Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jerry's World of Wheels

Right now, I'm doing more mechanic work than I've done in ten years. That greasy, slimy, wounded Nissan Sentra engine is sitting on a pallet in my friend's print shop ready for its makeover. My wife's water pump just gave up the ghost. Well, actually, her water pump is fine. Her Toyota's water pump ground to a halt literally so I'm replacing it two days before Thanksgiving with all the shopping left to do.

Unfortunately, the water pump housing is corroded to the point where it leaks. Only Toyota dealers sell the housing and the only way one can procure said housing is with a factory water pump. So my 32-dollar Bosch Lifetime Guarantee water pump from Pep Boys just turned into a 120-dollar Official Toyota Factory Parts water pump and housing. Jeez. There must be 32 million dollars worth of parts in every Camry. Mechanical inclination provides no immunity to shelling out money for auto repair.

While I got my voice-over act together, I had a little auto repair business called Jerry's World of Wheels. I came to your house and fixed your car in your own driveway. Or on the street. Or on the lot at Warner Brothers. It got to the point where I farmed out some work to real mechanics looking for side jobs. The whole enterprise came to a screeching halt when thieves stole four grand worth of automotive tools from my apartment storage space. I did not have insurance. The cost of insurance in LA for four grand worth of automotive tools is four grand.

There are many auto mechanics in Hollywood. Some are as fine as anywhere in the world. Others prey on the acute knowledge gap of the area's artistically inclined citizenry. I knew a comedy writer so mechanically inept, he could not tell the difference between any keys on his key ring. Every time we got in his car, he jammed every key into the ignition until he found the right one. That was my customer base.

So is this:

Except for spark plugs. Everyone knows what spark plugs do. They spark, right? This one nugget of automotive knowledge becomes the linchpin of conversations with the mechanic.

Mechanic: "The flat tire is unrepairable. I'll have to replace it."

Customer: "Maybe it's the spark plugs. Did you check the plugs?

The rip-off shops figured it out pretty quickly, which gave rise to the $49.95 "tune-up" (6 & 8 cylinders higher). For 50 bucks, the mechanic installs four spark plugs. That's it. The job takes 15 minutes and the materials cost is $5. That's $180 per hour for labor, far greater than the 50 or 60 bucks an hour charged by the typical shop back then. The satisfied clientele goes home flush with the knowledge their own spark plug diagnosis was correct. Never mind why the plugs got fouled in the first place. If they foul up again, the customer will be back for another set. In a modern engine, the plugs should last 30-40 thousand miles or more.

Which made it hard on me. When a customer needed a tune-up the following conversation inevitably ensued:

Me: "All you need is a good tune-up."

Them: "Great. How much?"

"One hundred dollars"

"Wait a minute. Achmed's Auto charges $49.95. Tune-Up Guys charges the same thing plus I get a free pine-scented air freshener."

"Well, for a hundred dollars I actually tune up the car."

My second favorite dodge is the 99-dollar two wheel brake job. Of course, "some cars extra." Unfortunately, "some cars" means pretty much every car on the road except for 1964 Chevy Novas. Disc brakes are extra. Try to find a car without them. Brake pads capable of actually stopping the car or lasting more than six months are also extra. Extra parts required to restore your braking system are way extra. So your 99-dollar two-wheel brake job is now over 300 bucks. I would charge $185 from the beginning. Some cars extra, of course.

The upshot is many shops do business in a way having little to do with what's actually wrong with your car. They exist to separate you from your money using your own car as bait. How to spot the frauds? Have some familiarity with what's going on under your hood. You don't have to take the car apart. Just know how things work well enough to talk to your mechanic of choice.

I don't understand cheesy mechanics. A reputation for honesty is worth far more over time than the Quick Buck. Hoards will beat a path to your door, especially since new cars get more complicated and the knowledge gap grows greater and greater.

You're on your own for the pine-scented air freshener. I hate those things.

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