What You
Expect from
And Care
What should you expect from an auto mechanic?

Well to start with, they should be competent, with the proper tools and parts.  Today, automobiles are run by computers, so they need computers to diagnose some problems. Auto body shops should have paint booths and frame machines.  Mechanics should have car lifts.  If they only have floor jacks to lift cars or use chains to the floor for straightening frames, they are seriously behind the times, and may not be able to do a proper job.

Parts are usually only a phone call away, but repairs take time, sometimes a lot of time.  Most repair times are based on time estimated by a book or by a computer program, such as Mitchells™, but oftentimes, unforeseen circumstances happen that may extend estimated repair times, or even availability of parts.  

By state law (16 CCR s 3353), a mechanic must give you a written and oral estimate for the cost of parts and labor for the repair of your vehicle before starting any repairs to your vehicle.  If that estimate changes, they must notify you before proceeding further.  If you do not wish to have the car repaired for any reason, the mechanic is allowed to charge you an appropriate fee for the diagnosis, teardown, and reassembly of the vehicle.  This goes for both mechanic and auto body repair shops.  Also, another mechanic is not required to accept another mechanics estimate.

I can repair most things myself, but there are things I don’t have the tools or skill to do.  For basic maintenance though, if I take my car to a shop, I expect certain things:

A ‘tune up’ should consist of new spark plugs and wires, cap, rotor, and points.  The engines ignition timing should be checked and adjusted, or ‘tuned’, as necessary.  Many cars do not have a cap and rotor or spark plug wires, but all gasoline powered cars have spark plugs.  The air filter may be replaced if needed.  Check your owners’ manual for information on tune up intervals.  My Honda™ has 100k intervals between tune ups.  A good mechanic will also check all your vital fluids and add or replace as necessary.  Most cars currently on the market have electronic ignitions and may only need sparkplugs changed.

An oil change should consist of removing the bung, draining the oil, changing the filter, replacing the bung (and sometimes a new washer) and putting in fresh oil.  If you go to an oil changing only type shop, I have found they are prone to stripping out your bung, and not getting filters on straight, so always check your car for serious leaks with your engine running before you leave their facility.  Just look underneath for the big puddle.  Just to make sure, look again when you park it.

The term ‘service’ generally refers to an oil change, checking and topping off all vital fluids, and greasing the zerks.

The cooling system needs to be flushed and the coolant replaced occasionally.  There are no filters on the cooling system, only coolant to be replaced.  The radiator collects gunk on the coils, restricting coolant flow and heat exchange.

Timing belts and chains need replacing once in a while.  If a timing belt breaks during engine operation, the engine can be seriously damaged.  A timing belt change is expensive, and the mechanic may suggest also replacing the water pump and idler pulley.  It takes a lot of work to expose the timing belt and the water pump is in the same place.  If the timing belt is worn, so are the water pump and the idler pulley.  Even if they seem to work just fine, it is best to replace them all now, rather than paying to tear down the motor again when they do go bad.  Plus, you have peace of mind about their reliability.  While you’re at it, replace the fan belts too.

A brake service should include not just new pads, but also turning the rotors or drums.  Yea, I know the rotors are turning when you drive the car.  If you have disc brakes, look inside the rims and you will see the brake rotors.  Fresh rotors should be smooth and dull.  Old rotors are shiny.  Any sign of wear (grooves) means they have not been turned.  Sometimes, it is easier or cheaper to replace the rotors.  If you have drum brakes you can’t visually inspect them.  New brakes may squeal and smell for a short time, and ceramic pads may squeal forever.  Other things a mechanic may need to replace are brake calipers, wheel and master cylinders, and wheel bearings, but these items are longer wearing than brake pads and rotors.

Clutch replacement requires a new clutch disc, pressure plate, throw out bearing, and maybe a new slave cylinder.

An automatic transmission service consists of replacing the automatic transmission fluid.  Some transmissions have filters that need replacing.  The transmission pan and gasket may need to be removed to drain the fluid, and may be better to just replace both due to dirt and damage.  Sometimes the transmission pan gasket may inadvertently be damaged during installation, so check for leaks for a couple days after a service.  Just look on the ground after it has sat for a little while.

