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Who is a true Garageman?

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For those of us who have been in this industry awhile, we have noticed that there are certain qualities that become typical characteristics of Garagemen.  I want to try to describe that here.  I’ve seen how these traits become engrained into a true garageman’s character. Why?  I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the nature of cars. Cars are designed by people and they wear out.  So, the people who can really fix them require certain talents and develop these traits.

I like to compare garagemen to farmers. The true garageman knows when a car is fixed properly or not;  just like only a farmer can judge the crops and farming techniques of another farmer.

Like a farmer, the garageman’s success depends on his discipline, his knowledge, and his use of tools.  A farmer has to wake up early to complete his work; he has to plant his crops at the right time in the right depth and in the right soil; he has to follow set procedures to insure the plants will grow.  A successful crop only results when a farmer has self-discipline, knowledge and the right tools.  Garagemen are the much the same. There is a discipline one must follow in repairing a car; there is a huge body of knowledge one must read and gain from experience, and one must have the right tools.  Of course there is a significant difference, too.  The garageman is not dependent upon the forces of nature for a successfully repaired car. For that reason, farming can be more risky than fixing cars, but we have our own force of nature and that is, you the customer. You can sometimes be as challenging for the garageman as drought or floods would be for the farmer.

Besides discipline, knowledge and owning the proper tools, here are other characteristics of a true garageman.  Men (and a few women) who like to work on cars want to understand how things work.  They take things apart to find out what’s inside and what makes it tick.  When a part fails, they’ll open it up to analyze  what went wrong. Slight discoloration of metal may draw a blank stare from a layman, but show it to the garageman , and he will explain in detail how it’s the absolute cause of a bearing failure.

To find out how things work, it means being willing to get your hands filthy dirty every day. It means washing your hands over and over. It means crawling under cars, lying on your back underneath a car six inches from your face, smelling noxious fumes.  It means standing with your hands over your head for hours, or being hunched over a truck straining to fit your hand into hidden places that could be hot, sharp, and hurt. These are examples of things that our customers often don’t think about.

Being a true Garageman, means to love the truth. There is no BS about fixing a car. If it’s fixed, it works; if it doesn’t, well you can’t blame anyone but yourself. And actually, true garagemen prefer it that way.  They are great truth seekers.  Garagemen can spot a lie a mile away—whether it’s the customer who says he’s not going to fix his car because he’s selling it next month,  a mechanic who says the master cylinder is leaking when it’s not, or a service adviser who is recommending rotors and pads when pads alone will suffice.  Nothing will make a true Garageman more angry than a lie.

True garagemen take pride in making things work.   With every broken vehicle, it is war. It is war to get the right parts especially on some cars, like that 1979 Porsche sitting in our shop. It is war to diagnose a drivability issue.  It’s war to install a rear main seal. It’s man versus the Machine.  So, when the car is fixed, it’s victory. Every fixed a car is a war won. Garagemen take pride in every one of those victories. Nothing will make a true Garageman more frustrated than a mechanic who doesn’t care because that means he wasn’t really willing to fight. That mechanic has no honor in the eyes of a true garageman.

The true garagemen can say I don’t know and ask for help. He knows that the guy who says I am a great mechanic is not.  He knows that there is no end of knowing everything about cars. There is always something to learn because cars are always changing. He knows that to win the war means sometimes bringing in reinforcements. And it means being willing to lend a hand to others when they are struggling with that car.  You cannot go it alone all the time.

The no word is not in a true garageman’s vocabulary.  Garagemen thrive on challenges. They possess the WE CAN DO IT spirit.  Sometimes, perhaps, many times, they should say no and end up saying yes.  They might not make money on it; the war might be painful; but they will rarely, if ever, say no.

So, who is a true Garageman? He is someone who is curious even when it’s risky or unpleasant. He is a truth seeker who doesn’t stand for any bacon sandwiches; he derives satisfaction from seeing something broken made whole, he is willing to help others and ask for help; he embraces the challenge even when it’s not going to better his bottom line, and he does the right thing even when it hurts.

In my opinion, the world would be a better place if more true garagemen were running it.

They don’t make tow trucks like this anymore!

They don't make tow trucks like this anymore!

Categories: Auto Repair, Our Shop

Why the rush? City Rush to Regulate Auto Repair will Inconvenience Consumers

Houston Rushes to Bury Auto Repair Shops in Red Tape

In the interest of protecting the consumer, the City of Houston is rushing to enact an ordinance to regulate the automotive repair and service industry.  This would regulate every type of business that touches a car whether it’s a body shop, an independent auto repair shop, a dealership or a big store like Wal-Mart.

