Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Choosing a service provider

What do you want from a maintenance program?

When people bring late model cars to Robison Service (or any independent service specialist) they are often seeking an alternative to dealer service.  Why? 

In my experience, dealership service personnel follow a game plan that is laid out by the carmaker and oriented toward maximum new car sales.  In other words, keep the new car buyers happy so they buy another car in 2 or 3 years.  The primary purpose of a new car dealer is to sell new cars.  Service may be an important tool to build client satisfaction but it’s not the reason dealers are there.

 Shops like ours – specialists who concentrate on one or two makes for service only – have a different orientation.  We are here to keep the cars under our care on the road and as reliable as possible for as long as our clients want to drive them.

With that different perspective it should not come as any surprise that the dealer and we would espouse different philosophies when it comes to preventative maintenance.

The manufacturer may call for a 15,000 mile oil change interval in a certain model car.  That may work fine for new cars.  But we cars that are 7-8 years old, with 70-80,000 miles on the odometers, and that 15k service interval hasn’t worked out too well.  Maybe the owner didn’t make it in a exactly 15k.  Maybe the dealer didn’t use the right oil.  Maybe the 15k recommendation was a little too aggressive.  Maybe . . . .

From our perspective, the maybes don’t matter.  Results matter.  We see the damaged high mile cars, and we see other cars whose oil was changed at 10,000 miles.  Those cars don’t show any wear or damage. 

The dealer represents the carmaker, and if they say “do oil at 15,000” that is what they do.  We are independent.  If the evidence of our service fleet causes us to believe 10,000 miles is a more prudent interval, we’ll say so. 

We also recognize that tests may facilitate even better fine tuning.  If you run 25 vehicles, and you sample oil from all of them at different intervals you will get a very accurate idea of how often to change oil for your fleet in the circumstances in which you operate.  You may be surprised at the number.

We may deviate from the manufacturer’s suggested service schedule based on our experience.  Does that mean the manufacturer was wrong?  No.  It means operating conditions differ in different areas, and service schedules may be optimized to reflect that.  In some cases, manufacturer service scheduled may be trimmed down to present a lower cost of upkeep in the early years.  If you only drive the car for those early years that’s good for you.  But if you plan to drive it for ten years, you’ll pay a price for that early economy.  We don’t have to follow that plan for long-term owners, while we can embrace it for short term lessees.

Flexibility has value.  We can apply that flexibility in a hundred different areas from filters to fluids; from software updates to system upgrades.

There’s room for more than one opinion when it comes to service.

Think about that as you consider what you want from a service provider.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Collector Car Insurance

I’m a member of several vintage car forums and one of the topics that comes up time and again is insurance.  It's always a problem for someone!  Hagerty, Taylor, State Farm . . . each company has its promoters and detractors.  When there are complaints, many center on cancellations or rate increases.

I’m not defending or attacking any company, but I’d like to offer these thoughts:

First, we buy insurance from collector car carriers primarily because it’s cheaper, and also because we can then insure our cars for their true value as opposed to some arbitrarily determined book value.  In most states, an antique policy is a lot less money even as it provides potentially superior benefits. Where I am – in Massachusetts – a collector policy for a $75,000 vintage Rolls might cost $500 a year, where regular insurance on the same car could be $2,500.

The rates are lower because the risk of damage is presumed lower than that for a car that’s driven daily.  It should not come as a surprise that the companies monitor claims activity closely, and cancel or raise rates if an insured does not fit the low usage/low risk profile.  That could happen because of multiple small claims, miles driven being higher than expected, or a number of other factors.

You might say that buying collector car insurance at low rates is a privilege, not a right.  We may be excluded from that market by our actions, which may include tickets, poor credit history, excessive losses, convictions for fraud, or other factors.  If we are excluded by one company, we may be accepted by another. If no collector company will take us, we must buy insurance in the regular market, at market rates.

Another way to look at it is this: If we want to get the savings (and often increased potential benefits) of a collector policy, we must strive to fit the model of "low risk insured" that those companies court. With the proliferation of Big Data and the Internet, we have to do an every better job to fit this profile.

