Troubleshooting Professional Magazine
Working With Auto Mechanics
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Knowledge is power. -- Sir Francis Bacon
Your quality of life depends on your auto mechanic!
Life's too short, and too precious, for bad mechanics. This issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine shows you how to find good mechanics, how to tell the good from the bad, and how to work with good mechanics so that you have a reliably running car, and therefore a good life.
Interestingly, I've come to be known as somewhat of an overheating expert. Given that I don't work on cars, how could that have happened? In fact, I was just in the right place, at the right time, with the right knowledge. In 2000 I probably heard more cyclical and once-per-trip overheating symptom descriptions than most mechanics, so I set out to find an explanation. Given the huge resources I had access to, in terms of readers, overheating inquiries, and fellow automotive webmasters, it wasn't long until I connected such episodes with head gasket failures and thermostatic air bubbles.
I'm not a mechanic. I was simply in the right place, at the right time, with the right knowledge. In fact, I'd expect any Troubleshooting Process expert who happened to receive multiple cyclical and per-trip questions to have come up with the same overheating hypothesis.
At my suggestion, Sylvia took the car to Bill Murphy Buick in Culver City, CA., who had done outstanding work for me previously. Sylvia handed the car to the Murphy techs with a complete symptom description. The verdict? A cable connected to the computer was intermittent. The computer had always been OK, the cable was feeding it garbage. Garbage in, garbage out. The supposed Roger Smith Special worked wonderfully and reliably for years after. No more computer repairs or resulting life-squelching shop time.
Bill Murphy Buick saved us a fortune. This true story illustrates the huge difference a good mechanic makes, both in perception of a car, and in quality of life.
The car suffered several instances of dead battery in less than 2 years, in spite of the fact that the dealer replaced the battery twice and the alternator once. The Troubleshooters.Com reader finally got money back for the car, minus mileage, but was forced to trade the "lemon" at the original dealer (and therefore forced to buy the same make of car).
At one point in the correspondence, this reader mentioned to me that for the past several months it had been necessary to spend time on these car problems at least once a week. The reader emailed me that although forced to buy the new car through the same dealer, all repairs will be done by a different dealer.
What we learn from this story (true, to my knowledge and belief) is that going to a dealer doesn't guarantee competant repair. The dealer first made a bonehead mistake (leaving off the oilcap), and compounded it by incredibly poor judgement (steam cleaning the engine). It would have been cheaper for them to yank the engine and scrub it with gunk degreaser and toothbrushes.
A year and a few repairs later I knew the truth -- the smog system had been severely tampered (before I ever got the car). Under California law, there's absolutely no upper limit to what I would have had to pay to have this thing brought into smog compliance. Come 2 years from my date of purchase, my car would turn into a pumpkin. Worse yet, California had started placing smog-sensing vehicles at freeway entrances to detect "gross polluters". If I flunked smog, my car would immediately be placed in the system. I called several smog places and got discouraging information, and unhelpful advice.
Then I called Valley Smog and Repair. Their service manager, a guy named Gene, was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. He suggested I bring the car in for evaluation. The evaluation showed missing parts, including a missing manifold heat shield. It showed severe tampering had created irreparable carbon deposits on carbureator parts. Many of the smog control hoses were cross-connected. And yes, its emissions placed it in the "gross polluter" category. Gene personally explained all of this to me and explained it would cost $800 to make this car legal. When the work had been completed, Gene showed me how the former owner had defeated the smog system by placing BB's in the small smog hoses, and explained how this had led to the carbon deposits.
Secretly I breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it would be thousands, in which case I'd have it towed to the junkyard. I paid my $800, and miraculously, the car was not only legal but passed smog tests, requiring no further smog work.
When I got my Dodge Coronet a year later, Valley Smog and Repair did my toughest repairs. Including the repairs to get the car ready for my 2500 mile oddessy from Los Angeles to Orlando, packed up with a thousand pounds of my possessions. The trip wasn't without incident, but that 30 year old car made it.
Every time I went to Valley Smog and Repair, Gene took care of the customer contact, repair cost estimations, and informing the mechanics exactly what needed to be done. He cloned his exceptional diagnostic abilities across a fleet of several mechanics, resulting in an entire shop able to do superior work and super-satisfy customers. Valley Smog and Repair was by no means the cheapest shop around, but a few extra bucks was a bargain for a shop that fixed the problem right the first time, and didn't mess up my life with bring-backs and long shop stays.
