By on June 22, 2012

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The Superseded-Parts Retrofit (aka: The Replacement Parts Assembly)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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13 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Auto Repair Shop Owner: World’s Most Notorious Automotive Technologies, Bin Four...”

  • avatar

    You bring up some good points about manuals and training in general. The fact that we rely on videos for just about everything and stuff on disc and then expect everyone to recall it years later is beyond what’s reasonable.

    If you learn how to do X and it’s 5 years later before you get to work on said X, there is a good chance you’ll have forgotten a good chunk of it.

    Having it readily to hand to refer to helps greatly.

    I had a print out of an exploded drawing of the shifter bushings etc for my former truck, a 1992 Ford Ranger and the drawings were small, but I was able to follow how the parts fit and got it put back together. The shifter before replacement of said parts allowed the stick to be lifted up about a half inch or more, Reverse and 5th gear gates were way to the right and the throws very long.

    I didn’t have the metal washers but found 2 of them mangled inside the hole and had to fish them out with needle nosed pliers. I did have a new nylon bushing (I believe there should be 2) and I forget what else but had to get a new cap/boot that held the whole assembly together as it had severed (boot severed from the flange).

    Shifting when done was much better but still not smooth, getting into and out of 1st and 2nd still balky, just not as much – for a while anyway. But no freeplay and the shift gates were restored to better than before (tighter overall throws, but still longish).

    The bushings went again a little over 2 years later as I was driving the old truck to the dealer to trade it in.

  • avatar

    Chilton is the worst, but in the opposite of how you claim.

    “Rear Shock Replacement

    Step 1: Remove rear shock and spring assembly
    Step 2: Installation in reverse of removal.”

    There are a lot of nifty little tricks on a lot of procedures that manuals seem to leave out too. For example on the ’90-97 Accord, replacing the front shock is 100x easier when you disconnect the upper control arm and swing the whole steering knuckle out of the way (though you do need to support the weight to preserve the lower control arm ball joint). Otherwise you waste most of your time trying to maneuver things around. In the rear, w/drums its a piece of cake, but the handbrake cable on the discs means you have to come out of the top instead of the bottom. I am sure there are little nuances like this for all cars, but they are missed in manuals.

    Thank God for Youtube!

  • avatar

    The procedures are probably simplified so they can be resused for manuals on other cars of similar design.

    Also, I bet the little tricks that get left out are the result of mis-judging the audience. When writing for an experienced mechanic, the author might assume the audience already knows those tricks. Write a detailed procedure that covers every scenario, and an experience mechanic may complain that there is too much information and the procedure is hard to follow.Simplify it too much, and mechanics that have less experience overall or with that particular model complain that all the tricks aren’t in the procedure.

    Most importantly, I would be shocked if someone actually has the luxury of stripping the car down and documenting every procedure.

  • avatar

    When I was learning to drive back in the 1950s almost every place that sold fuel was also a “Service Station” where one could have their auto receive its monthly Lube job and Oil change alone with things such as having the fluid levels checked Air pressure checked and adjusted and the windows and headlights cleaned. (“You Can trust your car to the man who wears the Star…”).

    and there was very little in the way of caring for your car that a good service station could not do just as well as a dealer. I just got home from a 7 week road trip in my 2004 MINI Cooper S and I can count on my fingers and toes the number of proper “Service Stations” I saw on my trip through more than 40 states and over 10,000 miles…. I also saw perhaps 3 or 4 folks at the side of the road with a flat during this trip. I did not need to add any oil or other fluid (other than windshield bug guts remover fluid). I have had no flats in over 85000 miles (Murphy will get me for that statement!) in this care and while I do do change oil now at 12,000 mile intervals rather than the 3,000 (1,500 if most driving was on dirt roads) that is always well under what the cars computer is recommending (16,000 to 20,000 most of the time) at over 8 years old my car has needed only one part replaced… (a viscoelastic engine mount that had started to weep its silicone fluid) and I have never needed to add any fluids between engine changes (I am religious about changing things like coolant and brake fluid at recommended intervals though)…. in the 50s was when we first started seeing dealers start to devote wall space in their service departments to each model years “Special Tools” , The 60s when the number of non serviceable sub assembles started to become common (I recall the M-Benz Mechanical fuel injection pumps being one such item)

    I Expect that the way cars are today has gone a long way to the demise of the “Service Station” as it once was and it replacement with KwickE Mart fuel stations that dot todays landscape back when you needed to hit dozens of grease fittings every month and a can of oil might be needed every other filling of the fuel tank and valve trains would need adjustment for wear every few thousand miles…. Well there was a need for lots more general auto repair shops… Also back then new car warranty lengths were sometimes only 3 to 6 months so folks were less tied to dealers for normal services.

    When I went to University in Colorado in the 1960s I was driving back and forth to New England 4 and sometimes 5 times a year. and the the number of folks at the side of the road with a flat that I would see each trip was 10 times the number I just saw in the last 10,000 miles… I would expect one flat every 3 trips or so…. And a true Blow Out about once a year… I have not had a flat tire in about 20 years… the economics of running an independent auto service company today must be very different today. and the need for training as an ongoing expense for service personal even fore shops that focus on just a few lines must be a major factor. I am lucky that for work I do not want to take on myself any more (Like that engine mount) I have this fine company to do the work;
    If they were not there I would have to drive about 90 miles to the MINY Dealer in Peabody MA as my luck with independent service operations with the cars I have had over the last 20 years or so has not been good.
    So if you have a good Independent Auto Repair shop that you can use… cherish and support them…. if the progress of the last 60 years is anything to go by there may not be very many of them left in the not too far distant future….

