The Truth About Cars » Memoirs of an Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 25 Jul 2014 15:48:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Memoirs of an Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “TRAINING WHEELS”—or How Motor Sport Influenced My Formative Years—Part Three Sat, 22 Jun 2013 17:20:03 +0000 LaPorte2003--Courtesy

Just to set the record straight, my use of the phrase “Wonder Years” (in Parts One and Two) is not sourced from any past television series, but rather, from the original source: an advertising campaign from the ‘60’s (it may go back further than that, but that’s when it was introduced into my consciousness) featuring a brand of sandwich bread. That’s the impact that television had back in earlier times. To be able to lay down a form of written history that includes such occurrences is one of the main reasons I’m logging all of these “Memoirs”. A forum is thereby provided that can be both informative to younger generations, and allow the generations that “were there” to recall and discuss these events.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but my old stomping grounds—and the surrounding Greater Los Angeles Area—were really a Motoring Mecca, in so many ways. Due to the favorable economic climate, and the general interest in things mechanical and motorized, many people had the time, inclination and funding to get involved in some form of recreational motor sport.  Motorcycling was gaining traction, and really started to come of age during this period.

We had a neighbor across the street that was into—what were even then—Old Harleys, especially “choppers”. They complimented his fleet of pre E-Type Jaguar XK’s rather nicely, I thought. None of his cars or bikes were showpieces—some even had a post-apocalyptic kind of vibe—but most were functional, and his presence definitely added character to the neighborhood. When there wasn’t an English twin-cam six exhaust purr and rap or the flatulent bellow of a straight-piped Shovelhead emanating from his tree-sheltered driveway or garage, he’d have some hard-rocking tunes blasting from his large stereo system through open living room windows.

Most of the neighbors were pretty cool with the motorized stuff, although some had some trouble with the music. I dug it all!

One of the greatest expressions of “Neighborhood Tolerance”, however, related to a couple of neighbors and their grade school sons, just a few houses down the street from us.

They were both pretty serious about dirt biking—one of them actively racing on weekends at LA area tracks (R.I.P. Bay Mare, Indian Dunes, Saddleback Park, Osteen’s, et al).



They got this idea to convert the back lot of one of their houses into a small “Motocross” track—accessing it by using the driveway on the side of the house, and making U-turns in the street, so as to run a continuous circuit. They would do this mock racing for hours on weekend afternoons (and mid-week, during the summer break), using minimally silenced two-stroke motocross bikes!

I can remember them engaging in this pursuit over what must have been a few riding seasons, with no real complaint from the neighbors! I think the general consensus was that they weren’t really hurting anybody, they were otherwise staying out of trouble, and maybe something good would come of it. By today’s standards, such a collective neighborhood rationale—and mind you, this was NOT a rural neighborhood by any means; it was a fairly tightly populated subdivision—would be very unlikely, to say the least.


But happen, it did; and a great deal of “good” did “come out of it”. One of the two lads, by the name of Dan LaPorte, went on to become only the second  U.S. Citizen to take an FIM World Motocross Title (missing being the first by a mere weeks), in 1982. The previous year, he was a key member in the U.S.’s first-ever winning Trophee des Nations team. The year before that, he won the AMA 500cc Motocross Title.

That’s the kind of stuff that can be accomplished when a “sense of community” exists (not to mention prodigious talent). It, no doubt inspired what subsequently became an onslaught of similar Motocross talent out of the U. S. —and it sure inspired me to pursue excellence in my field.

More stories have been and are coming to mind, as I continue to impress the “Wayback Machine” into service. Perhaps I’ll relate more in the future, as time and space allow.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: “TRAINING WHEELS”—or How Motor Sport Influenced My Formative Years—Part Two Sat, 01 Jun 2013 15:39:53 +0000  


The very fact that I’ve allowed myself to be delayed in making this entry underscores the fact that the experiences I related in Part One, and am about to relate here, really have had a profound and lasting influence on my priorities.

Living up in the E. Sierra, there are always plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy, especially after the snow thaws. This year has been no exception. So, in between warm-weather projects, I’ve been staying fairly occupied with motorcycle preparation (for both road trips and off-road excursions), and field “testing”.

So far, so good! Now, back to stories of early influences in my MotoLife.

As I mentioned in Part One, with the variety of racing venues proliferating the Greater Los Angeles Area in the decades of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, it was really hard NOT to be favorably influenced by all of these motohappenings.


Probably the most influential of these venues for me, had to be the legendary Ascot Park, once located in the urban-industrial city of Gardena.

At one point, I can remember at least a half-dozen different motor racing disciplines being featured within the confines of its ½-mile-dirt oval retaining walls: Full-sized and Midget open-wheeled racers, Modified’s of a few classes, Figure-Eight thrashers, motorcycle Flat-Track (oval) and TT racers and Motocrosser’s, not to mention other annual events featuring other moto-angles.

I was privileged to be a child-spectator to many of these displays. It was certainly a special and unique perspective, as I hadn’t really had any familiar experience to draw upon, at the time. I mean, amusement parks of the day were about as close as I had come—but this was something really different!

Yes, there were whole families in attendance—but families whose interest focused on motor sport, not pursuit of passive safety within the confines of the “Magic Kingdom”. Beyond the family scene, the other attendees were of a kind purely germane to the race park crowd: motorheads and gearheads (mostly men) of wide-ranging demographic orientation, friends and family of participants (these were easy to spot), track staff, journalists, photographers, and others “in the show”, including participants—who always seemed “larger than life” while making the scene, and often making a scene—in their racing suit-clad personas.

For all that, one of the most noticeable features of the race crowd were the women in attendance. Whether they were moms, girlfriends, or singles—young or old—they all had a physical bearing which I eventually identified as a confidence directly related to familiarity, through hands-on experience—and actual attraction—to machines. Especially racing machines. These were generally not passive gals, no. They didn’t strike as “princesses” seeking protection from the potentially dangerous, either. They were actively embracing it!

Amongst all of this aural, visual, and visceral overload, I remember getting practice at trying to identify and track the participants through use of the low tech facilities of race program and (necessarily) bombastic announcer man on distorted and underpowered P.A. system (which seemed to me, at the time, to be surprisingly overpowered in between race heats. I soon became acquainted with how to identify symptoms of potential hearing loss!)

Then there were opportunities to go to the vendor’s booths and snag a piece of appropriate merchandise—product stickers and decals (some of which I still have!); and maybe a T-Shirt if I had been busy mowing lawns and saving whatever “allowance” I was fortunate enough to score from the week previous.

At the end of the evening or afternoon, I felt content that I’d been part of something that, on a number of levels, was very satisfying. I had seen a bunch of participants plying skills that I aspired to—and giving an exciting show in the process. It bore a definite similarity to what I would later experience when attending rock concerts.

An added bonus for living not far from Ascot, in the Torrance neighborhood of Walteria, was that, on an otherwise quiet night, when the full-sized Sprint Cars were running, the sound of the field charging down the back-straight toward Turn Three was plainly audible. I could imagine being there, in attendance; but I was totally enjoying the perspective right from where I stood. In any event, it was music to my ears!

Apparently, it was also music to a number of other residents of the “South Bay”—of which, Gardena was on the northeast corner—since it took many years for the N.I.M.B.Y.-oriented “anti-noise” protesters to finally carry the day and get Ascot closed down. The fact that land values were rapidly appreciating no doubt contributed additionally, and in no small way, to “The Park’s” demise, also. I think there are a couple of decent-sized hotels occupying the site today.

Although I attend fewer racing events and rock concerts these days—as I’m spending more time out there participating myself—I find them still to be worthwhile in much the same way, even as my skills as a spectator have improved with age. Let’s have a cheer for “Older and Wiser”, and the childhood experiences that paved the way for it to be possible!

Stay tuned for my next entry—as I believe there will be enough “Wonder Years” material for a Part Three…

 Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: “TRAINING WHEELS”—or How Motor Sport Influenced My Formative Years—Part One Thu, 09 May 2013 14:05:23 +0000


As with many young lads growing up as the motor sports world was rapidly advancing in the 1960’s, I was totally fascinated with just about anything sporting wheels—especially if there was a powerplant involved. And especially if it involved head-to-head competition with such devices.


While not exactly being raised in a household favoring such a paradigm, I did have a sufficient amount of positive experiences with more distant relatives, close friends and neighbors. This enabled me to gain the impetus required to achieve the “escape velocity” necessary to make a go of it in the new and exciting world of motor vehicles.


We had a family friend we’ll call “Uncle D”, who was one of the first people I can remember laying a fairly impressive, first-hand, full-contact high-performance driving revelation on me. He took my younger sister, older brother and I out in his early sixties Ford Galaxy Convertible (it was pretty much brand-spanking new at that point) for a “joy-ride” around the streets of San Francisco, CA. It soon became an “overjoy-ride”—as he engaged in a series of tire-smoking launches, connected with some zero-G hill cresting, and power-slide cornering! This was before the advent of seat-belts  so—with the exception of my brother, who was fairly secure in the passenger front bucket seat—my sister and I were experiencing the full effect of the amusement park dynamic in the back seat!

Fortunately for Uncle D, this also predated the Child Protective Services Bureau, otherwise he most assuredly would have been called to task for “child endangerment”!  We, the fortunate “endangered”, would have argued in his favor, however—so much fun we had on that “Pre-Bullit” romp!

Aside from that experience, some of my earliest recollections involve the wide variety of performance vehicles in my immediate neighborhood of Walteria, CA.

We had everything from gearheads with modified ‘50’s Chevy’s and seminal “Rat Rods”, musclecars (note worthily a rally orange Pontiac GTO “Judge” and a Hertz Shelby GT350, with its gold racing stripes on black paint), and sports cars of many stripes (early Jaguar XK’s and MG’s come to mind). I remember a teacher at my grade school rolling in a red Mustang fastback, and one (that I didn’t particularly like) cruising a very likeable silver Corvair Monza Spyder!


Punctuating all of this motoring overload were periodic visits by my uncle and cousin as they were on their way to Riverside Raceway (R.I.P.) with some form of race-car in tow. The orange Formula Ford they brought by one summer was a definite highlight here. To imagine that someone related to me had an actual open-wheeled racing car parked in front of my home base!


Then there was my childhood friend just around the corner. We hit it off trading tricks we were learning on our Schwinn Stingrays—not realizing at the time that we were actually participating in the creation of a biking genre, which would eventually become known as Bicycle Motocross (BMX). Not uncoincidentally, his pop was big into off-road motorcycling, and it was a “family thing” for them at that point in time.

One of the highlights of that friendship was being invited to trek with them to the Mojave Desert, in the fall of 1972, to witness the start of the legendary Barstow-to-Vegas motorcycle race. Of course, the plan was to make a long weekend of it; so we were equipped with motor-home accommodation—and a trailer full of dirtbikes to test out and explore with.

There were many highlights to this trip, the most memorable being a ride out to the “smoke bomb”—a pile of worn auto and truck tires, placed on a hill about five miles away from the starting line, then set ablaze to serve as a marker for the start of the actual course—in between the start of each class grouping. (There is a depiction of this in the Bruce Brown movie “…On Any Sunday”.) The grouping we watched from this vantage point must have included not less than a few hundred riders, collectively making a sound like a low-flying 747 coming at us across the valley!

Yeah, some would even consider the RECOUNTING of this experience as politically incorrect and environmentally unsound—let alone it’s actual occurrence—but there it is, in the history books (and indelibly etched into my memory)!

Stay tuned for Part Two, and more accounts from my automotive “Wonder Years”…

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: Tall Winter Tales – Extreme Weekend Banzai Road Test / Rally—Part Four Tue, 19 Feb 2013 14:45:17 +0000

We rejoin our tale of adventure aboard what was proving itself to be a very worthy foul-weather road tripping first-gen Toyota van. It took us something like twenty-four blizzard-hampered hours non-stop to make it to our Golden CO destination, from the South Bay LA departure. The only casualty inflicted was committed against our recently purchased cable “chains”.

Counting our blessings, we put in for the night at what had to be the last “old-school” motel in what appeared to be a rapidly modernizing town. We would tackle the acquisition and loading of our intended cargo—a late-model Suzuki superbike—on the morrow.

The new day dawned clear, sunny, and very cold—as is typical in the aftermath of mountain snowstorms. Fortunately, things were warming up nicely in Golden, as we headed to our cargo rendezvous.

Upon more direct questioning—and in keeping with his previously expounded-on modus operandi —I learned that my friend and cohort, “The Mint” was not entirely sure about the fit our “One-Liter Gixxer” would enjoy there, in the back of the Van. He was confident that, as he had transported similar superbikes in first-gen Toyota Vans before, this one should be no problem.

As we ran the bike up the ramp and sized things up, we realized that maybe it was going to be some kind of a problem, after all.

With a little strategy and deft use of a few simple hand tools, however, we had removed the offending bits on the bike, and had it properly secured.

One load off our minds and into the Van!

With clear weather—albeit with wet and potentially icy road conditions ahead—and a more properly ballasted vehicle, we set out for what promised to be an easier return trip.

As we headed toward the Eisenhower Tunnel, we were again noticing what we perceived to be the rather high rate of speed the general westbound traffic was moving at. I mean, at this point—and notwithstanding the prevailing sunshine—temperatures in the Vail Pass had to be hovering at around ZERO, if not lower, and we had a steady headwind of around thirty mph—with gusts that had to be in the fifties. The roads had obviously been salted, as there was not a trace of snow or ice on them; but with conditions like what we were experiencing, we couldn’t help but think that there had to be the dreaded “black ice” awaiting us all at some point.

Apparently, that point was a small stretch of the I-70, just east of Glenwood Springs (if memory serves), where the route passes through a gap narrow enough to necessitate running the westbound traffic above the eastbound traffic—not side by side, as is the case with pretty much the rest of the route.

