Sent in by Sam Perkins
Click and Clack:
As a longtime fan, I was sure my first contact with you was going to be about the Peugeot 505 a "friend" gave me. But it died before I could focus on which of its many problems I needed to address. I am e-mailing you now as a semiprofessional to draw your attention to a remarkable fact: car mechanics are becoming more honest. Or less dishonest. Or maybe just dimmer (sorry--and this from a guy who accepted a Peugeot 505 without taking a fee!).First, the background. In May 1987 Reader's Digest (where I am an editor) ran an article titled "Highway Robbery: The Scandal of Auto Repair in America." Maybe you heard about it.
As the title suggests, it catalogued the myriad devious ways 225 mechanics in 20 cities from Boston to L.A. to Orlando tried to foist unneeded repairs on our author and his car-expert copilot. The car was a low-mileage Olds in tiptop condition which would "present" at the garage with a disconnected spark-plug wire, the drivers complaining of a rough ride.
Bogus diagnoses--bent coil springs, fuel filters, distributor caps,etc., etc.--flowed forth almost as freely as the vital fluids from my 505. A mechanic in San Antonio test-drove the Olds up a hill while simultaneously stepping on the gas and brake pedals to prove the transmission was shot. In all, 56 percent of mechanics proved dishonest. Very entertaining, especially since all 10,000 miles were expense-accounted.
Expecting we'd get equal entertainment value by revisting the subject, we commissioned a new version of the story, using a 1995 Taurus. The premise was the same: drive a perfectly healthy car into a garage with a minor, easily detectable problem (this time it was to be a disconnected mass airflow sensor, triggering the "Check Engine" warning) and ask for a diagnosis and, if necessary, repairs. We published the results, "Can You Fix My Car?" this month (October).
There were some choice moments, including the following: "...In Tuba City, Ariz., at a large repair garage, the mechanic stood 15 feet from my car, which was parked with its hood closed. By somemiraculous telepathy, he determined that the [brand-new] fuel filter was bad. He started the engine and held the pedal to the floor. I winced as the roar turned to a scream until the rpm limiter cut in. At high engine speeds this device automatically cuts off the engine to prevent it from destroying itself. The mechanic claimed it was not getting enough gas.
"He put the car on a lift and replaced the filter. When he lowered the car and started it up, the 'Check Engine' light was, of course, still shining. Then, for the first time, he opened the hood. Using a piece of wire, he tried to short out the computer diagnostic connection to make the 'Check Engine' light go out. Finally he noticed the disconnected airflow sensor. With a furtive glance, he reconnected it. He never told me he had stumbled upon the true reason for the light.
The charge was $37.45 for the new, completely unneeded fuel filter. "But--and here's my point--that was unusual. Most often, the mechanics were simply baffled. The electronics were beyond them. Their computerized testing equipment was--if anything--more complicated than the car itself (a Taurus, after all). Instead of foisting phony repairs on the writer, the mechanics more often threw their hands up and told him to take the car to a dealer. Of the 136 stops made, only two garages that tried to fix it performed or tried to perform unnecessary work. Forty-eight garages were able to repair the car (35 percent)--most by proper diagnosis--but the rest (88) either said they didn't have time or were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons.
The good news: there was almost no fraud.The bad news: we still had only about a one-in-three chance of getting the car fixed.
For the whole story, come to www.rdinteractive.com. In fact, as you'll see, we're soliciting BAD drivers for another story, so you might find something to catch your (or your brother's) fancy. If you like it and are amused, we'll link to youze guys.
Senior Staff Editor (and a fan of your show and Web site)