By on September 22, 2020


Hi there! You’ve probably learned a bit about your author during my time at TTAC, but you might not know I toiled in the service department of various car dealerships early in my career.

I started as a porter in high school, then eventually worked as a greeter in the service bay (basically, managing the flow of cars and customers in the service drive), before finally working as a service writer (aka service advisor). I did that final job both in an express-service lane at a dealer (think oil changes and basic maintenance) as well as in a capacity as a “regular” advisor (not just oil changes, but all types of repair).

This is the first in an occasional (read: When I feel like it) installment of tales from time in the trenches. I don’t know how many of these there will be, or how much detail I can go into. I don’t want to get anyone in legal trouble or fired – some of the people that might be mentioned in this space might still be employed in the industry.

But there are some stories that I think I can safely share, especially since I wrote up my last R.O. – that’s repair order, to the uninitiated – during the Dubya Bush administration. I traded my dealer career in for the automotive media in 2007. Honestly, it wasn’t much of a career, at least for me, anyway, but that will be covered in a later installment.

Today, though, we’re going to start with something a bit more light-hearted: The Buick that was more than meets the eye.

I knew something was up the minute the dude walked in. He was in his 30s and quite tall, but what really stuck out to me was his diction. He was articulate and deliberate in his speech in a way very few people are, especially when they’re half-awake on their way to work and about to drop off the family chariot for repair work or an oil change. Going to the dealer for anything, even a routine tire rotation, tends to put people on guard in the same way that going in for a root canal does. I worked 7 am to 6 pm most days, and the customers who dropped off their cars in the morning usually seemed in need of a caffeine IV.

So did I, come to think of it. I am very much not a morning person.

Anyway, Mr. Dude was also better dressed than most. Most people seemed to be dressed casually, even if they were headed into work. I just figured that most offices were business casual by then. Other folks were clearly working from home/taking the day off/going home to change before heading to the cube farm.

But this guy was wearing a nice tie, a standard-issue white button-down dress shirt (the kind just about every man owns), and khakis. All neatly pressed. He screamed “cop”. Nah, check that, the look shouted “agent” of some sort.

Indeed, when he gave me the phone number and his office address, it all fell into place. He worked in downtown Chicago, either in the Dirksen Federal Building or one of the other federal buildings nearby. Chicagoans and suburbanites know that area well. It’s often shown on the news as some corrupt pol walks into or out of federal court, hounded by the press.

Making small talk, I tried to ask the guy about his job but he wouldn’t give me a clear answer, but I had a sense it was law-enforcement related. I think he just vaguely said he had a government gig. Not that I cared much, I was just being friendly, both because it’s nice and because this would be warranty work and my customer might get a survey about my performance, including my attitude/politeness.

I don’t recall what the car was in for – trans problems, I think. I am not even sure now if it was a LaCrosse or Lucerne – I think the latter. I know it was beige in all senses of the word (seriously, it was painted beige or tan) and quite unremarkable. Except for the red button.

You’ve seen Men in Black, right? Well, just like the car in that flick, this one had a red button that was definitely not factory. It wasn’t on the shifter, but next to it, integrated into the bezel around it. It was actually installed cleanly, as if it was an OEM part.

I was intrigued. But too busy to play with it. Temptation would strike later, though.

See, part of being a service advisor is occasionally road-testing a car to make sure it’s fixed correctly. One doesn’t have to be a master tech to detect drivability issues. Even someone who has barely turned a wrench – that would be me – can tell if the car is still running/shifting poorly.

So it was with this car. I was asked to take it to lunch to verify the tech had solved the problem. Which meant I’d be alone in the car. With the red button right there, begging to be touched, a la Janet in Rocky Horror.

I wanted to press it so badly. I was tooling down a very busy road west of Chicago, seeking unhealthy food, the button singing a siren song. I resisted – I knew that this Lucerne must be an unmarked cop car of some vintage, and I suspected that pressing the button would turn on lights and/or sirens. I fantasized about the traffic in front of me parting like the Red Sea, and then a real cop seeing me, followed by an awkward conversation. Maybe even handcuffs!