On our approach to this section, our rapid progress ground to a halt about a hundred yards or so from a small tunnel adjacent to an electric power substation.

We knew there was an accident, but had no idea it’s magnitude.

After something like an hour-and-a-half passed, we got a better idea as we saw large helicopters—of the heavy equipment-moving variety—beginning to work the area! We knew we were in for an extended stay.

I decided to go out and investigate.

Understanding the prevailing conditions, I figured that with the winter gear I had in my possession, surely a two hundred yard round trip taken at a brisk walking pace would be no problem.

About fifty yards into this sortie, I realized that I was, in fact, very seriously gear challenged, and if I continued, I might wind up meeting the same fate as the Scott Expedition. I mean, it was cold beyond belief—far surpassing anything I’d ever experienced from several winters living in the northeastern United States, and winter excursions in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. Yikes!

I made it back to the Van none too soon; now convinced that the only thing to do was to wait patiently and stay warm by frequently starting the Van’s engine and running the heater until the interior temperature reached tolerable level.

In all, we wound up sitting in place on that section of the Interstate for about four hours, before traffic got rolling—and once again, as on the eastbound run, at a more subdued pace. I guess some folks need a more graphic demonstration of cause-and-effect before they’ll effect a change of behavior.

We again counted our blessings that we weren’t just a little farther up the road when the carnage went down.

And we cursed the fact that we weren’t yet a little farther up the road than that—as we would have missed the entire “show” altogether.

It turned out that the source of the problem was a jackknifed truck that wound up with its cab hanging off the westbound level, threatening the eastbound traffic underneath. That explained the helicopters and the lengthy delay.

In the end, we only beat out eastbound time by a couple of hours! I’m happy to report that there were no other problems to speak of, though—save for the fact that the Van was stolen about a week later, from in front of The Mint’s townhome!

When recovered, naturally one of the things missing was the stereo head unit—and Disc One of my recently purchased DEVO Anthology (which I forgot to remove upon return) along with it!

The Mint was happy he’d at least unloaded the ‘Zook before the theft.

It would sure have been ironic—to say the least—if he HADN’T!

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: Tall Winter Tales – Extreme Weekend Banzai Road Test / Rally—Part Three Tue, 05 Feb 2013 16:16:54 +0000 We rejoin our tale of high adventure—en route to Golden, CO, for the purpose of taking delivery of a slightly used superbike—aboard a newly acquired and undertested first-gen Toyota Van. Having passed it’s first serious test—the midnight-to-dawn segment through southwestern Utah in a driving snowstorm (including a near-miss involving a concrete center divider) on the I-70—we set our sights on Grand Junction, CO and the Vail Pass.

Having made our descent to the high plains east of Moab, The Mint and I now had time to reflect on both my performance behind the wheel, and that of our rapidly appreciating and Bodaciously Beaten Van. We had to conclude that the proof was in the proverbial pudding in both cases: aside from the occasional stop to clear snow and ice accumulation from the wheel wells—checking on the integrity of the cable chains on the rear—our progress was confident and rapid, considering conditions.

I had to declare that the whole dynamic of keeping the mass in motion from the upright driving position perched just above the left front wheel, was really something completely different than what I had ever previously experienced. And quite a kick in the seat—very literally, when wheel well ice accumulation reached critical mass—at that!

Now, the real issue became managing our cable chain life—as the segment across the high plains to Grand Junction wasn’t going to be over completely snow-packed road. We figured that it’d be snowing up the Vail Pass, and we didn’t want to shred our only set of cables before we got there.

We didn’t know how correct that assessment was until we got back into blizzard conditions at the beginning of the climb up The Pass.

We had seen a couple of vehicles that had spun off the road coming into Grand Junction, but the frequency of these sightings got to the point where we flat-out lost count as we proceeded with the ascent. Although we were not exactly playing it tight-on-the-bottle conservatively, we were surprised at the generally borderline-frantic pace of our fellow motorists, including—and maybe especially considering—the Big Rig jockeys. All of these folks must have felt some measure of invincibility behind their respective steering wheels, to be pushing the limits as they were. Many of them—again including the truckers—were not running chains on vehicles that we could verify as not in possession of any kind of All or Four Wheel Drive system!

The attrition rate was impressive!

We began to be concerned that the local Highway Patrol might at any point close The Pass, thus scuttling our non-stop strategy.

As far as it went, though, was the enabling of warning signs mandating the installation of chains on Big Rigs and Two-Wheel-Drive vehicles.

Fortunately, ours were still intact at this point; and with the increase in traffic volume, and all of the surrounding vehicle carnage serving as a warning to the previously frantic, it seemed unlikely that we were going to run afoul of the maximum speed warning for our cables.

Just as we were considering this while passing by the Breckinridge Ski Area, a loud whack from the rear, followed by a rhythmic slapping, confirmed what we had just been denying:

Our cables were finished, before we were with their use!

There was nothing to do other than pull over and finish the removal job that centrifugal force had initiated.

We rejoined the traffic fray—now reduced to a snail’s pace—chainless, but thankful that there was enough grip on significantly colder snow, so as not to require their necessity.

When we made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel without incident, we knew we had passed through the worst of it, for the day. With the exception of a couple of still frantic, and soon to be self-neutralized urban Suburban drivers, we continued to Golden unthreatened, otherwise intact, and fairly close to on-time, all considered!

We’ll consider the acquisition of our intended cargo, and the less-than-uneventful trek back to LA in Part Four, next week.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: The end of the (Econo) Line – On Life Without the Venerable Van Tue, 18 Dec 2012 11:28:38 +0000

The last five years certainly have not been kind to Institutions throughout the world, especially in these United States. Whether they be people, places, commodities, companies, lifestyles or leisure activities, nothing seems to be immune to the force that is presently driving things along.

The automobile, and the whole infrastructure supporting it is experiencing a paradigm shift that has wrought some serious casualty: the bankruptcy and subsequent “bailout” and reorganization of GM and Chrysler (including all of the so-called “streamlining” of brand, product, and support network preceding these coups de grace), probably the most noteworthy of all of it—although there have been many other noteworthy events and proceedings, to be sure.

How about the construction of “tinker-proof” vehicles, complimenting the attitude of the mainstream car buying public that seems to have little interest in doing so. There is much more to be said about all of this, and indeed, I intend to do so in the foreseeable future.

Well, the future is now, and I can think of no better subject than the impending demise of the Ford Econoline nameplate—the 2013 model year being the swan song for the tried-and-true body-on-frame stalwart.

The reasons for this move seems to be twofold: ostensibly both a market and marketing-based decision. I can understand that the replacement unibody design is cheaper to produce, but what about those buyers who require more durability than such a design can offer? The part that’s really a puzzlement, though, is why kill the nameplate?

Considering that the economy here in the U.S.—and we’re talking that of the mainstream middle class—is in a world of hurt, it’s apparent that deporting oneself in an economical fashion is now considered to be a thing of virtue. Wouldn’t that place a product with an appropriately sympathetic name in a pretty solid position?

But corporations do move rather slowly, especially regarding such important changes. With the economic prosperity that existed before the onset of “hard reset”, dropping the “E” prefix from their efficient motorized boxes might have made more sense. At any rate, what they have done, they have done; and now we have decades of memories to reflect on. I’m going to bore you with a couple of mine, and I hope you can do the same for me, and all of the “Memoirs” readers.

I’ve climbed into countless examples of the E-van, for the purpose of performing maintenance, but inevitably, and really unavoidably, the experience proved to be insightful as to the owner’s personality—in ways that a typical passenger car will never be able to.

This is probably because people very rarely choose a van solely for transportation—even if it IS their sole means of motorized transport. Vans generally are work vehicles, to one degree or another; and the nature of the work my E-van customers did was always readily apparent by the interior appointments and general gear stash found within. Whether gardener, handyman, construction worker, telephone lineman, locksmith—or a litany of other professions (some even not considered blue-collar, like mountaineer, for instance)—it wasn’t hard to tell who did what.

Probably the most colorful professional use of an E-van I’ve personally experienced has got to be by that of one Mike Watt: electric bassist and bandleader known for his seminal work in the post-punk trio “The Minutemen”, and more recently, touring bassist with Iggy Pop’s reformed “Stooges”.

I initially got to know “Watt” through conversations before and after club gigs he was playing in and around the Los Angeles area, at the beginning of the Millennium. It wasn’t too long until he enlisted my services to prep his early-nineties extended-box E-250 for an upcoming “Hellride”: usually a whirlwind summer tour of the U.S. and Canada featuring much wheeling and many one or two-night stands on what could be loosely called the “Indie Club Circuit”. He’d cram his trio and accompanying gear on in, and off they’d go.

Watt was still “Jamming Econo”—a term coined and adopted by the Minutemen, back in the day, defined as living and operating on-the-cheap—for these tours; so the goal was for me to do just what was necessary to get him and his crew du jour there and back reliably and safely.

Not necessarily an easy thing to do when “The Boat”—an endearing term for the van, based on his background nautical—was nearing the 250K mark, and showing signs of structural fatigue. Nevertheless, we got through a couple more “Hellrides” before he retired that boat in favor of a later model E-unit.

No doubt, this change was a somewhat difficult one, as there was such a collection of tour memorabilia intrinsically tied to, and installed (in some cases, in a rather well-integrated fashion) all over the interior as to make it a sort of Rolling Indie Rock Shrine. The dashboard was a shrine in its own right, brimming with an eclectic, if not downright bizarre assortment of knick-knacks of all stripes—very few of them secured by anything, save for the usual and customary gravity and friction!

It made road tests interesting, to say the least; trying to balance the force required for me to be able to properly assess The Boat’s condition, without displacing all of that shrine-ness and permanently upsetting indie-rock’s Karmactic World in the process. Quite a responsibility!

You can actually see in-vehicle footage of Watt piloting that very same Boat (may it now rest in peace) around the streets of his hometown San Pedro, in the documentary “We Jam Econo—The Story of The Minutemen”. I highly recommend it.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: I Don’t Like Your Tone – Some Thoughts on In-Cabin Audible Warning Devices Tue, 11 Dec 2012 17:11:50 +0000

Since we were on the subject of electronic and computerized vehicle protection systems, it seemed like a logical move to begin a discussion of another long-standing and not universally beloved vehicle subsystem—this one ostensibly purposed to save us from ourselves, or at least our vehicles from “the nut behind the wheel”.

To say that the technologies employed in this quest have had mixed results, at best, would lean a little toward the generous side.

What started as often a very rudimentary electric buzzer, activated by just a couple of critical conditions related to door and ignition key position, eventually morphed into an exhaustive array of monitored components—each with their very own distinctive tone!

We now have warnings for everything from low tire pressure and vital fluid levels to electrical system malfunction, and most anything one can think of in between. It got so complex, manufacturers finally lumped all of these monitored systems into one centralized display with one tone, and a lighted digital display listing the offending components, circuits or subsystems. With a mighty ding (or dong) you would then be reminded of low windshield washer fluid level, how many miles until an empty fuel tank or until the next recommended oil service, the need to have other routine maintenance performed, or a host of other less-than-life-threatening events in progress every time you started off for a drive.

There were also a lot of interesting—if not obnoxiously implemented—detours and dead-ends along the way, too.

From my perspective as a technician and shop owner, the big crux with these devices has been: How critical they are to the to the actual operation of the vehicle, and how easy they are to be defeated—as in SILENCED.

In the kinder and gentler days of yore, the tacky and equally volumetric warning buzzer could be accessed with ease—sometimes without even removing the lower dash panel—and simply unplugged; with no untoward results to the rest of the vehicle. Disconnecting, or otherwise rendering an interior audible warning device inoperative on a modern vehicle is pretty much the polar opposite.

A friend of mine recently acquired a relatively late-model M/Benz E320, and came to hate the in-cabin warning buzzer (yes, they have come full-circle, apparently, with regard to employed tone) almost immediately. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, so when he described the aggravation he was experiencing with this work of the Devil, I understood why he just had to take an immediate time-out and silence the thing. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what he was getting into when he started dismantling the dash, piece by piece, until he zeroed in on the exact location of the offending unit. It turned out to be soldered into—as in being a completely integrated component part of—the instrument cluster electronic motherboard! After careful consideration of the ramifications of his next move, he went the B.F.I.

(Brute Force and Ignorance) route and CRUSHED it with a pair of slip-joint pliers!

From my objective standpoint, that sounded like a risky move. What if such an action inhibited some other essential process from being accomplished? It would have been hard to correct the damage done, and another motherboard would have to be sourced—complete with fully operational warning buzzer! Talk about potential for adding insult to injury!

Fortunately, the only effect of his action was the desired one; and several hours later, he was able to experience newfound sanity from behind the wheel.

Not that all attempts at in-cabin warning devices have been equally useless. There have been a few exceptions, in my opinion. The manufacturer often referred to them as a “chime”—a term that actually had some merit.

Who could forget the “tinkle-tinkle” that wafted pleasantly from behind the dash of earlier Subaru models? So pleasant as to be missing a sense of urgency that might have actually been appropriate, it was.

Or how about the key-in door-open three-note melody that earlier VW models came equipped with. It was the first three notes of the English Hunting Call, for heaven’s sake! That seemed like a very positive way to encourage the driver to get in and get on with it.

Then, of course, what I consider the crowning achievement of audible warning-dom: The synthesized vocal warning! A customer of mine referred to the “voice” in his Chrysler K-Car as “Guido”—a sarcastic take on the nickname of the then-President of Chrysler.

I think auto manufacturers really missed a great opportunity by not running a little more with the vocal warning. Yeah, “Guido” was a fairly boring take; but why stop there and say that’s as good as it gets? Why not offer a wide variety of voices and approaches to warning the driver? Want to be reminded to shut the door by a caricature nagging female voice, saturated with attitude? Might even prompt the driver to open the door at odd times just to hear her “go off”! Not your cup of tea? How about a sexy male voice telling you that you’ve forgotten to turn off the headlights? You might find yourself leaving them on purposely just to see if he still cares enough to remind you, yet again—without a hint of impatience!

