Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

We are independent restoration, repair, sales and service for Audi, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Rolls-Royce automobiles.

Bentley archives

Land Rovers

Broke People and Broken Cars

It’s a bad combination, from the perspective of the service manager. 

Our business has changed quite a lot since the economy collapsed in 2008.  One of the biggest ways we see that is in the condition of many middle aged cars – there’s a lot more neglect today. 

The idea of taking care of the whole car has gone out the window for many people, replaced with occasional oil changes at the quick lube.  We see customers less often, and when they do come in, problems have often piled up to a distressing degree.

What seems to happen is this: Motorists feel pressure to save money, so they take their cars to quick lube places, where an oil change is just an oil change.  No one looks the car over carefully, which means there’s no bad news.  There’s no service manager saying, “by the way, your brakes are wearing out and the transmission has a leak.”  Ignorance is bliss, until something fails and the motorist undergoes what we call Pedestrian Conversion, by the side of the road. 

That’s when we get the call; as they are walking where they used to drive.

When the car is towed in we find a fluid leak that we’d have picked up during a routine service.  It emptied the transmission, and the car now needs a $3,500 gearbox replacement.  A belt that we’d have seen cracking comes apart, and another car is towed in with $2,500 of overheating damage.

The worst are the cars that got the wrong oil at the quick lube place, and the cars that didn’t get an oil change at all.  We see sludge-filled engines and repair bills that run eight thousand dollars, maybe even more.  All that for skimping on service.

For some people these are trainable moments that demonstrate the value of preventative maintenance.  Others feel they had no alternative; a viewpoint I find hard to accept.

When you’re a service manager and a car comes in for service, what do you do in this environment?  The way I see it, specialists like me have a duty as experts.  That means we look every car over, and report any incipient problems.  Many times, those incipient problems total up to quite a lot of money.

We’re asked to change the oil and look the vehicle over for obvious problems, and the “obvious” list is long.

We report what we see to the customers, and some are thankful.  These are not usually the people whose cars arrived on a tow truck.  Others are upset.  “I don’t want to hear all this stuff,” or, “you guys are too expensive!”  Either way, their vehicle’s problems are dismissed.
Sometimes I try and push the standards.  If Audi says the brake pads should be changed when 4 millimeters of material remains, I may wait till they are down to 3 millimeters before making the call.  There’s only so much I can do.  Worn brakes will need fixing, sooner or later.  Oil leaks turn from nuisance to hazard, sometimes without warning.  It’s irresponsible not to inform people of these hazards, but so many are not receptive to the news.

Frankly, I wish cars had absolute maintenance standards like airplanes.  Airlines are not allowed to fly, unless the manufacturer’s service checklist is checked off and signed.  That would take the pressure off service managers, as bearers of bad news.  Of course, the penalty for failure in an airplane is greater, but it may not seem that way to a stranded motorist.

This environment makes me appreciate new cars - where the service schedules are generally followed, and failures are covered by warranty; and antiques, which are labors of love for their owners.


Glasweld said...

You're so right! Things are so often left out, because they cost too much money. As good a reason as that is, people don't realize that a car NEEDS to be taken care of, or they'll end up paying even more for expensive things like windshield repair kits! Thanks for the post, John!

gsmac said...

Ouch - bent conn rod and broken piston in that picture. What happened there - seized piston? Broken timing belt/chain on interference engine?

The problem with maintenance is a lot of time, it is invisible to the owner. The car was running fine when it went in for maintenance; it was running fine when it came out. Where is the value add that the owner sees for their money spent? Perhaps maintenance should be positioned more as insurance: pay a little bit along the way, so that you don't have to pay a huge whack down the line.

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