Memoirs Of An Independent Workshop Owner: Two Can Play At That Game - Part Two - Sundry Shady Shop Swindles

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
memoirs of an independent workshop owner two can play at that game part two

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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  • Burgersandbeer Burgersandbeer on Nov 13, 2012

    I find the spark plugs at the Ford dealership most disturbing. I think everyone is a little on guard with independent mechanics of unknown reputation, but most people probably assume they at least get quality work performed for the fortune a dealership charges. For something as obnoxious as what's described in this article, I would let Ford know about that. I like to think the manufacturer cares about what dealerships are doing to their brand image. Anyone working at a dealership have any thoughts on whether manufacturers actually care?

  • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Nov 13, 2012

    You sure are a nice guy, Phil. On a good day, that guy at the alignment shop would get nothing more than an order to get the car off the hoist immediately, and everybody I know would hear about the rip-off attempt. No matter the hassle, I'll do everything I possibly can myself. Even if it's a horror show, at least I'll learn something. My opinion of humanity is already low enough without having to deal with people like that.

  • TheEndlessEnigma GM, Ford and Stellantis have significant oversupply of product sitting on dealer lots and banked up in holding yards across the country. Big 3 management is taking advantage of UAW's action to bring their inventories inline to what they deem reasonable. When you have models pushing 6 months of supply having your productions lines shut down by a strike is not something that's going to worry you. UAW does not have any advantages here, but they are directly impacting the financial well being of their membership. Who will be the first to blink? Those UAW members waving the signs around and receiving "strike pay" that is, what, 20% of their wages? UAW is screwing up this time around.
  • CEastwood Seven mil nitrile gloves from Harbor Freight for oil changes and such and the thicker heavy duty gripper gloves from Wally World for most everything else . Hell we used to use no gloves for any of that and when we did it was usually the white cloth gloves bought by the dozen or the gray striped cuff ones for heavy duty use . Old man rant over , but I laugh when I see these types of gloves in a bargain bin at Home Cheapo for 15 bucks a pair !
  • Not Previous Used Car of the Day entries that spent decades in the weeds would still be a better purchase than this car. The sucker who takes on this depreciated machine will learn the hard way that a cheap German car is actually a very expensive way to drive around.
  • Bullnuke Well, production cuts may be due to transport-to-market issues. The MV Fremantle Highway is in a Rotterdam shipyard undergoing repairs from the last shipment of VW products (along with BMW and others) and to adequately fireproof it. The word in the shipping community is that insurance necessary for ships moving EVs is under serious review.
  • Frank Wait until the gov't subsidies end, you aint seen nothing yet. Ive been "on the floor" when they pulled them for fuel efficient vehicles back during/after the recession and the sales of those cars stopped dead in their tracks