We should recognize that all insurers share information on claims made, claims paid, and also our pattern of payment and credit history.  For those who object to credit history being a determinant of insurability I’d refer you to the economists at Fair Isaac who have written some interesting papers describing how complex patterns in demographic and credit data predict insurance losses.  Whether you believe that or not – the insurers believe it, and act accordingly.  So it’s good to be aware.

The next reason we choose collector car insurance is that they generally pay for repairs at restoration shops, not state licensed body shops, often at rates well above those set by state insurance commissioners for regular insurance auto repair.  It’s a surprise to many that the state is involved in labor rate setting, but they are.  Those rates work for a fender bender on a two year old Ford but they won't cover the kind of craft workers you need for the same mishap on a '34 Packard.

From our owner/enthusiast's perspective, those are the things we want to protect our collector cars.  We want a lesser insurance cost, because we don’t drive our vintage cars much.  If we have several, we can only run one at a time.  And we want the ability to have it fixed right, if there is a mishap.

From the insurer’s perspective, there is a lot of risk in these policies for a small amount of premium money.  A typical collector policy might have a $500 per year premium with the potential for $50,000 in vehicle loss potential, and $200-500,000 in liability potential if there is a crash.  So their payout could be huge in relation to the premium.  With that reality you can’t blame them for using the latest data analysis tools to reduce their exposure. 

Another important consideration is that most collector policies are for what is called AGREED VALUE.  That term means just what it says.  If you wreck your car, and the agreed value is $50,000, the insurance will pay you $50,000 or the cost of repairs, whichever is less.  AGREED VALUE pays the contracted sum in the event of a total loss.

Ordinary car insurance assumes you are driving a car that declines in value every year, and they call those policies ACTUAL CASH VALUE.  You may have paid $60,000 for your new Cadillac, and if you wreck it the day you buy it, that's what you'll receive.  But total it when it’s six years old and the ACV may be $11,000. That’s all you will get for it. 

Collector cars do not tend to lose value like that; hence the different type of policy.  Some collector companies offer variations of agreed value; they may increase the coverage 5% per year, or offer other provisions to accommodate changes in markets.  They may also have provisions to exceed an agreed value payment as a result of unforeseen complications once a repair has been started.

That leads me to a final area where I often read horror stories, and it concerns repairs gone wrong.  What happens when you have an accident, the insurer pays the shop to fix the car, and the repair is not acceptable?

Many times I see the owners blame the insurers, while the insurers say its not their responsibility to “do something better” or “do something again.”  They lay the responsibility on the body shop. When repairs are not up to an owner’s expectation it’s sometimes not clear who is responsible.  Did the repair shop do substandard work?  Or did the insurance company’s representative decline to cover certain repairs, or insist on a certain process which did not work out?  There’s no one answer to situations like this; I just suggest you consider all sides of the story.  Remember, as the vehicle owner, it’s your job to choose a repair shop that’s capable of doing what you need.  It’s your insurer’s job to negotiate with them and pay for the work on your behalf, but they do not assure the quality of the finished job.  That is up to you.

I hope this essay has give you some insights into the world of collector car insurance.  I have a related story on insurance here that explains the different kinds of policies.  

One final word . . .  I don't sell insurance, but I do run a company that works on classic vehicles, and we've been paid by all the companies to do jobs over the years.  In my experience, all the specialty insurers have treated us and their insureds well, and paid what we asked in a fair and timely manner.  We've certainly had issues over the years but they all worked out in the end.  I think you can be well served by any of the big names.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Rolls Royce Owner's Club and other car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Insurance and Responsibility When Your Car is in the Shop

My car was damaged while it was at the repair shop, and they won’t take responsibility.  What do I do?

I have heard that refrain many times, and I have also acted as a consultant to attorneys and insurance companies in cases involving damage and responsibility.  The truth is, “who’s responsible” is often a gray area.  I can’t possibly cover every situation in a short blog, but I will describe some common occurrences:

The first situation is where a car is worked on and it’s damaged as a direct, obvious result. You get an oil change, and they forget to put the oil back in.  Five miles from the shop, your engine fails.  This is a fairly clear-cut situation, and even if the shop denies responsibility you can typically make a claim directly against their insurance carrier in most states.