We learn two things from this true story. The first is how to run a shop. Diagnose first, then fix. No diagnosis by serial replacement.
The second lesson learned is that a single person can be responsible for great repair service. I have a strong feeling that any shop employing Gene would have been successful. In fact, you'll see the "one man" theme repeated over and over again in this article.
And things got slowly worse. Tuneups that hurt more than they helped. Little problems remaining unfixed. They finally got another service manager, but that didn't fix their problems. He was soon gone.
After a number of repairs, on my cars and those of relatives, where I felt there was a component of misdiagnosis, I lost trust in this shop. I like them personally, and I sure hope they soon find a service manager capable of restoring quality to their service.
This is yet another instance supporting the hypothesis that behind every good shop there's a single individual.
So we weren't a bit surprised when transmission fluid started showing up on our garage floor, and we weren't in a hurry to get it fixed.
It's not just the money or the hassle. Here in Orlando, I knew of no good repair shops (other than the one that went bad). It's all too easy to postpone repairs when the alternative is a shop that might make things worse.
But our nonchalance came to an end when I was driving the family home and the car revved instead of accelerating at a stop sign, and then started switching between two gears at constant speed. I pulled into a shop long enough for them to check the tranny fluid, put in a quart, and recommend a tranny shop. The fluid was low by more than a quart. When I pulled out, the symptoms were gone. But I knew the days of fill and drive were over.
I called the recommended tranny shop. They seemed cool over the phone, almost bragging about their free estimates. But their estimate degenerated into something like "you have multiple leaks, so you'll need a seal kit, with labor $275 and the seal kit $50. Only after we've done the $275 labor can we see if there's been any damage to your transmission. If your clutches were ruined by driving with low fluid, you'll need a transmission rebuild, which could total $1200. We don't want to test drive your car with all these leaks."
I told them to hold off until I talked to Sylvia. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. This was a tar baby. Once I hit it with $275, I'd be very reluctant not to spend the $1200. And the shop knew that. I called some other tranny shops. The first one thought at least an educated guess could be taken by driving the car, and felt the other shop was taking us for a ride.
The next shop I called was Cool Shift Transmission and Automotive Center, Inc. I talked to a guy named Fred, who felt the original tranny shop was way off base, and that if they knew their stuff they'd know what problems were likely and what problems weren't. He explained that if the car drove right when full of transmission fluid, tranny damage was extremely unlikely. He said that 87 Century's with 3.8 engines were coupled with a 440 overdrive transmission -- an excellent transmission whose usual cause of leaks were the rubber cooling lines from the transmission to the radiator. He said he doubted that every single seal was bad, or needed replacement. Then he came in with the kicker. He used to work for a chain of transmission shops, and their free estimates were usually "between $200 and $1000", and they usually ended up closer to the $1000. Sound familiar? He explained he didn't like doing business that way, so he'd opened his own shop.
He couldn't look at the car today, but if I brought it in the first thing the next morning he'd take it for a test run, look at it, and give me an estimate. I'm not the kind of guy to pick a shop based on a sales pitch, but everything he said rang true. So even though Fred's shop was 20 miles away while the other shop was maybe 2 miles, I told the current shop not to touch the car, and the next day I took it to Cool Shift.
Fred invited me to ride in the passenger seat while he test drove it. He told me the transmission was in excellent shape, and he'd call me in a few hours with an estimate. He pointed out the two severely leaking cooling lines, coated with fluid. The estimate turned out to be $193 for new cooling lines, a new filler boot, a seal somewhere, and a sorely needed filter and new tranny fluid. I picked up the car, and it was peppier than it had been in the previous 2 years.
This story illustrates several points. Obviously, it reiterates the "one man" theme. Fred is the owner, service manager and salesman. It also illustrates the point that if a shop tries to put you in a "tar baby" situation, where you need to pour hundreds of dollars into the repair just to find out how much more it will cost, you should strongly consider another shop. Unfortunately, most "tar baby" offers occur when the car is undrivable, the impatient tow truck driver has already left the scene, and the owner is desparate. Unskilled shops depend on such situations for their living. And that brings out the final lesson. Know in advance where you want to bring your car for various types of repair, and get AAA'S plus package, which covers long tows. Major repairs on a non-functioning car are no time to try out a new shop.
