A GARAGEMAN TALKS BACK
People run their cars for forty thousand miles without even a grease job. Then I tell them it needs repairs and they call me a crook. Now hear MY side of the story
Early last spring, a man drove a wheezing wreck of a car into my garage repair shop. It groaned to a stop then exuded steam like an old locomotive. The driver leaned out his window and said, "Hey, Mac, how long would it take to do a tuneup job on this car?” I looked dubiously at the car, trying to phrase a diplomatic reply.
"Well, sir,” I said, "it does seem that you need a bit more than a tune up.”
The man literally snarled, “That’s the trouble with you repair fellows, you’re all a bunch of crooks! Fleecing the car owner out of his last
buck!” With a roar of his engine, he backed out of the garage, leaving me choking in a cloud of thick blue smoke.
I’m the most unpopular man in town, and I don’t think I deserve to be. 1 get sick and tired of hearing people say that all garage operators are inefficient, that they pad their bills and spend more time cheating customers than giving service. I think it’s time car owners took a look at themselves for a change.
1 don’t know' who first sold the idea that an automobile only needs gasoline and a driver to
make it work. Whoever it was, I suffer the results. 1 get cars which haven’t been properly serviced for forty thousand miles, cars which have been driven literally till the wheels begin to fall off. A youngster who’d bought himself an old car recently, complete with a squirrel tail, dual exhausts and extra chrome trim, was furious when I told him it wasn’t worth repairing. He didn't blame himself for buying badly, or the rogue who sold it to him for four hundred dollars. He blamed me.
1 faced about two thou-
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sand customers last year in my small shop (room for about seven cars) on Gerrard Street East. Toronto. In the eyes of some of them, I could see the veiled suspicion that I was really a cold-blooded racketeer.
The automobile serviceman has to work like a medical man. He must "cure” sick cars. But he is often in the depressing position of not enjoying a relationship of trust. After he’s tried to save the miserable life of some misused automobile, his reward is liable to be a tirade of abuse and recrimination. I’d like to see any doctor put up with that.
This comparison between doctors and garage repairmen may seem like a bit of personal vanity. But it’s a favorite with me because I have to work very much like a doctor — or a psychiatrist, in some instances — because people tend to treat their cars like living things.
Women are more prone to do this than men. One woman customer always says, when she brings her very old and battered car in for repairing, “I don’t think she feels well today.” She calls the car Mabel. My mechanics also have a name for it.
Men aren’t so sentimental. A former customer, who used to drive his car so savagely he would wreck it in eighteen months, was later convicted of cruelty to a dog. One of my mechanics swears that convertibles occupy the same importance in young men's lives today as blondes did in his own younger years.
Those nervous drivers
In running a successful repair business, I find it helpful to study people just as closely as their cars. Certain types of people treat their cars in certain ways, and this shows up on their repair bills. Nervous, high-strung people drive their cars nervously, often with rapid starts, quick stops. They usually need more frequent brake, clutch and transmission repairs. Aggressive people, who often have a grudge against humanity, drive savagely and carelessly. They need frequent wheel alignment because they drive up on curbs and don't bother to steer around potholes.
You might think that gentle people avoid such grief. But a timid person tends to drive his car so cautiously that his engine never gets a chance to blow out injurious carbons and varnishes. Result: frequent carburetor overhaul jobs and sticking valves.
There are two types of drivers who haunt the dreams of garage repairmen. First is the man who buys his car for prestige. Usually, he can’t afford the car he buys, pays his repair bills tardily, is shocked whenever he has to spend an extra dollar on the car. One of my poorer customers drives a late-model Lincoln, has trouble paying minor tune - up bills, and never seems able to get out of Toronto for a vacation.
I’ve seen scores of brave car hunters marching off down Danforth Avenue — Toronto's second-hand-car mecca — determined to “get a real deal" on a product they know nothing about, from a
“I once tried the used-car business, but I hadn't reckoned on the dishonesty of my customers”
bunch of salesmen who are about twice as smart as any Arab horse trader. For these people, many of whom believe that their car should tell the world how successful they are, the automobile is often a demanding tyrant. They don’t run it. It runs them. I’ve had the sobbing wife of a customer in the shop telling me her children were short of food and clothes because the family car took so much of the budget. Another of my customers went through two years of hell trying to buy a six-thousand-dollar convertible — two-hundred-dollar monthly payments out of his four-hundred-dollar monthly income.
The big expensive car cuts no ice with the repairman. My richest customer drives a 1949 Plymouth and spends her winters in Greece.
Then there’s the man who has to have a car, has no interest in it. doesn’t care how it runs, what it looks like as long as it gets him there. You can recognize this type of customer the moment he drives into the shop. His engine may be running roughly, and obviously hasn’t been tuned for months, the sides of his tires may be scuffed, a side window may be cracked or a windshield wiper missing.
