April A-to-Z: A Celebration of the Automobile! (If You’re the Devil)
When I was about nineteen and working an entry-level bank job for about 20K per year, I took my first car – a little Toyota Tercel into a Speedy Muffler King shop on my lunch break and reported a squeal which I thought must have been a brake-wear indicator. The slithery, slimy, kitten-eating cretin of a mechanic told me that indeed that was so and I needed new pads, rotors, shoes and drums immediately and to the tune of $1200.00 which was an unfathomable sum to me way back then.
I told him I didn’t have that kind of money on hand and needed to get back to work but that I would soon return. He claimed the car was unsafe to drive and had to stay until repaired. Being precociously skilled at diplomacy I talked him out of my car and fled the place like Luke-and-friends fleeing the Death Star in a squealing Millennium Falcon.
Shortly after I took the little Tercel (everyone always asked me, How’s your little Tercel! To which I finally started replying, It’s the same size as every other Tercel) – sorry. I took it to a little independent garage near my home which I’d never been to before. I think his name was Tony. Or maybe Mario. He gave it a good inspection, fixed the squeal which required no new parts after all, and told me that all the brake components were in such good condition that he would be happy to sign an affidavit guaranteeing that all my brake parts would last at least another year – in case I wished to pursue legal action against the Speedy Muffler King of Crap.
I was wildly angry at the time that this soulless bastard had tried to criminally steal from me and make a disaster of my finances. I went to the Better Business Bureau and there learned that it takes a gargantuan effort to achieve any kind of truth or justice through the Better Business Bureaucracy and that I didn’t have what it takes.
Tony-Mario meanwhile had won my loyalty and I only took my car to him for the next year or two.
But I couldn’t help but notice that every time I went to Tony-Mario the bills grew gradually higher.
In the decades since I have noticed a rather consistent and interesting pattern. The newer I am to a garage the less my repairs cost and the longer I stay with someone the higher they grow. I have theorized that garages have a general strategy of sucking in loyalty by treating new customers with honesty and then gradually juicing you like a poor defenceless lemon the longer you are lulled into their warm sticky embrace.
A year ago I bought a 2002 Saturn, old but safetied by the selling garage – for $2000.00. I mentioned that I could hear a ticking kind of rattle during the test drive – coming from the front passenger wheel. They assured me it was nothing. I was so desperate for a car, so broke and barely employed at the time, that this deal was a major score and I was cornered into optimism.
The noise grew though, with time, until it could no longer be ignored. Knowing almost for certain I had been fudged with, in terms of a questionable, likely unlawful safety certificate, I took it back to the same place where the head dude, a young fellow whose personality positively dripped with venom, told me I needed new bearings on both front wheels. Hoping he felt guilty and/or scared in relation to the original deception, I hoped for a compensatory discount and appeared to get one: two new sets of bearings of the finer quality for a discounted price and no tax (and thus no receipt – wink-wink). Again I was desperate and accordingly optimistic. I paid the $500.00 knowing almost for certain I’d be getting the low-end parts instead from this lizard but satisfied that our verbal chess match had gone as much in my favor as I dared hope.
A couple months later at most, the noises came back and I took the beast to the garage of my housemates’ preference and there learned that I still urgently needed new bearings on both front wheels; the passenger side most urgently, and that it looked like someone had machined a “hub” in order to fit bearings onto my wheel which neither looked new nor were the right size for my car! And thus I now needed a new hub part as well.
So I paid yet again for new bearings on the one side which I never should have needed in the first place and vowed to soon return to deal with the driver’s side bearings. I then plotted how I would return to the garage of origin and handcuff the slime ball to his hoist before burning his oily mechanical lair to the ground. “I’ll tell you what, Officer!” I would say. “Just let me stand here in the parking lot a little longer – until his screams stop, before dragging me away to jail – and I’ll sign a full confession! Deal?”
Since then a third garage – one I have pretty good reason to trust due to family-friend connections, indeed declared that I need bearings and on the driver’s side only.
These kinds of stories are everywhere. A friend when I was young was a mechanic and he told me one day, very defensively, that he only cheated customers as much as every other mechanic does and no more. I later stopped being his friend for several good reasons.
For the years that a pal of my stepdad’s took care of my cars – both sold them to me and fixed them – I paid next to nothing each year in auto repairs. Many problems were fixed without even needing new parts.
It’s pretty clear to me that almost universally, garages and their mechanics cannot resist the urge to cheat people for money. They have us at their mercy. I used to buy my own brake parts for the Tercel and fix my own brakes in the driveway. And with my uncle’s help and two years of high school auto shop learning, I even performed my own engine work. Today cars are complex and computerized and we are so dependent on mechanics that they are like evil wizards who will do with us as they please.
I sometimes think that if our society had any actual sane regard for truth and honesty that we would legislate small arena-like garages where mechanics, like surgeons addressing interns, would do all work transparently before our eyes and have to show us our damaged parts in comparison to the new ones and demonstrate the need for replacement and be obligated to answer any of our questions.
This over-replacement of parts is no help to the environment obviously. And the problem is further propagated by garages who give mechanics commission on replacement parts. How messed up is that?
Here’s some advice to consider: If you don’t have a mechanic you trust because either he’s a blood relative or you’re sleeping with him, or else you know where he’s been burying bodies – try going to a new garage every time and see how my Theory of Customer Newness holds up!
And two: Stay away from garages where there is little activity and they can always book you right in, spur of the moment. Because if they’re not busy they’ve probably been scaring customers away due to suspiciously high bills, and now being dormant, are more desperate than ever to jack up imaginary repairs and part-replacement needs.