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A Mechanic's Life - Tales From Under the Hood

Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
This topic is for professional (or retired) techs who would like to share their experiences "in the trenches"-- the challenges of repairing modern automobiles, of running a shop, of interactions with the general public. Dedicated amateur mechanics might also want to jump in and discuss what it's like for the talented DIYer, and how they relate to both professionals and the aftermarket. Last of all, we'd like to invite any forums member who would like to know more about how technicians "think", how they run their businesses, and how to make having a car repaired easier and more cost effective.

Technicians, you've got bragging rights here, so it's not all about the downside!
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Comments

  • lovemygrandamlovemygrandam Member Posts: 330
    I'm glad someone thought to start a thread for us. Though I'm not a professional mechanic, I am often called upon for advise on electrical problems in today's modern vehicles. It seems that the modern car has moved from a mechanical marvel to an electrical marvel in the past 20 or so years, leaving a lot of older master mechanics scratching our heads when we open the hood. I hope we can help each other, and close the gap between those who can only replace parts, and those who can actually repair parts.
    Thanks, Karen, for inviting me in.
    Dick Berger
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    edited May 2012
    When someone writes in with a car question; the first things I need to know are; what brand of vehicle is this; what year model is it; what model engine does it have; what transmission type does it have; and how many miles are on it? Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to move posters to provide this information; but without it, I am effectively working blind.

    I think many owners feel intimidated when they are asked to provide technical information about their car; after all, if they knew about that kind of stuff; they wouldn't be writing in asking for help.

    If you want to phone someone who lives far away, and don't know their area code; do you just leave out that part of the number when calling? Of course not; practically everyone knows that a long distance call cannot go through without an area code. So when people don't know an area code; they look it up in the front of their phone directory; or call the operator and ask for the area code.

    But people regularly ask us car questions without telling us what model car they have, or its engine model. However, I now can be confident that everyone who reads this will not omit this info in the future; right?

    There are actually many people out there who do not know the year model, engine size, or transmission type in their car. But such people usually realize that they don't know this information. The thing to do in this situation is to go to a garage, an auto parts store or a dealership, ask them to give you this information; and then write it down. Keep a copy in the car, and another copy in your wallet. You'll then be way ahead of those who don't know this vital information.

    One fine point here is that the model year of a vehicle may not be the same as the year in which it was manufactured. They start building the next year's models in the fall of the preceding year; so a 2012 car may have been built as early as August 2011. This is why the label on the driver's door or door frame is not useful for model year identification (although it is VERY useful for parts ordering information).

    There is an emission information label on the underside of the hood, or on the radiator support, or the inner fender. This label has a statement at the bottom that reads something like "This vehicle conforms to all US and EPA regulations pertaining to 2011 model year new motor vehicles." This is where you can find the model year of your car. This label can also tell you whether the car has California emission equipment, or 49 state emissions.

    There is also an abbreviated note at the top of this label, which reads something like "engine family 3.5 VVT." This means that this particular car has a 3.5 liter engine with Variable Valve Timing.

    Give all this information to the mechanic; and they will give you much better service and might even smile occasionally. Give the mechanic as much information as you know about the car's service and problem history; and they will think you're an exceptionally aware and considerate customer. They also may spot something you had no idea was an issue with this car; and which may clear up a mysterious problem that has plagued the car for ages.
  • obyoneobyone Member Posts: 7,841
    Rant over? Sorry couldn't resist.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    Your comment echoes what I have heard for many years from mechanics; in response to new trends in engine design, emission control, electronics, fuel chemistry, and government regulations.

    In about 1970, when I first saw a thermostatically controlled air cleaner, and the thermal and vacuum control valves which it used; my heart sank. This seemed outrageous and unacceptably complicated. I seriously considered finding another line of work. But I was just reacting to the contrast with the simplicity of past engines. Before long; I became more familiar with these systems; and realized that they really weren't so bad.

    When EGR systems were first introduced in 1973; some old time mechanics swore they would quit this business; because routine servicing and tune ups were becoming unmanageably complicated and impractical. Indeed; the 1973 cars were very tricky to tune; and the 1974 models, with their further retarded ignition timing. were even worse. 1974 was clearly the worst year in modern history for running quality. But 1975 then brought us catalytic converters; which, despite their cost and vulnerabilities, also permitted manufacturers to use sensible ignition advance and fuel mixture calibrations; and the 1975 cars ran much better. Today, mechanics don't even blink an eye when they see an EGR valve. It has just become another standard part.

    Granted; it is the ongoing refinement AND INTEGRATION of computerized fuel metering and ignition system controls, combustion chamber design, porting and camshaft profiles, intake and exhaust manifold design, exhaust flow and reversion dynamics, cooling system design, engine temperature regulation, spark plug design, and electronic spark timing controls; which have enabled each of the recent engine efficiency improvements to work as well as they now do. All of these systems now have to work together more closely and interdependently than ever before.

    But human nature being what it is; we tend to resist change. So some mechanics drop out along the way; while new ones come along. Automotive evolution is an ongoing process; which ain't gonna stop. At each step; some people will decide they can't keep up; while others just crank up their steam.

    One of the biggest shifts in this process has been the introduction of electronics into what previously was mainly done with mechanical systems. When I taught engine theory courses at MMI, students often told me that electricity was the most difficult part of the course for them to understand. but they later came to me and said that they learned more in those courses than they did anywhere else in the school. It is often a matter of how open a person is to new ideas; rather than how educated, experienced or smart they are; which determines their success in this process.

    You wrote that you would like to "close the gap between those who can only replace parts, and those who can actually repair parts." I need to make a slight correction here: The most successful approach to servicing modern automobiles is not to be able to repair parts: Most electronic parts are not repairable (at least not in a practical sense). It is to be able to know which parts do not need to be replaced; and to only replace parts which actually are defective. Yeah; I've heard stories of Russian engineers at a high tech company where the computer broke down, and everybody was sitting around waiting for a replacement part to be shipped in; who went over to the computer, took it apart, and repaired it. But this is not something most of us can expect to do.