Because he isn’t interested in his car, such a driver is constantly baffled and frustrated by the fact that it needs constant injections of capital to keep it running. And when he comes up to the counter and says belligerently, "Look, I want this car fixed this afternoon," you may be sure he’s a troublemaker. Lie combines ignorance and impatience. The repairman can never satisfy that combination.
Fortunately, there’s a third type of customer. He is the man who buys purely for utility. He’s sometimes an engineer, always a practical man with some knowledge of mechanical things. He wants the most space, convenience, comfort and mileage that can be had for the least money and gasoline. He understands that servicing is vital. Drivers like him can get extraordinary performance from their cars. One customer, a salesman, drives better than a hundred thousand miles a year and never trades his car till it’s done a hundred and fifty thousand miles.
But however smart I may think 1 am putting customers in categories and looking at them as carefully as I look at their cars, it otten backfires on me. Car troubles are easy to diagnose, but people aren’t. I got into a fearful mess a few years ago when 1 mistakenly tried my hand in the second-hand-car business. I thought I could buy cars, restore them to perfect condition and sell them with a new-car warranty.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the infinite dishonesty of the customers. When you’re a used-car dealer, you have to train yourself to appraise a car at a glance — and take your chances. I guess I took too many chances. I bought cars that had been doctored with devilish ingenuity, cars which had sawdust quietening their worn bearings, breakfast food stopping up their leaking radiators, cars ready to lie down and die a few minutes after I’d bought them.
The most cunningly doctored car I ever saw I bought from a clergyman, and he barely won that distinction in competition with lawyers, doctors and other professional men. All had one belief in common. In the used-car business, no trick is loo dirty, no hold is barred. I don’t know which came first, the dishonest customer or the dishonest dealer, but they’re both still in there pitching.
Even today, with the second-hand-cur
business only a nasty memory, I still get a surprising number of requests from honest people to doctor their cars damaged in accidents so that the insurance company can pay for things which were wrong before the accident.
Repair bills, because of changes in automobile design and function, are getting harder and harder to pay. Many people still don’t realize how expensive
it is to keep new cars, with all their complex gadgets, in good running order. A young fellow came into the shop a few weeks ago with his 1958 all-automatic two - hundred - and - seventy - horsepower dream wagon. He’d bought it secondhand and was prouder of it than a cat with kittens. Three hours later, when he drove out of the garage, he looked sick. We had only done two things to the car
— overhauled the four-barrel carburetor and replaced the exhaust system. The bill was eighty-eight dollars. I could see by his face that I would never see him again.
Big. powerful engines and loads of accessories create big. powerful repair bills. They’re strictly for the man with money. In fact. I’ll say that any big V-8 engine is not for the Canadian workingman. He should stick to straight six - cylinder
engines, which may cost half as much to service, and a minimum of accessories. He should steer clear of four-barrel carburetors. which can slam his two - ton wagon down the pike at a hundred and ten miles an hour, but which may cost thirty-five dollars for an overhaul and can go out of adjustment more easily than simpler equipment. These things cost money. As long as car buyers recognize this and don't blame their garageman. I’ll be happy.
But 1 certainly can’t muster up even a thin smile when the manufacturers pro-
duce a car with bugs in it. Any completely new car is liable to have bugs, particularly at the beginning of a production run. but occasionally the manufacturers produce a real clinker. These cars are responsible for some of the distrust that exists between motorist and repairman. In 1946. one of the big auto companies put out a line of cars that had faulty brakes. We spent some time hauling these cars out of ditches while trying to explain to the drivers who survived that the car was wrong — not the repairman. In 1954, a popular medium-price
car was sold in tens of thousands with a faulty manifold. That’s the piece of cast metal to which the carburetor is bolted. This manifold fed gas into the engine at too low' a temperature and caused constant stalling, particularly in traffic. 1 lost hundreds of dollars and many customers on that fault alone, before I found it was not my mechanics but the manifold that was faulty.
One of the worst of all repair problems is fortunately rare. This is the “lemon.” a car which unhappily and accidentally combines dozens of parts at “outside tol-
erances.” This means they are either a shade too tight or a shade too loose. There is no way of immediately recognizing a lemon except by largely indefinable clues. It may feel peculiar to steer. Its brakes may work strangely and its motor may not sound right. Nobody, not even a skilled mechanic, can instantly recognize one. In a normal production car. you would be very unlucky to get even one part at an “outside tolerance.” You might even be unaware that it existed until a minor note in a repair bill showed it had been fixed.
But by the time the lemon has done twenty thousand miles, it’s like an ordinary car that has done a hundred thousand miles. I regret to say there’s nothing you can do except trade the car. Please don’t bring it to me.
1 wish I could convince every car owner that repairing his vehicle is often a miserable and unrewarding business. When you start interfering with the works of a car, it’s like a doctor doing surgery. The original trouble may be patched up, but the shock of the operation may throw other parts out of kilter. This can make the repairman’s life very difficult.