I saw every dark possibility, like a bad dream sequence in some second-rate Hollywood comedy (the dream sequence near the end of Office Space comes to mind, though that movie is better than second-rate), and I held off.

Even if none of that came to fruition, I figured that at the very least word would get back to the shop and I’d be fired promptly. Never mind that there was no obvious way to tie me or the car to the dealer. The red button had induced such panic that logic was failing me.

So I ate my lunch, stewing, curiosity eating at me. Finally, I had a free moment to chat with the tech about it. I asked if he’d pushed the button while the car was in the service bay.

Yes, he had. He confirmed that it activated flashing lights.

I felt better and worse when I heard this. Better, because I knew that I’d done the smart thing, and worse, because it would’ve been cool to hit the lights. Even if it had been in the strip-mall parking lot when I parked near the pizza joint.

Normally, I’d have done this on the backlot, away from prying eyes, but that day was busy, and outside of the intake, the quick lunch run, and staging for customer pickup, I’d barely seen the car.

Still, I now knew what secret that Buick held, even if I will never know what agency my customer worked for.

Next time, I’m pressing the red button.

[Image: OlegGr/]

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21 Comments on “Tales from the Service Desk: The Buick that Had a Secret...”

  • avatar

    Good story! Looking forward to more.

  • avatar

    So you were a luber goober? Interesting. I’ve worked on my own cars (and a few folks’ others) over 40+ years, so I’m looking forward to these stories. I follow r/justrolledintotheshop on Reddit. Lots of horror stories from techs there.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Not a tech. Don’t have much skill with wrenching. I was the guy trying to convince you that you need a $120 coolant flush.

      • 0 avatar

        Not sure what is worse – “advisors” who recommend these overpriced & not needed services or the people who blindly pay for them. The owners manual is usually very clear about what needs attention and when.

        I bet a brake job were an easy up sell for you. The idea that your brakes are worn out is scary – yet most people don’t know how easy it is to check pad and rotor thickness. With many pads it can be done visually even with the wheel still on.

        • 0 avatar
          Tim Healey

          I am big on following the manual to avoid paying for unnecessary stuff.

          As for brakes, the techs always measured thickness. We never upsold brakes that weren’t worn. Every place I worked was more or less honest, although I’m sure there were bad apples who weren’t ethical. I just never saw it personally.

          • 0 avatar

            Most of the raping going on at dealers happen in the service dept.

            It’s perfectly legal to “advice” parts that they know darn well wont fix the problem they came to the dealer for. So they keep calling, revising the estimate, adding expensive, unnecessary parts/service.

            “…hi ma’am, we found more problems, thank goodness you came in…” until the bill is over $4,200 for what should’ve been a $225 simple fix.

            It’s the nature of the beast when service advisors are on commission and the whole dealer profits from their corrupt tactics.

            They’re all criminals until proven otherwise. Just avoid the place if you can.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I’m amazed that whatever agency he worked for didn’t have an in-house mechanic to fix the cars, especially for something as unsophisticated and well-documented as a FWD GM sedan. Even the Lucerne CXS V8 and Super, which had versions of a transverse Cadillac Northstar under their hoods, weren’t that complicated.

    Looking forward to more of these stories. I love stories from mechanics and service advisors. I currently have two Land Rover shops as clients, and the stories the mechanics tell me—and the people with whom they deal—are priceless.

    • 0 avatar

      GSA owns all the Fed vehicles and leases them to the agencies. Each vehicle has a GSA credit card to use for maintenance service and repairs. There’s a central radio shop that handles the installation, maintenance and removal of the electronics and lights, etc.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, it was warranty work, on a drivetrain component. When I worked for a state transportation department, the motor pool did the maintenance, but if it was a major repair under warranty, it was taken back to the dealer. Vehicles out of warranty needing major repairs went to a contract repair shop.

      • 0 avatar

        A buddy of mine was a fleet manager for the municipality and “city” police cars fell under his domain. If it was a warranty thing then the unit would go to the dealership but off warranty stuff was repaired in-house.