How would you find the insurance carrier?  In states where insurance is required you’d get that information from the motor vehicle department, or whatever state agency licenses repair shops.  There are some states that don’t require insurance, and some shops that don’t carry it.  When interviewing a prospective repair facility for your car, it’s wise to ask if they have liability insurance.  Any reputable business will.

If you find the shop lacks insurance I'd think long and hard about leaving my car there for service.  You may have come to this blog wondering how to hold a shop accountable, but the shoe could be on the other foot, in a big way, if something goes bad wrong.  What if the mechanic goes on a test drive, gets going fast, and hits and kills a mom and her kid?  The shop has no insurance.  The mechanic is dead.  Who do you think the father is coming after?  You. 

If you doubt that can happen just remember the recent news story where a movie star and his mechanic died on a test ride in a high performance Porsche.  Responsibility can easily fall back on you when someone else is driving, because it's your car.

A more common - and less awful - claim is for what I call “lot damage.”  My car got dented while it was here!  When a vehicle arrives at Robison Service, we walk around the car with the owner and look for pre-existing damage.  If I see a scratch or dent I’ll ask if the owner wants it fixed.  Most times, arriving cars are photographed for “before and after” documentation of the repair process.  If a shop does that, you should not have a problem determining if a dent is new or old.  Obviously, if the car got dented at the shop, they should take care of it.  Mishaps do happen, and the biggest issue is establishing whether a dent or flaw is truly new. 

There is an important exception to this rule.  Some shops are located in places where the only parking is a shared public lot.  When you park in a public lot to have your car repaired, the shop doesn’t have any more responsibility for your vehicle than another store would if you parked to buy a pair of shoes.

What if the service manager takes your car on a test drive and hits a deer?  What if he’s at a stoplight and a texting teen rear ends the car?  What if lightning hits a tree in the parking lot, and it falls on your car? In each of those cases, the damage may not be the shop’s responsibility because it occurred through causes outside their control.  In that event your comprehensive insurance would typically pay for the loss.  

In general, when you leave a car for repair, you create what lawyers call a bailment, where the car is the bailed property and the shop is the bailee. Bailees have a duty to protect property in their care, but it's not absolute.  Shops are held to what’s called a “reasonable standard of care." These real-life examples are meant to show how the standard does not extend to every possible situation where damage may occur.   Some shops have what's called Direct Primary converge where the shop insurance assumes primary responsibility for customers cars no matter what. That sort of coverage is uncommon, but mandatory in a few states.  Such policies make the shop insurance pay for any of the examples I cited.

Here's a less obvious example.  Let’s say you have 120,000 miles on your vehicle. The automatic transmission fluid has never been changed, and you decide it’s finally time to do it.  A week later, the transmission blows.  You call the shop, and they say, “That’s too bad.  You waited too long to change it.”

You think they did something wrong, but what?  Assuming the job was done correctly, the shop’s failure might be in the fact that they didn’t warn you that something like this could happen, after disturbing something that had been neglected so long.  That’s why we are always careful to warn people of possible complications in a job.  When we go to put a bulb in a car, and the fixture might break, we warn the owner of the possibility beforehand, not after.

In some cases, failure to warn the owner would make the shop at least partly responsible for the failure through a legal theory known as contributory negligence.  The owner contributed to the failure by neglecting his regular service.  The shop contributed by failing to warn the owner that a service at this late date could lead to failure tomorrow.  Both have some responsibility, and it’s up to a judge and state law to decide how that’s apportioned.

What about more serious damage? Here's a real example:

A restoration shop was in an old mill with multiple tenants.  A fire started in another tenant's building, and burned the whole thing.  A dozen cars were inside.  The shop had insurance but it was limited to $200,000 and the vehicles in the fire were worth $2,000,000.  The owners who had insurance were paid by their own policies, and the owners who didn’t have insurance got 10% settlements from the shop’s insurance.

