Night of the $500 Lube Job!

It's bad enough when the car you love breaks down; now you've gotta worry about getting ripped off, too.  Our repairman explains how grease monkeys slip you the banana.  As told to John Bacon

    It happens all the time:  I'm out having some drinks or playing a little pool, and the guys across the table ask what I do for a living.  When I tell them I'm an auto repairman, I have to listen to how each one of them got ripped off - or thinks he did - by some dirtball down the road.

   That's why it didn't surprise me when I read in USA Today that people listed "car repair" as their biggest hassle, three spots above filling out tax returns.  When dealing with the IRS is preferable to an oil change, we mechanics have a PR problem.

    People expect to pay for a skilled surgeon but not a skilled mechanic, because they think they're smarter than we are - and trust me, it shows.  But the truth is, the pool players bitching about their mechanic probably didn't get screwed.  Cars break, we fix 'em, and that costs money.  Today's high-end machines are loaded with electronic and mechanical bells and whistles, which means there's more to go wrong and the repairs are more expensive when it does.  But take it up with your manufacturer - we don't make the damn things.

    I usually don't play dirty, but I'm not above playing indifferent.  If you condescend to me or piss me off, I'm not going out of my way to help you very much.  Instead of hustling to get parts from the dealership across town or cannibalizing a new car on the lot for a part you desperately need, I'll order it from the factory, where I know it's on a backorder, and let it take its sweet time getting here.  I can also give out all kinds of price breaks on parts and labor, but you'll be getting none of those.  And your odds of getting a rush job out of me are only slightly better than getting a blow job - which is to say, nonexistent.

But like the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.  There are guys out there who exploit older customers and treat women even worse - except for babes, who get everything free (whaddaya expect?).  They also take advantage of people on vacation, in a hurry, or with a platinum card.  If all three apply to you, it's Screw You Yahtzee.

        Generally speaking, there's too much money to be made doing honest work to make cheating worth it for most of us.  But total idiots make it tough to resist the temptation.  Idiots say things like "No need for an estimate - just do whatever it takes." and "We'll kill a few hours at the mall while you take care of it."  When the cat's away, the mice'll happily charge it 75 bucks an hour for drinking a six-pack out back.

    Another thing idiots do is try to tell us our job.  You know: "I'm no mechanic, but I think it's the transmission or the brake rotors."  You're right: You're no mechanic.  But guess who's getting a new transmission, brake rotors, and maybe even a new triple rotary bypass flangeometer, whether or not any such thing exists?

    Assholes are another story; karma demands they get screwed.  These are the guys who come in telling you lies like "Listen, pal.  I've already brought it back here for the same thing three times."  These things can be checked, folks, and a lie will be used against you.  Left alone with your car, a mechanic can make waiters who spit in your food look like freakin' choirboys.

    And that brings us to my confession.  I'm not proud of it, but in my second year in the business, I screwed a customer thusly: One Friday a grade-A asshole drove in with a Porsche 944 equipped with a wimpy 140-horsepower engine and a - bah-ha-ha - automatic transmission.  The guy was more hat than cattle, if you know what I mean.

    Anyway, he lit into me with "You pay 60 grand for a German sports car; you expect to get down the fuckin' highway!"  His model actually goes for about $40,000 new and $12,000 in the condition he had it, so already I had him pegged as a shithead.

    Fortunately, he was also an idiot.  He tried to show off by diagnosing the problems himself.  His cruise control was shot, so that needed to be replaced, he said; the funky sound below was the exhaust system; the vibrations he was feeling meant the front end needed an alignment; and it was idling roughly, so it probably also needed a new carburetor.

    I took a few minutes pretending to look up some parts and crunch some numbers.  Then I put on a really straight face and told him we could probably get it all done in a couple of days.  The guy blew a gasket, just as I'd hoped he would.  "God damn it!"  He pulled out his Visa Platinum with great fanfare, slapped it on the counter and said, "Just get it done, and get it done now!"

    Yes, sir.  I got right on it.  I soon found that the funky sound below was coming from a cardboard box stuck in the undercarriage; the vibration was due to a worn-out tire; the rough idle was the result of a fouled spark plug; and the cruise control had quit because a break light had gone out - a safety feature standard on most modern cars.  We could've fixed it all in 15 minutes for 70 bucks.

    But I sure as hell wasn't telling him that.  "You must know a lot about cars," I told him.  "Just like you said, you'll need a new muffler and exhaust system, an alignment, a cruise control amplifier, and a new carburetor."  This last one was strictly a test:  Fuel injection replaced the carburetor eons ago on almost every vehicle sold in the U.S.

    Having a blast now, I told him I didn't have the parts in stock, but if he was in a hurry, I could send someone to get them right away - for an extra charge.  The chump agreed, satisfied he was finally getting the VIP treatment he so richly deserved.

    I told our golfer to put some packaged parts in the delivery van, then kill an hour at the strip club.  When he returned we put on a parade, marching cartons filled with mufflers, cruise controls, and those hard-to-find carburetors (empty boxes) right past him en route to his vehicle, where we promptly installed nothing at all.  The visit cost him two hours and $2,100 - he was happy, we were happy.

    But the pinhole I made in his left rear tire may have been a little over the top.

SYMPTOM: The cruise control doesn't work.
He'll sell you:
A cruise control amplifier ($125-$300)
So first check: Your brake light (70 cents).  Cruise controls shut down when the brake lights are out.

SYMPTOM: Vibrations
He'll sell you:
Alignment ($40-$65), tie rods ($250), new suspension system ($500), and four new tires ($200-$400)
So first check: Your tires for bald spots ($50-$100 each, but be sure to replace in pairs to avoid misalignment)

SYMPTOM: Bumpy ride
He'll sell you:
New struts ($100 a side) or shock absorbers ($200)
So first check: The springs ($150 each), which are what actually absorb shock. (The shock absorbers just stop the springs from bouncing too

much - if they're shot, your car will bounce repeatedly after you hit a bump.)

SYMPTOM: Misfires
He'll sell you:
A tune-up ($80); possibly a valve grind on your cylinder heads ($500-$800)
So first check: A disconnected spark plug wire, a disconnected vacuum line, or fouled plugs ($0-$10 each)

SYMPTOM: Squeaky breaks
He'll sell you:
New pads ($70 a pair), rotors ($150 each), and rebuilt calipers ($90 each)
So first check: Your refrigerator - for a beer.  All modern breaks squeak, more frequently in city driving.  They should last between 40,000 and 60,000 miles, so have the guy show you how worn the pads are - while they are still on the car.