A kid in my newsroom came to me recently with a crumpled
piece of paper and a panicked look on her face.
“I went to get my oil changed the other day,” she began.
“This guy said my rear strut spring or something was broken? Here’s what he
Scrawled in penmanship that would equal my own in a “Which
First Grader Wrote This?” contest, someone had written the words “Pass. Side
Rear Strut incl. realignment.”
The cost? $684 and change.
I’ve often viewed struts as God’s punishment because people
pissed and moaned about how often you had to change your shocks. Struts like
anything else that’s meant to be somewhat permanent: They last a while, but can
lead to a financial ass-pounding when they break.
Still, $684? For a strut on a 2003 Mercury Sable?
I looked up the part and realized that fast-change struts
cost about $140 each, max. Also, they
were something that tended break on these things, thanks to a design flaw on
these cars: After about 80,000 to 100,000 miles, the outer spring tended to
shatter like Waterford Crystal.
I looked back at the note and realized a couple things.
First, the guy apparently planned to only change one of
these things, which is buying a new left sneaker because you wore a hole in it.
You don’t buy one new shoe. You buy a pair. Same thing applies here: You don’t replace one strut. You do them both.
Second, the realignment didn’t make sense to me. You drove
on the front wheels. Why the hell would you need an alignment just because you
swapped out the strut? That’s something you figure out AFTER you see if the
backs were creating a drift.
I looked back at the kid and asked, “Where did you go for
this oil change?”
When she told me, I started getting pissed. It was a
fast-food chain-style repair place that offered oil changes for about $20,
which defies logic, since I can’t even change my own oil for that kind of
As the oil is draining from the car, the mechanics then go
fishing for problems, which are easy to find, because the kind of people who
flock to $20 oil changes drive $20 cars that tend to have 99 problems (and the
only reason a bitch ain’t one is because the mechanic can’t overcharge you to
fix the bitch).
- Low-cost parts with high-cost labor. After all,
the boss is paying for a guy to be there eight hours a day and not every hour
of the day is accounted for with work. Thus, why not fill in the $16-an-hour guy’s
life with something to do, especially when you can charge $100 or more per hour
- Picker parts charged at new/book rate. Some
things need to be new in order to work. These include things that wear out with
use, like brake pads, shock absorbers and so forth. However, most of the stuff
on a car can easily be repurposed, especially when you can see very few changes
on a car over several model years. Thus, when someone’s tail light housing,
their power-steering-pump reservoir or other such thing is broken, all it takes
is a walk through a bone yard to find the stuff for a few bucks. The garage
will then charge the buyer whatever a new part would cost.
When our department secretary lost the taillight on her Saab, a mechanic was
going to charge her $180 for the part plus labor. I called around and found a
boneyard in Hortonville that had a few dead ones on the lot. It took $60 and 20
minutes to have her back up and running. You’d never know it wasn’t a brand new
- Simple repairs that need less-simple tools. When
I worked in the garage, we had a spate of early ‘80s Chevys with front-wheel
drive that would come in running rough. After about the second one, we figured
out the problem was pretty simple: It’s impossible to change three (or four if
you had an 8-cyllander) spark plugs because of the way the car was designed.
Front-wheel drive engines sat sideways in the engine bay and since V-6/V-8 cars
had spark plugs on both sides of the engine, the even plugs (or in some cases
the odd ones) were pressed up against the firewall of the bay, making it
impossible to reach them. When a guy from one of the tool companies came by,
Tom explained the issue and the guy sold him this thing that would basically
allow us to rock the engine forward easily and reach the back plugs. It cost
about $30. Of course, our boss charged a shit-ton of money for us doing these
jobs because he could show people how impossible it was before we did the work.
It wasn’t that hard. Trust me. I did it during my “tits on a bull” phase of
apprenticeship. Still, it was a tool that made it easier and most people didn’t
own it. The same thing is true of several other jobs on cars.
- The “Columbo” approach. In a lot of cases, once
you start working on something, you find other problems. It’s like finding one
roach in your house: Chances are, he’s not an advance scout, out here all
alone. More of these little bastards are lurking all over the place.
Still, a lot of these places know that going in, but fail to share that
information with you prior to the repair. For example, if you’re replacing
rubber boots on the front end of a car, chances are, it’s because the boots are
ripped. If the boots are ripped, chances are, dirt and grit and other shit have
gotten inside the area the boot was supposed to check. If that happened,
chances are, the bearings are shot or some of the other unprotected parts got
screwed up along the way. However, these guys will say, “See these ripped
boots? We need to replace them.” The pigeon… er… customer will then say, “OK,
how much?” The garage cites the cost of the boots, the customer agrees and the
process starts. Once the mechanic takes off the boot… LO AND BEHOLD! MORE
DAMAGE! At that point, the car is on the rack, the thing is all apart and the
mechanic says, “Look, if you don’t fix the (fill in part name), all I’m doing
is putting a band aid on the problem and the real problem will persist. At that
point, the person agrees to a ton of additional repairs that were clearly there
to begin with and thus the bill skyrockets.
The strut was one of those things that mainly fell in the
first category. It also had a few “tool issues” but nothing a half-assed
mechanic wouldn’t own at home. And, yes, it was going to take some time, but
nothing that would require almost four hours of labor by an employed mechanic
in a well-stocked ASC-certified style garage.
All I could think was, “Fucking assholes…”
Look, I understand that people need to make money on goods
and services, lest they cease to own businesses. I also understand that not
everyone can do the kinds of things I do for a variety of reasons.
Still, there’s a clear line between profit and gouging.
There’s also something to be said for looking at a 22-year-old college student
and seeing her as an easy mark. If you are in college, you usually are away
from home, so you don’t have a trusted mechanic/dentist/whatever and so you are
at the mercy of others. There are some “professional service technicians” out
there who see this as an opportunity to really make a killing.