While this ordinance has good intentions, it paints the entire industry with one stroke. The proposed ordinance stems from an effort to eliminate a problem which comes from a small percentage of unscrupulous collision repair shops comprising one segment of the automotive repair trade.  This attempt at a solution will wrap an already difficult business in more red tape.

Customer satisfaction is our top priority.  As repair professionals we want to have a successful business, but we know to do that we have to do our jobs correctly, honestly, and quickly.   This proposal to regulate our industry like recently passed laws to regulate others comes at an economically difficult time. It also sends the message to those of us that have been running an honest business that we are not to be trusted.

There are already state laws that automotive repair facilities abide by.  For example, the State of Texas requires auto repair facilities to acquire two signatures to authorize work, operate the vehicle, and to inform consumers regarding the mechanic lien laws. Every day in Houston, in approximately 3000 auto repair facilities, technicians are changing oil, mounting tires, repairing transmissions, fixing brakes, performing state inspections, restoring wrecked vehicles to about 30,000 cars.

There are some good features for the consumer in this ordinance.

On the good side the ordinance will require all auto repair facilities in Houston to post their license number on their advertising and invoices so that the consumer will know who is and who is not a city licensed repair facility.

It will also require auto repair facilities to carry a minimum amount of liability insurance.  Currently, there is no local or state law that requires a repair shop to have insurance. In an uninsured shop, the car owner is liable for anything the garage owner does with their car.  Good shops already purchase insurance, but virtually all shops that lack integrity will also lack insurance.

Giving approval over the phone for any collision work will be illegal and limits will be placed on certain fees charged by collision shops. There is a good reason for this. Repairs resulting from accidents usually cost thousands of dollars.  While we are hesitant to say that the city should set pricing for any private business transaction, we agree every approval for collision repair should be in writing.

The rest of the ordinance is pages and pages that regulate how records will be kept, how repair shops may gain approvals from customers and sets out penalties that can criminalize honest mistakes and rack up fines to benefit the City.

Here is some of what is proposed.

If this new law takes effect, phone approvals for mechanical work will be allowed only if the customer provides a third signature permitting  an estimate either to be given orally, in person, or over the phone. Records of that approval have to be maintained for two years.   Automotive professionals are concerned about this for a few reasons.

Our main concern is that if your car is towed in to a mechanical shop, we can’t even look at the car until you come in, fax or email a signature.  If you are business owner with a fleet account, you will have to email, fax or come to the shop to give approval of authorization or to sign a waiver.  This will slow down the repair process and be an inconvenience for everyone involved.

Mechanical work is entirely different from collision. It differs in that it’s quick, less costly, and customers depend on our efficiency so they can get back to and from home.

The City’s proposal will slow down this repair process.  If it sounds complicated, it will be even worse when customers are confronted with the legalese. If they refuse to sign the waiver authorizing estimates by phone, the customer will have to return to the shop, find a fax machine or send an email.

While the Automotive Service Association (ASA) fully supports efforts to root out bad players in our industry, we believe this ordinance over-regulates and will be a burden to our customers who don’t own fax machines, e-mail or have a second car to come back to the shop for a signature, business customers who have fleets, and towed-in vehicles. This is going to affect senior citizens, the disabled, those with lower incomes, and those who depend on one vehicle the most.

Another provision is that no authorizations are required for repairs under $100.  As long as your bill is $99.99, the repair shop does not need your permission to make repairs or perform maintenance on your vehicle.  Our concern is that if you are dropping off your car for an oil change and the technician calls because he determines your coolant needs to be flushed, it will exceed a $100.  Then, you will have a delay in repair if you did not sign the waiver–even though we still have the two signatures from the state. This provision seems unnecessary and could lead to confusion and abuse.

If a shop neglects to put the license plate number, vehicle identification number, or mileage on a work order, or records it inaccurately, it could result in a criminal misdemeanor with a $200 to $500 fine.

Why do the Mayor and some members of City Council feel this ordinance is needed?

The Automotive Service Association was told it was necessary because there were some bad body shops taking advantage of insurance companies, resulting in a rise of insurance premiums.

