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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Car Repairs - Quick and Dirty or Slow and Careful

On many occasions we have pulled apart a dashboard or taken covers off an engine, only to find broken brackets, missing hardware, and other evidence that some previous mechanic was sloppy or rushed on a previous job.

I’ve seen this firsthand on my own cars.  I take them to the dealer for warranty repairs and they come back with pieces thrown together loosely or damaged by rough handling.  The culprit is often the time clock – dealer technicians are paid for repairs on piecework – a system called flat rate – and they may feel forced to race through a job or cut corners to beat the clock. 

I’d rather pay a technician to take the time and put the car back together carefully.  If that costs more money, it’s ok.  Sloppy work makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t want to drive a car knowing pieces I can’t see are broken or loose. In our auto service business we have a number of clients who agree.  There are many other motorists who do not care at all.  They never look under the hood, and as long as the car runs they don’t see any reason to pay more money for workmanship they won’t see.

Clearly this represents two ways of thinking. I hear it talking to technicians.  The flat rate techs that do warranty work on new cars think restoration guys are slowpokes who can’t get things done in a timely fashion.  The restorers think the flat rate guys are slobs who break things in the race to finish fast.

Which kind of technician is best for the motoring public?

There is no single answer to that question.  A person who drives a late model car that he will trade in three years is probably best served by the way the dealer fixes things – as efficiently and cheaply as possible, given most things are under warranty.

An enthusiast who puts his car on the racetrack or the show field cannot cut corners.  Every fastener must be in place, torqued properly without any guesswork, and assembled as if someone’s life depended on it.

Once a car is out of warranty, and the owner has to pay for service, he or she has a decision to make.  “Quick and functional” repair work is fine on a new vehicle where there’s no previous disassembly.  Sloppiness starts to catch up to us when the workmanship causes new problems, or renders other repairs impossible.

There is a similar situation with materials.  High end cars tend to have very specific fluid requirements.  Many technicians use the correct fluids, but some believe oil is oil, and they use less costly substitutes.  To an ignorant motorist $3 a quart oil sounds like a bargain compared to $10 a quart.  The car seems to run the same on either, and an owner may even form the opinion they were being cheated by the dealer at the higher price where the corner garage did them proud.  If only they knew!

It may be four or five years until there’s a reckoning and the engine fails from continued use of the wrong oil.  When it does the owner may not be sharp enough to make the connection between cutting a corner on fluid and the subsequent problem. Instead they assume the engine failed for causes unknown.

We find similar parts tradeoffs elsewhere in the car industry.  Stainless exhaust systems last the life of the vehicle, where cheap steel knockoffs rust out in two years.  To a consumer, they look the same.  Aftermarket fenders and doors don’t fit as well as genuine parts and create the impression that a car is bent and misaligned when in fact it’s the parts that are defective.

The more discerning a motorist, the less appealing the speedier rougher practices seem to be.  If a motorist owns a car until something major fails as a result of cutting corners all the savings can evaporate in the blink of an eye.  We see that when engines blow prematurely, leaving someone stuck with a $15k repair bill in exchange for saving a few hundred dollars on oil changes.

The bottom line:  New cars are very well built, and will tolerate a great deal of shoddy or substandard work.  For most people, there will be no consequences for cutting some corners in the first five years.  But pity the second or third owner of that car.

If you are into restoration, racing, or ultimate reliability, you should take a hint from the aviation industry and seek out people who follow the service schedules and work carefully without collateral damage.

One thing to watch:  Don’t pay top dollar for a slob who cuts corners and causes tomorrow’s problems with today’s repairs.   How to judge workmanship?  Ask for photos, or look for yourself.  When it comes to materials, don’t fool yourself.  You get what you pay for, and there may be a very high price for the cheapest of parts.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2018 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley, Rolls-Royce, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, and Land Rover restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

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