    The greatest waste of money and time in auto repair is caused by misdiagnosis and replacement of unnecessary parts. This has gone on for as long as I've been in this business. During the 1950s and '60s; the typical scapegoat when a mechanic did not understand why a car did not run right was to replace the carburetor. If I had a dollar for every carburetor that was unnecessarily replaced due to misdiagnosis; I'd be a rich man today. In 85% of these mystery cases; the real problem turned out to be in the ignition system. But electricity is, of course, invisible; so those who are accustomed to thinking only about what they can see are at a disadvantage here.

    Today; the usual scapegoat for misunderstanding a problem is to replace the computer. However; the computer actually is one of the most reliable parts on the car (and also one of the most expensive). But because modern engines are sensitive to surprisingly small changes in fuel mixture and ignition timing; the real cause of running problems is no longer as simple as replacing the ignition system. In a modern engine; it could be a broken or slipped timing chain or belt; it could be a restricted fuel filter, or a vacuum leak, or low compression, or the wrong spark plug heat range or gap, or bad plug wires, or a coil which is arcing internally; or it could be a defective engine control sensor or module. It also could be that someone messed up in a previous servicing.

    Gaining a perspective on how the different systems in an engine interact; and which parts are prone to cause a given class of problem, is the most effective skill a mechanic can gain. But this education requires patience, trust, humility, the willingness to accept challenge and revise incorrect assumptions, and an open mind. Many of us are weak in one or more of those areas; and this limits our potential as a mechanic, as well as in other aspects of life.

    This forum offers an opportunity for those of us who have certain skills to share them with those who would like to improve theirs. But that process can also lead to ego struggles and competition. I ended up quitting my teaching position at MMI, even though it was the most successful and fulfilling job I've ever had; because of the number of people in my classes who had bad attitudes, ego problems, rigid beliefs and were not really open to learning.

    I sincerely hope that this forum will turn out to be more adult and cooperative.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    It is interesting that although car owners are beginning to realize the high level of intelligence and skill sets needed to repair a modern car, they still don't want to pay for that level of expertise. Is it because the dentist's hands are clean that a client forks over $700 for an hour's work, but because the mechanic's hands are dirty people often protest to pay $700 for a full days work?

    Maybe the only answer will be mandatory licensing or an apprentice program--if that's what it takes to gain the respect of the public and to charge the fees necessary to stay in business.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    I never had a problem of lack of respect from my auto repair clients; and I know of other shops which nobody puts down or complains about. But many shops have shining buildings, spotless floors, TV in the air conditioned waiting room, and a yard long row of certifications on the wall; but are run mainly to create profit; and this attitude is apparent to the public. Greed and dishonesty is nearly impossible to conceal. The issue here is that the public is far more sensitive to the spirit in which they are treated than mechanics (and shop owners) often realize. Mechanics work all day with physical objects; which do not have feelings and are usually hard and strong. So it can be difficult to shift gears and be warm, caring, and compassionate when the car owner walks in (especially if you're feeling frustrated because you're mainly doing this work for the money, or if you feel at all uncomfortable about having marked up your cost of parts by hundreds of dollars; while the customer is on a small fixed income).

    This poor economy is bringing out the worst side of some people; and it shows. And this leads to businesses failing; which in some cases is justified. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in the auto industry; and they don't deserve our compassion or sympathy. They really don't belong here; and the reputation and ill will which they create is making it tough for those of us who are not like them. But dentists also have the same problem; clean hands notwithstanding (just consider how much malpractice insurance costs these days).

    There are two very different worlds out there: One is the world of fast track living, credit bubbles. new cars every year. expensive homes, and premium products. Mercedes, Harley, and Porsche buyers EXPECT to pay through the nose for the services on their vehicles; hell, they need those price tags to create and support the image they live in.

    But the automotive industry also services the needs of poor people who buy old cars and just hope they can stay together. And those $70-$125 hourly shop labor rates inevitably end up impacting the lives of people who cannot afford those services.

    It didn't used to be like that; cars used to be an affordable, practical appliance (back when people expected to have to drive a stick shift). People enjoyed maintaining their own cars. But then it was discovered that adding luxury accessories to cars would bring in lots more cash; so automatic transmissions, power everything, air conditioning, and soft, cushy suspensions became standard. Then came emission controls; and along with this evolution; labor rates skyrocketed. Now it is becoming more and more difficult to even find a stick shift car for sale. If you also want a car without power steering or air; it is nearly impossible in some brands.

    Some countries in South America have just rich people and very poor people; with practically no middle class. America is evolving towards this type of society. And this is what is driving the distrust and resentment toward mechanics. Those of us who have resisted this trend are becoming rarer and rarer. But we each make our choices, and have to live with the consequences.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Well greed is a subjective issue in many cases.

    For instance, if you come to my shop, for which I pay a lot of $$$ + staff + tools + whatever, and you want to know what your check engine light means, am I really supposed to drop what I'm doing and scan your car for free? Or, do I charge you $60 and tell you what it all means and then suggest that we'll deduct that should you let us repair the vehicle?

    To some people, this scenario suggests greed, but not to me.

    As for certificates, as far as I know, you don't legally need any training whatsoever to hang out an "Auto Repair" shingle. Am I wrong about that?
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    edited May 2012
    "Well greed is a subjective issue in many cases." But it is objective in others. My dentist charges a sliding fee scale; depending on the income level of a client. That seems like an objective, non greedy way of dealing with the 2 level economy in which we now live. The fees from higher income clients offset the low fees from poor people. I occasionally did that in my work; but it depended on how I felt about the client; their car, and what they claimed about their finances. I know I can't please everyone; but that is no reason to not try when it seems appropriate.