As far as Cool Shift Transmission, I've already recommended them to one person, and will continue to recommend them in the future. If your tranny busts in Orlando, Florida, head straight for Cool Shift.
I took it to an [unnamed] Buick dealer, who was quoting some pretty steep prices for replacing an ignition switch, but I was all set to do it. I then mentioned to the service manager not to turn the car off by disconnecting the battery, and he said that was just how he was going to do it. I said it could burn out the electronics, and he asked how else it could be turned off. I mentioned pulling the spark plug wires, and he said he wouldn't subject his mechanics to the shock of doing so.
I took my car elsewhere.
This story illustrates that taking your car to a dealer is no guarantee of knowledgeable service. Indeed, some mechanics and service managers might know less than you, in both dealers and indy shops. You need to talk with a shop's personnel to get a feel for their quality.
Batteries Plus will test your existing battery and your charging system, and tell you which is at fault, and whether your current battery is capable of recharge. If it turns out your battery needs replacement, they'll work with you to supply the right battery for your needs, and install the battery free.
For instance, I'm a believer in huge cold cranking amp batteries. A strong battery covers a multitude of sins, such as bad tuneup, thick oil, sub-zero temperatures, bad compression and the like. Also, a big capacity battery can still start your car if you accidentally leave your headlights on for a little while. Most big chains won't install a battery size that's not specified for a given make and model, so they end up suggesting a 600 CCA battery for my 3.8 liter 1988 Buick Park Avenue. I'd prefer 1000 CCA. Well, Batteries Plus measured my battery compartment and determined that it would accommodate their 850CCA battery, which isn't normally specified for my car, and put it in. Two months later they put the same type battery in Sylvia's 87 Buick Century.
As long as I live in Orlando, I'll be buying all my batteries from Batteries Plus.
This story illustrates the point that sometimes it's better to specialize, rather than taking all repairs. Batteries Plus knows everything about batteries and their installation. They can diagnose your charging system.
It could be said that it's a shame that Batteries Plus can't replace your alternator, also. That way you could get towed to Batteries Plus confident that the problem would be fixed right there, no matter what the source. But that would require a shop with lifts, a huge investment in tools, alternator training for their employees, one or more good alternator vendors, and a whole lot of hassles. Would their battery service be as good? Probably not. What puts Batteries Plus' service head and shoulders above the rest is they do one thing and do it right.
I lived in Reseda, on the corner of Valerio and Canby. When one of my cars stopped being drivable, I could usually get a couple buddies and push the car to a high quality shop. 100 yards down Canby was Perfection Auto Care in Reseda, who did excellent work. The owner knew his stuff, and all the mechanics did too. As a matter of fact, it was one of those mechanics who sold me my 1967 Dodge Coronet, the car that got me to Florida.
If you look across the street from Perfection Auto Care, you see the former site of a little shop owned by a guy named Robert. Robert was an outstanding diagnostician, and while he was there we went to him exclusively. But his shop burned down, and we had to find other mechanics. Luckily, there's a lot of talent in Reseda.
Turn the corner on Reseda Blvd and head north a couple driveways, and there's a driveway housing all sorts of automotive repair places. Out in back was an excellent transmission shop. Continuing on North was the shop of my choice, Complete Automotive, owned by a former engineer named Gene (no relation to the service manager at Valley Smog), who became a shop owner because he liked it better. Gene combined his knowledge of old cars with his engineering knowledge to keep my Dodge running sweet in spite of the dwindling supply of parts for this non-popular classic.
A little farther up the street is Leon's Transmission, reputed to be the best. I never went there, but all the locals swore by it.
Now drive a mile further north, cross into the town of Northridge, and on the east side of Reseda Blvd you'll see Quality Auto, a cool used car lot. I came this || close to buying the coolest car on earth from those guys -- a late 70's yellow Olds with a 4 barrel 350 that could leave 50 feet of rubber. I snoozed and loozed -- another guy offered more than the $800 I had tried to grind them down to, and took it home. Go a couple blocks north, under the bridge, and on the west side of Reseda Blvd you'll see Northridge Tire and Service Center, Inc. Any time you need tires, shocks, or any sort of suspension work, these are the go-to guys. They managed to fix a very tricky steering problem in my 1967 Dodge Coronet.