While one of my mechanics was tuning a customer’s car recently he didn’t notice the almost invisible piece of metal which broke off a screw thread and jammed in the carburetor. This unaccountably caused the car to work well on some days, but not on others. The car always tested well when the customer brought it to the garage — getting angrier each time.
Finally. I repeated the entire tuning process and found the piece of metal in a carburetor jet. It’s hard to explain a thing like that to any customer. He went away mad, stayed away, and 1 suppose he tells a funny story about an inefficient and stupid garage operator.
The ignorance of the average driver about his car is a daily headache to the repairman. But when this ignorance is combined with apathy about safety, it’s a real nightmare. There are thousands of perambulating junk heaps on Canadian roads at this moment. One of my mechanics calls them “accidents waiting for a place to happen."
The owner of one such car asked me to fix his “wobbling steering" last year. I said he needed half a dozen new parts and it would cost him about fifty-five dollars.
He laughed scornfully. “Listen. Mac.” he said, “that car’s been going for five years like that, it’ll go for another five without no fifty-five dollars being spent on it." I never saw him again, but I heard he'd died on the Queen Elizabeth Highway when his car plowed into a concrete abutment.
Roadside safety checks by police have about a twenty-percent chance of locating real dangers in a car. I he Garage Operators' Association of Ontario has tried for years to get tighter inspection but isn't anxious to be accused of getting police to round up customers for its members. Yet I'm not exaggerating when I say that any auto serviceman, out on the highway, can never quite rid himself of the nagging doubt that the next car wfiizzing toward him might be like one he has seen in his garage recently — tires worn suicidally thin, steering slack and wobbling, springs and shock absorbers broken.
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Even if you can’t protect yourself against dangerously decrepit oncoming cars, your best bet is to make sure you get a fair deal from a garageman you can trust.
When you’re looking for the right man, make sure he has licensed mechanics ( in most provinces their certificates will be framed and hung on the wall). Get a job quote before the work is begun. Insist on him telephoning you before doing additional repairs he might feel are needed. Make sure the garage is well equipped. (I have to maintain about fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of testing equipment
to keep service reliable.) Mate sure you get to know the man who is actually repairing your car. This personal relationship can straighten out misunderstandings when complications arise over repairs.
Let's face one hard fact: there are plenty of poor mechanics still left in the repair business, even though they’re being weeded out gradually. You should be as careful picking your mechanic as you are choosing a dentist or doctor. Your mechanic, if he’s topnotch, is a responsible citizen who personally owns more than a thousand dollars’ worth of his own
hand tools which he uses in addition to all the testing machinery and tools provided by his boss. He has taken training courses on automatic transmissions and modern carburetion, which are additional to his apprenticeship training. He will have cars in his blood and will want to talk about your car and your problems with it.
Despite all this, I'm sorry to report that no garageman can ever hope to inspire one-hundred-percent trust among all his customers. Perhaps it’s just as well he can’t. One of my most faithful cus-
Comers called me recently to report she’d left her stalled car on Clifton Road at the height of the five-o’clock rush home.
I raced up there, found the car was locked and blocking two lanes of traffic. I had to persuade the police not to impound the car or arrest me for creating a mammoth traffic jam.
I broke into the car, got it started and took it back to the garage. When my customer called me later, she said, "You know, for just one teeny weeny moment,
I thought perhaps I’d done the wrong thing, leaving the car there, but then I told myself that of course Mr. Stapley would be able to handle everything.”
Well, trust like that is touching. If I had a thousand customers like that, I’d go broke in a month. But it’s worse when a customer trusts you and you let him down. One of my best customers is a sort of automotive hypochondriac. He worries about every rattle, ping, knock or sputter in his car.
One day he came into the shop and told me that his car was leaping sharply sideways. This didn't sound very likely so I took the car on a test run at a good speed and wrenched the steering back and forth to stress it thoroughly. It performed normally but within days the customer, was back again with the same story. I told one of the mechanics to jack up the front of the car. To our astonishment, one of the wheels swung free and its linkages fell to the floor. To this day, my mechanics still argue that it is physically impossible for any car to be driven in that condition.
This incident seemed to prove that perhaps you can get to know the customer too well. An hour after this happened, another good customer rang me in a rage. "You just tuned my car and now it won’t go,” she stormed. It was on the tip of my tongue to say I would send a team of mechanics up to rebuild her car, if necessary, when something occurred to me. “Have you got the automatic transmission lever in neutral?” I asked. She came back to the phone a moment later. "I’m terribly sorry,” she said.
I felt a bit happier after that. It proved , that you’ve got to know the car and the customer equally well. I once attached a tranquilizer pill to a particularly large bill of a good customer. He sent his cheque back attached to a pack of weed killer loaded with arsenic.
In the tough business of repairing cars, you interpret a gesture .like that as a compliment if