        Occasionally he’d get to go south i.e. 500 miles away to get new units. He was in a fully marked police cruiser heading home. He was on the freeway and got caught massively exceeding the speed limit. They radioed his unit and gave him sh!t on the air. Since he was also a paramedic, he was familiar with the on-air language and bluffed his way out of becoming unemployed. Luckily they did not ask him to pull over or forward a report to his home town.

    • 0 avatar

      A lot of my local City and State governments have contracts for service and repair with a local shop or dealer. It became costly for the City/State to employ their own mechanics, etc. However, I do know a big City Department in the Twin Cities that has their own garage with Union City employees that repairs Police cars, fire engines, and Ambulances. Looking through the operation though, it looks very costly compared to taking it to a shop.

  • avatar

    Here we go with the endless sign ins again…..

    A good story .

    I worked @ Natzel Oldsmobile for a brief stint, agreed dealers are interesting places to work .


  • avatar
    Land Ark

    You did the right thing – it was clearly the History Eraser Button:

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Well, there was a YouTube link to the Ren and Stimpy clip, but it got tossed. Look it up yourself if you want.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        I know that clip.

        Alternately, there’s any of a number of scenes with Dee-Dee from “Dexter’s Laboratory” that fit the scene.

        “OoOoOoOoOoh! What does *this* button do?” as Dee-Dee leers over a tantalizing red button. Followed by an enthusiastic press of said button, and something calamitous happening to the show’s titular character, Dexter, or one of his inventions.

  • avatar

    In college I knew a guy who sold his Cougar XR7 to buy a 3rd-gen Camaro. The Camaro he bought had previously been used as a performance driver training mule for either the FBI or Secret Service. There were a number of places where you could tell radio and/or lighting equipment had been removed prior to his purchase of the car, but they left one nondescript and almost hidden toggle switch under the dash. Flipping this switch with the headlights on activated the wigwag circuit causing the head and tail lights to flash alternating left and right. He liked clearing lanes on the highway that way (after verifying it does not count as impersonating law enforcement in our state, as it does not involve blue lights).

    • 0 avatar

      @cdotson – in the 80’s my parents had a Chrysler LeBaron that resembled the police Dodge Diplomat’s and was the same colour as police cars of the era. My truck was stuck in the dealership overnight for service so I borrowed their car to go out on the town. I closed down a nightclub with friends and had eats at an all-night restaurant. I was heading home around 3:00 AM and spotted a sketchy looking dude lugging a heavy duffle bag. He spots me and I can see the look in his eyes. He thought i was a cop. he bolts down the closest alley throwing the contents of his bag over fences. I turned into the alley and started flashing the headlights like “wig-wags”. The guy almost eviscerated himself climbing over an 8 foot high chain link fence. I turned out of the alley and headed home.

  • avatar

    I’m really disappointed that it wasn’t a smoke screen or machine guns.

  • avatar

    Tim it’s implied in the discussion, but to confirm, were you paid a percentage of the jobs you wrote as “service advisor”?
    And here in Cal, if a repair shop is replacing brake rotors or drums they are supposed to put the measurement of rotor thickness or drum diameter on the repair order along with the wear limit spec.
    I bet that, at most, two out of ten customers have any idea what that means.
    Of course there’s nothing that says the shop cannot lie about things. And I have heard of shop’s that keep a stash of old worn out parts. So if anyone wants to see or take with them, the old parts off “their” car that’s covered.
    They could even make a canned video of someone measuring rotors, like in the “China Syndrome” x-rays.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I was on commission, yes. And that might be the subject of one or more future posts. It’s a shitty way to make a living unless you’re good at upselling or you work at a luxury dealer in which customers just approve what you suggest.

  • avatar

    There will come a day when the entire job will be documented/available on video.

    I would demand it even of an oil change. You can’t leave those grease monkey places with at least a quick visual/inventory of the parts involved and checking the oil level, leaks, etc. Or you’re insane.

    I know of a shop that chronicles daily the work/progress on powerstroke diesel jobs, live on YouTube with incredible detail.

    An honest shop has absolutely nothing to hide.

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