By now, you’ve probably heard all the horror stories and tall tales about auto repairs and how your local mechanic is out to rip you off. There is one classic tale that’s been told and retold all over the land, usually in cartoon form. A customer brings his car in. In the background, we see words that point out a really strange sound. The customer asks “What does that sound like to you?” The shop owner replies “Two weeks in the Bahamas”.
Yes, there are some unscrupulous auto repair shops out there. I’ve seen them, and even had some dealings with them. The advantage I have, as long time friends of mine will tell you, is that when I’m not in the studio or writing for AC, I too am in the automotive business. In particular, I am a parts specialist, as certified by the A.S.E., the National Institute of Automotive Excellence. I am a commercial account parts manager for the largest parts retailer in America, and I have been involved in the auto business for over 30 years, almost as long as I’ve been in radio, so I’ve seen a lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff.
Let’s look at some of the bad stuff. There are some old fashioned tricks to make you think you need some work where none is required. One example is to squirt oil on shock absorbers or struts, then taking the customer into the shop to show him the oil on the shock to make him (or her, this trick is used more on women) think they’re bad. The actual amount of oil used in struts and shocks is only a couple of ounces, and would rarely leave a dripping trail. One old stunt which isn’t used much anymore is the “barbecued alternator”. When barbecue sauce is dropped in a working alternator, it burns, giving off smoke and a putrid smell which are used to “prove” the alternator is bad. Once you agree to the replacement, the alternator is cleaned and replaced, looking new. The reason it’s not used much any more is that with rising labor costs, and the hard to reach locations now designated for alternators, it’s almost as expensive to clean and replace the alternator as it is to just put a new one in.
Ever have a technician bring you into the shop with your helpless car up on the lift and he shakes the wheel to show you how loose it is? For almost every car known to man, once your car is off the ground, there should be some free play in the wheel or axle. Counter the tech by asking how much the camber and caster are off the norm for your car and you’re likely to see him clam up and usher you out while he “checks the specs”. Always ask for your old parts back, and if possible, make some kind of mark on the parts you think might be changed. If your mark isn’t there, you’ve been taken for a ride. Note, however, that some parts can be shown to you but can’t be given back because of fluid contamination or other hazardous disposal regulations.
Air conditioning work has changed. The old refrigerant, known as R12, can no longer legally be sold in North America. This means that if your pre-1994 car needs AC work, the refrigerant must be “recovered” (it’s illegal to just vent it out) and replaced with the newer R134. This will require that all the vital seals be changed and new valves installed, which will probably run over $100. Some shops still say they have a type of refrigerant that’s cheaper and won’t require all that work. These R12/R134 “knockoffs” are illegal, coming from such places as India, which does not currently have laws on auto refrigerant.
That’s enough negative stuff. I don’t want to give you nightmares and make you afraid to take your car in for service. That could be dangerous. Besides, I want to concentrate on what goes on behind the scenes, the place that mere mortals never see, that Valhalla where Mr. Goodwrench, Oil Can Harry, and other automotive gods dwell. Come, join me as we push open the door and enter—–“the shop”. No, you can’t take pictures. Watch out for that oil spill there…….
First off, each shop is divided into areas, one per mechanic, who by the way are not called “mechanics” any more. Today they are “technicians”, because they are experts in their field, trained to use highly sophisticated equipment to interface with sensors, electronic fuel pumps, fuel injection, on-board computers, and bad karma. They are specialists, just like lawyers and surgeons–they just don’t get paid quite as much.
This is where we need to pause and let you know that those high prices you pay for car repairs today are not all going to the shop owner’s pocket. Maintaining an auto repair shop is an expensive endeavor. The owner or corporation must pay rent, utilities, insurance (all of which cost too much in southern California), a myriad of licenses, uniform fees, and tons of money for equipment. A good smog check bay and equipment can cost a half million dollars. Various “general” areas in the shop may include a tire mounting and balancing machine and a special device that allows shocks and struts to be separated from their respective springs. An alignment rack, absolutely necessary if the shop does suspension work, is also very expensive. There is a bit of reality to the price of labor, which pays the shop expenses.
Anyway, each area is designated to one technician, and it includes a “rack” (also called a lift) or pit in the really old shops, and the tech’s tool box, a well stocked version of which could finance a revolution in a small country, as well as several pieces of equipment that comprise that particular repair person’s specialties, such as a refrigerant recycling station or a brake lathe. Generally speaking, technicians, like sports figures, are very particular about their area, and don’t like to work in another person’s spot or have someone else work in theirs. They are also at times very protective of their tools, and would rather have their testicles crushed by a polar bear than share them.
In order to provide smooth transitions from the time you walk into the repair shop’s waiting room to the time you get your car back, everyone must know what your car is there for. That means you have to tell the service writer what he needs to know very specifically. If you just tell him “there’s a noise under the car”, that’s too vague. Tell him that every time you make a right turn, the right front wheel sounds like two cats are fighting under it, and now you’re getting somewhere!
Unfortunately, language is something that also separates the parts people from the service techs. Here’s an example: most cars have an item called a “heater control valve”, but I’ve also heard this piece called a “temperature selector control”, “coolant redirector valve”, a “heater temperature selector valve”, and a “ranco valve”. The names pretty much depend on which repair shop you’re in, and whether the service tech’s name is Antoine or Bubba. The thing to remember is that only the parts man knows the real name for the part, the technician just thinks he knows.
