By on June 20, 2011

TTAC Commentator sastexan writes:

Hi Sajeev, I have to find a new mechanic – my former mechanic is permanently disabled (bad shoulder – he can’t even hold a gallon jug of milk with his right arm) and his old shop is just not responsive – or as competent as I demand. So, with great heartburn, I have to find a new shop for those repairs I am either unable or unwilling to perform myself: which is most since I do not have a garage or even a driveway, much less a lift or even jack stands as the street in front of our house is pretty well sloped.

The cars in question are my resto-mod 3.0L Contour SVT, my wife’s Camry and probably my mother in law’s Millenia S (with the weird miller cycle engine). I can tackle basic repairs with my car, but sometimes it’s just easier to have someone else do it.

How should one go about finding a new mechanic / shop? What questions do you ask to determine competence? I proved a long time ago that I knew more than my local Ford dealers (including causing service advisers to get fired due to my complaining about their ignorance – including yelling at one standing underneath my car on a lift arguing about the rear sway bars), but I am not opposed to company shops if I know the mechanics are competent and the rates reasonable.

Sajeev answers:

When it comes to modified cars outside the parameters of a factory catalog (Toyota TRD, Lexus F-Sport, Ford Motorsport, BMW + DINAN, etc) run like hell from dealerships. Not that they can’t do them right, it’s not their core competency. And that eats into their profit margin. I already know the details of the 3.0L swap in a 2.5L Contour, so I can imagine the headaches involved for the uninitiated. Neither party wants to take risks, it hurts quality and the department’s reputation.

The other two cars mentioned can go anywhere, but once you find a “big block” Contour worthy mechanic, those guys deserve the easy money generated from working on a normal car. So let’s take a look at some of my tips for finding a good mechanic. It involves getting off the computer and doing an actual site inspection.  With this criteria:

  1. Technology: WiFi in the waiting room wouldn’t hurt, but that expense isn’t necessary. What is mandatory is a decent computer with access to an “online service manual” service like ALLDATA or similar.
  2. Labor Rate: shop on price, don’t be afraid to pay a hefty rate for a premium service and hassle-free dealings if the problem isn’t fixed the first time. Especially if you own an import brand and are looking for a specialist garage that caters to your car’s specific needs.
  3. Self-purchased parts: this is huge, especially for the super-unique Contour. If they bat an eye, that is a bad sign. Shops can easily mark up the cost on a part: it’s an easy way to make a huge profit on a single repair. If they don’t want high quality, brand name parts procured by the vehicle owner, ask why. I’ve never heard a good reason, something that didn’t sound like a cover up for the aforementioned truth. Not that I expect you to buy your own parts on a regular basis, but there will be times you need to. So it’s best to learn how they do business right now.
  4. Facility condition: how organized is the place? I couldn’t care less if the shop floor is clean enough to eat from, but are tools and parts in their right place? Do you hear upbeat music playing, selected by the mechanics (Tejano tunes are commonplace ’round these parts)  themselves? Is the lobby zooty enough to make you wonder how much the overhead is at this joint? The place doesn’t have to be great for you, it just needs to be great for the staff and owners.

Off to you, Best and Brightest!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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18 Comments on “Piston Slap: A New Wrench, A Good Wrench...”


  • avatar
    tresmonos

    The best source for me was through my mechanically inclined friends. I’ve replaced a head gasket/tensioner/water pump on a diesel Jetta, so I knew when my gf’s LX died that 500 bucks in labor was well worth me keeping 3 days of my life. They let me buy all the parts.
    MD Automotive in Westminster SC is my shameless plug for anyone that lives in the area. The two guys went to school with an old co-worker of mine.
    My three suggestions: their past works’ pedigree, if you get along with the mechanic and if they seem to have a steady flow of business. Ask around. I bet your old mechanic would know where to start your quest. Sajeev’s points are nuts on.

    I just moved away and am back to square one. So I can identify with you. I would feel naked and vulnerable if I didn’t have two cars and a garage.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I hear you. My guys are getting close to retirement,and thier not updating thier skills or equipment.

    Ask around, ask everybody. Tow truck guys, and cabbies are a great source of info.

    If you find somebody,try them out on little stuff. For your modified,look to a speciality shop.

    Sajeev is right, you may have to do some searching. If you find a guy you like, use him, but keep searching.

    I’ve got one guy I’m feeding a little work to right now. He is just a kid,but he keeps a laptop on his bench. So far ,I’m impressed.

    I got two other shops I’m working on. Time will tell.

    Good luck

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Ask friends, ask at places like bodyshops, particularily if you are looking for specific marque mechanics. I got lucky when my first one retired and I quickly found another close by. Sheer happenstance as these guys (TDI’s) are rare.

  • avatar
    MBella

    The one thing I would say is get to know the mechanic himself, and make sure he is also the one who works on your car. I have worked many places where I have seen some guys honest and are great techs, and others in the same shop are lousy techs and will sell things that don’t need replacing.

