Mitch's World: Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Mitch’s World: Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

At times, dealing with "wholesale" clients on difficult driveability problems can be a lot more difficult than dealing with difficult customers.

As promised, the list was a page-and-a-half long. It was the longest laundry list of unsuccessful repairs detailing the inspection, testing, diagnosis and repair of any single vehicle I had ever seen!

As requested, it chronicled everything that had been done to the vehicle over a fairly long and very expensive history of “trial and error” diagnosis and repair. And, frankly, it just confirmed my initial reluctance to accept the vehicle for service in the first place, especially because it was coming from another shop and not from the owner of the vehicle.

Why should that make a difference? Because at times dealing with “wholesale” clients on difficult driveability problems can be a lot more difficult than dealing with difficult customers. However, the fact that this particular vehicle was coming from a shop some 60 miles away — a shop that felt compelled to see this problem through to a “successful” conclusion (vehicle no longer symptomized the way it did when it first appeared at their door), even though it was apparent it wasn’t really their responsibility — made a difference to me. It was admirable and demonstrated a level of commitment that I believe is rare outside our industry.

Aside from that, not being beaten by a machine is something I can relate to…no matter how much it will cost the shop or me. Not being able to give up and not being able to let go, are both traits that are an all-too-familiar reflection in the same mirror you’ve probably peeked in a time or two yourself.

It was also reminiscent of my father’s mantra, a mantra that has served us well over the years: “You gotta wanna fix the car!”

We still live by this mantra today, only now it’s tempered with the realities associated with success in our industry, including the need to make a profit. So, while we are absolutely committed to successfully “fixing” all the cars and trucks we accept for service, we are very selective about the problems we accept, and try to limit our practice only to those cars and trucks we believe will lend themselves to that success: both ours and our client’s.

So, while I was curious about the “what” and “how” surrounding this 1998 Suburban and its mystery “shudder,” “jerk” or “slam,” I was still inclined to say, “No!” with both arms outstretched and both index fingers crossed in front of me, when I received the first call asking if we would consider taking on the responsibility of diagnosing and repairing the vehicle.

The problem was empathy. You see, I’ve experienced the kind of frustration that borders on desperation when something you have invested a lot of time and money — and a lot of yourself — in, refuses to resolve itself the way you know it should. I know what it’s like to make that uncomfortable call informing the vehicle owner that his or her car or truck will not be ready when promised, that it hasn’t been fixed right the first time, and that you aren’t quite sure if or when you will be able to call back to tell them either has successfully occurred.

After all, based on what had been done to the Suburban, the litany of reasons not to accept it for service far exceeded any rational reason to allow it on the lot.

Again, the problem was empathy…an emotional tool that allows us to feel what another person is feeling or has felt. It helps us understand what someone else is going through. It connects us to another person in powerful and unique ways.

And, it can lead us to say, “Yes!” out of a sense of misplaced responsibility when we feel we have experienced and survived the same threats and stresses even when we know we shouldn’t.  

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, it can become a very expensive thing if you aren’t careful and you let it!

I was trying very hard not to let it by not accepting this particular challenge too quickly or without the proper caveats. I wasn’t going to allow myself to succumb to a seductive and irresistible challenge either!

Could we fix it? Of course! We can fix anything…no matter what it costs us! Hell, we’ve fixed cars it would have been cheaper for us to buy! But, we fixed ’em!

The challenge is never fixing the vehicle! Anyone can fix just about anything with the proper tools, training, information and resources. Do-It-Yourselfers do it all the time — it may take months and thousands of dollars in trial-and-error solutions, but they get it done…eventually!

The challenge is doing it on demand. The challenge is fixing the vehicle within a fixed period of time and at a profit each time, every time. So I made it perfectly clear there would be no deadlines and no special “breaks” or deals. We would accept the vehicle at our normal diagnostic rate, which compensates for the lost profit on parts sales that are bound to occur when all you are doing is inspection and testing, and we would call when it was ready.

It took a while for the transmission shop to decide, but, ultimately, the Suburban found its way to our door along with the paperwork I was holding in my hand. And, suddenly, the reality of succeeding where so many had failed was at the very least, daunting.

According to the laundry list of things that had been done, there wasn’t very much left for us to do!