ASA requested information through an Open Records Request about the complaints so that as an industry, we could better understand what problems the city is trying to address. The complaints did indeed support that there are some bad players in the collision repair industry who are charging excessive disassembly fees, administrative fees, and are holding cars hostage. Over a three year period, we were given 257 complaints filed with the Houston Auto Dealers, a division of Houston Police Department that enforces automotive repair facility licenses. Of those, 61 complaints concerned excessive fees from collision shops—none from mechanical.  It is a problem, but, “it’s like killing flies with cannon instead of a flyswatter,” as Councilmember Jolanda Jones said.

Lastly, there is the concern about increased costs of implementation that will be passed on to consumers.  All our paperwork will have to change to comply. Not to mention all our fees and permits were increased this year. For example, in 2011 a Houston automotive repair facility license increased 147% from $200 to $495.

What do we recommend?  Ideally, ask the city to create two separate automotive licenses: one issued to regulate the collision industry and another, simpler one, for the mechanical industry. Many at City Hall acknowledge that this would be a real fix, but there is a rush right now to pass the ordinance before the end of the year. What’s the rush? ASA has known about this proposal for less than a year, and we have been working diligently with the City to help them. The mayor has set the vote on December 21st, the last city council meeting of the year.

The Automotive Service Association wants City Hall to slow down, listen to both industry and consumers and do it right the first time.

 

Kathryn van der Pol is the past president of the Automotive Service Association-Houston Chapter.  ASA is the largest not-for-profit trade association of its kind dedicated to, and governed by, independent automotive service and repair professionals. She and her husband Sybren own Adolf Hoepfl & Son Garage, in business since 1946.

Can You Always Trust the Dealership?

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Last week, we had a regular customer call us very concerned about her Asian model car. This was a 1996 vehicle with over 193,000 miles.  The owner was on a limited budget.

Recently, we replaced a broken timing belt and timing chain (Yes! This car has both.) The customer stated that within a few days after she picked up the vehicle, it started to run rough and had a loss of power when the air-conditioner was on. Not sure what to do because she was in another part of town, she took it to the Asian car dealership. The dealership said her distributor was bad and recommended a new one.  In addition, the dealer said she needed new plugs, plug wires, an oxygen sensor and crank sensor– all for– gasp! A lot of money.

There was only one problem. We had replaced most of what they were recommending five months ago.

We asked her to bring the vehicle back to us and offered to tow it at our expense. She chose to drive it and waited while we made a thorough examination. What we found saddened us. It was not because we found defective parts or problems we had caused. It’s because this dealership was about to take this young woman for a $1700.00 ride.

The distributor, spark plugs, and plug wires were all fine. They still looked brand new. In addition, when we checked the estimate from the dealership, we were shocked that the dealer was going to charge $330 labor just to install these parts. That was nearly two times more than what we had charged the customer several months ago. Inflation must be out of hand, huh!

So, what was the problem? Well, the insulation coating the wires connecting the crank sensor had rubbed off, so the crank sensor circuit was not working. We taped the wires and fixed the problem. At no charge, I might add.

The dealership had been right in one aspect – she did need an oxygen sensor, which we informed her of and gave her an estimate on replacing.

Our customer will need to replace the oxygen sensor eventually, but hopefully with our care, we’ve improved the road-worthiness of her vehicle and made her a more loyal customer.

Not all dealerships are this bad, but over selling is a general problem. Dealerships don’t make money selling new cars any more. Over half their profit for the entire dealership comes from the service department; yet they have to honor recalls and warranty work which pays them very little. In addition, their overhead is so much higher than a typical repair shop, they have to charge a higher labor rate. So  their real way to make money is on customer-pay repairs.  Sometimes, I guess some places find false problems in their hunt for work.

At Adolf Hoepfl Garage, we have been serving customers since 1946. We believe that repairs are a matter of trust. When we tell you something is broken, it is broken.  If we make a mistake, we stand behind our work and fix it.  We take pride in taking care of each customer and their vehicle. So, while we may not have marble floors, chandeliers and lattes, we believe our principles will outlast this dealership model.

When it comes to your transmission don’t be penny wise and pound foolish

Cut away of a transmission

One of the most expensive and complex systems in every vehicle is the transmission.  To replace one, it is not uncommon to spend $3000.00.

Did you know that it has well over a 100 moving parts? That some have over 200 moving parts? And did you know that all those moving parts are completely invisible from the oustide? They are hidden in a large HEAVY case that is bolted into your power train.