    I don't need your shop to drop what they're doing in order to scan my computer. Auto Zone does it for free (or so I've been told). But if you give me a senior citizen price break if I bring the car in; I'd find that attractive. The shop where I last had my car smogged did that. They also gave me a printout of how to adjust my idle speed (no, I did not need it) so I could drive down the street and slow the idle down in order for the car to be testable. And they did not charge extra for the retest.

    I'm not asking for people to suffer for poor people's sake; just to be kind once in a while (when and how is optional). Besides; it comes back multiplied...

    I didn't mean to imply that certifications are required to do auto repair. I just meant that pricey shops often make a big point of posting certifications on the wall where clients can see them; because they impress some people.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    edited May 2012
    Well that's called "goodwill"--the opposite of goodwill is probably more accurately----selfishness.

    Greed, to me, is blatant overcharging, not being stingy with your time.

    As for a sliding scale, that becomes more difficult for a mechanic than a dentist, because you didn't just spend $30,000 on a new set of German teeth, but you might roll in with a brand new, or new-ish car---that sort of upsets the generosity equation for most mechanics.
  • berriberri Member Posts: 10,165
    The dentist may get off easier too if people have insurance. Customers seem to get more upset at their dealer service department after the warranty expires. Unfortunately, I also think that too many dealers are putting in misplaced incentives that turn the service writers into commison based sleazebags. The mechanics aren't the problem!
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Exactly--being a line mechanic at a dealership is no picnic.
  • isellhondasisellhondas Member Posts: 20,342
    "Being a line mechanic at a dealership is no picnic"

    No, it's not. A guy I know just retired from a busy domestic store at age 65. You won't see very many guys working the line that are past 50. It is hard, frustrating work and it is no longer easy to "beat the clock" like it was in the "old days".

    His shop charged something like 110.00/hr and he got paid 20.00 per flat rate hour. On slow days, he was lucky to flag three hours. He no longer overhauled engines or even starters. These days, everything is replaced rather than rebuilt.

    This friend of mine started in the 60's. When a car cam in running badly he knew it was one of maybe four things and he was quickly able to nail down the problem and fix the car. He was a excellent mechanic (notice I didn't say technician?").

    Because of his skills he was often able to "flat rate" a job and complete a three hour job in two hours. Those days have, for the most part, ended.

    Mechanics/Technicians buy their own tools and they don't buy them (usually) from Sears or Harbor Freight. They buy the good stuff that they know will hold up.

    It is pretty common for a technician to have 40,000 or more invested in tools and new tools are always needed as the cars change.

    My recently retired friend does his best to talk young guys out of joining the trade for the reasons I mentioned. Pretty sad.

    Shop owners have it tough too! Overhead is staggering and the new equipment that is always required is beyond expensive!

    All an all, it is a damm tough business anymore and I have nothing but respect for the guys who manage to stick with it and do an honest job!
  • qbrozenqbrozen Member Posts: 32,940
    edited May 2012
    While I can't call myself an older master mechanic, I did learn from one of the best. I also started when I was about 5 years old helping out in his shop, so I guess my knowledge does go back quite a ways. I did work in a professional capacity for him, on and off, all through school. The most intensive were my summers home from college.

    What I've found interesting, and possibly a bit distressing, over the past couple of decades is how, mostly due to cars becoming electrical marvels, as Dick pointed out, so many younger mechanics are completely deprived of "old fashioned" troubleshooting techniques. Essentially, if their computer doesn't tell them what is wrong, they are often at a loss. They can diagnose a new BMW, but show them a pre-OBD car with a vacuum leak and they are as useful as a Jiffy Lube Oil Change Monkey.

    I fear that, at some point, older cars will die off more from the lack of ability to repair than anything else.

    '11 GMC Sierra 1500; '08 Charger R/T Daytona; '67 Coronet R/T; '13 Fiat 500c; '20 S90 T6; '22 MB Sprinter 2500 4x4 diesel; '97 Suzuki R Wagon; '96 Opel Astra; '08 Maser QP; '11 Mini Cooper S

  • lovemygrandamlovemygrandam Member Posts: 330
    edited May 2012
    so many younger mechanics are completely deprived of "old fashioned" troubleshooting techniques.

    That was kinda my point about many of the modern mechanics, and the reason that the current philosophy seems to be, "keep replacing parts until it starts working again." I agree with zaken1 when he says the test of a good mechanic is to "know which parts do not need to be replaced; and to only replace parts which actually are defective.", but I know for a fact that, at least among GM dealers, it's hard to keep a mechanic that has those skills. Working at GM's Proving Ground, I met at least a half dozen excellent mechanics who had started their career at dealerships, and once they had proven their worth, had been hired (stolen from the dealership) by the Company. So we have excellent mechanics within the company, but out there in the public sector, where they can make an impression on the customer, we are left with the less-experienced diagnosticians. We need to re-think our philosophy if we want to keep our customers happy.

    I had one more thought (well, OK, maybe 3 more thoughts) about auto repair, (looking at it from a do-it-yourself standpoint. Two basic things are necessary to repair a modern automobile.
    1. The service manual for that particular vehicle.
    2. An inexpensive diagnostic tool for reading trouble codes.

    Without these tools, you're working blind.

    Oh, I forgot... one more thing....
    You must be able and willing to read!

    Dick Berger
  • qbrozenqbrozen Member Posts: 32,940
    1. The service manual for that particular vehicle.
    2. An inexpensive diagnostic tool for reading trouble codes.


    Yes, this is true ... to an extent. I just might substitute a couple of things. A manual is not absolutely necessary when you have the internet. I haven't referred to a manual in a couple of years now because I've found the info on the net to be more comprehensive.

