercial spray products that may offer some relief. If you are still getting the smell, or it is getting worse, the system may need to be disassembled and cleaned.

Q. We just got done changing the oil filter and the engine ignition wires in my vehicle. When we started the engine afterward, the car felt like it didn't want to go, like it wanted to shut off. When we stop at a stop light or stop sign, it does the same thing. What did we do?

A. More than likely you have the ignition wires crossed. With some engine designs, it is very easy to cross the ignition wires, even for a professional mechanic. In most cases the ignition coils will be marked, as well as the cylinders on the intake manifold. In the future, change one wire as a time.

Q. I have a 2007 VW Jetta with the 2.5 liter engine and 6-speed automatic. After driving on the highway for at least 15 minutes, and then exiting the highway, the transmission will downshift very hard. I believe this occurs when shifting from 4th to 3rd gear, around 20 m.p.h., when I am driving at slower speeds on secondary roads.

This typically occurs if the stops are within a couple miles of the highway after I have driven on the highway at sustained speeds above 50 m.p.h. Once the car experiences this hard downshift, it will not repeat during the trip unless I drive on the highway again. This problem occurs frequently but not on every trip, so it has been very difficult to have a technician find the problem. I hope you can help.

A. I would return to the dealer and have them check the transmission for trouble codes and updates. Transmissions today are as much electronic as hydraulic and mechanical. In some cases the transmission can be reprogrammed to eliminate problems very similar to the one you are experiencing.

Q. My 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood starts making a humming noise at 59-70 miles per hour and then stops at 70 m.p.h. until about 80 m.p.h. We have already changed the rear wheel bearings, universal joints, transmission rear mount, and purchased new tires but the humming noise has not gone away. Do you have any advice?

A. I would be suspicious of a worn bearing in the rear differential. On the road when the vehicle is noisy, apply a little power and then coast, if the noise changes, the problem is most likely related to the pinion gear bearing.

Q. I need to trade my Toyota RAV4 for roomier small SUV. I like the looks of the 2004-2006 Honda CR-V. Should I be on the look out for any problems?

A. The Honda CR-V is a pretty good vehicle, but not perfect. There have been problems with rear differential noise, air bag problems, and emissions issues. Although the CR-V is bigger than the RAV4, you are only gaining a total of about five cubic feet on storage. Prior to buying any used car, have it checked out by a qualified technician.

John Paul is the public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England. He can be reached at