Or maybe record your own vocal warnings. The possibilities are really endless; and in an era where people are trying to find ways to inject personality into their expensive and equally soulless appliances, it seems like a no-brainer for manufacturers to provide such an option.

You read it first RIGHT HERE, in the annals of “Memoirs of an Independent Repair Shop Owner”. All rights reserved. Void where prohibited by law. Member TTAC. You know how to contact me.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: Now This is Alarming—My Ongoing Cold War Against Anti-Theft Systems—Part Two Sat, 01 Dec 2012 03:56:22 +0000 Being an avid proponent of resolution—whenever reasonably possible and prudent—I had to pause to make sense of what certainly appeared to be the aftermarket equivalent of Anti-Theft Engineering Overkill, which had been residing for some time under the front seat of my newly purchased 1991 Eagle Talon Tsi AWD (Some of the circumstances surrounding said purchase are explained at the end of Part One.)

Not that the installation looked a mess, or anything like that. It was really rather well organized, in truth. At least a half dozen standard circuit relays, a control unit, and all of the accompanying wiring neatly gathered into a substantial loom and routed under the carpet to points North, East and West. Due to, if nothing else—especially my aforementioned disdain for automotive anti-theft systems of all stripes—the apparent age of all of the components I was viewing, there was no worthy consideration of actually diagnosing and repairing the arrangement. And considering the fact that this Diamond Star creation was equipped with an annoyingly comprehensive original equipment anti-theft system—rightfully worthy of suspicion in its own right, as it turned out—there was already too much of a “good thing” happening within the confines of the sheet metal for the “greater good”.

Fairly overwhelmed with the Eternal Why, cranial circuits, synapses and gear drives were all engaged in the quest for answers as to the need for such a system. What possessed someone to go through the pains to actually bring this all to fruition? Answers were not far away.

The original paperwork, much of it still with the vehicle, and just one (yes, only ONE) owner removed, pretty much told a satisfying enough story to qualify for True Resolution.

Apparently, the original owner performed vehicle break-ins over in Germany(!), while working for some branch of the U.S. military there. I was thinking probably the Air Force, as military aviation is truly the “poster-child” for engineering redundancy. This vehicle is equipped with a factory anti-theft alarm system? Fine, but we better install another one, just in case the first one fails.

This guy must have truly loved his Talon, and didn’t want it to fall into enemy hands!

But now, some twenty-odd years and half the globe away from those days, circumstances had changed. I just needed the thing to RUN RELIABLY enough to make it worth future—and considerably less complex—efforts at theft-proofing!

Since having achieved resolution, Step One toward this goal was well underway.

As it turned out, the add-on system was tapped into all of the electrical circuits that the factory system controlled: door locks, horn, headlamps, starter solenoid, and ignition/fuel delivery system. And don’t forget the POWER WINDOWS, for heaven’s sake! I felt like some surgeon carefully removing an elaborate fibrous growth, systematically restoring original anatomical function.

The operation turned out to be a success, and for about a month or so, I was able to regularly drive the Eagle, systematically sussing things out, and correcting other issues. I started using it as transport for friends, as I felt that it had achieved a level of dependability worthy of subjecting outside parties to. It was kind of a familiar “acid test” of sorts, also: put the vehicle in a situation where any failures would be compounded by the addition of a third party into the mix.

Sure enough, it worked. New and exiting problems arose—Ghost in the Machine kind of intermittent phenomena. Door locks locking and unlocking at random. (Never got locked out, fortunately. I knew better than to tempt fate to that degree!) Power windows not always obeying all commands. Alarm activating at what were often inappropriate moments of entry and exit. Then the final straw: the engine intermittently shutting off while the vehicle was in motion!

Taking the process in logical sequence, I eventually isolated the problem to a malfunctioning control unit. Since the frequency of the dead-stick episodes had abated—not the intermittent no-start issue, though—I was still using it for solo commutes to points of interest in Los Angeles, sometimes into the wee hours, without too much worry. If I did experience a spin-no-fire episode, a few additional attempts would yield ignition, and I’d be on my way. I figured if the worst happened, I could get some tow assistance, and do some D.O.A. diagnostics back at my shop.

I finally got that opportunity on the return trip from a Hollywood music club one Saturday night (really, Sunday morning). This time, it shut off while motoring South on La Brea near Melrose. Somewhat extensive attempts at a restart proved fruitless, It was time to call “The Triple”, for a flatbed.

On a “Party Night”, with the hour approaching 2 AM?? Yeah, RIGHT!!

Without boring you with the details, we did eventually make it happen.

Had the wounded Eagle off-loaded at the shop, and was motoring away in the backup at around DAWN!

After procuring a wire-for-wire schematic (which became extinct after about the 1995 model year)—an absolute necessity for solving the problem in as unobtrusive fashion as possible—I found the solution lied in merely disconnecting the control unit (once I FOUND it!). The only other modification I needed to do to restore normal function to all else (except key-triggered power door lock operation), was to install a bypass wire at the control unit multi pin harness, in order to restore horn function! Since the vehicle was now worth stealing, I decided to use the unnecessary (in my opinion, which I will share in the next entry) clutch start safety switch circuit for installation of an anti-theft kill switch of my own design, to handle those duties.

Much All-Wheel-Drive Motoring Fun ensued for the next decade, with nary a breakdown! It made the weeding-out process completely worthwhile, for sure! Maybe one day I’ll commit that to print, too.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: Now This is Alarming—My Ongoing Cold War Against Anti-Theft Systems—Part One Tue, 27 Nov 2012 13:00:52 +0000 Recently, while dining with friends, the subject turned to what else but things automotive. (This tends to happen with marked constancy, and long ago I learned to embrace, roll with, and otherwise enjoy the process.)

The hostess, an avid bird-watcher, related an anecdote regarding an in-field faux pas, wherein their transportation for the day—an early millennium Ford Explorer equipped with an intermittently malfunctioning anti-theft system—was the catalytic device that made them the unwelcome center of attention—albeit a momentary one.

It was in the pre-dawn darkness of the Southwestern United States, where they and a fair amount of other fellow aviary enthusiasts were gathered, and in the process of quietly positioning themselves for optimal viewing in advance of the imminent event of sunrise.

Apparently, on or about the moment her husband shut his door to join his already en route Misses to their chosen site, the aforementioned semi-crippled anti-theft system chose to suck it up and “state its creed”.

To say the least, the volume at which this “statement” was made was altogether inappropriately excessive for prevailing circumstances!

Timing is, of course, just about everything, isn’t it?

I remember when anti-theft systems—beyond the usual mechanical lock and key devices of the time—first started appearing on the scene, supplied by forward-looking aftermarket companies back in the mid-70’s.

They were directly powered by the vehicle battery, and consisted of primarily a motion detector and a siren; so that in the event of any sort of unauthorized movement of the vehicle, the siren—and I might add, a very emergency vehice-authentic sounding siren—would do its thing for what seemed like an eternity before cycling off. If the movement hadn’t stopped by then, it would repeat the process.

Flaws in this design were soon apparent.

For instance, these early systems had no other feature to prevent the vehicle from being started and driven, free of any sort of impending immobilization event. I recall seeing not only once, a vehicle being driven down a main thoroughfare with siren ablast, with nary the sight of any law enforcement activity in the vicinity.

Speaking of law enforcement, the other main flaw of this design (from their point of view)—coincidentally timed with the evidence that the whole system was largely ineffective—was the previously noted authenticity of the siren. All a private citizen had to do to transform their daily ride into a reasonable facsimile of a legitimate emergency vehicle was to install the siren from one of these defunct systems in an appropriate place under the hood, wire it to the battery via an underdash toggle switch, and get one of the readily available (at the time) dash-mounted cigarette lighter-powered revolving emergency lights. You then had at your disposal, a form of road-going diplomatic immunity the likes of which has yet to be seen again!

Boy, I do miss those times!

From that point in history, as far as my relationship with just about anything to do with vehicle anti-theft systems (save for their removal and destruction) is concerned, it has been a long and sometimes lurid downhill slide.

In the ‘80’s, as vehicle manufacturers were getting up the nerve to actually offer the gizmos as optional, and then standard equipment on their products, aftermarket anti-theft and alarm system installation rose to become a good-sized sub-industry in its own right.

There were all kinds of flavors, from virtually unobtrusive and minimalist, to full-blown, fully integrated sci-fi level systems.

Engineering and production quality seemed to be equally all over the proverbial “map”, and sometimes system complexity didn’t equal the high levels of those ingredients required for quality installation, or reliable operation. In some cases, the results were, at best, amusing—and at worst, really disastrous!

I will not go into detail about this; but if I don’t ever see another cheeseball circuit board, ill-placed hook-and-loop mount, or blue plastic “quick-connect” (can’t use trade name here) wiretap—often sourcing current inadvisably—that would be just fine!

Probably the epitome of ridiculous, as far as my experience with these aftermarket systems, was found in a vehicle I purchased. It was a very early ‘90’s Eagle Talon Tsi AWD, which was bought from a customer on the cheap—mainly because it had a propensity for shutting off at the most inappropriate intervals. I had confidence I could solve the problem, but at that point, the customer was pretty well “over” the entire ownership experience; and since the Eag’ didn’t fit in with future family plans (they did fit just fine with mine), I got to exercise my option to purchase.

What followed will be related in my next entry.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Workshop Owner: Two Can Play At That Game — Part Two — Sundry Shady Shop Swindles Sun, 11 Nov 2012 11:58:43 +0000


Since my last entry involved Crooked Customer behavior, I think its only fair that I give equal time to that of the Shady Shop. Rather than merely relating what have most certainly become cliché’—and I’ve pretty much heard them all—I’m going to relate a few accounts in which I personally have been on the receiving end, as either a consumer or a shop owner.

They really stand out due to a few factors, not the least of which is the absolute unflinching nerve, if not downright out-and-out hubris on the part of the perpetrators.

The first involves a shop that I had been referring customers to for alignment adjustments, as I didn’t have what I considered at the time to be proper equipment for performing such a task.

The time had finally come for me to take one of my own vehicles into their shop for an adjustment. It was a project I’d been working on for a while, and was now ready for the road: a 1967 Pontiac Firebird 400.

I had just finished an overhaul of the steering system, replacing all ball joints and bushings, and roughing-in the critical adjustments. I told the owner of the shop this and other pertinent facts, also making sure that he recognized me as a fellow shop owner, and one who had been trusting him with the responsibility of servicing my customers vehicles, as well. He seemed appreciative, and he recognized who I was.

He gave his tech the key and the car was pulled into the bay with the alignment rack. O.K., I thought, this shouldn’t take long.

It didn’t take very long for the tech to climb out from the pit over which the car was suspended on the rack’s ramps, and approach me to inform me that he was going to have to replace all of the car’s steering ball joints and bushings in order to perform the alignment adjustment!

I asked him if his boss had informed him that all of those parts had just been replaced and a basic adjustment performed, and all that was needed was a final adjustment.

His response to that was a slightly modified version of his original statement: that unless I approved of him replacing all of the parts he’d just recommended, he would not perform the alignment adjustment.

I went back into the office to discuss this proposed auto repair blackmail with the owner. To my surprise, he completely backed his tech, and didn’t waver from his position, even after all three of us went into the pit to confirm that the parts in question were in fact new, and correctly installed! Even after I reiterated the fact that I had sent a fair amount of customers to him, and—figuring he might understand this approach—if he continued in his stonewall course, future referrals would be in jeopardy. No dice. He just wasn’t going to get off his position.

I asked for the keys and left the scene.

I subsequently, and understandably without delay, learned how to perform final alignment adjustments at my own shop, with nary such an encounter after that.


Another involved a customer referred to me by another longtime customer. He pulled into my shop driveway with his engine making the telltale rhythmic popping that indicated a spark plug was missing from its assigned position.

He said that he’d had a tune up performed on his Y2K Expedition about three weeks previous, and after two weeks, the spark plug fell out, collecting its ignition coil as collateral damage. He had taken it back to the Blue Oval Dealership, where the alleged “tune-up” had been performed, to complain about it. After inspecting it, they claimed that they were not responsible for the damage, and they were going to have to replace the cylinder head to correct the present problem. All for the tidy sum of just at $2000!

He brought it to me for a second opinion.

It turned out that there was no damage to the head—the new spark plug I provided properly threaded into the head, and seated as normal. I suggested checking out the installation on the rest of the plugs, which he agreed was a good idea at that point.

All of the other three plugs on that bank of cylinders were not tightened properly. But that was not the end of it. Three of the four spark plugs on the other bank of cylinders were still the ORIGINAL units! The s’Dealer had not even made an attempt on their replacement!

I wound up replacing all of the plugs and the one missing ignition coil, and that vehicle lived happily ever after. I gave the customer the old parts, and he went back to the dealership and got his money back.

But to think of what would have passed if he hadn’t complained and sought a second opinion!

The last story I’ll relate in this entry is of a customer that came in for a diagnosis involving a driveability problem and a check engine light illuminated. The visual inspection showed a physically damaged Oxygen Sensor and wiring pigtail. The failure code from the ECM confirmed that was the sole reason why the check engine lamp was illuminated. I showed the customer the damaged sensor by merely raising the hood and pointing. The customer nodded in agreement.

He didn’t have me do the repair at that time, saying he was going to have another recommended shop check it out, and get back to me later.

Well, he did get back to me in a couple of days. He showed me an invoice from the other shop, which described a different repair, not the replacement of the 02 sensor I had recommended. He showed me the absence of the check engine light (I verified that it was still functional), and how well the engine was running (it was, indeed, running well).