Back in Reseda, but off the beaten Reseda Blvd track, is Gary's Unocal, located on Sherman Way and White Oak. Gary's the owner, and imparts his visions of fast, accurate diagnosis and high quality repair, on all the mechanics in the shop. If you need to get towed, Gary's is an excellent destination -- he can fix pretty much anything short of an engine rebuild or a transmission repair.
If your car must break down, let it be in Reseda.
Invariably, car breakdowns on TV shows happen with only one shop within towing distance, and invariably that shop is inept. They have a captive audience. This story illustrates the flip side -- the value of a critical mass of repair knowledge and competition. If your car is still mobile, find pockets of auto repair within driving distance, and start your search for good auto service there.
Some people believe that dealer shops are always better than indies. No such luck. My experience tells me that for every super great dealer like Bill Murphy Buick, there's a buffoon like the guys who left the oilcap off and then steam cleaned, or the guys who replace Sylvia's computer four times. Great shops, good shops, fair shops, and poor shops occur in both dealer and indy incarnations.
Some folks believe indies are always more economical than dealers. That tends to be true in simple or generic repairs, but as more specialized knowledge is required, the money you spend at an excellent dealer shop can prevent salary-sapping bring-backs.
Some feel that big shops are better than small ones. There's an element of truth to that, but only an element. Modern cars require diagnostic tools and manuals that can't be cost justified in the one-man shop. So while the one-man shop will survive for the repair of pre-1990 cars, and the best one man shops will survive on pure quality, they will become less influential. However, one man shops may have an excellent future if they specialize. The guy who does just radiators, the guy who does just Mercedes, the guy who does just electrical can afford the tools and manuals to compete within his specialty.
In general, multi-mechanic shops have an advantage in these days of advanced diagnostic tools. But once a shop reaches a size where it can afford diagnostic equipment, I believe further growth does not nessicarily foster better service, and indeed could hurt service. Remember my one-man theory? If you dilute a great service manager over too many mechanics, his effect will be washed away. It's very hard to replicate a repair philosophy across a large group of mechanics
Are chains better than indies? In my opinion, probably the opposite. My experience is that chains don't have the necessary expertise. Chains might be great at the one thing they do. Lube shops are great at the $20 oilchange and lube, tire shops are great at selling and installing tires and sometimes shocks or maybe even brakes, and muffler shops are great at replacing exhaust parts. But my experience tells me that more complex things like tuneups and anything involving diagnostics are better accomplished by indies or dealers.
Are neat looking shops better than shops littered with old parts and cars? Very probably. Working around a mess siphons effort from diagnostics and repair. Things get lost. And a neat shop means they work fast enough that people pick up their cars fast, probably not resorting to renting a car. So give the neat shop significant extra points. But I cannot advise you to entirely rule out messy shops, simply because a shop I used for years to do all sorts of tricky repairs was messy, and they did excellent work.
Perhaps the best way to deduce the quality of a shop is to talk with
them. See how they handle your symptom description. I've had shops who
thanked me profusely for my typed symptom description, while other shops
copy a few items onto the invoice and throw the symptom description away.
I usually don't go back to the latter. Does the person interviewing you
have tech smarts, or will he lose something in the translation to the techs?
Gather info on the Internet, and ask him questions. Does it seem like he's
aware of all the tech info, or is he one of these people who thinks each
symptom has one and only one possible cause?
The ideal time to find great shops is before you need them. Read on...
Car care is a lot like health care. You need a general practitioner and a series of specialists. Your general practitioner's greatest asset is his or her diagnostic ability. Speed and price are also major factors, but the good diagnostician usually gets it done fast and at a reasonable price. The last thing you need is one of these guys that troubleshoots by serial replacement. Try to get a general practitioner within five miles of your home. If you're lucky enough to live in a car care hub like Reseda, CA. try to get a general practitioner within pushing distance of your house.
As much as possible, your general practitioner should be self contained. The guy who took care of my Dodge Coronet once sent my carburetor out for a rebuild. Unfortunately, the carb shop had much lower standards than my mechanic. Even after several trips to the carb shop, and some angry words, my car never ran like it should have.