There only way three ways to check a transmission:

1. How does the vehicle shift?

2. What is the condition of the fluid?

3. What do computer diagnostics say?  (on newer vehicles)

If there is something is terribly wrong, there is no choice but to pull the transmission out of the vehicle, a four hour labor intensive job in most cases, take apart the transmission and visually inspect it.

So, how do you keep this machine in good working order so you don’t have to worry about this?

The best and easiest way is to change the fluid every 30,000 miles, and change the filter in the transmission pan (if it has one).

There are two ways to change the fluid.  One is from the top of car and the other is from the bottom.

Most transmissions hold 16 quarts of either reddish or golden fluid.  When the transmission fluid is drained from the bottom, only about 1/3 of the old fluid is recovered because most of it is in the front of the transmission in a large doughnut-shaped part called a torque converter. So, we drain about five to six quarts old fluid, add five or six quarts of new and change the filter.  If you’ve faithfully serviced your vehicle’s transmission since it was new and drained your fluid every two years, this probably works. It is also the least expensive of the two methods.

The torque converter is located in front part of the transmission and has its own case inside the transmission case.

When the fluid is changed from the top of the motor, we call it a flush. So what is actually a flush?  It is like hooking your transmission line to a special wet vac.  The flush machine sucks out all the dirty fluid and it can recover most of it.  Then it runs a cleanser through the system to get rid of residue and contaminants that have probably built up.  Then we add 16 qts. of  new fluid with special conditioners and preservatives. The products we use, called BG Products, come with a lifetime warranty to your transmission if you flush it before 75,000 miles and every 30,000 miles thereafter.

Conditioners and preservatives make the fluid more slippery and last longer. Remember, what is the job of transmission fluid?  Just like oil for your engine, transmission fluid is lubrication for those 100 to 200 moving invisible parts inside your transmission case.

Most vehicle owners need to do transmission flushes because they haven’t serviced the transmission on a regular, faithful basis even though they may be very good about changing the motor oil.

If you have a filter at the bottom of your transmission pan, a flush does not include a filter change, that yet it still needs to be done. You can either have it done at the time of the flush or at another time. For example, one year do the flush and the next year change the filter.

Now it’s story time. Last week we had a customer at our shop whose vehicle’s transmission fluid was black.  She had been in here a year ago, and at that time her fluid was black. She didn’t want to change it then, and she didn’t want to change it now.  Now it was really black and thick. Why wouldn’t she change it?

Well, because her friend told her that if she flushed the transmission, it would stir up all these contaminants resting in the bottom of her transmission pan and wreak damage on the 100 to 200 invisible moving parts. Is this true?

Well, let me start out by saying that black and burnt fluid lubricates like water, not like oil. So, is it doing its job of lubricating the transmission? Hmmm….

What happens when you leave thick, black fluid inside the transmission?  Well, in addition to all those moving parts not being lubricated properly, imagine clutches and seals. The clutches are flat paper cork rings that transmit the power that make the car go.  The seals are mostly rubber. What do you think happens when black fluid that’s not slippery circulates?  It corrodes the clutches and seals. As the clutches become friable, little pieces break off and get into the fluid.  The seals get hard. Over time, there will be a lot less clutch material between the metal parts and once metal starts touching metal, all hell breaks loose with the transmission.

So, is there any truth to the concern of her friend?  The answer is that if the transmission is damaged, it’s damaged. A flush will not cause any damage that has already been done.  So, the only question remains: Are you taking care of your vehicle’s transmission?

A TALE OF TWO CUSTOMERS

October 28, 2011 1 comment

This sign has been displayed at our shop since 1952.