I asked to have a look under the hood, and invited him to take a look with me. Sure enough, it had a brand new O2 sensor in the place of the damaged one we both had confirmed was there before! The customer was beside himself in disbelief! Even though my years “in the trenches” prevented me from being in that place, I had to admit that I’d never seen a dirty-tricks PR move like it, either. Apparently, the other shop wanted so badly to cast mud in my direction and elevate themselves, that they actually falsified their repair record, charging the customer for something other than the repair they performed!

One of the reasons I got into the Auto Repair Business, was that I figured I could make a decent living at it by just dealing with factual evidence. Eventually, though, these “Other Roader’s”—both Crooked Customers and Shady Shops—had an unfortunate and significant impact on my ability to do so.

The “Other Road” seems to know no boundaries.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Workshop Owner: Two Can Play at That Game—Part One—Memorable Crooked Customer Capers Sun, 04 Nov 2012 15:08:44 +0000 “You can’t cheat an honest man”, a quote I understand to have originated from none other than W.C. Fields turned out to be even more profound than I originally surmised.

I mean, I had for some time figured that being as straight as possible with myself, or anybody else—including, and maybe even especially customers, when I finally got into that arena—was the best way to go.

Of course there were real tests, trials, and defining moments along the way, but it always seemed to be a road worth staying on.

As it turned out, many of my customers were also determined to travel the same road, which made the whole experience of dealing and doing business with them an actual pleasure.

Then there were those that were traveling the Other Road.

The road of instant gratification and up front bottom-line savings; a road littered with lies, half-truths and a variety of cheap psychological ploys; of personal checks returned and stamped with “NSF” in all-caps red ink; of damaged credibility and little remorse to accompany it.

I first questioned W.C.’s wisdom in making a statement such as he did, since it appeared that I, an erstwhile, straight-up auto repair tech and business owner with old-school sensibilities and no glaring pertinent flaws in character was in fact, actually getting cheated from time to time by customers traveling that Other Road.

After much consideration, meditation and deep thought—combined with continued periodic contact with these “Other Roaders”—I finally came to a more complete understanding of the genius of Mr. Field’s statement. If you are absolutely, completely—REALLY—an honest man, you will be able to honestly asses any situation—including the accompanying human entities—and take the appropriate action so as not to get cheated! And you’ll be able to do it in a manner free of fanfare, histrionics, physical violence, or any other action signifying a loss of composure.

Briefly considering this advanced lesson in human relationships seems to put the rest of this entry into a fitting context. I am going to relate a few of the go-to ploys that Crooked Customers have used over the years, and how I was eventually able to “honestly” deal with them.

Bait-and-SwitchBy definition, this action involves a person not delivering on an agreed upon action.
Often, the customer would use other members of the family (or friends) to administer this tactic.

For instance, the daughter might drop the vehicle off for the repair I had discussed earlier with, say, the Mom. Then, when the work was completed, the Father would step in and declare that, since he was the one to be paying for the work, and since he was not included in the loop, he was not going to pay for it, and wanted me to release the vehicle to him forthwith. Elements of the “Shell Game” can be noticed incorporated into this form of B & S.

Other times B & S would involve a single customer denying giving approval to do additional work that they had, in fact, earlier approved.

This ploy would, again, be administered when the customer physically arrived to pick up their vehicle. It would usually be at the end of the day, often just at or slightly after official “closing time”; and they would be dropped off at the shop by a friend who couldn’t stick around to make sure that the vehicle actually got released to the customer.

Sometimes B & S would actually involve the customer having me inspect one vehicle, getting a preliminary estimate for a procedure, but then bring another, almost identical vehicle in with a similar problem, but needing a more costly procedure for it’s repair! More Shell Game shenanigans.

Ultimately, what proved to be the best way to avert all of these problems, or at least mitigate loss to me, was to work out all—and I mean ALL—important details in advance, and in writing, and holding the customer to the agreement.

Letter-of-the-Law Dodgers—These were customers who would look for relatively small but critical infractions in my procedure for admitting their cars into my shop, and not call it to my attention until it was time to pay for the repairs; which they would insist—sometimes correctly by legal standards—they were not required to pay.

Usually they would try to find some way to prevent me from properly writing up their repair order. It could come in the form of not adequately describing—or letting me pursue assisting them in doing so—the problem with their vehicle. They’d basically throw me “curves” or attempt to block my professional efforts in hopes of getting me to make a mistake in the diagnostic or repair description.

Or they would ask to fill out their personal information on the work order, hoping that they could leave out critical information, or just avoid pressing hard enough on the pen in order to make legible carbon copies (including their estimate copy).

Or they might do everything right and try to find a way to avoid putting their signature on the bottom of the work order. Sometimes this would be practiced in an overt fashion “I’m not going to sign this”, or in a covert fashion, where they would fake like they were signing the repair order and hand the clipboard back to me with either NO signature on it, or one so lightly written that it was barely legible on the top copy, and not at all on any of the other copies.

What proved to be the best way to deal with these folks was to stick to the professional and legally approved routine, regardless of what they tried to do to trip me up. Usually, if they were really fully intending to crook me from the get-go, they’d full examine the work order before signing it, and if everything looked correct and there was no legal way for them to beat me, they’d just decline to sign, get in their vehicle, and drive away.

In any case where I had to deal with these would-be crooks, the worst I’d come off was the loss of time it took for the initial consultation and writing whatever fraction of a work order I’d have to in order to expose them. To me, though, it was like money in the bank, literally or figuratively.

Wisdom works that way, doesn’t it?

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “You Want Me To Do WHAT?”—Customers Seeking Partner In Pushing What’s Possible (Or Prudent) Fri, 19 Oct 2012 18:41:25 +0000

“Have it Your Way” was a popular TV ad campaign some years ago. While it seemed to work for the world of fast-food burgers, it certainly wasn’t universally applicable in others.

Like in the world of Auto Repair, for instance.

Maybe especially in planet Los Angeles, home of what I call “The Hollywood Effect”: that insidious and seemingly all-pervasive spirit-force which motivates people to jettison logical and rational thinking, and instead concoct and attempt implementation of a personally acceptable “reality” for any potentially unpleasant circumstance.

Like a costly repair scenario involving their personal motor vehicle, for instance.

Granted, I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily; and I will explore other possibilities before accepting any unpleasant circumstance that comes my way. But when all else is explored, and it looks like “God Has Come” truly, I will either give it up and turn it loose, or bite the bullet, man-up, and take care of the situation. Call it perfecting the “craft” of sanity, if you will.

If all of my customers rolled by that standard, not only would my life experience not be the richer for it, but you wouldn’t be reading this particular entry, either.

Here are a couple examples of not completely irrational responses to the aforementioned repair scenarios.

A customer approaches with an underhood noise that turns out to be a water pump bearing failure. I would show them that the pump had indeed failed this way by grabbing the pump pulley and shaking it from side to side. Often, their initial response to this would be asking if I couldn’t just “tighten-up” the bearing quickly, and get them on down the road.

If the customer were informed that their car’s MacPherson Strut damper had failed due to loss of damper oil, they would of course request that I just add some oil to it, so it would work a little while longer.

If they understood that their vehicle’s timing belt had failed because the drive teeth were sheared-off, they’d ask if I couldn’t just get some replacement teeth for it.

Often, any of these kinds of statements would be preceded by “I’m no mechanic, but…”

Indeed. And it would completely explain the nature of their request—which was totally understandable, from my point of view.

Usually, after a little additional explanation about the impossibility of their request, they would listen to reason, and either “fish or cut bait”.

Sometimes, though, they would persist in their line of “reasoning”, maybe even adding that a shop down the street would be willing to fulfill their request—and for next to NOTHING, on top of that! What were they doing standing in my shop, then, I’d say?

Sometimes, though, this “ Hollywood effect” would shift in motivation from that of fantasy, to that of “future shock”. I’d get a customer who felt their backs were against the proverbial “wall”, and they neither had the funds to repair their car properly, nor did they have any other viable alternative to their impending transportation dilemma.

One such memorable occasion involved what certainly appeared like a borderline-homeless person and their somewhat tattered Mustang II.

He pulled up to my open door and parked, as I was working just inside at the back of a vehicle in my repair bay.

I soon realized that I had been in more danger by such close proximity than I had imagined.

He requested that I change the front brake pads, and informed me that he had the replacement set with him; and showed me the almost equally tattered box that apparently housed the new pads.

I told him I had to move his car over, so I could back the vehicle I had just been working on out of the bay in order to pull his in.

He seemed a little uneasy, but handed me the keys.

As soon as I got in the car, started it and covered the brake in order to select reverse gear, not only did I understand his uneasiness, but I also fully appreciated how precarious my earlier position between the back of the vehicle I had in my bay and the front of his approaching vehicle had been. There was virtually NO brake pedal!

I didn’t even bother moving the little ‘stang; opting instead to shut the engine off and lift the hood. As I was doing this, I asked him about the nonexistent brake pedal.

He said that that was not a problem to be concerned with, and reiterated that he just wanted the brake pads changed, only.

I told him that, it was a concern of mine, if I was going to work on his car. I asked him if I could check a couple of other things before we proceeded with even having a repair order written up. He reluctantly approved.

When I lifted hood, I focused attention on the master cylinder, firstly to check if the lack of brake pedal was related to fluid loss. Before I could get even that far, I was greeted by a brake booster hose that had been removed from the booster and plugged with the threaded end of a spark plug! Add one brake booster to the pre-estimate.

The master cylinder was plenty full of fluid, suggesting an internal failure of the cylinder. Add a master cylinder to the pre-estimate.

I checked the preliminary condition of the brake rotors by visually inspecting through the openings in the styled-steel wheels. Not surprisingly, there was major evidence of metal-to-metal contact—and not from the pads that were presently installed!. Add two brake rotors to the pre-estimate.

The customer didn’t appear to be impressed by any of this, but instead restated his original request!

I informed him that if I did what he wanted, the already beleaguered braking system would likely provide even LESS stopping power than it had at present. Besides that, fulfilling his request would not only be unprofessional, but also in fact, be illegal by State standards!

He said he wouldn’t hold me accountable for any of that.

I told him I appreciated his word, but there was just no way his request was going to fly without a complete inspection of his braking system, and all necessary repairs being performed.

He thanked me and drove away.

Wonder if he ever got it “His Way”…

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”—Detecting the Motive Behind the Exclamation—Part Two Mon, 08 Oct 2012 10:23:00 +0000 For the most part, I’m trying to avoid the whys and wherefores behind the topics I write about in this column. I’d just as soon hear from readers as to their opinions about the reasons behind. But there are going to be exceptions to that rule, as far as my postulating about motives.

This entry (as with Part One) is one of the exceptions. I still wouldn’t mind “hearing” your thoughts, though

Once upon a time, when my little repair shop microcosm was a much safer and secure place to tread, I would rarely get a customer request for a repair procedure that was unlawful, unsafe, unprofitable, unfair, or just downright unrecommendable. And if their request was any of these, it would take very little effort on my part to dissuade them from their skewed request and get them to embrace my recommendation for properly solving their problem.

Or, did I DREAM that?

Based on a downward trend toward the lowest common denominator of customer requests, which seemed to start shortly after “once upon a time”, I’m wondering if I must HAVE dreamt it!

(As a matter of fact, I think that the next couple of entries are going to relate some of the truly infamous customer requests I have ever received.)

Staying true to theme, today’s entry really centers on my perception of a customer’s motive for making a particular request, and the lengths this customer went to get me to fulfill it.

The customer came to me with a straightforward request to replace his catalytic converters on a early-millennium Pathfinder. Not a request to run some tests to determine why his “Check Engine” light was on (which it was), or even to verify that his cat’s were in actual need of replacement.

When I asked him why he thought the cat’s were bad, he didn’t even try to answer the question, but instead countered by questioning me as to why I couldn’t just fulfill his request and get him on his way.

I informed him that firstly, it was (and I believe, still is) unlawful in the State of California to replace a cat unless it is experiencing a verifiable failure, or has been in any other way damaged internally or externally to the point of inoperability.

I also noted that the replacement units for his P/Finder were quite expensive, and if replacement didn’t solve whatever the problem was, was he going to be able to take responsibility for his request. Or was he going to attempt to make me “eat” the cost (which, based on the State Law just referred to, would have been the case) if the causal symptom wasn’t eliminated?

I reminded him that I really needed to know WHY he wanted me to replace the cat’s, before we could go any further.

He finally coughed up the fact that the “check engine” light was indeed illuminated, and the “dealer” he had taken the vehicle to had told him that the catalysts were inoperative and needed to be replaced.

When I requested a copy of the work order from the “dealer” he had gone to—so I could verify the validity of his request—he again balked, finally admitting that he didn’t have it, and that in fact, there wasn’t a work order at all!

At that point, I told him that I really couldn’t help him unless he let me perform the tests necessary, and we’d have to go from there.

He finally acquiesced, and I saw the ‘finder the next morning.

Sure enough, after interrogating the engine management system, I verified that both left and right side cats were showing “low efficiency”, potentially suggesting the need for replacement.

I decided to go a little further in my testing, and engaged my scanner’s “Troubleshooter” feature to check for vehicle-specific information about the cat failure codes that were present.

I found an interesting “surprise”: Regarding the particular year and emissions group, this ‘finder had a “service bulletin” in connection with the failure codes present. Apparently, there was a potential programming fault that could cause such failure codes when there was no actual problem with the cat’s whatsoever! The recommended course was to have an authorized dealer connect their proprietary equipment to the management system and determine if it was in need of a program update. Once, and ONLY once this procedure was completed, could the need for cat replacement be properly assessed!

I would otherwise be in violation of The Law if I replaced the cats without confirming this procedure had been done!

When I informed the customer of these facts, he seemed more upset than ever, actually saying some form of “It has to be anything but THAT!”