You also need several specialists:
An excellent way to find good shops is to become involved in the repairs of family and friends. Often you can help them choose a good shop, and later use that shop yourself. For instance, I found Cool Shift Transmissions while getting a second opinion on my wife's car, and you better believe if I ever have transmission problems I'm taking my car to Cool Shift.
Certainly the first technique for retaining great repair shops is to treat all the personnel with respect. There's nothing like mutual respect to foster long term relationships. On the other hand, the customer who yells, screams, threatens, and continually tries to grind the shop on price soon finds himself getting worse service or told politely to get lost. You pick a shop because they give you respect. They choose to stay with you for the same reason.
People move. I had a spectacular mechanic named Mike at a gas station on Lincoln Blvd in Venice, CA. One day I drove in for a minor repair and found he had gone -- nobody knew where (or at least would not tell). I had a great mechanic named Robert in Reseda. One day I went there for a repair only to find out that his shop had burned down, and nobody knew where he went.
When you find a great shop, find the one person who makes it great, and make it clear to that person that if he moves he should let you know where he went so you can follow. Reiterate that every time you see him -- hand him your card every time.
Sometimes you just need to switch, and when that time comes it's a good idea to have several alternatives. So even though you have a great shop, continue to familiarize yourself with other shops.
Give your car a little attention, take it to an excellent mechanic, and you'll save bountiful time and money.
The reason I hear most often is "hassle free". And it's true. Most people driving cars less than 5 years old have few problems.
But not all. Consider the Troubleshooters.Com reader whose sports convertable was trashed by a left-off oilcap followed by an irresponsible steam clean. As webmaster of Troubleshooters.Com, I know that lemons happen. And car companies are less than enthusiastic about helping those poors souls with lemons. Unlike a cheap used car, you can't just wash your hands of a lemon -- you'll probably be paying it off for the next 2 years.
And then there's the expense. I heard a radio consumer advocate mention that if you keep every car for 10 years you can retire something like 5 years earlier. If a middle class person drives new cars all the time, something's got to give. Maybe it's a smaller house in a worse neighborhood, or less free time as both spouses work overtime, a worse school for the kids, or working past age 75. Something's got to give.
Contrast that with the person who picks his used cars well, and has a great mechanic. Depending on just how used the car is, he probably spends $500-$1500/year on repairs and maintenance. But as the car ages he saves several hundred by waiving comprehensive collision insurance. And let's not forget that his original purchase was between one and twelve thousand, instead of sixteen to thirty two thousand.
If you like new cars that's fine, but buying new cars to avoid repairs is just throwing money at the problem.
Life is secure. If you read the April Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, you know I felt very insecure keeping my data in Windows-centric formats. Less than a month after my mid-March 2001 conversion, the press discovered that Microsoft's Passport license declared that all data passing through it, regardless of copyright or patent, could be used by Microsoft or its partners. The Passport server is a fundimental part of Microsoft's new .Net initiative, meaning use of the .Net protocol would have put your data in jeopardy. Kind of gives new meaning to "who owns your data", doesn't it. And we all hear that the new Windows XP will be completely integrated with .Net.
And speaking of Windows XP, I just heard an unsubstantiated rumor that an XP install CD will deliver only 5 reinstallations, after which one needs to repurchase it. Sounds like utter nonsense, but read what the Gartner group said at http://gartner11.gartnerweb.com/public/static/home/today/il0731003.html. Now think of how often you need to reinstall Windows as a Troubleshooting step.
None of this worries me now. I said goodbye to Microsoft a month ago. And even my legacy .doc and .drw data is safe. The Windows 98, MS Office 97 and Micrografx Windows Draw software loaded on my legacy computer have no such booby traps, and thus will all install for the forseeable future, on whatever computer I choose. That means my data will be accessible, from my legacy computer, for the forseeable future. Bill Gates can't get his hands on my data. I can take my time migrating my old .doc and .drw files. I got out in the nick of time.
What's life like after Windows? Life is stable. When I reboot my Linux desktop computer, it's because I power down my computers at night to save electricity. You know, I used to cross my fingers every time I downloaded email with Eudora Lite. Would it bluescreen, and if so how badly would it trash my mailboxes. There were occasions it trashed them so badly I had to restore from backup, losing the last few days' messages. Now I download email with confidence.