    I will also give you a tip to test your potential candidate. Make sure the brakes on one of your cars are in decent shape, (the mother in law’s Millenia seems like the prime candidate from your story) send her in with the car and tell them the dealership told her she needs brakes. If they look the car over and inform you that the brakes are in OK shape, and you have some life left, you know the shop (or at least that mechanic) are honest. If they are more than happy to sell you the brakes, walk away.

    I was working at a shop once when a guy came in saying another shop told him to he needs brakes. The manager was also working as a service adviser at the time. When I told him the car doesn’t need brakes he told me you always sell brakes when the customer thinks he needs brakes. I told him he’s not putting my mechanics number on the bill if he tries to sell him brakes. The customer heard us arguing, and left. We probably could have earned that guys business if the manager was honest right from the beginning.

    • 0 avatar
      ExPatBrit

      Unfortunately too many shops play that game.

      A lot of shops suggest you “replace the brakes” based just on mileage, but without actually inspecting them.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    First and foremost ask friends, neighbors and coworkers. Other people to ask: Find the parts store(s) in your area that do lots of wholesale business the ones that have short sat hours closed or short hours on Sun, 2 or 3 delivery vehicles, the Snap-On dealers. They know who’s on top of things, who has a high turnover rate on their mechanics, who has the equipment, who they trust their vehicles to.

    Also don’t get too hung up on the hourly rate, it costs good money to buy today’s diagnostic equipment and access to service info. A mechanic w/o access to the right stuff can take much longer, often needlessly throwing parts at a vehicle making things more expensive than the guy that charges a few $ more per hour.

  • avatar
    claytori

    Here’s a hint for rejecting a shop if you have had your car in for a minor “wheels off” repair. Try to loosen the wheel bolts/lug nuts to determine if they were properly torqued. I have found them so tight that my impact wrench will not loosen them and I had to use a pipe over my breaker bar to get them free. One shop made a great show of using a hand torque wrench – after hammering them on with an air impact wrench. Same result. An impact wrench should not be used for wheel lug nuts/bolts. Period. I file these under “Do Not Return”. Other things – is the oil change light properly reset after an oil change? Do I get a computer print-out of all the critical things that need attention? Are the wheel alignments done in-house or are they contracted out? All these are run like hell indications.
    Good things – Testimonial letters, especially hand-written on the bulletin board by the entrance door. Piles of grease stained auto manuals everywhere. Lack of a “Service Advisor”. Boss arrives at the front desk with greasy hands or gloves. Busy. One shop I use one of the two main guys is Korean and doesn’t speak much English. All the magazines in the waiting room are in Korean. But he speaks Car. He can work magic. Very difficult to get an appointment.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      You can use an impact wrench on a lug nut. The person just has to use a torque stick when installing them. You are not going to find a shop where they don’t use and impact to take lugs on or off, unless you specifically ask. Also, they need to use a socket that is designed for lug nuts, and has a special plastic sleeve to protect the finish of your wheel.

  • avatar
    sastexan

    Here’s the postscript – I interviewed a few mechanics based on neighbor’s recommendations, angie’s list, checkbook, etc. and went to one – this shop looks like it dropped right out of 1965, hidden in an ancient industrial area in the midst of some of the highest dollar real estate suburban DC has to offer. The mechanics are mostly “retired” from dealers and large shops. The shop itself is well organized, each mechanic has his area, and they are busy – took a week to get an appointment the first time but thereafter they were a little more flexible.

    I knew I had an oil leak, thought it was the front valve cover – I started to try to fix it myself but without a decent socket wrench set, I didn’t make it very far before realizing I was over my head. I told them to fix the leaking valve cover, as I was convinced based on the oil I saw (and how it sprayed on the exhaust manifold under high RPM load – which Sajeev can attest to is quite desirable to do frequently with those open headers on the 3.0L). He called me later to say that he fixed it – there was some little set screw I’d never seen or knew existed in the side of the block that was mostly backed out (probably for an unused oil pressure sensor) and that was what was leaking the oil. $50 and I was out of there. He even ran it at 4000 RPM for 15 minutes to make sure no more oil was leaking. At that point, I was sold that this is the mechanic for me.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      That is some good stuff! I’m glad you found a great shop. It sounds like the mechanic is a true root cause analysis kind of employee if he didn’t just take your word for it.

      As for the impact wrench, shop aesthetics convo above: I used to use a torque wrench on my lugs. Now I’m just lazy or don’t care as much anymore. That or my daily driver is 11 years old and I’ve breathed it’s 3rd life into it when others would normally give up; so I guess my perspective of a great mechanic is different than someone who may be driving a car that’s worth more than my house (I think a new Taurus is worth more than my home).

  • avatar
    sastexan

    And I also should note, despite Sajeev’s comments, the 3.0L upgrade doesn’t have that many weird parts – in fact, the great benefit of it is that every accessory bolts right back up where it was on the original 2.5L engine (except the alternator bracket and an adapter plate for the intake manifold). In fact, every part number except for those internal to the block and heads is the same – belts, hoses, manifold, valve covers, injectors, computer, etc. So it isn’t that much of a stretch for a mechanic to work on it versus the original motor and just use the shop manuals as printed (in bits and bytes).

