About the worst thing that can happen around here is a week where all kinds of bizarre things accumulate. Aside from the absolute chaos it inflicts on everyone including me, the crush of dealing with multiple crises makes it almost impossible to identify where one calamity ends and another begins.
The ability to cope with multiple disasters simultaneously is something each and every one of us can include on our résumés with great pride, and anyone who believes men can’t multi-task need only spend a couple of hours in most any independent repair shop in the country to find out just how patently absurd that statement really is. The challenge for me isn’t just dealing with the events as they unfold, however. It’s trying to surgically isolate each crisis in order to capture them all on paper, especially when they all bleed together.
When that happens I just wind up sitting where I’m sitting right now wondering how I’m going to explain any of the truly strange events that challenged my week with anxiety, aggravation and more excitement than I really had any desire to deal with — weeks that all of us have known all too well and all too often.
Too many times, things are so knotted up I can’t untangle them and they are lost. I can’t write about them. I can’t talk about them. I don’t even like to think about them. All I want to do is send the memory of each fragment of insanity off to wherever it is supposed to go when it’s finally time to roll down the doors and turn off the lights — when all that is left of the week is a line of fading tail lights as all the broken cars and broken people head home.
This was that kind of week with three very different crises blossoming simultaneously. One had to do with an older guy who thought there was nothing wrong with driving his old Suburban with the frame cracked almost all the way through, and that may have been the least his problems with that vehicle. The other two involved a couple of teenagers: one, oblivious to the vehicle he was driving, and the other, aware but dangerously ignorant.
This trilogy begins with a desperate phone call from a client’s wife asking if she could bring her son’s Honda in for an unscheduled inspection.
We’re working short-handed, with one of our technicians out recovering from a serious infection (the subject of a column yet to be written). That has left us scrambling to keep up with demand and made scheduling more important than ever. But, this is a great customer and a great family and, despite the fact that it would destroy the illusion of any scheduling we might have had before the call, the urgency and alarm I could sense in her voice made her request compelling and getting the vehicle in a priority.
She was visibly shaken when she arrived at the shop. She wasn’t even supposed to be driving his car, but her SUV was on empty and his Honda had a full tank of gas; she had a million errands to run and he was car-pooling. Taking his car just seemed like the most reasonable and expedient thing to do.
Of course, that was before she drove it.
She complained that it pulled hard to the right; a pull so violent it caused an unplanned lane change on the freeway. There was more, but that didn’t matter: the vehicle just didn’t “feel” right and she didn’t want her son driving it until someone had a chance to check it out.
She needed to drop his car off, get home, get her car, get gas and get all of her errands out of the way before dinner. Some of the office staff was at lunch and everyone else was busy trying to get their work done. I decided to kill all the birds with one stone; I would road-test the vehicle while driving her home. It seemed like a great idea. They live a few miles from the shop, in a canyon, up a pretty significant hill. The drive home and back would serve as a perfect opportunity to see just what the vehicle was doing.
I’ve been dealing with steering and suspension complaints for most of the 41 years I’ve been in this industry. I started out doing alignments when it was the technician’s responsibility — not the equipment’s — to figure out where and how to set the vehicle. I’ve driven vehicles with serious problems before. I’ve even had parts fall off a vehicle I was test driving, but I can’t remember being more terrified than I was on the drive to her house. Unless, of course, you consider the drive back!
She drove home and you could feel the vehicle refuse to respond properly while she was driving it. She would move the steering wheel lightly to the right, and then all of a sudden the vehicle would try to make a right turn. As she tried to compensate, it would over-correct leaving her as the driver and me as a passenger, wondering just how long it would take for the Honda to smash into another vehicle or wind up in a ditch!
When we arrived at her home I remember thinking to myself; “Thank God! Now, I’ll have the wheel and things won’t be so scary!” After I got behind the wheel and started to head back down the hill, I thought, “She’s complaining about the way this thing felt at 80 mph on the freeway? What the hell was she doing driving this vehicle at 80 when I can’t keep it straight at 30! She doesn’t seem like she has a death-wish!”