The owners of those cars could have sued the shop owner, but their claims would be weak, because the fire was not his fault, and he didn’t have anything left to give them anyway.  All of them (shop owner too) could sue the owner of the business where the fire started, but he was bankrupt too.  The moral of that story is, carry insurance on your car, so your policy pays and let them sort out the ultimate liability between companies.

Assuming someone else will be responsible is a troubling trend in America today, and frankly, it’s dangerously misguided in many situations.  A repair shop is responsible for many things that may happen to your car while they have it, but they are not responsible for every possible thing.  That’s an important distinction.

Reading the examples above you might think I am telling you why shops are not responsible for damage. That’s not my intent at all.  There are many situations where a shop is and should be responsible for damage to a car, and I’m well aware that damage happens when cars are in the shop.  But at the same time, there are many other situations where shops are not liable.  That’s why you always want to have your own coverage on a car, even if it’s in storage. 

Disclaimer:  I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on TV.  I’m a service manager who has worked as an expert for both cars owners and insurance companies to determine causes of damage and responsibility.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service, independent restoration and service for Land Rover, Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, Rolls Royce, and other fine motorcars in Springfield, MA  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or on the phone at 413-785-1665

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Keeping a Car Reliable Forever

Maintaining an older car like an airplane - can it be done?  I think so.

The famous 1962 Buick Invicta - photo by John Elder Robison
The problem with the factory maintenance schedules for most modern cars is that they are designed for a finite lifespan, typically 4-6 years or 50-100,000 miles.  The manufacturer-provided schedules all end at that point, and it’s assumed people will make their own decisions from there to the point where the car is scrapped.

In addition, some manufacturer schedules minimize costly service activities in the first four years – knowing there will be a high cost for that later on – in order to present a “low cost of ownership” to the first operator of the car, who typically keeps it 3 to 4 years.  That’s not a very constructive approach for someone who wants to keep his car in near-new functional condition for 30 years. 

I suggest that the car-enthusiast world can learn something about long-term preventative care from the commercial aviation people who keep jet aircraft at or near as-built levels of performance and reliability for several decades.  They do this with rigorous inspection, combined with time and running-hour based overhauls and replacements.

This Air Force C5B is 28 years old, with no plans for retiring anytime soon - John Elder Robison photo
What are some of the changes we might make to a factory schedule, if we wanted indefinite lifespan?  Here are some areas we may consider but this list is by no means complete:

First of all, EVERY fluid should have a reasonable change interval.  Contrary to what some carmakers tell us, there is no such thing as a permanent fluid in a car. For some fluids we might use a test/time basis. That can be done easily for coolant and brake fluid, where we use test strips to measure ph or water absorption.  Both might be changed at 4 or 4 years, or when the test strip shows a marginal reading, whichever comes first.

For other fluids, like those in power hydraulic systems or driveline components we must make a schedule based on our best judgment, which may differ from car to car. 

With proper care, this Mercedes can last as long as its owner.  Robison Service photo
When a car is new it's easy to treat bare metal in exposed areas, and thereby reduce the chances of corrosion related problems years later.  Modern car's don't generally need what we used to call undercoating but treatment of suspension hardware and other bare parts will pay big dividends when those parts need to be dismantled for service later on.  Anyone who has cut suspension arms off a later model car because the hardware is rusted solid knows what I mean.

Rubber hoses of all kinds, and belts of all kinds should be on a replacement schedule.  This would include vacuum hose, AC line, coolant hose, and hydraulic, fuel and brake hoses.  Depending on the application, 7-12 years is probably the range at which these should be changed with some types of hoses lasting longer than others.

When hoses are replaced, clamps and seals should be renewed at the same time.  When belts are replaced idler rollers should be renewed too.  Whenever belts are changed, a leak and damage inspection should be performed.

Fuel pumps, coolant pumps, and cooling fans should be on a combination time/miles schedule.  Thermostats are another item whose replacement can be scheduled. Relays have a finite lifespan based on age and operating cycles and they should be scheduled for periodic change too. 