    As for the diagnostic tool ... an inexpensive one won't always get the job done, at least on late-model vehicles. Not a generic one, anyway. On my VW and bimmer, a generic code reader would have been less than useful. Fortunately, there are cheap aftermarket solutions that are car-specific in these 2 cases. Nowadays, the proprietary systems give you much more specific information than the generic readers do, and there are many cases where that proprietary system is only available at a dealer or a specialist who has invested the money.

    '11 GMC Sierra 1500; '08 Charger R/T Daytona; '67 Coronet R/T; '13 Fiat 500c; '20 S90 T6; '22 MB Sprinter 2500 4x4 diesel; '97 Suzuki R Wagon; '96 Opel Astra; '08 Maser QP; '11 Mini Cooper S

  • euphoniumeuphonium Member Posts: 3,425
    The mechanic purchased the part and installed it. He marked up the cost from his wholesale cost to retail price. The part failed soon & a replacement was needed. He charged for his labor again for R&R the defective part. I maintain he should not have charged for his labor in replacing the defective part because when he took a profit on it, he took responsibility for its effectiveness. :(
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    There are several complicating factors in this situation. The shop does not warranty the part. The warranty is issued by the part manufacturer; who will provide a replacement part for free to the shop when they return the defective part to the distributor from which they purchased it.

    The shop passes along their free replacement allowance when they replace the part. But shops still have to pay their mechanics to replace the second failed part; and their profit on the difference between wholesale and retail pricing often is not enough to cover their out of pocket cost in paying their mechanic to replace the part.

    Shops often choose to buy parts from a manufacturer who does not make the highest quality parts; just so they can keep their parts prices competitive. Other shops just use the brands of parts which the store they buy from sells; and are not aware or concerned that some stores sell the best quality electrical parts; but may not sell the best quality engine parts or brakes. Such shops cannot afford to take responsibility for the effectiveness of the parts they sell; but instead depend on the attractiveness of their parts prices to continue to draw customers. This is sort of like the sales philosophy of discount stores, who know that the things they sell will often not last as long as premium quality merhandise; but betting that the low initial cost will have more appeal than the greater longevity and reliability of the more expensive parts brands.

    People who do not like this type of reliability or service soon learn not to buy things from discount stores; and not to buy car brands which are known to have poor reliability. If they don't become aware of these differences; they typically end up believing they have very bad luck around cars.

    But some consumers expect to receive premium quality service from shops which are selling mediocre quality parts; in addition to paying discounted (retail) prices for those parts. PRACTICALLY NOBODY SELLS PARTS AT THEIR WHOLESALE COST TO THE PUBLIC; so your claim that marking up the parts price to retail obliges the shop to cover the cost of labor for replacing defective parts just does not hold water.

    There are shops which eat the labor cost of warranteeing parts; but those types of shops typically use only premium quality parts; which rarely fail; and also charge premium prices for their parts and labor; which gives them a comfortable margin to cover such events. Unfortunately; if consumers expected competitively priced shops to give them that level of service; the shop would soon go out of business if they did this with their warrantees.

    Most shops mark up the price of the parts they sell from their cost to retail cost. (actually, some shops mark up their parts price to far above retail cost. Dealerships are a great example of this). But at the same time; some of these shops also set their labor charges on the low side; since the profit they make from parts adds to their income from labor charges.

    I never marked up parts prices when I was repairing cars (which is almost unheard of in this industry); but I also used the highest quality parts, and took twice as long to do a job as the shops usually did; (because those flat rate time estimates are way too rushed to allow careful and thorough work; especially in electrical system repair). However; I also realized that charging the going hourly rate for my leisurely work would drive most people away; so I charged half the hourly rate of most shops. My clients then ended up paying a similar total amount as the shops usually charged for a given job; but they received far higher quality work. As a result; I never had to advertise. My clients largely came from referrals by friends.

    As you can imagine; this is no way to make much money as a mechanic. I was able to do this because I only worked for people I liked and respected; because I felt it was more important to be of service to good people than to get rich; and because I worked alone, in low rent; plain looking surroundings. I also was very picky about what brands of cars I worked on; and what jobs I would and wuld not take on. So I created what I felt was as ideal a life as I could have as a mechanic; but the price of this luxury gave me a lower income than most other mechanics would accept.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    I just wanted to add that there is one exception to my response: If the part you're referring to is an alternator or a starter; then something else must be considered here: There is a widespread practice of auto parts stores selling "rebuilt" alternators and starters which are not properly repaired or tested. These parts are worked on in Mexico by semi skilled workers who do not have all the needed replacment parts, and also do not have proper test facilities. As a result; these substandard parts (which often come with a lifetime warranty) frequently are defective when purchased, or fail within a short time. If the mechanic you used buys alternators from O'reilly or a similar discount store; or even from some supposedly respectable stores; chances are they are buying junk alternators or starters. Shops can do this deliberately as a racket; or they may honestly be ignorant of the poor quality of the parts they are buying. The bottom line is that there is only one local source of consistently reliable alternators and starters; and that is NAPA Auto Parts stores. If you insist on the shop or mechanic buying these parts only from NAPA; there will be no comeback issue. If your mechanic refuses; do not have them do this repair, but take the car to a shop which will buy from NAPA.
  • euphoniumeuphonium Member Posts: 3,425
    After reading your extensive replies: Who should be responsible for R&Ring a defective part? Because the shop took ownership of the part when it took a profit on it, the shop should make good without an additional charge to the customer who does not intend to finance the risks of being in business. The markup profit on parts that are not defective should cover the infrequent faulty part labor when necessary.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    edited May 2012
    If your idealized description of the way things "should" be was correct; shops would already be doing free warranty replacements. Carrying that logic further; the shop should also compensate you for your time and trouble in making a second trip there. But it doesn't work that way; regardless of your theories. Your theory that "the shop should make good without an additional charge to the customer who does not intend to finance the risks of being in business" is simply unrealistic. Happy, realistic car owners understand the risks of business, and expect the shop to charge for additional issues which were unanticipated.