What made this especially puzzling, and confirmed that this customer had some sort of unfriendly “agenda” was that, by taking the course I recommended, he could be potentially saving himself quite literally THOUSANDS of dollars! The math wasn’t difficult: $200 for a check and reprogram, or more than $2000 for a cat replacement!

But, instead of thanking me profusely for the information, he was visibly displeased with the whole experience!

I never heard anything more from this “customer”, and I can only guess at what his “agenda” was.

Was he an agent for some consumer research or “watchdog” agency?

Was he just doing a little private investigation on his own?

Was he trying to score a set of free catalytic converters, at my expense?

Or was he trying to exercise his freedom of expression or “manifest destiny” by requesting a potentially unnecessary repair procedure just because he felt that, in the good ol’ U.S.A., he COULD?

I’ll probably never know.

Had I done it his way, though, I likely would have been in a world of trouble.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”—Detecting the Motive Behind the Exclamation— Part One Sat, 29 Sep 2012 10:16:39 +0000

For the most part, I’m trying to avoid the whys and wherefores behind the topics I write about in this column. I’d just as soon hear from readers as to their opinions about the reasons behind. But there are going to be exceptions to that rule, as far as my postulating about motives.

This entry is one of the exceptions.

I still wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts, though

As I stated in my last entry, in the final analysis—in spite of the opinions voiced on the nature of their vehicles problem—the customer generally sincerely just wanted the problem remedied. There were no ulterior motives I could detect in their erroneous observations; I just appreciated that their scope of experience was limited in comparison to mine, and I took what usefulness I could out of their efforts to help.

But then, there were those occasions when I highly doubted the sincerity of the customer’s statements. In this entry, I’m going to relate a couple of those occasions to you.Customer mis-diagnosis has often related to the fuel system. I have had many people make the assumption that the fuel pump had failed, when in fact, the problem was nothing more than a lack of fuel in the tank—a fact that would often be wildly denied by the vehicles owner.

One customer seemed to have painted himself—certainly with some outside help—into a diagnostic corner. By the time he brought his problem to me—both his and his vehicles—I believe he was convinced that he truly had something unsolvable.

It was a mid-eighties Chevy van with the venerable 350 cubic inch V-8 equipped with throttle-body fuel injection (one of the most bulletproof F.I. systems in the history of the automobile, I might add).

It was experiencing long crank times before finally firing, when cold, and sluggish acceleration—worse during the warm-up process.

During the initial consultation, I mentioned that the problem sounded like it was something to do with fuel delivery and asked if he had ever had the fuel pump changed. He emphasized that he’d taken the van to numerous repair shops, including the local Chevy dealer—who had actually clamed to have tested the pump via a fuel pressure test (none of the other shops had reportedly even done this), and showed me a printout of their findings. They had entered a pressure value that indicated the fuel pump was fine.

When I questioned that finding, and stated that I was going to perform a fuel system pressure test, he got very uncomfortable with that. Some other customers might have felt similarly, perhaps because they didn’t want to pay for a procedure that had already been done; and indeed, this customer let me know that money was tight with him, too.

I emphasized that, based on the description of the symptoms, the fuel pressure test was the very first thing I was going to do, or I wasn’t going to touch his vehicle.

He relented, but not without a struggle.

Sure enough, my pressure test results indicated a pump that was operating at a steady pressure just about one-third of the required normal pressure!

When I informed him of this, he was in disbelief. I had to tell him that if fuel pump replacement didn’t cure the problem with his vehicle, I wouldn’t charge him for anything. He was very reluctant to agree to THIS, even when I low-balled him on the price of the job. He finally did approve it, but called back about an hour later to cancel the job.

It was too late.

I’d already had the fuel tank most of the way removed, and now he was facing the prospect of paying me for the diagnosis and reinstallation of the fuel tank, with the guarantee that the problem was STILL GOING TO BE THERE!

It was then that I was certain that he was actually having a big problem with the prospect of a normally operating vehicle!

What would there be to complain about NOW?

And since he couldn’t use the poorly functioning vehicle as an excuse to shirk responsibilities, what NEW story was he going to have to invent?

Now that this problem with his vehicle was going to be solved, what OTHER unknown possible problem was going to come up, next?

And would he have to go through the same agonizing process to address the new problem?

But then, the prospect of leaving money on the table—with nothing more than another mechanic’s opinion of what was wrong with his van to show for it—was not appealing, either.

I sensed some sort of a meltdown in progress, and the ensuing conversation took on the dynamic of that between a therapist and patient.

In the end, he expressed solidarity for our earlier agreement, and I was able to finish the job, with the van performing better than he could ever remember.

He seemed truly relieved; and I sensed that the fact that his van was repaired played only a small role in this. It was more like I’d helped him to reach a personal milepost. He trusted somebody’s word, in the face of numerous “obstacles”, and dared to move forward with his lifI hope he can maintain the momentum.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.














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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”— Famous Last Words That Have Provided More Help Than Hindrance Wed, 19 Sep 2012 14:50:21 +0000

If I had a dime for every time a customer said that to me while in the process of Repair Order composition… I would have made a lot less money off the ensuing job!

I mean, the whole idea of the pre-repair consultation—at least from my point of view—was and is to get as good an idea as possible about the nature of the vehicle’s problem, so a proper repair can be performed in an expedient, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

The fact that many professional people—including those in the auto repair field—don’t take this approach, and why they don’t, will be a subject for a future entry.

In my earlier, more naïve and trusting days, when a customer would tell me what a problem WASN’T—often with an intimidating amount of conviction—I would give their assessment a fair measure of credence as I approached a solution to the problem.

It was kind of an “innocent until proven guilty” sort of dynamic.

After a couple of jobs where I would have been happy just to have made a dime on the process, I sensed what I considered at the time to be a bizarre pattern being defined.

Over the years, the pattern continued to be supported and proven, to the point that it could actually be stated as some sort of natural law, like the ebb and flow of tides, the lunar phases, or even the rising and setting of the sun:  if the customer said the problem with their vehicle was “anything but THAT”, it would, in fact, be NOTHING OTHER than that! And this fact would be further set and emphasized proportional to the amount of conviction the customer would use to make their point.

I learned not to argue the point of my ironclad “discovery” with the customer, as sometimes I would find that I had talked myself out of a job! The best method would be just to include what I thought it would take to actually get the vehicle running right (at least for demonstration purposes) in the initial estimate price. When I’d show the customer how the problem had been corrected, the perceived contradictory nature of the repair would be a little easier for me to explain, and for them to accept.

Since I’ve been covering some of my experiences with British Cars in the last several entries, I think it’s only fitting that the first germane tale I relate should be about one of them.

It was a mid-eighties Jaguar, not surprisingly. What surprised me a little was that the customer was a tech that had specialized in British Cars for some time, although mostly on older models. Examples from the “Marque of the Leaping Cat” were especially trouble-ridden during the period before the Blue Oval bailout, and I had gained some local renown for performing exceptionally well on such offerings.

While consulting with him, he of course told me about all the things he’d done to address the problem—all of the time, blood, sweat and tears. He was especially proud of the Lucas “Speedlead” spark plug wires he’d installed. In earlier times, I knew those to be the correct wire to use on the XJ-6 models, but I also knew that later models used a different version of the wire he’d installed.

When I raised this issue, he bristled, and I backed off and said that he was probably right, and that it must be something else. In any event, he knew I’d hook it up to my ignition system Oscilloscope, and I’d get a better idea then.

He was right about that, at least.

What the ‘scope pattern indicated was that the aforementioned “pattern” related to customer opinion as to the nature of the problem was again, indeed, repeating.

Apparently, the resistance value of the wire set he installed, while being ideal for earlier contact point-type ignition systems, was not allowing the electronic system this XJ was equipped with to generate the correct spark quality needed.

I installed the proper wire set, and the problem was solved!

The customer was duly pleased—our initial disagreement over the nature of the problem being forgotten. That highlights the real truth of these types of situations: the customer just wants their vehicle FIXED—opinions counting for very little in the final analysis.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Stay tuned for the next entry, where I will cover a couple of them.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel—A Couple More Inauspicious Behind-the-Wheel “Firsts” Thu, 06 Sep 2012 11:40:46 +0000

The next stories I’m going to relate weren’t actually borne from performance-oriented driving impressions I might have otherwise gathered and formulated based on my British Car wheel time. Therefore,  I couldn’t rightly include them in my last entry. Worthy of recall they are, nevertheless—especially because they are firsts that I haven’t since repeated, fortunately.

Among all of the other “unique” experiences I’ve had with autos from the Land of the Union Jack, certainly being party to the inflicting of structural and cosmetic damage on them has to rank right towards the top.

The first “first” I experienced in this arena involved another MG Midget. This time, I thankfully wasn’t behind the wheel of one. I was, in fact behind the wheel of my Dad’s daily driver—a 1959 Ford Sedan.

By my fledging, but rapidly expanding standards, I considered that piece of automotive history (it qualified as such, even back then) as good a unit as any for honing my driving skills. With its semi-industrial-grade inline six cylinder engine, “three-on-the-tree” column shifter with non-synchro first gear, manual steering and drum brakes, it favored a clean but reserved driving style, as you might imagine.

The unfortunate thing for the Midget parked behind me in the parking lot of my favorite tennis court, was that with the top down, it was virtually invisible from the driver’s seat of my Dad’s Ford, as I looked out the rear window and across the rear deck and trunk!

Yeah, I did at least notice it as I got into the ol’ ’59, but with my spatial relationship memory still in the developmental process, I made a miscalculation as to where the Midge’ was as I attempted to back around it. Caaarrunch!

The right side corner of the Ford’s bumper caught the Tiny One right in the left side headlamp area. Fortunately, the sound of the headlamp being crushed provided a fractional early warning, which caused me to check up my progress just before doing serious damage to the surrounding fender. The Ford, of course, suffered not the slightest damage at all!

I was still surprised at the fact that, after re-seating myself in the Ford, I really COULDN’T see the poor little rollerskate from that vantage point.

Those cars were indeed vulnerable even when sitting still in a parking lot!

The second “first” I had involved a drop-dead gorgeous (and somewhat rare, even for the time) mid-‘70’s Jaguar XJ-12C. The “C”, for those who aren’t familiar, stood for “Coupe”—meaning this example was a two-door version, stylishly devoid of the “B” pillar that would normally have separated the front and rear doors. It sported a beautiful yellowish-cream exterior hue, and black Connolly leather interior…and, of course, that wonderfully sonorous (muted considerably outside of the XK-E), if not somewhat generously large, 326 c.i. V-12 engine!

I was commissioned by the dealer’s Service Manager to be driven down to our local alignment shop subcontractor for the purpose of driving the Jag back to our dealership, where its owner would pick it up later that day.

It would only be a three-mile drive down the PCH through the town of Lomita, but there were some concerns—primarily with the wet weather, and the hour of the day—“rush hour” fast approaching.

Well, the Jag DID make it back to the dealership, but on the back of a tow truck, its front end smashed enough to have damaged the radiator, rendering it undriveable!

I was impressed by the structural integrity of the XJ, after the rather slow speed T-Bone impact encounter with the 1970 Mercury Cougar (which was then viewed more as inexpensive older transportation than the classic it became) that made an illegal left turn in front of me. I didn’t even have my seatbelt on—and barely felt anything—as I saw the right front corner of the Cougar rapidly pirouetting away from the point of impact.

Had I been any more culpable than I was, I’m sure that the Service Manager would have probably killed me on the spot, as he was an old-school corporate punishment type (I may be exaggerating here, but it sure seemed like it was possible at the time!).

Those were experiences from decades ago, but as they were the first and only occasions I was directly involved as the perpetrator or direct participant in the physical damage of ANY car while behind the wheel, they have left an indelible impression. In British Colors.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel – Road Romps Reserved for Riveting Recall, Not Righteous Repetition Mon, 27 Aug 2012 11:01:47 +0000 In my last entry, I tried to convey the wonderfulness that was, and is part and parcel to the British Car driving experience, which I was able to enjoy through my “wrenching connections”. For me, if I had to describe this experience in one word, it would have to be “unique”; and when it comes to motorized transport, unique is ALWAYS worth doing at least once.

The experiences I related in the last entry, as far as I’m concerned, are worth doing often and on as regular a basis as possible. In this entry, on the other hand, I’m going to relate some British Car driving experiences that define the darker side of the term.

Much as an ultimately uncomfortable, painful, or downright disastrous experience endured in the search of a Unique Significant Other, such encounters with autos British become indelibly etched into the memory banks. While the passage of time has not reduced the desire to avoid physical repetition of these experiences, it certainly hasn’t diminished their recall worthiness.

“Unique” tends to behave that way.

The first recount involves a late ‘70’s bisection of Los Angeles County, using the then-uncluttered mid-day freeway routes available—in a ’72 MG Midget.

This example had just had its non-overdrive transmission overhauled, and I was giving it a long-distance road test in connection with a cross-town dealer transfer.

All it took was the distance required to achieve appropriate freeway-velocity (at that moment, about 75 mph) to realize that the little Midge was not at all in its element.

Everything seemed like it was working against the both of us.

Even with the seat adjusted all of the way at the back of its travel, my chest was still way too close to the rather largish three-spoke steering wheel, promoting an “elbows out” driving style. This was exacerbated by the fact that there was nowhere comfortable for me to place my left elbow—the door being too close and the bolster too high.

The steering wheel itself was mounted within what seemed to be less than six inches from the dashboard, which was about on the same plane with the windshield, which was so narrow that engineers were required to use THREE very short wiper blades in an effort to clear the majority of the viewing area in the event of precipitation. So, it could have been worse…it could have been RAINING!

Cruising with the flow of traffic, the little one-liter engine was working at about 85% capacity, and spinning at somewhere near 4,500 rpm—not that far south of redline, and very doubtful that it actually had the power to reach that threshold.

Add that clapped-out powertrain dynamic to the overall dimensions of the car, inside and out, and I felt more vulnerable than I ever had in or on ANY motorized conveyance, before or since.

