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

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Lexus service. © copyright JE Robison

“All I’ve done is change the oil, and do whatever service my local garage told me about."  That’s what the owner of a ten-year-old 150,000 mile Lexus told me yesterday.   So what should I do now?

We looked at the receipts and she was right.  A bunch of oil changes, a few sets of tires, a few sets of brakes, and a battery had taken her all that distance.  It hadn’t been very expensive, especially compared to what the dealer wanted when they quoted the recommended services.

Now the car had an engine misfire.  That had caused catalytic converter failure, and a check engine light.  The owner knew the car wouldn’t pass inspection that way, and the corner garage didn’t do work like that.  So . . . the car ended up at our shop.

What does a responsible shop owner do, when someone like that comes in?  It’s like when the CPA has a new client walk in the door and say “I haven’t filed any tax returns since 2003, and now I’ve got this letter.  What do you suggest?”  What indeed.

I have seen some very high mileage Lexus cars in my day.  We had one fellow put 420,000 miles on a 1999 LS400 without a single major failure.  But he did his maintenance.  This car was a bit different.  It was fifty thousand miles past the timing belt change interval, and a hundred thousand past the transmission service date . . . . this car was living on borrowed time.

As I explained to the owner, it costs less than $1,600 to change a timing belt, water pump, and all the stuff in front of the engine.  If the belt breaks the bill is going to be at least $5,000, maybe considerably more.   It’s an all or nothing thing.   Every day you drive without belt breakage, you win.  The day it breaks, you lose big.  No belt lasts forever. 

She decided to change the belt.

We moved on to the other items on the service schedule.  Spark plugs were next.  Why?  Because the car had an intermittent skip.  Ignition failure is the most common cause of misfire faults.  What happens is that the plugs get old.  As they age, it takes more and more voltage to fire them.  That extra voltage puts stress on the wires, connectors and coils, and eventually something fails.  For that reason, whenever you have an ignition miss, step one is spark plug replacement. 

You may still need other parts but you certainly need new plugs if the old ones have been in the car 150,000 miles.

She decided to change the plugs

Now we get to the “other” fluids – brake fluid, transmission fluid, rear axle lube, coolant and power steering fluid.  Some people say, “I went this long without changing them, best leave it alone so I don’t stir things up and cause a problem.”  While many people use that line as a rationalization for doing nothing, it ensures the eventual failure of the system.   Lubricants, like belts and plugs, have a finite lifespan.

Brake fluid absorbs water, and it will rust your brake system from the inside.  Coolant becomes acidic, and dissolves your radiator and engine from within.  Transmission, steering, and axle lubes all pick up tiny metal particles.  Left in the old oil, they will grind away at the bearings till something fails.  At the same time, oil gradually loses its film strength, which is what keeps the gears from galling against each other under load.  

She decided to change the fluids.

In the end, after going through the list line by line, we agreed to do all the deferred service on the car.  It cost a hefty sum, to be sure, but it’s still less than she would have spent had she done it all on time, because some of the things we are doing would have been done several times already.

Which begs the question . . . .

Was the original maintenance schedule too conservative?  If so, she saved quite a bit of money with little or no consequence.  Or will she pay a higher price down the road, as the un-maintained parts and systems fail before their time?

I wish I knew.  I’m sure some carmakers are conservative and others are not.  I’m also sure some drivers are hard on their cars, while others are gentle.

In the past five years I have lost count of the engines I have changed in Mercedes, BMW and other cars because the owners failed to change their oil. I used to ask how they could be so dumb, but after the tenth or twentieth car came in the door I knew the answer.  Cars don’t talk back.  So when money is tight, the car gets neglected.  Most live, but some die.

When I point that fact out, the owners get mad at me.  Fine, I tell them.  I’m not the one making loan payments on two tons of scrap iron because I failed to protect my investment.  That’s the thing about being autistic.   When people act dumb, and machinery suffers, I may take the side of the car and not the human.  Vets feel the same about people who abuse cats and dogs.

The lesson to take away from all this:  You can probably push the maintenance schedules a bit if you drive gently.  But when you do, you take a big risk.  Deferring a $1,000 service won’t be so smart, if it costs you a $7,500 engine.   Carmakers make maintenance schedules for a reason.

Most of the time, when we suggest altering a factory schedule, it is to do something more often, not less.  The carmaker, after all, wants a schedule that keeps the car alive long enough to give them happy owners and a good reputation, but not so long that the car never wears out.  We, as repair people, expect to care for things and have them last almost forever.

So I guess you pick your philosophy, and with it, your repair shop.


Anonymous said...

I bought a Hyundai during the years when they paid for all your scheduled maintenance and another the year after they stopped. When they weren't paying for it, they recommended a lot more maintenance. I tend to trust their recommendations more when a) they aren't paying; and b) they offer a long warranty period.

Now my problem is I put so few miles on the car, I don't know whether to apply the mileage schedule or the interval schedule. As a consultant, my car spends most of its time parked at the airport. What do you tell people with, say, 7k miles per year? Do you modify the intervals when using synthetic oils? Or do you even use those?

Thanks for the post - it was informative!

Brett said...

You and I are of the same position when siding with the car. I cannot stress the maintenance importance enough and they cannot stress enough how they cannot afford it. Then I tell them the transmission has to come out and be rebuilt. Only then do they agree with me and commit to a strict maintenance schedule. I, too, have Asperger's, but I have found that most of my service clients enjoy my level of detail when addressing the corrective measures to bring their automobiles back to life. I enjoy your blog very much and always look forward to your next posting.
-Brett Self, Birmingham, AL. I follow you on FB as well.

John Elder Robison said...

We suggest doing annual oil changes because the oil gets polluted faster in short distance driving. And we always recommend synthetics because they provide extra protection and have better detergents.


Anonymous said...

I grew up in the U.K. and over there the normal service interval was every 6,000 miles.
When I moved to the U.S. I discovered that cars here were basically the same as the U.K. but the recommended service interval was every 3,000 miles.
Same engineering, in many cases the same cars (minus a few local requirements) and yet double the service requirement.

I then bough a couple of Toyotas. The manuals says service every 5,000/7,500 miles (depending on use) and yet every time I took it to the main dealer they stuck a sticker in the window recommending service in 3,000 miles. I would point it out and they would tell me it was a mistake...every time.

Then companies like BMW started including service in their purchase price and...voila!...the intervals are now 15k miles.

I'm a believer in regular service to keep things working right but there's clearly a lot of extra maintenance being paid for by the poor consumers.

John Elder Robison said...

Houldsworth, we use synthetic oils and mark the oil change stickers for 7500 miles most of the time. That seems to be fine. I have a hard time seeing a car run 15k on the oil and I would never do it with my own vehicles.

Do I waste money on extra oil changes? Maybe. But if I ran that 15k, and the motor sludged up and failed, who'd be there to buy me a new engine?

That is the hard lesson people learn when they decide to cut back. They cut a little, and nothing happens. A little more, and nothing happens. A little more, and it blows without warning.

Recognizing that every driving situation is a bit different I prefer to err or the side of caution. If that results in some extra service, it's ok with me. Others may evaluate the tradeoff differently.

Yvonne Mikulencak said... I found my perfect car John.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I love it. I hope to see more. Thanks for sharing with us.

Gracy Smith said...

Great, thanks for the information. Was really in search of such type of knowledge.. Helpful to me at least!

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