The only thing we had going for us was “repeatability” — the vehicle symptomized consistently, eight out of 10 attempts. In fact, just about every time you eased off the throttle after accelerating to a normal cruising speed, the vehicle would “jerk” violently one time and then respond normally until the same set of conditions were repeated.

According to the paperwork, the transmission had been rebuilt just about a year ago after it had been to both an independent repair shop and a local dealership for inspection and testing. They concurred it was a transmission problem. The transmission shop looked at the vehicle and wasn’t convinced. The vehicle was returned to the customer and from there made it back to both the independent shop and the dealership before returning to the transmission shop with confirmation from both that the problem was, in fact, transmission-related; along with a request from the owner to rebuild it.

It was back less than three weeks later with the identical symptoms and that’s when it was time to climb on board “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

Before I go any further, I’d like to make one thing absolutely clear. I believe the transmission shop went “way above” and “way beyond” the call of duty to make this vehicle right! They spent an insane amount of time and money demonstrating their commitment to the customer and that deserves a great deal of respect, especially in times like these when everyone seems much more interested in escaping responsibility than in honoring commitment.

So, please don’t assume that I’m denigrating them or their performance in any way by sharing what had been done before we accepted this vehicle for service. The fact that they went as far as they did and reached in their pocket as deep as they did, speaks volumes about who they are and what they are all about. The fact there are so many of us who have done the same thing, or something similar in the past, and would be gladly willing to do it again in the future to ensure the same result, speaks volumes about our industry and the people who bring everything they have to it every day!

Having said all of that, here’s the list…
As mentioned, the vehicle was returned for the same symptom some 19 days after the first — pay attention to that word: first — rebuilt transmission had been installed. The transmission shop re-checked their work and then began to look for other causes and that’s where things got interesting. A “tune-up,” complete with spark plugs, wires, cap and rotor was performed. Valve timing was checked. And, the throttle position sensor was replaced, set and checked for the proper voltage signal. Nothing changed…

Another rebuilt transmission and converter was installed in the vehicle without success. So, a third (count ’em, three) transmission and converter were installed, with the second transmission installed in a different vehicle without a problem.
The transfer case was removed, inspected and re-assembled with a new chain, bearings and seals — the “jerk” was still there.

The inspection cover on the rear differential was removed so the ring & pinion, spiders and carriers could be inspected for backlash, wear and condition. They were fine.

The electronic control module was replaced; first, with a used unit and then with a remanufactured ECM with absolutely no difference in performance. The transmission shop then bypassed the wiring from the ECM to the lock-up on the converter and installed an auxiliary ground without success.

I was exhausted — and depressed — just reading the list. I could only imagine what being trapped in this nightmare felt like, when I came upon Item “J,” which read: “Customer had injector assembly replaced prior to us rebuilding the transmission (another auto repair shop).”

We went to work on the vehicle, verified the symptom and validated much of the work that had already been done. We had to be sure.

I gave it to my lead driveability guy and the more he worked on it, the more it became clear that everything that had been done had been done well, and that none of it made a bit of a difference with regard to the outcome. That’s when Bob came over to me and suggested the only thing that might cause a symptom like the one we were experiencing would be an incorrectly installed injector assembly: an assembly that had injector tubes going to the wrong cylinders…a mistake I thought impossible to make.

We called and got permission to remove the upper intake for inspection and sure enough, there wasn’t one injector tube going to the right hole! And, to make matters worse, it turned out the injector assembly we were looking at was the second injector installed on the vehicle. The first one had been replaced before the vehicle started symptomizing and was replaced again to ensure it wasn’t defective: the shop that installed it, installed it incorrectly twice!

We routed the injectors correctly, popped the top back on the intake, cleaned it up and drove it. Not only was the “jerking” gone, the vehicle had exponentially more power!

In the end, I found it fascinating that so much had been done to the vehicle without solving the problem, without the assurance it would.

I found it fascinating that the injector assembly — a part that had each injector tube numbered so it couldn’t be installed incorrectly — had been installed incorrectly — and twice!

I found it fascinating that the first thing that was done to the vehicle found its way to the end of the list instead of the beginning.

And, finally, I found it disappointing that a story like this, the story of a shop owner who would go so far above, so far beyond what was expected of him to resolve a problem like this — a problem he did not create — in an industry as easily maligned as ours can be; so far above, so far beyond that he would pay another shop — a shop like ours — to help resolve the problem rather than see his customer suffer, will never make the 6 o’clock news! 

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