    Of course, I did the straightforward swap – you can get fancy with the swaps, but I was more interested in drivability than gaining 3 HP. I admire those who take it on, but it just wasn’t for me. Sajeev went a whole lot of fancy with his Cougar SVT mods.

    • 0 avatar
      snep

      Hey Sastexan, I saw in the previous post that your 3.0L swap was done in the DC area. I’m a DC area resident myself, and I own a stock 99 SVT contour that desperately wants a “big block”. Care to share who did the swap for your car?

      • 0 avatar
        sastexan

        Actually, I had the car trailered to Minneapolis to get it done – these guys have a business doing just these swaps (and building crate 3L engines that they ship) – I couldn’t find anyone here who would give me a reasonable estimate to do it (it’s possible my new mechanic would do the crate engine but I don’t know) and they offer a flat rate since they know how to do it inside an out. I’m extremely happy with the job they did too.

        Their site is: http://www.3lduratec.com/

        Look at the contour and cougar forums too – they have dedicated 3L sections on both.

        I’d be happy to give you more details offline – maybe Sajeev could coordinate giving you my email address (don’t want to post it on here)?

    • 0 avatar

      There’s enough to freak out many a shop. Some places get rather judgmental upon first sight of headers. Yes, your swap is pretty simple and easy to explain, but that requires a smart mechanic on the other side of the conversation.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    My MB mechanic is a central/eastern European meister whose garage is clean, lobby/waiting area is spartan, and lot overflowing with customer and parts cars. One of the things I dread about my upcoming move is having to locate another honest, competent, independent MB wrench, and I’m thinking it’ll be time to buy new or used with warranty.

    I found him thru the Car Talk site:
    http://www.cartalk.com/content/mechx/

  • avatar
    jberger

    Having the right shop makes all the difference in dealing with used cars. Just knowing that they are honest, competent and trustworthy makes the entire process much less stressful, less costly and lead to a much longer lifespan on the vehicles too!

    I’ve had a couple of shops over the years that I could trust completely and made ownership a breeze.

    I found one on the internet, via enthusiast forums for the manufacturer. In this case it was for Infiniti and Dennis from T3 Automotive was an amazing well of knowledge and assistance over the years. I used to drive 2 hours to Atlanta just to have them take care of my Q45′s as the local dealer was not to be trusted with even simple repairs.

    Another great mechanic came from a referral by the local BMW junkyard. I just asked who they took their cars too when they didn’t want to DIY and everyone on the lot recommended the same guy. He turned out to be a stellar BMW tech.

    Finally, plain luck can work too. I pulled into a tire center for a flat and found a great local shop who has become my go to guys for domestic model repairs. My wife and her mother have the exact same model/year GMC trucks. The local guys were literally 1/2 the cost of the dealer for the exact same repairs. And I never worry about sending my wife over there for anything from oil changes to major repairs when I’m out of town. (Galleria Tire Center, Hoover Al for the search engines)

    Once you find someone you can trust, make sure they know you appreciate them (I tip my tech when they go out of their way to help) and constantly refer people who could benefit from a good local mechanic.

  • avatar
    kenwood

    Of course, the obvious answer is to ask around, but how exactly do you go about that? What if none of your co-workers or circle of friends are gearheads and they all lease their cars or trade in after the warranty runs out? Do you stand outside the post office or local library and ask passers by “Hey you! Who works on your car?!” I think I have at least one solution…

    I frequent the summer car shows and cruise nights. This is where you’ll find a concentrated sampling of gearheads and folks who genuinely like cars and are interested in taking the best care of them. You’ll also benefit from being able to pinpoint your inquiries to the certain make or model of car that you have. I’ve found that people who are willing to bring their pride and joy out to a parking lot, burger joint, or an open field to show them off are typically social people and enjoy talking to others about their rides. Some of them are likely to wrench on their own, but at least some of them will use a shop for something. Heck, you may even run into a shop owner who is showing off his car.

    My other suggestion is to look up your local car clubs. Membership is usually 35-50 bucks a year and gets you a newsletter, sometimes goody bags and information about meets and events like tech sessions and autocrossing. Even if you have a Taurus, you can join a Mustang club, enjoy some camaraderie, and ask for a recommended shop that does good work on Fords. Heck, there might even be an SHO club in your area.

  • avatar
    ellomdian

    I am getting the top end rebuilt on my 190e 16v and I went through most of the steps others have outlined – ask friends, look online, wander around the garage, look at the cars in the lot/bay. But here’s the kicker – talk to people. Not just the owner, chat up one of the mechanics. Obviously the middle of the day is a bad time for this, but ask to set up an appointment about an hour before they close, walk around the shop, and talk about other customers cars. There were a pair of matching early SL’s in the garage, and I got the opportunity to car-talk with the owner for a bit. It will become readily apparent why they are doing what they are doing.

    Also not bad if the indy owner is a late 50′s German immigrant who used to work for the parent company, and the mechanic spats in derision when you mention your BMW because he used to work on them and now prefers Benzos. Car guys are pretty easily distinguished. Also look for photos of rare/special cars they’ve gotten to work on – it’s a matter of pride to wrench on something cool.


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