It must have been quite a sight — me sitting behind the counter staring at the computer screen, looking at the digital images, shaking my head in disbelief. After all, it isn’t every day you see a fairly late-model vehicle with the entire bottom of the undercarriage torn away. But, then again, I knew it was going to be ugly when one of my techs stuck his head in the office door and quietly said, “Hey, boss! You’d better come out here and take a look at this… Oh, yeah, and bring the digital!”
Coming to get me generally indicates something going on out in the shop of major significance; something the tech knows he will have difficulty capturing on his copy of the repair order. And, a request for the digital camera can only mean one thing: a picture really is worth a thousand words. Whatever it is, it’s something that he knows will be equally difficult to adequately describe to the vehicle owner without a digital image. However, knowing all of that still wasn’t enough to prepare me for the kind of damage and destruction I found as I ducked under the vehicle for the first time.
If a vehicle could physically cry out in pain, the little sea foam green Volkswagen Beetle high in the third bay would be screaming either for mercy or for a quiet end to it all. It was obvious that someone had been driving the vehicle at a relatively high speed when they were confronted with either a significant dip in the road or a substantial obstacle, neither of which they were able to avoid. Either way, there was broken, torn and twisted metal everywhere you cast your eyes; all easy enough to see because every shred of plastic shrouding placed under the drivetrain to cover and protect the vehicle’s belly was gone; ripped away completely.
The damage was impressive. First, there were the missing splash guards and shrouds, some remnants of which were still bolted to the undercarriage. Next, the black metal shield placed under and bolted to the transaxle (probably to protect the transmission oil pan) was punctured, twisted and torn away from its mounts like it was a piece of paper. There was evidence that transmission fluid had hemorrhaged from the left front corner of the pan where it was crushed and separated from the transaxle, the shield obviously inadequate to protect the pan from an impact of this magnitude. And, there were marks on the inside of the wheel wells, high and toward the rear where the axles slammed back against plastic.
I was in awe. Someone had to lose a filling or two when this baby touched down! I could actually hear someone screaming, “Yahoo!” when they went airborne!
The lower oil pan had a crescent-shaped crack just above the oil drain plug and there were deep surface cuts on the bottom of the pan. The power steering rack was broken and split wide apart exposing the rack itself, something I had never seen before. The transaxle’s side cover was punctured and pulled away and the back of the transaxle was shattered where the supporting arm should have been attached. Suspension components were broken, bent and pushed out of position and the tie rods were anything but straight.
I stopped calculating when I saw the rack. At that point, it was apparent the cost of repair would more than exceed the market value of the vehicle, but I kept on looking. It was fascinating contemplating what might have happened: how fast the vehicle was traveling, what it hit or what hit it, the force of the impact, what it must have sounded like and exactly what might have been going through the driver’s mind when it became obvious that half the vehicle had been left a quarter mile back down the road!
And, all that was before my tech lowered the vehicle to show me that both front air bags had been deployed and the seat belts had locked on impact!
It’s bad enough when you’re confronted with this kind of carnage on a vehicle that doesn’t “belong” to you, but when all this damage and the expense that will inevitably accompany it belongs to one of your customers, especially a customer you like, it’s devastating. That’s why I was sitting there shaking my head. I just didn’t know how to share all of this with the vehicle’s owner.
The telephone forced me back to reality. As luck would have it, it was the Beetle’s owner and the question of how it happened, or how or what to tell him became suddenly irrelevant with the call. Before I even attempted to describe what we had found, I asked if he had access to e-mail and a mailbox large enough to accommodate about a dozen high-quality images. He had both and I suggested that I first send him the images I had captured, and then we could talk about what they revealed.
Alright, I’m a coward. I let the images do the dirty work of exposing the damage for me. It certainly made a lot more sense than trying to paint a verbal picture of the shredded undercarriage of his Beetle. I felt the pictures would prepare him for the discussion to follow and I could follow that with what needed to be done to restore the vehicle to a baseline of performance or, more appropriately, suggest he “retire” it. What more than 40 years in this business left me totally unprepared for, however, was the conversation that followed.