I must have driven the little guy, in reality, only about 30 miles in each direction, but it felt like I’d been in a real adventure by the time the round trip had been completed.

Roald Amundsen, famous South Pole expeditionist once said something to the effect that one has an “adventure” when one fails to prepare. The little MG—and by extension, I—was certainly unprepared for the high-speed freeway cruising experience!

While the Sunbeam Alpine was a quite enjoyable sports car, mainly due to its balance, its Mr. Hyde counterpart, the Tiger, having lost such balance in the name of straight-line performance, was much less enjoyable. You did indeed feel like you had the proverbial TIGER by the tail when behind the wheel of one of these units—especially when equipped with one of the larger displacement and more powerful engine options later offered.

I was impressed into service to design and install a custom dual exhaust system on a friend’s Tiger. Not content with just having a Tiger by the tail, this friend had gone to the trouble of pegging the “Extreme-O-Meter” by doing some additional performance modifications.

He had installed a 5.0 later-model Mustang engine equipped with OVERDRIVEN Paxton Supercharger. As if just the stock H.O. blue oval 302 mill wasn’t plenty for this skinny-tired, under-braked, short wheelbase little “sports car”, he was running about 10 to 12 p.s.i. intake boost, which—with the overdriven blower—was achieved well before the engine reached 2000 rpm!

Even in a straight line, the car was unmanageable; the rear tires breaking loose in a smoke-enveloped wheel-hopping tirade at the slightest provocation.

Not wanting to be intimidated by such behavior, I decided to take it on a relatively short section of twisty road in the general vicinity of my shop. Much to my lack-of-surprise, it was even less manageable in the corners than in a straight line—even light years worse than the standard model Tiger!

Not my idea of a good time.

One year, while making a banzai run up US 1 to the Monterey Historic Auto Weekend, I rounded a corner and encountered a British Racing Green Tiger upside-down on the inside shoulder of the road. The driver appeared O.K., and was conversing with another motorist that happened on the scene before I did. The car was equipped with a proper roll hoop behind the seats. No doubt, he was an experienced Tiger pilot.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel. Or: How I Learned to Never Underestimate the Power of a Real Road Test Experience Sun, 19 Aug 2012 07:04:57 +0000


One would think that with all the head scratching, added expense and needless difficulty involved, anyone who persisted in their own repair and maintenance efforts (professional or otherwise) on such flawed contraptions —which I will continue to document in this series on my experiences with automobiles British— must be running as low on vital fluids as the vehicles themselves typically were!

But we’re not talking about the repeating of the same procedure and expecting a different result, in this case. The experienced British Car  mechanic understood that the oil leaks would persist, the electrics would continue to be perform intermittently and the driveability would literally change with the weather. To expect otherwise WOULD have been a sign of insanity!

Those who would consider such expectations to be rather negative— and a good reason not to “stay the course”, as it were—were really missing the point of these vehicles. The “point” was intrinsically and unequivocally linked to actually OPERATING the machine. The slogan “Drivers Wanted” hadn’t exactly been coined yet, but it was something fully understood by any desiring association with these anti-appliances. INCLUDING the mechanic!

When it came to the driving experience—whether in the form of a road test, vehicle transfer logistics, or just running a customer back to their home or office—time has not diminished the impact these vehicles have made on me. Few modern automobiles even come close to what really amounts to a very unique phenomenon.

Firstly, all of these creations truly had distinctive personalities, even such relatively plebian examples as the Morris Minor or Austin America. These personalities were no mere accident, and were crafted through everything from basic exterior and interior styling, to the powerplant and drivetrain choice, exhaust system employed, and materials and running gear used.

It’s something that really needs no translation, which is undoubtedly why generations of car enthusiasts continue to appreciate them, making them now sought after collector vehicles (with an accompanying escalation in price).

But back in the days before they attained to such status, they were generally viewed, on some level as fun, stylish and affordable automotive statements; to which there was really no alternative.

I enjoyed driving them all, for their own special reasons. I’m listing some of my favorites below.

The Triumph Spitfire—which arguably looked to be the epitome of the small-displacement sports car—with its race-inspired reverse-opening front cowl, and well-balanced styling proportions, had this “flexible flyer” dynamic when brought up to speed on any road surface that wasn’t billiard-table smooth. Some would have considered that a serious flaw, but it gave the car its own distinct feel. If you didn’t like that, there were plenty of other choices.

How about the Triumph TR6, for instance? It had this sort of bulldog dynamic working: snappy inline-six with this very firm clutch that sported a light-switch engagement “takeup”, equally firm suspension and quick steering, and a lot less “frame” flex.

Then there were the MG sports cars. I just loved the way the MGB worked. I felt the “ergo’s” were just about perfect for my thin six-foot frame. The car felt very well integrated, for a convertible, and the sound and feel of the power delivery from the twin SU carb-fed larger displacement pushrod four-cylinder seemed very well matched to the whole general ride dynamic.

One of my favorite roadsters was the Austin Healy 100-6, mainly because it was relatively smooth and refined for a car of that class, and it had this wonderful inline-six tuned exhaust note, accompanied by an equally wonderful gearbox whine.

Of course, at the top of the heap was the Jaguar E-Type. Everything just WORKED for that machine! Ridiculously gorgeous styling, a true aviation-style “cockpit”, a drivetrain that was truly “magic”, whether powered by the inline-six or the V-12 (which, when equipped with manual transmission, had a sound that was just ADDICTIVE!), and great brakes and suspension, which contributed to the feeling that you were exempt from the physical laws governing fellow motorists.

Then there were the sedans—or more correctly “saloons”—of which, the Jag’s impressed me most. Those 3.8 and 4.2 “Mark’s” had this interior aroma that was just incredible! The combination of wool, leather, wood and a little bit of good ol’ H20 from the “calibrated” glass and door seal seepage made the driving experience something like being in a mobile English Antiquities Museum.

And then the XJ series had this ride that was absolutely unflappable.

The way the engineers isolated the beautifully designed suspension system from the chassis created a combination that really had no equal for quite a long time!

All of these cars possessed qualities that made measured performance and statistical capabilities irrelevant. With a few exceptions (like the E-type Jag), it really didn’t matter that they weren’t the fastest or best handling cars in the history of the automobile. The driving experience was this EVENT that was just perfect the way it was. When all was working as intended, you had the feeling that you weren’t just driving—you were MOTORING!

“Motoring” didn’t—and still doesn’t—require additional refinement to improve the experience, any more than refining a Horse would help with the experience of horseback riding. It’s good just as it is. Which is why the impact of the driving experience I’ve enjoyed with these cars hasn’t diminished. Which has made all of the head scratching, added expense and needless difficulty associated with working on the things worthwhile indeed!

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.





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Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel, Or: How Whitworth, Lucas, Girling and Other General B.S. (British Standard) Set Me On a Skewed—And Stimulating—Career Path Sat, 11 Aug 2012 11:51:47 +0000 “We don’t need mechanics…we need MAGICIANS!”

In a heavy accent loaded with London grit, that was the response of the proprietor of the local—and at that point in time, quite vital—independent British Car garage, when I approached him to inquire as to whether he was in the market for hired help.

Not even twenty years of age, with a whopping one-year’s worth of experience servicing used cars for a BMC/Jaguar/Toyota dealership, just up the Pacific Coast Highway, I was still in the process of formulating an opinion as to what it took to make a success of wrenching (or should I call that “spannering?”) on things British.

I hadn’t yet appreciated the truthfulness of the point he was making; but I detected a seriousness veiled by his Shakespearean theatrics.

After less than another year, though, I fully understood “The Crux”: British repair shops had the virtually impossible mission of rendering as reliable transportation—in a vastly different set of circumstances than in their country of origin—basically flawed vehicles with an equally flawed support infrastructure.

Although there have probably been many BOOKS written on this very subject, I think I could throw my “hat in the ring” without being completely redundant. There is just so much material to work with —the people involved and the cars themselves, not to mention our specific locality— that, although there is certainly a common thread, there have to be many valid and interesting points-of-view on the subject, including mine.

Due to the nature of our format, I’ll only be able to relate a couple of noteworthy experiences in this entry that tend to prove my point.

The first involves the actual hand tools needed to work on these cars.

The fasteners and plugs used were neither Metric, nor SAE, but of a design that may have predated either, or at least were developed at a concurrent time: WHITWORTH.

All I knew, in my fledgling days of working on autos for pay, was that most of my paychecks were going towards the purchase of hand tools; and NOW, besides needing a proper set of BOTH Metric and SAE wrenches and sockets, I was going to have to purchase a THIRD SET of the British-Size-In-Between!!

Many things have been said in jest about Lucas Electrics, and if not absolutely true-to-the-letter, are certainly true in spirit. I have seen problems with creations from the so-called “Prince of Darkness” that I have not seen ANYWHERE else!

Take, for example the “78 MGB that had to be pushed off the Delivery Truck and rolled onto the New Car Lot at the dealership I was then employed by. That in itself was not completely uncommon, even for one of the Toyota models, which were becoming known for reliability by that time. Typically a battery recharge or the addition of a little more gasoline would clear up such a problem.

But THIS was something “Other”, so a few of us underlings got the privilege of pushing the “B” into my tech neighbor’s work bay.

By definition, he was considered a PDI (Pre-delivery Inspection) tech; but PDI on British Cars often involved CONSIDERABLY more technical “chops” than those needed for Toyota PDI.

In proof of this, within a couple of days, he had determined that it would not be cost effective to repair the existing Main Wiring Harness, and he had the old one removed for replacement. Of course, when the new one arrived and was installed, the best that could be said about IT was that it was going to actually BE cost effective to repair! About a week later, all was sorted, and the brand-spanking-new “B” was ready for sale!

Another feature of these late-‘70’s British Leyland products was their electronic ignition systems.

Apparently not wanting to spoil their reputation for unreliability, Lucas managed to produce a distributor-mounted “amplifier” (module) that couldn’t seem to outlast a set of points found on the old-style distributor. Replacement units didn’t seem to last any longer, so eventually the repair procedure —and we’re talking about the dealer’s repair procedure— was to replace the entire electronic distributor with an earlier-style contact points model!

When Lucas finally decided to get into the Electronic Fuel Injection arena, they teamed up with Robert Bosch—maker of really good electrics and electronics found on European vehicles down to this day. Unfortunately, due to the hyphenation issue created from this union (Lucas-Bosch) the resulting systems proved to be only half-good.

One of my memorable discoveries—and there were many—was the design of the conduit tube connecting the Airflow Meter to the Throttle Body on some models, including the TR7. It was constructed of what appeared to be a glorified form of “Tar Tape” (used to wrap wiring harnesses on early-model vehicles), wrapped around a thin-wire coil structure. Of course, the Tar Tape would deteriorate in short order, resulting in acceleration “flat-spots” initially—and eventually and engine that would not run at all. Since the replacement units were expensive, of the same design, and often unavailable (due to popular demand), I got good at rewrapping the tube with fresh Tar Tape.

Then there was the hydraulics these cars were equipped with.

I can say that I got a LOT of experience rebuilding clutch and brake Master Cylinders, wheel cylinders, and calipers (this was when “rebuilding” such units was not legally objectionable). No matter how good a job I—or anyone else—did, they’d be leaking within a year or two, and I’d get to do it all over again. Sure, it was job security, but of a temporary nature, as such levels of “routine maintenance” were becoming a thing of the past on vehicles of Other Manufacture.

Were only scratching the surface, as it were, with these stories. If there’s a demand, I’ll be happy to provide more.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.


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Phil’s Podium Of The Automotive Pure: Ten Trick Technologies That Changed the Automotive Maintenance & Repair Scene — Part Two Sun, 08 Jul 2012 10:00:33 +0000 This article is the second in a series wherein—after thrashing manufacturers for doing their worst—I do a quasi de facto “equal time” summary of ten automotive mechanical technologies I believe are their best efforts, to date.

To review the guidelines I’m holding to in assembling this list: these are technologies that are pretty well universally accepted and are currently being used by the majority of auto manufacturers. They also have been popularized and proliferated during my automotive repair career. I’m covering them more-or-less in the order that they have achieved that status.


 The One-Piece Rear Main Seal:

Although it seems the European and Japanese manufacturers picked up on the value of using this technology from as far back as the late ‘60’s, if not earlier, it took the U.S. manufacturers a little longer to get with it. It wasn’t until the cycle for their earlier engine designs—sporting their two-pieced “rope-type” Crankshaft Rear Main Seals—had run their course, and new designs made their debut, that it could be said that they had now bought in to this technology.

Initially, the Yanks updated most of their older engine block designs by tossing the two-piece rope in favor of the two-piece neoprene seal countermeasure. While being an improvement over the rope, this upgrade still had its drawbacks: there were still some leakage and longevity issues, but the big bogey was with servicing it.

More often than not, to completely replace both halves, not only did the oil pan and rear crankshaft main bearing cap have to be removed, but usually the whole crankshaft, too—in order to access the half remaining in the block. Usually VERY DIFFICULT to do if the engine was installed in the vehicle!

With the one-piece, not only was oil leakage now reduced to nil—and for an extended time and mileage period, no less—the seal could easily be serviced during clutch replacement (back when many vehicles HAD clutches), or whenever the transmission was removed for repair. Highways, byways, and DRIVEWAYS across the United States of America all rejoiced in unison at this advancement! I doubt Oil Companies did, though.

So, how about that? A “one-piece” becoming the paradigm, and most desirable under ALL circumstances…

The Asian Gear-Reduction Starter:

Developed as a bulletproof-reliable solution for industrial and fleet vehicles in Japan, this design saw a rapid rise to popularity in Japanese passenger cars as far back as the late ‘60’s.

While the demands imposed by the rather small-displacement, lower-compression engines found in those vehicles didn’t really tax the abilities of this starter, they did allow for some incredibly long-term reliability records as a result. Other manufacturers took note.