    • 0 avatar
      Ron B.

      Non serviceable Mercedes benz (Bosch actually)Injection Pumps are still serviceable .I do it as part of my Business and there are still two major places in the USA doing it.
      The biggest problem today is the sheer and blatant dishonesty being shown by all major car dealer networks when servicing cars. I have seen two prime examples lately,one being a Merc AMG ML which had 265,000 on the clock (nothing much these days) but it had never had an oil change in all that time although the dealers Comp. based records said it had . The black sludge in the engine resembles the La brea tar pits. The other is the ‘trans ECU’ diagnoses.
      One friend was telling me of his VW golf. The loom from the ECU to the trans had oil leaked into and allegedly had caused the ECU to fail.
      The estimate from the dealer was $700 for the cable (no mention as to where the oil came from) $600 for the fluid (it’s $37 liter!!) and $9200 for a trans rebuild…on a golf.
      Now,a day later a customer of mine was telling me of his experiences with his wifes 2008 range rover.
      Same dealer …Same story ,almost word for word and cost estimate.’
      He is different,being an engineer he couldn’t find anything wrong with the car while driving it so he went to a trans specialist who did a service ($425 ,that trans fluid IS expensive today) but announced the car to be in excellent condition with zero wear in the trans and Zero electrical faults.
      Todays economies,especially here in Australia ,mean that Automotive dealerships see the workshop area as their only profit center. Beware of “service consultants” bearing messages of doom.

  • avatar

    Not all vendors provide good wiring diagrams. For example – Alldata is generally good for service instructions and labor times… unless it’s a Ford from prior to 1995, but the wiring diagrams are absolutely horrible. Mitchell’s strength is wiring diagrams – for the rest I prefer Alldata for ease of navigation. I’ll print out an entire wiring diagram from Mitchell with a color laser printer, often 4-10 pages worth and tape/staple them together so that I can better trace it. I haven’t had much issue.

    BMW is generally awesome when it comes to service instructions, though I am biased having been to BMW school and having worked as a dealer tech. Keep up to date with a service like Alldata, keep google on hand – and you’re golden. The computer has become an invaluable tool/research device for the modern independent technician. If it’s something I’ve never done before – I’ll look over the assembly, read the instructions from the automaker, and watch a video on youtube about it (if applicable) before I take a tool to the car. Is it the fastest method – no, it isn’t. It saves me from breaking things.

  • avatar

    I just went through something like the SPR, but through some forum trolling I was able to find a much more economical solution.

    On the S2000, the rear-lower balljoits can go bad over time. My new-to-me car that I got this year had one that needed replacing to pass inspection this spring. Going to the honda site, you will find though, that Honda does not list the ball joint. Your only option from an OE perspective is to putchase the whole knuckle assmbly, with the balljoint already installed (for $450 through the place I order most of my OE parts from). With the knuckle operation, you genereally have to do the wheel bearing as well, making it a $800+ dollar repair for a simple balljoint. Ridiculous!

    Off to the forums. S2ki helped me find out that there was a 90’s Accord balljoint that has identical dimensions to the S2k unit. For $17 from any auto parts store. yeah, that’s the one I got.

    Now, I still got raked over the coals on the labor, but that’s my fault for not asking ahead of time and doing my homework. Because pressing in and out a balljoint takes what? 30 minutes? Maybe 1.5 hours of book labor? Certainly not $225 worth. But that’s not the point of my post. The first part was.

  • avatar

    A long time ago my service station guy was helping me with a brake problem on my 230SL. There was a bad O-ring, so I took it to the Mercedes dealer, and was told, quite imperiously, that Only Mercedes Technicians May Disassemble Those Brakes! So I went to a hydraulic cylinder repair shop that my father, a heavy-equipment owner, dealt with, and showed him the O-ring. “Do you want that in neoprene or Buna-N?” “Whatever works with brake fluid.” I was out of there in ten minutes.

  • avatar

    I sometimes wonder who writes the stuff in shop manuals. My favorite example: I had a problem with a ’97 Taurus whose dome light would sometimes stay on after closing the door. I tried following the troubleshooting chart until I came to this possible cause: defective bulb. WTF??!! Eventually I fixed the problem by dowsing the door latch mechanisms in WD-40 thereby freeing up the sticking micro-switches.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Find an on-line forum for your car. They all seem to have a ” garage” section. You’ll find in-depth info on how to do the needed repair. I’ve seen pictures included in some of the repairs.
    I’ve even printed out repair instructions and gave them to my mechanic. The print outs gave my mechanic these options: A think I’m a butt-head, B Throw them away, C Use them, he doesn’t work on Miatas every day, D Slap me for being an insulting dimwit. Some may think A&D work well.

  • avatar

    Setting the pinion depth and backlash on a rear differential is one of those things that is needlessly complicated. Most techs even shy away from these jobs because of it.

    Service manual way:
    -Requires dial indicator
    -Usually requires special service tool(s) $$$$$
    -Measure using an, often, complex procedure
    -Order correct shims to put gears into spec and hope they are right


    My way:
    -Re-use old shims
    -Apply prussian blue to gears and observe mesh pattern
    -If not in spec(2% probability), order extra shims in various dimensions to try, throw rest away.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought the service manual way still required russian blue. How else will you know if you are correct or not? I thought the dial indicator was mostly to help you order the correct size shims.

      Granted it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but I don’t recall them being all that difficult. Biggest thing was generally you needed a case spreader or else it was just too much of a pita to do properly.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      I think most techs would avoid it because it’s a huge time suck to do it right, versus getting it kinda close and hoping it doesn’t come back in a month and have to be redone on the tech’s dime.

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