The customer was incredulous, as in unwilling to admit or accept what is offered as true. His youngest daughter had been at the wheel and he just couldn’t understand how hitting a speed bump while driving through an alley at 5 mph could cause that kind of damage. I don’t blame him. I couldn’t see how hitting a speed bump while driving through an alley at 5 mph could cause that kind of damage either. Fifty-five, maybe… Five, never!
I quietly tried to suggest that seatbelts don’t lock, air bags don’t deploy, metal doesn’t rip or twist and components don’t shatter on impact at 5 mph. If they did, there would be broken car parts and pieces strewn across every road in America. There was only one problem, he wasn’t buying what I was selling. His baby girl insisted she was going only 5 mph when she hit that speed bump and that the air bags didn’t deploy and the seat belts didn’t lock until at least five minutes after the impact.
It was a story that was every bit as impossible as it was implausible!
How any reasonable, rational, intelligent adult could look at those pictures and the story they told and still believe what his daughter insisted was the truth was beyond me. And, then I suddenly realized I was sitting there smiling.
It was more than 40 years earlier on a sunny afternoon during the summer of my 18th birthday, and I was standing alongside my father outside one of the service bays in the dealership where he worked soon after we first came to California. My 1955 Studebaker Commander was up in the air and we were watching the sun reflect off the millions of tiny brass particles mixed in with the gear lube that was slowly draining from the transmission. It would have been a beautiful sight if it had been anyone else’s transmission fluid; still more beautiful if my father really believed that I had no idea how the synchro-locks in that transmission had shattered! But, the harder I tried to convince him that I had no idea what had happened, or even how it happened, the more stern his expression became. He wasn’t buying what I was selling!
I knew I was in trouble when he just raised his hand to signal that he had heard enough — it was time for me to stop talking.
He turned to me and smiled, “Listen, Mitchell. You can tell me anything you want. You can tell me you don’t know what happened, or even that you don’t know how it happened. But, you need to know one thing before you continue. No matter what you tell me, you’ve got to know that this piece of metal will never lie to me. It doesn’t know how! It’s going to tell me what happened, and what happened is going to tell me how it happened.
“You see those shinny little pieces of brass in the fluid? They are what used to be your second and third gear synchros,” Dad continued. “They are what helps you shift smoothly between gears. They’re shattered. Do you know how that happens? It happens when you ‘slam’ gears. I think you kids call it ‘Power Shifting.’ Do you know when most people power shift, Mitchell? They power shift when they’re racing. Were you racing, Mitchell?”
I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a quickly approaching 18-wheeler. My father was a formidable and imposing figure when he wasn’t angry and he was a true force of nature when provoked, and he wasn’t smiling because he was happy. He was smiling because he was amused that I could come up with such a lame excuse and then actually think he would buy into it!
Back to present day, I was smiling because I was amused the Beetle’s owner would buy into his daughter’s lame excuse and then I realized it was no more valid — or truthful — than my own. It was just the latest, greatest version of “But, Dad…” There was only one difference. My father spoke “car,” and knew that I was lying through my teeth when I said, “But, Dad, I swear I wasn’t racing!”
“It” didn’t break — I broke it. I won the race, but I broke it! And, both my father and I knew it!
The Beetle’s owner was lost in the world between fantasy and reality because he didn’t speak “car.” We did. When confronted with a choice between believing me or believing his daughter, he preferred to believe her version of “But, Daddy…”
I couldn’t fault him for that. My only regret is that I was never able to get away with any of the, “But, Dad…” excuses I came up with regardless of how clever or imaginative they might have been. So, I did the only thing I could… I learned to speak “car.” And, learning to speak “car” proved invaluable, especially when one of my own kids attempted to explain what had happened to them or to their vehicle by starting the second or third paragraph with “But, Dad…” or, “But, Daddy…”
Have you ever had a similar incident where a customer didn’t believe your damage assessment?
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