And I really hate those bastards.
“Don’t go back there,” I told her. “Let me talk to a couple
On the way home, I swung by my parts place and talked to a couple of my guys.
“How much?” one of them asked. “Nofuckingway!
Turns out, there are two main things that can go wrong in
doing them, both of which can be solved with persistence and/or a hammer. Parts
were in stock and I could keep the whole thing to about $300 worth of parts.
Yesterday, the kid stopped by after class and we drove
caravan-style out to my house to drop off the car. I gave her a ride back to
her house and we chatted about various newspaper and school things. She was in
her last semester, cramming 18 credits on top of a job at the paper and a 30-40
hour work week at a local grocery store. She lived at home to save on overhead
and was trying to make sure she could stay afloat.
“I might get lucky,” she said. “If I can get some extra
hours, I might not have to take out a student loan this semester.”
I looked over at her and asked one of those painful
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but how much
student loan debt do you have?”
She worked through her four years in school. The first two
years, she lived in the dorms, in an attempt to get the “college experience.”
After that, she lived at home. She didn’t waste money on college-kid stuff,
drove cheap cars (I say plural because she had this odd way of ending up at
intersections where assholes tended to hit her and kill off her current mode of
transportation) and tried her best to get through alive. She attended a state
school, which used to actually mean something of a bargain, but now means “you
don’t financially raped quite as hard as if you went to a private school, but
you’re still going to have to squeal like a pig.”
The mental adding machine had rendered its verdict:
“I’m thinking close to $40,000…”
I just shook my head.
I couldn’t make the folks in the statehouse pony up more to
support the universities.
I couldn’t stop the predatory lending going on out there or
decrease the interest rates on student loans.
I couldn’t find a way to get some of these assholes who post
“Mr. President, you didn’t build this!” signs outside their businesses or
people who attended school in the 1970s who say, “Well, I paid my OWN WAY
through college” to understand that candy bars don’t cost a nickel now and that
a nickel ain’t worth a dime any more, anyway.
But I could keep this one kid from getting fucked over this
The rest of the day was a rust-and-pain blur. I went home,
put on my work clothes and got hacking at the car. The back seat came out so I
could access the tops of the struts, the wheels came off so I could access the
Once I got under the passenger’s side, it was clear the guy
at least hadn’t lied: the spring was shattered. He had, however, overstated the
degree to which driving on it as it was would lead to certain death. It was
also clear that he was likely to pull a “Columbo” on the kid.
On this type of car, a stabilizer pin, which looks like a
giant bolt with several rubber stoppers on it, runs through the strut. When the
strut spring broke, the pin snapped. Turns out, even if it hadn’t, you can’t
remove the strut without removing the pin and you can’t remove the pin without
fucking it up so badly that you have to buy a new one.
I drove back to the parts shop and got a couple of these (again, you
do one side, you do the other). One of my guys was walking through at that
point and I called out, “Hey, asshole, you think you could have told me that if
I’m replacing the struts on that Sable, I’d need to replace the stabe pins?”
He laughed and came over and looked at the schematic. “Never
knew. That’s weird.”
He gave me some advice on how to put the pins back on the
car. The last time I did this, I was 17, I had a car on a rack, an acetylene torch and about
900 gallons of pressurized air to power the garage’s air tools. This time, I
was old as hell, had the car on jackstands and was doing this by hand.
Back home, the bolts that held everything together came off the car easily, the struts not so much. After
about 30 minutes of banging the shit out of the control arms with a non-marring
leather hammer, the pinch couplings let loose. The old struts came out.
With some finagling, I managed to get the car back together.
The Missus came out and threaded a few nuts for me while I repositioned the
struts. I had to break out an electric light for the last of the repairs, as the sun
had become a stranger somewhere between, “I’ll have this done in a few more
minutes” and “Where the hell is my goddamned grinder? I’ll show that fucking
thing who’s boss…”
I put the wheels back on, put the back seat back together
and drove it around to see if I’d survive. A few bumps on the road led to no
“America’s Funniest Videos” moments, so I called the kid and told her I’d be
there in a half hour. I also explained that it would be a little more than
$300, because of the stabilizer pins.
“How much?” she gulped.
“It’s $37.84 for the parts, but if you don’t have it right
now, just pay me later.”
I heard her laughing at me. “I thought you were gonna say
$200. I’ll see you soon.”
I headed to the kid’s house down a long stretch of straight
highway. I took my hands off the wheel and let the car drive on its own. It
didn’t drift a tick.
“An alignment,” I muttered to myself. “He was going to sell
her an alignment. What an asshole…”
My wife drove our Prius behind me so we could go for dinner
once the deed was done. When we got to the house, she waited in the car while I
rang the bell.
After a few minutes of “Show and Tell” with the old parts I
brought with me, she cut me a check. I insisted it was parts only: $300 for the
struts, $37.84 for the pins.
She rounded it up to $338. I grumbled.
Around that time, her mom came into the foyer. She
repeatedly thanked me for fixing the car. We chatted a bit about cars and
school and such. She then helped me carry my reward for a job well done out to
The kid bought me two cases of Diet Coke.
“It weird,” the mom began. “We had three cars go on us in
just a week or two. First, Em’s car, then her dad’s truck had something happen
and then mine wouldn’t start.”
“What happened to yours?” I asked.
“It just wouldn’t start. Turns out it was a battery and an
alternator thing. $500 or so, the guy charged us.”
My math-brain kicked in. $200 in parts, max, plus about 20
minutes time. I winced.
“Next time, if some thing like that happens, just have your
daughter call me. I just hate seeing people get screwed.”
I paused, she smiled.
“Anyway, it was nice to meet you, ma’am.”
“You too, professor.”