I also expect to get a warranty on both parts and labor.  A basic warranty is ninety days.  Some shops offer warranties that are backed up by organizations like AAA™.  A shop bearing the AAA™ seal means that you will get a 12 month, 12,000 mile warranty on parts and labor, but you must be a AAA™ member.  The warranty is only valid at the shop that did the work originally, but chain shops, like AAMCO™ may honor another shops’ work at all their outlets.

If for any reason you have a problem with the repairs a shop has done to your car, and the facility will not fix the problem, go talk to the state Bureau of Automotive Repair, they will get results.  If the shop is AAA certified, go talk to your local AAA representative, they will do their best to resolve the situation.  They might not get the results you want, but they will determine who is correct.  

For your own protection, it is wise to see the parts that were replaced.  Ask for this before you get your estimate.  Some parts may need to be returned by the shop to the parts distributor, this is called a “core”, and costs them money, so they need to know if you want the parts they have replaced.  The estimate sheet you filled out has a box that you can check, but ask too.  This is your right.

Before you leave the shop, have the mechanic explain the repairs and show you the repaired or exchanged parts.  Granted, some parts are not visible, or repaired so well that you can’t see the results, so the mechanic should be able to explain any repairs.  

A good mechanic will not round off the nuts and bolts, this is a result of the right tool for the job.  Good quality American made tools are a must for a quality shop.  Crappy tools give crappy results, but even the best tools can’t make a crappy mechanic any better.

When you’ve had an accident, the tow truck driver may take your car to a tow yard, possibly associated with a body shop.  I hope you have comprehensive collision insurance.  If so, your insurance should cover necessary towing and storage charges.  If your car is destroyed, do not park it in your front yard or in the apartment carport, let the tow shop dispose of it for you.  They will of course charge a fee, but it gets it out of your hands, and will not cause fires or hazardous materials spills.  A serious hazardous materials spill may result in fines of $25,000 per day, per incident.  A competent tow truck diver will not park a destroyed car on the street due to both hazardous material and liability concerns.

It is in your best interest to use the shop your insurance recommends, but any reputable body shop will guaranty their work, often for the life of the car.  Your insurance carrier will not certify a shop that does not meet the highest of standards.  And your insurance also specifies certain repair standards on those shops they certify, sometimes in your favor, sometimes in theirs.

Body repairs may include replacing or repairing damaged parts.  Small dents may be less expensive to repair, but it is normal to completely replace a body panel.  If the frame has been compressed or bent, the shop will put the vehicle on a ‘frame machine’ to pull the frame back to it’s proper length and shape.  Some shops may use a floor pulling system which will result in am imperfect repair.  Insurance companies will not recommend a shop that uses other than a computerized frame machine and ICAR certified technicians.

Some body parts may come from the distributor already painted, but normally, most are painted by the repair shop.  Although most body shops have a computerized system that matches the paint colors using a paint code listed on the vin plate on the door jam of the car, the painter still will have to use a trained eye to match the color perfectly.  The body parts are painted by hand in a heated, pressurized booth that ensures a dust free, properly hardened finish.  The process of metal preparation, primer, color or multiple colors, pearl or other effects, clear coat, cut, and polish takes time and energy.  The type and brand of paint used varies from shop to shop and state to state.  Some states don’t allow certain types of paint to be used due to environmental toxicity, and California has the strictest environmental laws in the U.S.

Body repairs take more time than mechanical repairs.  Parts need to be ordered and shipped.  Paint and Bondo need to dry and be sanded and polished.  Frames need to be pulled.  Some parts, like bumpers, will be sent to shops that repair them rather than being repaired on site.  Chrome parts may need to be re-chromed.  Windows are often replaced by outside vendors.  Airbags are usually replaced by outside vendors.  Not to mention any repairs to the engine.  And of course, assembly time.  Expect to be without your car for at least a week.