    The manufacturer's warranty is clearly spelled out in writing: They will replace the part if it turns out to be defective within the warranty period; but they will not cover the cost of its removal and replacement. The shop did not take ownership of the part when they marked the price up; they simply charged you a service fee for obtaining the part, in addition to charging for their labor to install it.

    Paraphrasing what I already wrote; don't take your car to a competitively priced independent shop if you expect your every whim to be catered to and to be treated like a king. Royal treatment costs royal prices.

    The only shop that takes ownership of a part they install is a dealership; as they are the agent of the manufacturer. If you want defective parts replaced at no labor charge; have all your work done by a dealership. But if you keep track of the relative costs; you'll find that paying the dealership's grossly inflated prices far exceeds the savings from their free warranty replacement policy. If it is more important to you to be given "freebies" while you pay through the nose; the dealership is the only place to go. There is no free lunch in the real world.
  • andre1969andre1969 Member Posts: 25,684
    edited May 2012
    If your idealized description of the way things "should" be was correct; shops would already be doing free warranty replacements. Carrying that logic further; the shop should also compensate you for your time and trouble in maing a second trip there. But it doesn't work that way; regardless of your theories.

    I've had mechanics replace defective parts for free in the past. Heck, in one instance I know they had to have lost money on me. I had an '89 Gran Fury that was an ex-police car, and it used a lightweight starter. First time the starter failed, I had them replace it and paid for it. But, the replacement failed soon after. I lost track of how many times the replacements failed, but I think it was FOUR! I remember it having to be towed from my condo twice, once from a restaurant, and once I got lucky and after a few tries it reluctantly fired up.

    There was some shaft that kept breaking, and the shop was blaming it on the crappy rebuilds, but unfortunately, they said that was the only thing available for my car. Anyway, they replaced the starter each time, and never charged me beyond the first time.

    I always wondered, since it was just a 318, if a full-size, regular, older-style starter could have just been swapped in instead?

    I also remember, back in the late 90's, they did some brake work on my grandmother's '85 LeSabre. I forget what the issue was, but something ended up going bad and the back wheels started locking up too easily. So the fixed it, no charge.

    I haven't had anything fail twice in a long time though, so I don't know if they still operate this way, or not.

    **Edit: I had missed your earlier post about the alternators and starters. Guess my '89 Gran Fury fit that description to a tee!
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    Sure; ethical mechanics sometimes do warranty work for free; but this is not a constant, rigid policy. Mechanics are responsive to the situation. If someone walks in dripping with a sense of entitlement; I usually invite them to leave. People like that do not deserve preferential, or even kind, treatment.

    There was a wonderful sign in a garage I once visited: Prices will vary; according to the customer's attitude.

    Mechanics are PEOPLE. We take risks, and have feelings. If we are disrespected; we respond in kind. It is unfortunate that some members of the public just don't get this.
  • euphoniumeuphonium Member Posts: 3,425
    As you may be a standard quality of mechanic, stick with your day job and avoid going into the Sales field. ;)
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Most shops I know will replace a defective part labor-free, but you know, if it's like a clutch disk 90 days out---that's a tough call, especially on cars like mine, with 12 hours R&R.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    As a historical note; the 318s ever since the 1970s were plagued with starter issues. I had a 1971 Dodge B100 van with a 3 speed manual transmission and 318 motor; which I bought in 1982 with 38,000 original miles on it (it was previously a navy paddy wagon; complete with expanded metal screen to shield the driver from the people in the rear). I kept this van for 28 years and 130,000 additional miles; drove it to Canada and across the U.S several times, and soon got fed up with the repeated starter failures. So I analyzed what really was going on when the starter refused to function; and found that there was a relay between the ignition switch and the starter solenoid, which is called the "starter cut-off relay." This relay was the part that was preventing the starter from functioning. Whenever I replaced it; the starter would magically work again. It would then be fine for a few months; and would again refuse to crank. And a new starter cut-off relay would get it going like new every time. I never had to change the starter.

    It turned out that the stock relay was unable to switch the current drawn by the starter solenoid without its contacts burning out. I then replaced that stupid relay with a Filko constant duty 200 amp rated relay; and never had another starting problem for all the remaining years I owned that vehicle.

    All 318s had a much lighter weight starter than other brands. It was made of aluminum, and was an offset reduction gear design. The older starters would interchange with the newer ones. I initially went to a much later model starter before I finally figured out the real problem.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    That is excellent advice! I never was a salesman; and have no interest in being one. This forum is for and about Mechanics.
  • robr2robr2 Member Posts: 8,805
    edited May 2012
    The shop did not take ownership of the part when they marked the price up; they simply charged you a service fee for obtaining the part, in addition to charging for their labor to install it.

    I will respectfully disagree. The shop got an invoice and paid for it. Technically they took ownership of the part. I had no part in the choice of part.

    As a matter of fact, I'm taking my car back to the indpendent shop to replace a drive axle and boot for the 3rd time that is defective. The manufacturer offers a 3 year warranty on the part and the shop is more than willing to hold up their end of the bargain. He made money on the part and the labor to install and is standing behind his choice of manufacturer.

    He's even willing to now go to the OEM part as I long as I pay the upcharge between his part and the OEM. He has now lost faith in that manufacturer and is letting his jobber know.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Lots of problems with aftermarket axle kits. I'm not surprised to hear this. My buddy who owns an indie Subaru shop won't even use them anymore. Either you buy new OEM, or you let him source a used one from a wreck (which said part he disassembles and inspects, or course); otherwise, no dice, he's not doing it.

