Piston Slap: A New Wrench, A Good Wrench

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

TTAC Commentator sastexan writes:

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

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

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

Sajeev answers:

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

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

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

Off to you, Best and Brightest!

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

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2 of 18 comments
  • Kenwood Kenwood on Jun 21, 2011

    Of course, the obvious answer is to ask around, but how exactly do you go about that? What if none of your co-workers or circle of friends are gearheads and they all lease their cars or trade in after the warranty runs out? Do you stand outside the post office or local library and ask passers by "Hey you! Who works on your car?!" I think I have at least one solution... I frequent the summer car shows and cruise nights. This is where you'll find a concentrated sampling of gearheads and folks who genuinely like cars and are interested in taking the best care of them. You'll also benefit from being able to pinpoint your inquiries to the certain make or model of car that you have. I've found that people who are willing to bring their pride and joy out to a parking lot, burger joint, or an open field to show them off are typically social people and enjoy talking to others about their rides. Some of them are likely to wrench on their own, but at least some of them will use a shop for something. Heck, you may even run into a shop owner who is showing off his car. My other suggestion is to look up your local car clubs. Membership is usually 35-50 bucks a year and gets you a newsletter, sometimes goody bags and information about meets and events like tech sessions and autocrossing. Even if you have a Taurus, you can join a Mustang club, enjoy some camaraderie, and ask for a recommended shop that does good work on Fords. Heck, there might even be an SHO club in your area.

  • Ellomdian Ellomdian on Jun 21, 2011

    I am getting the top end rebuilt on my 190e 16v and I went through most of the steps others have outlined - ask friends, look online, wander around the garage, look at the cars in the lot/bay. But here's the kicker - talk to people. Not just the owner, chat up one of the mechanics. Obviously the middle of the day is a bad time for this, but ask to set up an appointment about an hour before they close, walk around the shop, and talk about other customers cars. There were a pair of matching early SL's in the garage, and I got the opportunity to car-talk with the owner for a bit. It will become readily apparent why they are doing what they are doing. Also not bad if the indy owner is a late 50's German immigrant who used to work for the parent company, and the mechanic spats in derision when you mention your BMW because he used to work on them and now prefers Benzos. Car guys are pretty easily distinguished. Also look for photos of rare/special cars they've gotten to work on - it's a matter of pride to wrench on something cool.

  • Dukeisduke So, it'll be invisible, just like all other Gen 6 Camaros?
  • Alterboy21 The gov't has already mandated control of your vehicle. 10 years ago they required cars to have ABS and traction control.I am not sure I agree that automatic breaking is ready for primetime, but taking control of a cars driving behavior is not new ground for the NHTSA. 
  • Parkave231 Collector's Edition hood ornament or GTFO.
  • Dave M. Once again Mustang remains solely on the throne. But obviously the day of the ponycar has long passed....
  • Art Vandelay The car so nice they killed it…twice