First Tale. A new customer towed a pick-up truck to our shop and said he believed his water pump had broken. It was a mid-90s Ford. The first thing our technician noticed was that the radiator was full of rust and had no water, and the second thing he noticed was a very cracked belt. The odometer had not worked for seven years. The technician knew that because of a maintenance sticker under the hood dated back to 2004 had the exact mileage as was on the truck yesterday. This observant technician was my husband Sybren.
The water pump had indeed failed and had sprayed rusty water everywhere. Would the truck start? The truck started and did not knock. That was a hopeful sign that the vehicle had not overheated, but with the lack of care, rusty bolts, and rusty radiator, this repair was going to be a challenge. So Sybren recommended a new water pump, new belt and fresh coolant for starters, letting our service advisor know this was a starting point and a radiator might be needed.
When we gave the estimate to Mr. Customer, he was upset by the price. He thought our parts were too expensive. So, he asked would we put on the parts if he supplied them. Our customer service representative explained that if he bought the parts there would be no warranty and that we had a policy of charging a higher labor rate to discourage this practice. Mr. Customer hit the roof and thought this was highly unfair. He hadn’t met me yet.
That same day, I attended our Automotive Service Association chapter meeting. ASA is a national organization for 14,000 independent repair shops across the nation. To be members, we agree to uphold a Code of Ethics. I am a former president of this chapter, the largest in Texas and the second largest in the country.
This evening, the theme was Repair Shop Reality. We threw questions into a brown bag and drew them out and discussed them one by one. One of those questions was, “Do you install customer-supplied parts?” Few people raised their hands, but since we did once in a while, I raised mine.
One shop member said, “Don’t do it. Your insurance company probably won’t cover you. I put on a customer supplied Chinese made wheel bearing. The wheel bearing failed and the customer had a crash. I was sued and my insurance wouldn’t cover my company.” At that point, another member said, “That’s right. A court of law presumes you are the expert. You should only install parts that you recommend and are willing to stand behind. When you put on a customer supplied part, it is of unknown origin and quality, and if something happens to that car, you may end up personally liable.”
So, back to Mr. Customer. The next day, he arrives with a water pump and belt from AutoZone. It’s a no-name brand even though the customer tells us AutoZone offers a “lifetime” warranty. I regretfully explain to him that we have a new policy and explained what we had learned. I told him we would use OUR parts to repair the vehicle, and if he agreed he would have a nationwide warranty. He was very upset and decided to have his vehicle towed away. We apologized and told him there was no charge. We felt bad, but once you know the truth what else can you do?
Our second story concerns a repeat customer. She called to ask if we could come to her and install a battery in her little Toyota at her home so she could avoid a towing fee. The reaction of my staff was initially of surprise. That’s a lot to ask, they said. Then I told them. This is a long- time customer who is quite frail; she lives alone and has no one to help her. She does not drive much anymore.
My staff now understood.
My husband loaded up his battery tester, tools, and a new battery. Her old battery was still under warranty so she only had to pay about half our cost. We drove to her home. Was she happy to see us! While Sybren checked her battery, she insisted that I come inside, and we sat and talked. She told me about growing up in New Jersey, about her brother who had mental health issues and how her mother at first didn’t want her to move to Houston. The mother finally consented but moved with her daughter and brought her brother. Our customer was 21 when she moved to Houston and now she is 81.
She also told me the story of how her brother learned about our shop from their church soon after they moved. She told me about the many times someone from our company had come to her rescue. It was a very gratifying experience. She has been bringing her cars to our shop since 1952.
Why do I tell these two stories? It’s not because we made money. Financially, we did not break even on either customer, but we profited tremendously from both. We learned that sometimes we have to say no to a job. There are some situations and some customers that are just not for us. In the second case, by going the extra mile, we learn something about our history and our value to this community. This knowledge is priceless.
As long as we are learning and stretching, we’re growing. To have a successful business, it is important to learn these lessons.

Classic Cars Connect People to People

It’s been too long since I have updated this  blog.  Life has been so rich and full that finding quiet time to concentrate and reflect has not materialized–or evaporated– before I could set my little self down. I hope that you, happy readers, are also enjoying life in these full summer days.

Recently, we held our first car show.  Our Facebook page at Adolf Hoepfl has tons of photos. Go to  www.facebook.com/adolfsgarage or to photographer Wayne Sandlin at www.pbyd.com (Click on Events and Password is carshow.)

The oldest vehicles entered dated from the 1930s and went up through 1972. We had three Volkswagons from 1957 to 61, a beautiful 1966 Thunderbird,  and a candied apple red 1956 Chevy Bel Air.  All these cars were works of art.  Just gorgeous to behold.  And at our shop which is pretty old-timey (built in 1946), they looked like they belonged there.

In fact, Eugene, the former owner of our business, came with his wife, and it set me to thinking.  He worked on ALL of these cars when that was all people had to drive.   Now we consider them treasures.

We had over 200 people enjoying our American car history, swapping stories, eating BBQ, chili dogs, listening to Blue Grass in 100 degree heat.  When we planned this event, I had no idea how much joy we would bring to auto enthusiasts. The man with the Thunderbird just told me the other day that ours was the first show he had ever entered.  I was so honored because his car was truly beautiful. It was a privilege to have all these fine people and cars at our shop.

It makes me wonder. What will we treasure 50 years from now?