Chrysler was among the first to develop their own gear-reduction unit, which was standard equipment on many of their cars at around the same time as the J-Units were being impressed into service. No one can forget the characteristic sound these Detroit-edition starters made. They did do a good job of spinning the high-compression engines prevalent during that period in U.S. auto manufacturing history—all comments about the sound they made while doing so, aside.

They worked so well because the actual motor section of the starter was not directly driving the pinion gear (which contacts the Flywheel Ring Gear) at a one-to-one ratio, as had been done for so many years previously. It rather drove the pinion via an internal reduction gear, allowing the motor to spin at a higher, more efficient RPM. This effect also allowed engineers to use a dimensionally smaller motor to accomplish what the larger, power-hungry direct-drive units of the past were able to.

The advantage of the Asian unit, however–besides having a motor of superior quality—was really in its solenoid design. Since the rest of the starter already had the potential for an absolutely INCREDIBLE service life, the only area of wear-concern was the high-amp contact posts within the solenoid, which bridged power to the motor.

To solve this problem without necessitating a more expensive solenoid replacement (as other manufacturers had), the engineers of these units made it easily possible to replace just the contact posts by themselves. Think of it: at the point where a conventional starter would be considered “failed”, and in need of overhaul, these starters would just need the contact posts replaced, and they’d be ready for the “next life”!

Full-Flow Engine Oil Filtration:

Oiling system and oil filter technology has continued to advance in the forward direction for many years since the days of “splash-oiling”, internal roller and needle bearing crankshafts, and filterless systems using non-detergent motor oil.

Even when us automobile owners and techs were “blessed” with the advent of the “spin-on” oil filter, incorporated into engines from the early-mid ‘60’s, we still were not completely out of the “dark ages” yet. Oiling systems were generally not designed to filter all, or even MOST of the oil being pumped throughout the engine at a given time. As a result, engine life generally was maxxed at about 150,000 miles, under the best of circumstances.

On the plus side, at least THOSE engines were completely rebuildable, so they could do another 150K with no problem, if the build was done correctly.

When Full-Flow oiling systems debuted in some European and Japanese passenger cars, before long it became understood that engine life had effectively been doubled, in some cases, just from the implementation of this ONE technology.

Now, virtually all passenger car engines employ full-flow filtration systems, and many vehicles have the capability of going 300,000 miles on the same engine, without need for a “rebuild break”. I might add that modern oil technology itself has also contributed to this fact. This is all a very fortunate thing for car owners, as many of these same engines are now effectively unrebuildable!

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.


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Phil’s Podium Of The Automotive Pure: Ten Trick Technologies That Changed the Automotive Maintenance & Repair Scene — Part One Sat, 30 Jun 2012 07:27:23 +0000

Now that I’ve gotten the memory-bile of “Notorious Technologies”— implemented during my ever-progressing automotive maintenance and repair career — somewhat further out of my system, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on some of the technological “bright spots” I’ve come to be acquainted with and appreciate during that same period. Some of these highlights were coming into widespread acceptance way back in the early days of my High School Auto Shop training, while others came considerably later.

In any event, these technologies not only gained widespread acceptance among auto manufacturers then, but they are all still being used by these manufacturers today, a couple of them in a considerably evolved format.

I’ll be listing them in their order of appearance on the scene.


The Disc Brake:

If you’ve read my diatribe directed at the Drum Brake (Phil’s Bin of Automotive Egregiousness—Part One), you know that the Disc Brake is pretty much the polar opposite of that technology.

With its simplicity, stopping power, resistance to fade, durability, reliability and serviceability, it’s no wonder that the disc brake’s tenure is under no threat of termination. This design, augmented by tremendous advances in materials technology, is still being used at the highest levels of motor racing.

In the early days of my mechanical schooling, I remember seeing disc-braking systems mostly on European, English and some Japanese cars, many of which sported non-vented (solid) rotors. They worked excellently, considering the relatively low mass of these cars and the generally modest (by today’s standards) speeds they were capable of generating.

U.S. manufacturers followed suit a couple years after the overseas manufacturers, so by the time I was actually repairing automobiles for pay, many of them had at least vented disc brakes on the front.

Sure, there have been a few developmental dead ends that we techs had to endure. A long-standing example had to be front rotors on rear-drive vehicles where the wheel hub was cast with the rotor. This meant that every time the rotor was serviced or replaced, the wheel bearings had to be serviced, too, whether they needed it or not. Replacement costs for these units has risen with the price of metals, so thankfully, the “composite” rotor has become the standard design today.

The composite design has separate rotor and hub assemblies, with the hub bearings now being a non-serviceable part of the hub unit. In the early days of the composite rotor, some auto manufacturers, apparently wanting to leave some room for further developmental improvements, created the “captive rotor” design, wherein the composite rotor BOLTS to the INSIDE of the hub (usually on the driven hubs), for your servicing convenience. Fortunately, most brake rotors on modern automobiles mount on the other side of the hub, where replacement is usually only one easy step removed from a basic pad replacement. Pure? Most definitely.


The Electronic Ignition:

A once-famous automotive tune-up chain was founded on the constant need for servicing the ignition distributor contact points and condenser.

If the automotive ignition system had started with breakerless (contactless) electronic coil triggering technology, that business niche would not have existed. In fact, with continued advances in electronic ignition technology, including computerized distributorless systems, that once famous business is all but ancient history.

During my schooling years, most vehicles did have contact-style ignition coil triggering, but by the mid-‘70’s — with a few exceptions — virtually all vehicles had some form of electronic ignition systems. By the end of the ‘70’s, I don’t believe any manufacturer was still using contact points systems.

I really haven’t MISSED the old contact points systems.

I will, however, never FORGET having to service some of the more exotic vehicles these systems were featured in. I remember the early Lotus Esprit’s, where the distributor was mounted horizontally, in line with and at the front of the engine, under the intake manifold. It had to be removed by techs with some athletic ability — as the engine was mounted amidships — just to service the contact points and condenser!!


The Catalytic Converter:

Along with a couple of technologies I’ll be covering in one of the next parts of this series, the Catalytic Converter has to be the single most significant emissions control component for automobiles EVER introduced.

A few other technologies had to be developed in order to implement the use of the “CAT”, most of which also had a desired effect in other areas.

A cat wouldn’t work using the leaded fuel available at that time, so unleaded fuel had to be developed. Performance fans bristled at the loss of the few Octane Points that tetraethyl lead had added to their favorite “Hi-Test” or “Ethyl” fuel. Eventually though, manufacturers found a way to exceed the performance boundaries of that time using unleaded fuel of a considerably lower octane rating.

Engine durability issues had to be confronted also, as the lead in the fuel had provided needed lubrication to internal parts, such as piston rings and valve seats.

When these were addressed, engine longevity increased, partly from the use of harder critical component materials, and partly just because of the absence of the lead. Being a solid, the lead tended to accumulate in and around these components — and even more critically on spark plugs — causing what was referred to as “lead fouling”. Typically, spark plugs would only last ten to fifteen thousand miles, and part of their longevity equation had to do with lead accumulation on the plug.

Techs didn’t mind — though I doubt we appreciated it fully at the time — having to handle fuel that didn’t have lead in it, especially since we didn’t have the use of thin Nitrile gloves, as we do now.

Does anybody remember the “Smog Alerts” publicized by local air quality management agencies in urban areas, across the U.S.A?

They weren’t some sort of bureaucratic overreaction boondoggle —t he air was really THAT hazardous! I remember going outside to play in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood during one of these alerts, and within a couple of hours I was almost overcome by a severe tightness in my chest. Once the brown was gone from the air, I never experienced that sensation again!

Largely due to the implementation of the catalytic converter and supporting technologies, those alerts are a thing of the past in many urban areas.

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin Four Fri, 22 Jun 2012 13:28:31 +0000 This is the fourth—and for the time being, final—submission in this Series, the format of which I described in the introductory remarks of Part One. The two egregious commissions covered in this article have less to do with technology, per se, and more to do with tactic. To re-emphasize an important ground rule I will not violate in this series, I’ll remind the reader that I won’t be pondering the reasons WHY these encroachments have been and continue to be committed against both technician and consumer alike. With BIN FOUR fully laden, it’s now time to UNLOAD!!

The Superseded-Parts Retrofit (aka: The Replacement Parts Assembly)

While it seems that manufacturers have reduced the frequency of this tactic—which involves major updates to critical hard parts—opting instead for computer system program updates, it (SPR) is still being foisted on the unsuspecting consumer and independent repair tech.

If the procedure happens to be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, then they are the ones to take most of the consequential “hit”, and appropriately so.

The real problem comes into focus when the SPR must be performed out of warranty, and an independent repair shop is enlisted to do the dishonors. Let’s consider a case example, shall we.

Often, it seems, if the SPR doesn’t involve some plastic part (valve covers are common bogeys,) it will involve engine mounts. One of the worst cases I can remember was the XR4ti engine mount SPR.

Remember the XR4ti? As the Blue Oval Sierra in Europe it won critical acclaim, especially with Cosworth motivation under the bonnet. Apparently, however, the magic that accompanied this model in Europe died of scurvy on the journey across the Atlantic. They were a handful to keep serviceable and on the road stateside.

One came into my shop with a severed mount. It looked like a standard Euro-style “Rubber Biscuit” design, and I figured it was going to be no problem to change, as the accessibility to said biscuit was excellent. Unfortunately, I could not find any of my suppliers with the part in stock, or even a listing at all. No real problem, just have to get the part from the dealer for the usual 50%-plus additional cost over an aftermarket unit. The only problem with that strategy was that it didn’t take into consideration the possibility of the SPR factor applying here, which, much to my and my customer’s dismay, did!

Apparently, not wanting their customers to be subject to the “substandard” performance of a replacement mount identical to the one used originally, the redesigned replacement mount came with redesigned companion brackets as well. Of course, the cost for this SPR assembly, as I remember it, was at least three times the cost of what a typical biscuit mount would have cost by itself. Not wanting the opportunity to miss adding insult to injury, the labor cost to replace the whole contraption versus the solo mount was even more than that!

The truly most pathetic part of the whole experience was that other more expensive and intractable problems with these cars manifested themselves before any long-term benefit from the installation of this SPR could be realized! Truly egregious!

The “Unexplainable / Unexplained” Repair Procedure

I have often gotten a “kick” out of service manual Tech Writer’s trying to describe in words a repair procedure that involves a good quantity of “Chaos Theory”, i.e. a lot of transient variables related to the actual applied technique.

The most profound early experience I had—and I didn’t really get the “joke” until many years later—was when I read the description for installation of a crankshaft rear main “Rope” style seal. I checked more than one accredited manual and got about the same explanation. It sounded so complicated it really required something like a video presentation to accurately explain how to get the job done. I’d never seen any technician even come close to USING the technique described, or even AGREEING with the description in the manual, for that matter.

After some trial and error developing my own straightforward technique for installing these marginally performing “seals” I concluded that there wasn’t an instructional video accurately portraying the service manual’s description, because it was virtually IMPOSSIBLE to do so!

A more modern example of the Unexplainable Repair Procedure I find worth mentioning here is the service manual description of setting proper Timing Belt tension on the DOHC Diamond Star inline four cylinder engine. The difficulty stemmed from problems involving the belt stretching to the point of maxing-out the spring-loaded viscous-damped tensioner arrangement well before the belt was actually worn out. To address this problem, engineers incorporated a manually adjustable pre-tensioner indexing feature as part of the whole tensioner unit. It’s not really that hard to understand, but the service manual’s description for adjusting the arrangement is ridiculously more complicated than it has to be; and excellent results can be obtained by employing a common sense approach—which CAN actually be put in writing, AND be easily understood! I have not yet seen it in print in a service manual, though.

As far as the Unexplained Repair Procedure, I’d start by inviting a comparison of earlier factory service manuals—the ones actually printed by the manufacturer and sold over their dealer’s parts counter—to the modern factory service manuals often procured through online downloading.

It seems that the “Step-by-Step” description of any given repair procedure has itself been “overhauled” to a minimalist state. Wire-for-Wire electrical schematics, which were extremely helpful in many ways, are now a distant memory—replaced by vague “Flow Schematics”. Many other important procedural details have now been left out, and a tech can no longer rely on the factory service manual for truly complete and comprehensive information on how to repair a given vehicle system.

Apparently, some of this missing information is provided to dealer techs through schooling, but the irony here is that by the time the vehicles finally get old enough to be requiring such service, that information is no longer fresh in the minds of the techs!

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.

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Memoirs Of An Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin Three Mon, 18 Jun 2012 08:46:35 +0000

Third in a series, the format of which I described in the introductory remarks of Part One, this article will focus on specific modern technologies—not at all egregious in themselves—that have, in my opinion, been applied and utilized in a most egregious fashion in the modern automobile. One is a direct continuation from Part Two, although covering a new area. The other one is a component technology within one of the technological areas criticized in Part Two. Tally Ho—to THE BIN we go!!

The Plastic Exhaust Manifold

Don’t think for a minute that it hasn’t been considered, attempted… or had the proverbial towel thrown in on the idea, yet.

As with the overuse of the technologies already covered, the use of plastics in the construction of the automobile is not exempt from criticism.

Plastic, of course, has played a major role in component composition since back when Henry Ford got the ball rolling with the Soy-based “Bakelite”—developed as a light, durable, versatile and attractive alternative to other materials used up until that time.

Plastic has been used to excellent—sometimes surprisingly so—effect in ignition systems, fuel systems, exterior body panels and trim, and a wide variety of interior fitments.

While manufacturers have continued to push the development envelope of plastics, which is not unreasonable, they have also pushed the production envelope too. This has led to some noteworthy disasters in the past, and it continues to create problems for support networks, customers, and independent repair facilities.