Life is challenging. Dia is not as easy for me as Windows Draw was -- Netscape Composer is quirkier under Linux. I often have to "post process" html files with VI to avoid broken graphic links. Even The Gimp isn't quite as straightforward as Paintshop Pro version 3 was, although it's a whole lot more powerful. As I rise to these challenges, I learn to use my Linux operating system more effectively, resulting in production over and above the potential of Windows.
Life is a journey. I continue finding superior Linux based tools and riffs to replace the tools and riffs I left behind. I now use Kmail's sophisticated search facilities to quickly locate an email, instead of using Eudora Lite's simple and slow search facility. And for my old Eudora mailboxes, VI is my search facility of choice. I haven't used Eudora Lite in over a month. Windows search has been replaced by a combination of the Linux locate command, find piped into grep, and kfind. Now, instead of using PKZip to create backups and Adaptec CD burner programs to record it, I use a script comprised of tar, followed by mkisofs, followed by cdrecord, as a one step backup routine.
Life is a discovery. Now that I've found the joys of command line file completion, I never want to go back. And I've rediscovered the script-based task execution I abandoned after moving out of DOS in 1992.
Life is economical. I haven't bought software in a year, and have no plans to buy software. When I get my digital camera, gphoto will be there. When I want to play mp3's, xmms is there. Almost any software need is a download away.
Life is a pleasant surprise. As I continue refining my scripting, I find all limitations gone. I find I can automate formerly labor intensive procedures. The dia diagramming program is much better for diagramming than was Micrografx Windows Draw. The Konqueror browser is quicker and lighter than Netscape or Internet Explorer. Gimp is an incredibly powerful graphics tool, going far beyond the Paintshop Pro version 3 it replaced. The Icewm window manager is great looking, keyboard friendly, and has a much smaller footprint than KDE and Gnome, but can still run all KDE and Gnome apps if you installed the KDE/Gnome libraries. The mkisofs CD image maker and the cdrecord burner are useful tools, not the arcane alchemy of the Adaptec tools they replaced. And they can be used inside scripts. FINALLY!
VI is a continual fountain of pleasant surprises. Looking for an outline processor, I tried the :set ai command in VI. For small outlines like todo lists and small projects, it's the easiest and fastest outline processor I've ever had. And I've heard it through the grapevine that vim version 6, a VI superset clone, has a feature called "folding", which appears to be very useful in emulating expand and collapse in standard outline processors. If this interests you, download the latest vim6, and check out the :set foldmethod=indent command, and the zr, zm, zR and zM commands.
Life is legal. Doesn't it seem like no matter how much you pay for your software, sooner or later you're skirting the law. Maybe you obtained an upgrade without paying. Or maybe some utility you just never paid for. Or maybe it was as simple as not understanding the mammoth end user license agreement, prohibiting you from doing stuff like reloading your software on the same box. As far as I know, everything on my box except for voice recognition is Free Software.
Life is fast. It's not fast because Linux is faster on comparable hardware -- I honestly think Windows is as fast due to their accepting the stability hit for putting video in the kernel. But Linux lets you work faster because commonly done tasks can be scripted instead of pointed and clicked. It's faster because I don't make as many mistakes in Linux. It's faster because there are almost zero unscheduled reboots, and no file corruption. It's faster because backups are almost totally unattended (I just need to switch the CD from the burner to the reader in order to verify the CD.
Life is thankful. Every once in awhile I get back on my old Windows box for a legacy file, and give thanks as I remember an unstable life without file completion and the tools I've come to take for granted. I give thanks when I look at some of those silly binary file formats for data and marvel at the fact that today most of my data files are some sort of text, which can always be converted and exported into different programs. I breath a sigh of relief as I read of Outlook-enabled viruses and macro viruses and realize I'm immune. I get down on my knees and give thanks when I read about Microsoft's latest attempts to lawyer away people's data, knowing my data is safely out of Bill Gates' hands. I feel confident knowing that my programs won't crash, and my files will not become corrupted. I feel productive, knowing my software won't slow my productivity.
Is there life after Windows? Yes, and life is sweet.
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