With the complexity of vehicles, there is now “diagnostic time” required for most jobs. This is why shops, yes even the honest ones, will charge you a minimum of one hour labor (which sometimes can run up to $120) to look at something. Using sophisticated equipment, the technician communicates with your car’s computer(s), gets some idea of what the problem is, and knows where to proceed to solve it. At that point, the service writer should call you and explain what’s involved and approximately how much more it will cost. If you decide the repairs will be too costly, the work is halted and the car is returned to you, but you still have to pay the upfront one hour’s labor. No, that’s not a dirty trick. If you go see a doctor and he tells you what’s wrong, you still pay for the office visit. It’s the same principle.
Many variables exist in automotive repair. Different cars take different filters, oils, and spark plugs. There are no less than five different types of transmission fluids today, including one that’s used only in certain Fords and one in late model Hondas and Acuras. Some cars use copper core spark plugs, others have platinum or even iridium plugs which can cost up to $15 each. Older cars have distributors, and most new ones are distributorless. If your repair bill includes a cap and rotor and your car doesn’t have a distributor, you’ve been had. “Tune up” is now an obsolete term. A tune up formerly consisted of replacing distributor points and condenser, as well as the spark plugs. The cap and rotor were cleaned or replaced depending on extent of wear. Today, many cars have plugs that don’t need to be replaced for up to 100,000 miles. There is no longer such a thing as a “tune up”.
Voltage regulators are built into alternators or computers now control voltage. Brakes are anti-lock, which means that everything having to do with that system cost more than before because they are also computer controlled. Computers control the ignition, transmission, and even body functions. There are vehicles out there with more computers on them than the old Apollo moon rockets. Most of these are extremely expensive and if one gets replaced and two days later the malfunction returns, everyone is angry. We parts guys and gals have to know all these things, as well as which cars take which part. We are the parts gods, and without us, your technician is helpless.
There are also other things that irritate the parts person. One of these is when the technician orders the wrong part. This can still happen today because the service writer got the info wrong or previous repairs on the car have resulted in parts from another year being used. It’s especially bothersome with brakes, because once you take brakes out of their box, either the parts grow or the box shrinks, and they just won’t fit back in. When the shop returns dirty “unused” parts, we have to try to clean them before we can resell them. Sometimes you can’t do a good enough job and you have to send the parts back as “defects” strictly because they are dirty and another customer wouldn’t buy them. In my experience, the parts people and technicians at the dealership or local repair shop really hate each other. Most small shops don’t have their own parts stock, so they depend on outside parts vendors, and the vendors make a large chunk of their income from the shops, so even if they hate each other, they tolerate themselves in a symbiotic relationship like that of sharks and remoras.
Most shops are very careful with customers’ cars, even going as far as putting mats on the floors, and covering the seats and steering wheels with what is sometimes in the business called “upholstery condoms”, clear plastic sheets that keep dirt and grease off your interior. Don’t be afraid of taking pictures of your car inside and out before you drop it off. A top quality shop will not tolerate their customers getting their cars back with greasy fingerprints on the hood or interior. The really good technicians also keep handy in their toolbox a little tool known as a “memory box”, which is a battery powered device that attaches in the car’s lighter and memorizes the radio and clock settings in case the battery has to be disconnected during repairs. There are few things as annoying as being a few miles down the road from the shop and finding out your radio station presets are all gone and you hear nothing but static instead of 50 Cent.
Something that the customer fails to realize also is that many car repairs take time. There are so-called “shop manuals” out there that state they have the “correct” times for doing a particular job. As any tech will tell you, those times appear to be the result of some sort of perverted speed competition between groups of technicians with four arms. None of these manuals considers that the part may be rusted, melted, or filled with chewing gum or what used to be some sort of animal, and has to be pounded, torched off or broken loose with dynamite before it can be replaced.. When shown the “book time”, most real-world technicians will throw their arms up in the air and scream obscenities in some ancient druid language as they storm off to pound their heads on a bathroom wall.
For some reason, one of the first things a person does when buying a new car is throw away the owner’s manual. The psyche with that is that you know how to drive a car, so you don’t need this book. Guess again, Kemo Sabe! Today’s vehicles are so complicated that you really do need that book—and if you go to an independent repair shop, so do they. Some jobs as simple as an oil change today require resetting various sensors and gauges when you’re done, and the resetting procedures are in those owner’s manuals. These settings sometimes require the technician to crawl under the dash and perform certain pagan rituals while wearing feathers and face paint. As the commercials used to say, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.
In the old days, any shade tree mechanic or grease monkey could fix a car. Today, the modern technician has to be a combination of mechanic, computer specialist, and Harry Potter, with just a hint of showmanship thrown in. For the best results and your own peace of mind, choose a shop with recognizable credentials such as AAA certification and technicians with A.S.E. credentials. The Better Business Bureau, unfortunately, can no longer be relied on as a source of integrity. Yes, I could tell you why, but just trust me on this.
Sooner or later, you will need repairs on your car. Weigh all the variables and choose wisely. Don’t fall for some nebulous wizard behind a smoke screen tempting you with a $59 brake job. In the real world, that $59 brake job doesn’t exist. That’s the price of the pads and replacing them, and doesn’t include hardware or other possibly needed parts such as rotors, seals, bearings, hoses, or the shop owner’s son’s new braces.