A few of my faves:

  • Plastic FUEL INJECTION DISTRIBUTION RAILS, that leaked and caused fires (The same company, many years earlier, put plastic-bodied CARBURETORS into production. NOT surprisingly, they had durability issues, as well.).
  • Plastic-bodied STEERING BALL JOINTS. Do I need to say that I never saw a replacement part for these joints with plastic bodies?
  • Plastic composite INTAKE MANIFOLD GASKETS. I’m referring here to engine designs wherein the gasket has to seal major coolant passages.

From my experience, these gaskets last anywhere from 30 to 50,000 miles, whereupon the plastic media where the urethane seal is inserted, deteriorates to the point of causing internal and external coolant leaks. The gasket design these gaskets replaced would usually last at least as long as the entire engine!

Receiving dishonorable mentions:

Plastic Intake Manifolds, Valve Covers, Radiators (and other Cooling System components), Air Cleaner Housings—pretty much anything made of plastic and used in an environment where high heat and pressure are present.

It’s not that these parts don’t work for a while, just not nearly as long as the designs they replace; which doesn’t sound like progress in the right direction to me.

What’s a little more disconcerting is when it appears that plastic is the RIGHT choice for a particular component, but the WRONG compound is used, thereby fast-tracking the whole matter into the realm of the egregious.

A good example of this is the plastic used in underhood MULTI-PIN ELECTRICAL CONNECTORS. I have experienced that, after only a few short years of normal operation, these connectors just don’t want to separate when impressed to do so. No doubt, there are a few contributing factors to this phenomenon, but the ultimate “deal-killer” for a clean separation without damage are the prematurely aged and brittle plastic connector housings.

The “Self-Fusing” Electrical Connector: PLASTIC—NOT SO FANTASTIC!

The Flash Memory Computer Program

I’m not here referring to the way computerized systems are being programmed, although I do have not a few bones to pick in this area (think Traction Control operation on modern All-Wheel Drive vehicles with Throttle-By-Wire, and other such offenses). What I’m speaking of is the use of “Flashable Memory” Program Modules—Electronic Control Units that require the uploading of program information after assembly (and often after installation), as opposed to being assembled with Program “Read-Only” Modules, or PROM’s.

My gripes are thus: 1) There seem to be a lot more actual program failures with these units, 2) Diagnosis of this type of failure is more difficult for the independent repair shop, 3) requiring considerably more expensive equipment to successfully “Reflash” the program and effect a complete repair, and 4) is more costly, in terms of both time and money—especially if it’s a “Dealer Only” type of repair, and there are no dealers in the immediate area. That’s enough to qualify for “Egregious”, in my book!

In the days of the PROM, I don’t recall seeing very many computer failures actually involving a “corrupted” PROM. Sure, I saw failures involving over-voltage issues, which led to the destruction of other internal components within the ECU. I saw bad soldered connections, degradation of circuit boards, tweaked or otherwise damaged pins in the ECU’s multi-pin connector, or even water damage (which was often repairable by cleaning and drying the circuit board after removing the covers).

Every now and then, I’d get a vehicle with some annoying, if not somewhat transient driveability problem that I could, after checking for PROM updates, solve by replacing the PROM with the updated unit. Just remove the ECU, remove an access panel on the ECU, and carefully unplug the old PROM and plug in the new one! But never a really serious issue caused by a “Failed” PROM.

With the Flash Memory Program Module, it has been a different story.

A classic example involved an ’02 RAM (its funny how even the name has taken on a “Computer-Age” meaning) Pickup.

All of my diagnostic information told me the problem was in the Park-Neutral Switch—now installed deep within the bowels of the transmission, for technician and customer “convenience”. Impressing my trusted transmission shop experts for a second opinion, my findings could not be confirmed. Apparently, their findings varied enough that they could not be certain of WHAT the actual problem was.

We both concluded that it was a programming issue, which neither of us had the capability to correct. We sent the customer to the dealer, where the Engine/Transmission management ECU was reflashed with an updated program, and VOILA: everything back to normal! What a profit-less hassle!

We’ve all had to come to terms with program updates for our personal computerized devices. While keeping them updated and running can be a hassle, the manufacturers have been able to keep the cost-to-benefit ratio within somewhat acceptable tolerances. The fact that the individual owner can affect most of this process while online in their own home or office, without additional gear or expense, is one of the main factors keeping it all tolerable.

Wish I could say the same for our modern Automobiles.

Stay tuned for Part Four…

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.

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Memoirs of an Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin Two Sat, 09 Jun 2012 12:45:36 +0000 Second in a Series, the format of which I described in the introductory remarks of Part One, this article will focus on specific modern technologies—not at all egregious in themselves—that have, in my opinion, been applied and utilized in a most egregious fashion in the modern automobile. Boldly going where no one ought to go, ON TO THE BIN!!

The Motorized Floor Mat

Laugh if you want—and I find the thought amusing, too—but it would not surprise me if we see such a technology offered to, aggressively marketed at, or just downright foisted on future auto consumers.

Way back in the early days of the “electric motorization” of the automobile, and even into later times, the elimination of manual duties often reserved for the operator/driver was often motivated out of sheer necessity. Should anybody rightfully regret the invention of the Electric Starter? It’s been considered one of the most important advances in the history of automotive development. The electric Blower Motor, used in HVAC systems since well before we started using that acronym—what else could fill the bill so well? Really, any other design employing an electric motor where safety is a priority, and there really are no other simpler viable options, is just fine with me.

Even where safety is not a concern, using motorization in the accomplishment of a task, if it both simplify the process AND enhance accuracy, reliability and serviceability—well, I’m all for it. For example: though some may argue the necessity of an EGR Valve at all, the modern motorized units ARE quite an improvement over the old vacuum operated systems they replaced.

Unfortunately, when clear-cut reasons to employ electric motorization became less apparent, rather than just leaving well enough alone, manufacturers found other reasons to justify their promotion in new and exciting areas. It started with “Power Seats” and “Power Windows”, and then escalated into the egregious.

You want that trunk lid to shut like a “luxury” car’s trunk ought to shut? With an electric motor integrated in the latch, you no longer have to use any force at all. Just set it down and the motor will do the rest for you! Want to adjust your steering column? Just lightly push the controls, and the motors will handle the grunt logistical stuff! Want to go Four-Wheelin’, but you’re not burly enough to sling a J-Pattern manual transfer case? Just push the “Soft Touch” control panel buttons, and electric motors will do all the dirty work! Had a long day hauling around the kids and Fido, and you don’t know if you’re up to dealing with hucking that large rear hatch and slinging the sliding doors on your minivan? No worries, with the advent of motorized closures!

It has come to the point that if there’s ANY potential for the user/operator (I hesitate to use the word “driver” in this context) to have difficulty with any vehicle interface, the manufacturer will unhesitatingly introduce a motorized solution to the “problem”!

Since there’s been so much in the news of late regarding the mis-positioning of the all-critical Floor Mat (the manual retainer system being apparently at the end of it’s product-cycle), the only viable solution must be to MOTORIZE IT!

When it comes to repairing and servicing these systems, experience has taught that it will be neither CONVENIENT nor INEXPENSIVE.

Ahhh, the cost to save us from ourselves…

 The Computerized Cigarette Lighter

For all I know, this technology is probably being offered on some six-figure European luxo-cruiser. The way computerized technology is advancing, however, it will probably be standard equipment in your next econobox/appliance commuter car!

The point I’m making here is similar to the one I made about the over-use of electric motor technology: Computerization of (not to be confused with use of Electronics in) many automotive systems and components is unnecessary and self-defeating.

I recall the first time I had to repair a computerized power window system on a Honda. The user interface, that is, the master switch, looked almost identical to the one from the model year before. When I removed the switch from the door panel for testing, unfortunately I was greeted with unfamiliar looking sub-harness connections. Upon breaking out the brand new, never before used Service Manual (as this was a very late-model car at the time) and perusing the wiring schematic (one of the last of the wire-for-wire charts), what to my wondering eyes did appear but a Control Unit integrated into the switchgear and relays!

I was dumbfounded at the added complexity for no apparent good reason!

I had been around the wrenching end of autos since the era of power window systems employing point-to-point soldered crossovers in the switchgear, with no operational relays (except maybe for a Main Power unit). That was antique technology best left for boutique guitar amplifiers; and I was glad to see switchgear with internal metal “busses” (circuited for low-amperage duties while relays did the high-amp transmission to the motors), as they were much more reliable. But going as far as COMPUTERIZING the process—THIS was bordering on SACRILEGE!

As history has borne out, this borderline sacrilege was only beginning at that time. We now also have Computerized (in similarly unnecessary fashion): Main Power Distribution, Power Seat Control, Inside Rear View Mirrors, Anti-Theft Systems, Starter Actuation, Transmission Gearshift Selection, Automatic Climate Control, Windshield Wiper Actuation, Lighting Systems, Vehicle Stability Control, and more!

As with over-motorization, the added complexity of over-computerization has not improved simplicity, reliability, or serviceability, allowing it entry into the Pantheon of The Egregious!

Stay tuned for Part Three.

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent auto repair shop.

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Memoirs of an Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin One Sat, 02 Jun 2012 13:58:20 +0000 Not wanting to let the proverbial grass grow under my feet, I figured now was as good a time as any to proceed with the “rant” threatened of while in the midst of my “Of Honda’s and Miracles” piece. While I was contemplating said rant, it also seemed like a good time to make a quasi-collection of additional rage against other automotive technologies that, over the years, I’ve found to be considerably more than a useless nuisance.

In the interests of clarity and brevity, I limited the scope to designs currently being used by virtually ALL auto manufacturers. I may, in the future, if overcome by intense feelings of either abstract nostalgia or acute vindictiveness, single out certain “rogue” designs from the past and present. I will leave all of the Why’s and Wherefores to Conspiracy Theorists. Now…TO THE BIN!

The Drum Brake
Ever since my High School Auto Shop days, I’ve tried to resolve my intense dislikes for all things Drum.

Yes, of course I learned to use the tools effectively, really mastering my service technique; and I believe I have been able to get the most of whatever this design has to offer on any vehicle passing through my repair bay. I even went so far as to drive my restored 1967 Ram-Air Stick Shifted Pontiac Firebird 400 on the freeways of Los Angeles, and, on top of that, on a couple of spirited excursions up U.S. Highway 1 to the Monterey Historic car weekend—with these spiteful mechanisms attached to ALL FOUR wheels, no less!

The act of stopping that all-go-and-no-slow semIROCket was definitely one of the white-knuckle experiences of my life! At some point, though, the two-to-three seconds of waffley and (at best) only moderate stopping power they provided before fading into oblivion, no longer bore repeating. I installed a complete power front disc system scavenged from a ’72 Nova (back when they could be found at the local Pick-Ure-Part), and never had to look back at what I’d just run over!

I never did install a rear disc setup on that car, because the rear suspension wasn’t really up to the speeds I’d have been able to maintain with the additional “anchor” they would have provided. I don’t think the CHP would have been “up”, either! Could have been fun for a while, though.

So, at any rate, it would have to be said that I have given drum brakes a fair shake—maybe even going above and beyond the call of duty.

I have concluded that—purely from a PERFORMANCE standpoint—while a four-wheel drum brake setup is completely unacceptable (eventually, all auto manufacturers had to admit this), a front disc/rear drum setup did, in fact work adequately (within civilian boundaries) on my ‘bird—and, more importantly, for many of my customers. When it comes to braking systems, though, I’d really much prefer “great” over “adequate” for my use, since there are those times when only great truly gets the job done.

From a MAINTAINANCE standpoint, however, the rear drum system is ultimately inadequate, as it requires a lot more time and attention than a rear disc system.

How about so-called self-adjusters that generally DON’T (enough), even when all else is cleaned, lubed, set and functioning correctly? Or the required frequent drum removal to clean out trapped lining “dust”. And God help you if you have to remove a drum that has experienced “metal-to-metal” contact for some time (As luck will usually have it, the self-adjusters will, in this case, work well enough to extensively advance the process, effectively trapping the drum around the “imbedded” brake shoes. To make matters worse (if Murphy’s Law is in full effect) there will be no adjuster access ports in the backing plate, so the shoes can’t be retracted; meaning that Brute Force and Ignorance, or BFI, will have to be resorted to in order to remove the drum!).

In the end, when all is repaired and fully functional, you’re still left with an inefficient, complex and maintenance-intensive contraption. Egregious, undoubtedly!

The Interference Engine
Wherein engine damage occurs in the event that the camshaft and crankshaft become sufficiently out-of-synch with each other due to drive system (either belt or chain) failure.

This reaction is not limited to Overhead Cam belt-driven systems, but it happens more frequently with them.

The Mother of All Interference Engine Damage Cases has to be any belt-driven “Blue Propeller” creation. To say that these engines could be “damaged” with the advent of belt failure would be like saying you could be “injured” if your parachute fails to deploy while engaging in Skydiving!

The irresistible force of the crankshaft’s rotating mass behind the connecting rods and pistons, meets the immovable object in the form of valves and rocker arms made of some incredibly hard stuff, culminating in what is virtually an EXPLOSION within the engine. The resulting damage has to be seen to be believed: BROKEN pistons, BENT connecting rods, SCORED cylinder walls, BROKEN cylinder heads (from extreme lateral impact on rocker shafts, transmitted through the valvetrain)—almost a complete annihilation of the engine!

The fact that all of this mechanical carnage can be avoided if engineers just opt to incorporate a “freewheeling” engine design certainly gives me pause for contemplation.

I’ve seen engines of all stripes, from the economy-oriented to the high-performance sporting this consumer and technician-friendly design; so it doesn’t in any way appear to be purpose-exclusive.

All things considered, the interference design does indeed seem to have a reason to be… which is what qualifies it for entry into World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies.

Bin One being investigated, please return next week for Bin Two.

Phil Coconis is the owner of a West Coast independent  auto repair shop.

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