I was soaking wet when I got back; partially, from the exertion of trying to herd that little Honda back to the shop without hurting myself, the vehicle or worse yet, someone else. But, mostly from realizing that I was damned lucky to have made it back at all. We put it up on the alignment rack and lifted it off the wheels. A quick visual inspection revealed something I probably should have checked before anyone got in the vehicle, and that was the tires. The two rear wheels were visibly and violently out of alignment, worn through the metal belts on the inside edges of both tires. All four were lumpy and out-of-round enough to cause all kinds of problems, but none consistent with what we both had experienced. We kept looking until we found the cause of that spooky, “I’m not going where you pointed me!” sensation.
The bolt that retains and pivots the right front lower control arm to the sub-frame had completely come loose. In fact, the only thing preventing the lower arm from sliding out of the frame and all the collateral damage likely to result from such a failure was the catalytic converter, which was close enough to prevent the bolt from coming all the way out. You could grab the wheel at 6 and 12 o’clock and rock it in and out more than an inch! It seems their son slid the vehicle into a curve to avoid a near collision. The whole right front side had been crushed, then repaired, including the right side lower arm.
How could the alignment be so far off or the tires so badly worn on a car we take care of? That’s easy. This kid has friends, and they “know” cars. Unbeknownst to his mother or father, the son and his friends apparently pulled the springs out, cut them and then reinstalled them, lowering the vehicle — not enough for Dad to notice, just enough to look cool!
Did they know or understand anything about alignment or the impact cutting the springs would have? What do you think?
The customer replaced all four tires. The body shop that did the original work repaired the lower arm. And, we brought the vehicle back into alignment. It tracked properly and felt good — a far cry from the way it handled when it first arrived at the shop. But, the story can’t end here.
You see, both you and I know and understand that those two rear tires didn’t wear out overnight, just as we both know the lower control arm retaining bolt didn’t come out all at once. Anyone who speaks “auto” knows there had to be some warning signs, some way the vehicle desperately tried to communicate something was seriously wrong.
I felt the problem from the passenger seat before we were out of the driveway. I didn’t know exactly what it was until I came back and we started looking. But I knew there was something loose enough to shift back and forth before the vehicle ever left the ground.
I could feel it. You would feel it. The kid who was driving it all the time, the kid who drove it every day didn’t have a clue! It took an empty tank of gas and all the elements in the universe aligning perfectly for the problem to manifest itself before someone got hurt. To compound matters, even though Mom knew something was radically wrong, something she could “feel” almost instantly, that didn’t stop her from driving the vehicle at dangerously high and unsafe speeds!
There is a valuable lesson here and that is the majority of your customers can’t really tell if there is anything wrong with what they’re driving no matter how obvious it might be to you or me. Once upon a time it took a serious amount of skill coupled with a high level of awareness to operate a motor vehicle. Today, people are starting to believe that what they’re driving is just about smart enough to drive itself.
They haven’t been taught to feel, or how or what to listen for.
That makes inspecting every vehicle that comes through the bay door critical. It makes driving every vehicle almost mandatory.
Somewhere toward the end of the week I remember saying to myself, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all!”
Looking back at the three vehicles that were responsible for the majority of that stress, I can’t help think about just how lucky I really am.
This kid could have been hurt, possibly even killed. His mother could have shared the same fate, as could have I, but we fixed it and may have averted a tragedy in the process. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot more like “good luck” than no luck or bad luck to me!
Mitch Schneider is the co-owner of Schneider’s Automotive Repair, an independent repair facility located in Simi Valley, CA. An ASE Master Technician and ASE-certified C1 Service Advisor, Schneider is a 40-year veteran of the automotive service and repair industry. You can e-mail Mitch at [email protected]