Was the Pontiac dealer really worried about my safety, or did someone have a large boat payment due?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 1998

Dear Tom and Ray:

I own a 1988 Pontiac Gran Prix with 43,000 miles. The other day I noticed that
my brakes required additional pedal pressure. I took it to the local Pontiac
garage (a big one). They stated that my brake fluid was contaminated, and I
needed a whole new brake system, at a cost of $2,000. This big garage was the
only one that had serviced the car in the last five years, which raised the
question as to who had contaminated the fluid.

To double-check the problem, I took the car to a small garage for a second
opinion. They purged the fluid, put in a new master cylinder, and charged me
$253. The brakes now work fine. I went back to the big garage and inferred that
they were trying to gouge a senior citizen who couldn't protect himself. The
garage official replied that in the case of contaminated brake fluid, they
always replace the whole brake system as a matter of safety, and that I was
risking life and limb. Who is right in this matter? -- William

TOM: Well, we haven't looked at the car, so we can't say for certain, William,
but it sounds to us like the Pontiac dealer may have had a large boat payment

RAY: The Pontiac Corporation claims to have no policy that calls for replacing
the entire brake system when fluid is contaminated (although they also have a
policy of not criticizing their dealers, so they won't comment on this specific
case other than to say that the dealer knows best). But unless he saw something
specific that he didn't report or that you're not reporting to us, it sounds
like this dealer may have tried to take the easy way out at your expense.

TOM: While replacing everything might be the absolute safest thing to do, it's
not the most prudent. After all, you could replace a whole engine to fix an oil
leak. Would it fix the oil leak? Sure. But is that good service? I don't think

RAY: If you were my customer, William, I would have purged the fluid, replaced
the master cylinder, and checked each of the brakes for any other signs of
deterioration. If I saw none, I'd suggest you drive the car for a week and then
come back and let me inspect the fluid again.

TOM: If rubber seals in the brake system are in fact deteriorating, the fluid
will be black and disgusting again in no time. And in that case, some other part
(or parts) may need to be replaced. But if the fluid stays clear, then you're
probably all set and you can just keep driving.
RAY: So I'd recommend a follow-up visit to your mechanic, William. Other than
that, I think you did the right thing.

* * *

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