    Burned too many times.
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    The problem with this situation is that the parts manufacturers have passed the buck on warranty labor down the line to the mechanics who install the parts. But both mechanics and customers are trapped into buying parts of questionable reliability that they have little knowledge about and did not have a choice in selecting. We thus become pawns in the manufacturers power games.

    The fair way this could have been done is for the parts manufacturer to cover the labor costs of replacing failed parts, as well as providing a free replacement part. Sure; this would create a potential nightmare of legal hassles; but even more significantly; it would force manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the reliability of the parts they produce. Right now; manufacturers can gamble that only a certain percentage of the thousands of parts they produce will fail; and their only liability in these failures is to provide a free replacment part. So they come out smelling like a rose. Meanwhile; the mechanics and customers are stuck with the labor costs which result from the manufacturers gambling.

    Producing high quality, reliable parts costs more money and requires much greater time to test and evaluate the parts long term reliability. So manufacturers often CHOOSE to cut corners. Since the manufacturers do not bear the greatest liability of failed parts (which often is the labor cost of replacement) there is little downside to their actions.

    Some years ago; GM was slapped with the largest class action lawsuit in the history of the automotive industry; for producing a coolant formula (DexCool) which turned out to attack the silicone intake manifold gaskets in the engines they used; and then filled the cooling system with brown, muddy sludge. GM forced owners to use only this coolant; under penalty of voiding warranties.

    This caused enough damage that entire engines sometimes had to be replaced. After countless engines were damaged by this coolant, and the lawsuit was filed; GM still never admitted responsibility; but quietly agreed to a "settlement" which had a sliding scale of payments for repairs, that dropped with the age of the vehicle. Many people received less than $100 for their losses. And GM got out of even that responsibility when they declared bankruptcy.

    This is an example of what parts manufacturers will do if the responsibility for their policies and quality becomes too expensive.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Well the mechanic has no control over that except to be observant and stop using those products which don't work.
  • xwesxxwesx Member Posts: 16,792
    I was told this as well when I replaced the front half-shafts on my '96 Outback. I ended up buying them both from dealer stock and never had a problem afterward.

    Given what a PITA it was to replace them, though, I wasn't willing to risk a chance on it over saving $50 up front.
    2018 Subaru Crosstrek, 2014 Audi Q7 TDI, 2013 Subaru Forester, 1969 Chevrolet C20, 1969 Ford Econoline 100, 1976 Ford F250
  • steverstever Guest Posts: 52,454
    I think it would make sense for the mechanic to do a chargeback to the supplier of the bad part for the labor. Wholesale the book cost perhaps, and make it contingent on returning the "core", but better for the manufacturer to cover that cost than the consumer or the mechanic. Surprised there's not some sort of allowance for that (unless the manufacturer and mechanic just figure the markup on all the parts sold will cover the labor for the parts that fail).

    Liked the relay story.
  • robr2robr2 Member Posts: 8,805
    The fair way this could have been done is for the parts manufacturer to cover the labor costs of replacing failed parts, as well as providing a free replacement part.

    Unfortunately, there is too much potential for abuse if the manufacturer offered to do that. Besides, you are probably 2-3 levels away from the manufacturer - the logistics of getting paid would be horrendous.

    In my industry (plumbing products), we follow the same rules. The manufacturers don't pay labor to replace product in warranty. They just handle it knowing that 1% of the time, it's going to cost them money to do a fix. After a while, plumbers know which products work and don't use those that result in call backs.

    Now if the consumer supplies the part to the plumber, the labor to replace the product should should be billed to the consumer as the plumber didn't make any money on the product.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Sometimes the mechanic doesn't make the best choices, either. For instance, if you are doing a job that requires 12 hours R&R labor---if I were doing that job, I would replace anything in there that could go wrong--the idea of re-using a throw out bearing that "looks perfectly good" on a 12 hour clutch job is crazy. Or not replacing some incredibly difficult-to-access hoses that are fully exposed during a job, because they "look okay"---also risky.

    I know customers don't like the "while we're in there" routine, but in many cases, the mechanic has to insist or, if the customer won't agree, then limit the warranty in writing-----"used throw out bearing not guaranteed".
  • roadburnerroadburner Member Posts: 17,354
    For instance, if you are doing a job that requires 12 hours R&R labor---if I were doing that job, I would replace anything in there that could go wrong--the idea of re-using a throw out bearing that "looks perfectly good" on a 12 hour clutch job is crazy. Or not replacing some incredibly difficult-to-access hoses that are fully exposed during a job, because they "look okay"---also risky.

    One of my BMW mechanic friends calls it the "circle of labor". That is, when you have the tranny out you might as well replace the exhaust hangers or the rear main seal(if it has over @150K miles on it), etc. He has a good eye for knowing what to replace so that you only have to do the job once.

    Mine: 1995 318ti Club Sport; 2020 C43; 2021 Sahara 4xe 1996 Speed Triple Challenge Cup Replica Wife's: 2015 X1 xDrive28i Son's: 2009 328i; 2018 330i xDrive

  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    edited May 2012
    here's my list for when my MINI clutch needs replacing:

    Three piece clutch kit
    New Pressure plate bolts
    New flywheel bolts
    New flywheel
    clutch disc centering tool
    New crankshaft rear seal
    New Transmission Main Shaft seal
    New release fork bushings
    New throwout bearing guide sleeve
    New clutch pivot pin
    New slave cylinder

    All OEM or MINI brand replacement parts. About $800

    does EVERY car need this much? No. But the MINI does, and I'm sure other cars would, too. Probably cars that don't have a dual-mass flywheel could do with at least a re-surfacing of the flywheel unless it is super clean.
  • jipsterjipster Member Posts: 6,244
    dealing with mechanics... none. Hardly ever see one. I've always dealt with the service writers. They get all the questions, but have they been trained to provide the answers? Many seem knowledgeable when I've asked questions, others seem to be making stuff up, as it is easier.

