Do dealers really have such a thing as a "secret recall list"?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 2000

Dear Tom and Ray:

Most car manufacturers have a list of defects that they will fix for free
or at reduced cost if the consumer complains enough. They aren't
publicized, and the manufacturers don't want you to know about them. I've
heard these referred to as "secret recalls." Is there a good way to find
out about such recalls? -- Tim

RAY: If there was a good way to find out about them, they wouldn't be
secret, now, would they, Tim?

TOM: Here's the story, Tim. From time to time, manufacturers discover (or
admit) that some part of a car they made is defective. Now, if it's a
safety-related component, they are required by law to notify car owners and
fix the problem for free. (Of course, in the real world, the onus of
reporting the safety problem is on the manufacturer, so this doesn't always
happen, or doesn't always happen in a timely manner -- see Firestone tires
-- but it's supposed to.)

RAY: Similarly, if it's an emissions-related defect, the Environmental
Protection Agency requires them to notify car owners and fix the problem at
no cost. So any defects that relate to safety or emissions cannot, by law,
be secret.

TOM: But that still leaves a lot of defects.

RAY: And in the rest of the cases (or at least 99 out of 100 of them), the
manufacturer issues what it calls a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, to
let dealers and other repair people know how to address a specific problem.
Not all TSBs are covered by warranty -- some are just tips or suggestions
on how to fix things. But in some cases, dealers or manufacturers will
regularly authorize a "goodwill adjustment" to cover the cost of fixing the
problem, but only if you ask.

TOM: You should start by asking the dealer. And if the dealer won't
authorize a credit, ask to speak to the company's "zone representative,"
and ask again.

RAY: But how do you even find out about these TSBs? That's the $64
question. The TSBs are sent only to dealers and are made available to other
repair shops that subscribe to a paid service that compiles TSBs, like
Mitchells and All-Data. But generally speaking, these are not available to
the public.

TOM: The exceptions are in four states that have enacted Secret Warranty
Disclosure Laws. Although they differ slightly, under these laws, residents
of Connecticut, Virginia, Wisconsin and California must be notified by the
manufacturer when a warranty-covered TSB is issued for their cars.

RAY: Outside of those states, it gets a lot harder. You can go to our Web
site (the Car Talk section of If you go to the "Car Talk Car
Report" area, you can enter your car's info and get a list of All-Data's
TSBs for your car. Because All-Data makes its money by selling this info to
repair shops, it will only give you the "title" of the TSB on our site. But
if you see a title that relates to a problem you have, you can go to your
dealer, or a shop that uses All-Data, and get more details.

TOM: Of course, that won't always work, either. There are some defects for
which the cost of repairs would be so exorbitant that manufacturers don't
even issue a TSB, because they don't want to admit anything in writing.
These are TRULY secret warranties -- like the massive paint failures that
Ford and Chrysler suffered in the '80s. To GM's credit, it had similar
problems and DID issue a TSB.

RAY: In cases like that, you have to fall back on the time-tested way to
find out about silent recalls -- by having a good relationship with your
mechanic. So next time you go to the dealer or repair shop, bring a big tin
of brownies or a nice banana bread. And just to be sure, lace the pan with
some sodium pentothal (truth serum).

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