Relays age invisibly and fail without warning.  Replace them to avoid problems
Airplanes are designed to be re-powered without compromising reliability in areas other than the engine (which is clearly improved).  Cars – unfortunately – are not designed the same way.  Removal of a car engine involves disconnecting and reconnecting many fasteners and connectors whose lifespan is limited, and whose access is poor.  Removal of a car engine may compromise a radiator or a hundred other things, and you get into a cascading situation when trying to service one major component.  Aircraft engines – in contrast – are on pylons where all the service connections are in one spot, designed for periodic removal.  Given this situation, it’s unclear if long-term reliability is improved by scheduled overhaul of a car’s engine or major driveline components.

Then we have the suspension.  We know that bushings deteriorate, as do shocks and struts.  Scheduled overhaul of suspensions is a good way to keep the car feeling and handling as new.  The mileage at which this is done will vary from one car line to another, and there may be large enough differences in component lifespans that this job is staggered over several service intervals.

Brakes can certainly be serviced with a similar philosophy.  Master cylinders and boosters can be replaced periodically (perhaps at a 10-year interval) and calipers and wheel components can be overhauled (probably more often)  Pads and rotors are already part of factory schedules.

Brake and strut service on a Porsche - at Robison Service
When a car is not driven a lot of miles the tires are often ignored. "There's hardly any tread wear," people say, so the tires must still be good even if they are old.  Wrong!  Tires come apart inside as the rubber oxidizes and ages. That's why they have date codes - so we can use those codes to identify and replace aged tires prior to failure.  7-12 years is a suggested range for low mileage tire life, depending on application and environment. Worn or damaged tires must be replaced sooner.

Reading tire date codes - this tire was made in week 04 of 2009
A rigorous and regular inspection program is needed to identify leaks, corrosion, fractures, and the like.  Such a program would pick up broken exhaust hangers, broken motor mounts, and other potential sources of failure to proceed.  This inspection should probably be done at varying levels of thoroughness at several intervals.

For newer cars, there should be a regular time where software is checked for updates and all systems are scanned for faults, with problems addressed as needed.  Electrical systems should be checked for potential problems in the cabling (corrosion or loose connections) and batteries tested and replaced when test results drop below a threshold or the battery reaches 4 or perhaps 5 years age.  Alternators and possibly starters can be changed on a time/miles schedule which will depend on reliability in that particular car line.

Checking software in a Range Rover - at Robison Service
Once a particular car line has been in production for 4-5 years a review can be conducted and major issues listed.  Armed with that list, the model-specific weaknesses may be woven into the long-term maintenance plan to improve reliability going forward.

As the car gets older there will come a point where cosmetic restoration of mechanical parts becomes a normal part of the repair/overhaul process.  Prior to that, I recommend that all parts associated with a service be cleaned and cared for as required because that will be the only time many areas of the car receive any such service and the finishes will last longer if they get a modicum of care too.

Finally, the annual inspection should identify and correct any non-critical wear or failure – damage to paint or trim, problems with accessories, and visible signs of wear. 

We can also learn from Deming’s Quality Management philosophy and make changes to the service environment in order to do a better job performing and planning our maintenance.  A good TQM system would continually revise and update a plan like I have outlined to improve reliability while lowering cost by fine-tuning the program. That, however, is the subject of another essay.

Some cars are just transportation. Others are special, and we want them to live forever.   For the ones we want to keep, a plan like the one described above will maximize your chances of success.  The cost of this approach may seem high at times, but if done properly the huge (potentially mid six figure) costs of thorough mechanical and cosmetic restoration may be avoided or dramatically reduced.  If one person owns the car the whole time, his costs are very likely to be less in total.

The list above is by no means complete.  I welcome suggestions for improving this system of long-term automobile preservation, and I encourage anyone who wants to keep a car forever to adopt this or a similar plan.  

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service, independent restoration and service for Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, and other fine motorcars in Springfield, MA  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or on the phone at 413-785-1665