    Many service writers seem to be working partly on commission, or at least that's what I've read. The upselling I've experienced has ranged from spot on... to almost fraud. I've been told my brakes of 8 months needed replaced. A air filter needed replaced, when I asked to see it... just a tad bit of dirt.

    Today I learned the value of a privately owned small shop. Dealership was at $750 for installing a fuel pump, the 2 man garage would doit for $445.

    As a consumer, it is difficult to be charged $300 for the same part you can get at Autozone, or thru the internet, for $100. The diagnostic fees of $125 are equally disturbing. If they find the problem in 4 minutes, I'm still charged the full fee. Then the full price for the repair. Better to have it based on a 15 min increments. These policies are from management to maximise profit I know... but they build mistrust. I'd rather be charged $200 an hour labor than mess with all the piddelly fees and markup.
    2020 Honda Accord EX-L, 2011 Hyundai Veracruz, 2010 Mercury Milan Premiere, 2007 Kia Optima
  • zaken1zaken1 Member Posts: 556
    edited June 2012
    I totally agree with you; but the ethics which used to be the backbone of our society have become outmoded in recent years. This is why I always worked alone, and set my prices at fair rates; and decided which clients and which brands of cars I was willing to service. But most mechanics and most consumers tend to go along with the trend; whether it is buying a car with an automatic transmission, always having a dealership service their vehicle, or acepting that mechanics are being paid $20 per hour while the shop charges customers outrageously high labor rates. And so our world has gotten into its current state.

    For those who do not support this trend, it still is possible to find honest, fairly priced shops. The Car Talk people have a great website: www.cartalk.com which includes a nationwide list of mechanics, repair shops, and client reviews. I was tipped off to this great site by Karjunkie, who used to be the #1 expert on the Edmunds Answers forum (until he went elsewhere). I now regularly screen and pass selected references along to folks who write in asking for a recommendation for a good shop.

    If the hosts on this forum don't mind; I'm willing to pass along the names of the local shops I prefer to people who list their postal zip code
  • isellhondasisellhondas Member Posts: 20,342
    In my many years in and around shops I have NEVER heard of a shop charging labor to redo a job when a part has failed. I can't even imagine a shop doing this?

    If I have a water pump replaced and it starts leaking a month later I sure wouldn't dream of paying the labor a second time.

    Some shops actually allow customers to bring in their own parts and that would be a different story.

    I know that when I ran a shop, every time I tried to save a customer money by cutting a corner such as reusing a "perfectly good looking" throwout bearing or something else, it would bite me in the rear.

    The only kind of a mechanic/technician I avoid and wouldn't hire were the "Prima Donnas". Anyone in the business will know what I'm talking about!
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Oh yeah---I used to call them "poet-mechanics". superior to other men, never capable of making a mistake, and way smarter than factory engineers; also, too well-educated to change someone's oil or help taking out the trash.
  • isellhondasisellhondas Member Posts: 20,342
    And when it came right down to it, these guys usually weren't very good.

    A lot of them would hide behind a huge toolbox loaded with 50,000 worth of tools.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    The best sign you hired a good mechanic? COURAGE and CONFIDENCE ! :)
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Member Posts: 5,747
    I sat back and purposely avoided adding to this thread. For a thread that was intended to allow us to talk about the things we like and give us a chance to talk about the little victories that we have once in a while it's achieved only what I really expected from it.

    If you want to question warranties and how they should be handled, then that should have gotten it's own thread. FWIW, We do 12MO/12,000MILE warranty partys and labor that is good nationwide. In fourteen years of doing business we have only had to help a customer out a couple of times. Then again by using the best quality replacement parts that we can aquire, warranty failures are so infrequent that it becomes practically a non issue, but we are there for our customers in the event something strange happens.

    "isellhondas" You'd probably judge me as one of your prima donnas, but first you better put a 3 in front of how much money you think is inside my tool box, and I don't hide behind any of it.

    This career has placed many very capable people into work enviroments where management is so clueless about how a repair event should take place that they hinder the technicians abilities to be productive and efficient. Worse than that, they fail to manage to an indviduals strengths, and all the while bemoaning someones weaknesses. I'll say right here with little reservation that this is done on purpose to keep the techs questioning themselves in order to deliberately keep wages as low as they possibly can and it's gone on for decades. Then you come across a technician with the skills, talent, and drive to rebut that broken system, and your only defence is to call them a prima donna. I had a very similar conversation with the son of another local shop that I handle all of the high tech stuff for. He was complaining about their techs productivity and how much he has to watch over everyone. (FWIW he would not be a capable technician himself yet and with mentoring would be some ten years from being that technician). But here he is in management solely based on who he is and not what he has done to get there. The short side of this is that none of their techs has attended any training in years. Unless the entire shop changes direction and starts making the investment required in their people, this owners son will be exactly who you are in another twenty years. He was blaming their techs, for his, and his fathers mishandling of the business. Yep, I'm the primma donna, I showed him exactly where the major problem lies. The techs need to improve, but it's the shops responsiblity to make that happen.

    In this thread you can see comments about pricing, some positive, and some not. NOBODY on the outside knows what any shop should be charging, period.

    You cannot say what price is "fair", there are way too many variables. The shop I mentioned above has made no investement to be prepared for the technology in today's cars so they are cheaper than me in an already greatly distressed economy. We on the other hand have and continue to prepare for what-ever might roll up to the door. Most peoples ambivolus perception of fair would punish us for doing that by going to the cheaper place first.

    I've already spent too much time responding here and need to get busy. I'll pick off a few more of the errors in this thread but that's all I'll really get to do. I doubt anyone really cares about the nightmares we solve and someone is sure to try and bash us for achieving the capability that we bring to the table. Frankly, I don't think anyone is even reading this thread beyond the ones who have responded already.
  • steverstever Guest Posts: 52,454
    edited June 2012
    NOBODY on the outside knows what any shop should be charging, period.

    Lots of outfits report on what overhead costs are and what the typical profit margin is for various businesses. You may have to pay for some of that info, especially the more reliable info, but I can't think of any industry where it's not available.

    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%. Economies of scale, if nothing else, would whack those income numbers for an indy shop. Maybe Isell can relate those numbers to his real world experience back in the day when he managed a shop.

    No one really cares though, so long as they get a good product or service and don't feel like they've been gouged.

    Sounds like the Peter Principal is well established in your industry too.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    It's interesting how much you read into people's comments that I really don't see there at all. Well, we all have a view of the world that differs, that's true.

    A "prima donna" in my opinion, is a non-performer, and a non-team player. It's the kind of person who costs more than they are worth. That's what the term means. I really don't think any truly capable technician would be branded thusly. It's not management who dislikes such a person--the rest of the line does, too.
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Member Posts: 5,747
    Lots of outfits report on what overhead costs are and what the typical profit margin is for various businesses. You may have to pay for some of that info, especially the more reliable info, but I can't think of any industry where it's not available.

    Nobody has ever come by asking us for that information. One would think they need to do that in order to actually have it.

    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%. Economies of scale, if nothing else, would whack those income numbers for an indy shop. Maybe Isell can relate those numbers to his real world experience back in the day when he managed a shop.

    If I was in a shop and being fed all of the gravy work, those numbers wouldn't be difficult to reach at all. But that's not what would happen. I'd actually get a steady diet of the most difficult situations. Few shops bill that work correctly, in fact it would be fair to say only a handful actually bill it correctly, while most simply blame the technician and try and force that stuff to be done faster than is really possible. The end result has all the appearance of a technician that is expensive to the shop per hour, and un-productive on the larger scale.

    Steve, have you ever done piece work, which is what flat rate is, and had management tell you we need you to handle this problem car for us, but we cannot pay you for it because it's a comeback for the shop. "Here's some gravy work to make up the time"

    When management resorts to that they are stealing from their best technician and that ultimnately leads to bad feelings and the eventual loss of the technician. Meanwhile management turns around and blames the technician exactly as isell described, without you seeing the whole story.

    "No one really cares though, so long as they get a good product or service and don't feel like they've been gouged"

    Charge correctly for the time that is often invested in the difficult diagnostics and the consumers do feel they may have been gouged. The result is the shops work under priced, and in turn fail to pay the techs properly, invest in more schooling, and tooling and the whole race to the bottom picks up a little more momentum.

    BTW 33K a month? Gravy work again very easy to do. Try doing the really high tech stuff and you'll see why my shop averages 200K a year, gross, and it's not uncommon to be insulted for trying.
  • steverstever Guest Posts: 52,454
    edited June 2012
    have you ever done piece work

    Sort of - bid an individual job, do the work and then get stiffed by the client. Happened a few times. And lots of time I've had to do way more work on a job than I could justify billing for. Kind of goes with the territory in lots of jobs, in spite of your best efforts.

    My limited experience with a great mechanic was a older shop owner three decades ago in Haines Jct. YK. My old wagon wasn't shifting higher than 2nd gear on the last leg of a long road trip. His tech told me the transmission was shot but his boss could look at it the next day. So we hit the motel next door that was also owned by this guy.

    The shop owner looked at our car that evening and slept on it. The next day he figured out that the engine compression was so low that there wasn't enough vacuum being created to shift the transmission. (Something like that - details are getting fuzzy). Anyway, he did something simple like advance the timing and we got the last 600 miles home fine.

    All that and the bill, including the motel, was less than $150. Between fiddling around and a couple of road tests, I'm sure the mechanic spent 3 hours dinking with it.
  • qbrozenqbrozen Member Posts: 32,940
    edited June 2012
    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%.

    You realize that, taken at face value, that's $4500 gross pay to the mechanic, but that's hardly the end of it. Is that why you put profit in quotes? If that 70% really is supposed to be profit, I think that's something more like $3k pay to the mechanic, best case scenario. I think only entry-level Jiffy Lube guys make that little.

    In other words, I'm not buying those numbers. The profit has to be WAY lower than 70%.

    '11 GMC Sierra 1500; '08 Charger R/T Daytona; '67 Coronet R/T; '13 Fiat 500c; '20 S90 T6; '22 MB Sprinter 2500 4x4 diesel; '97 Suzuki R Wagon; '96 Opel Astra; '08 Maser QP; '11 Mini Cooper S

  • isellhondasisellhondas Member Posts: 20,342
    Thank you for explaining what my own defination of a "Prima Donna" would be.

    I think that poster thinks I am against him and quite the opposite is true.

    " Gravy" jobs are often given to the least capable guys in a shop while the skilled people are often given the hard to diagnose, miserable jobs that are near impossible to make money doing.

    And, the so called gravy jobs as I understand things are becoming fewer and fewer to find.

    Flat rate books get adjusted as talented people figure out ways to "beat the clock" and actually make good money. Often this requires the purchase of some expensive tools.

    There is a huge difference between being able to beat the clock by being smart and doing sloppy work and cutting corners.

    It's not easy today keeping up with the fast changing technology. I am well aware of that and I have nothing but respect for the hard working people that stick with it. A lot of good people have left the trade.
  • steverstever Guest Posts: 52,454
    edited June 2012
    Gross profit could be up there. Real profit is another story.

    The mechanic may take home $3k, but there's all the withholding, any benefits, training costs, worker's comp, etc. I suspect that stuff could add $1,500 to the owner's cost of having an employee, but I've never had an employee so don't know. My own carrying costs are pretty darn high though. :shades:
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