Are you the type who takes your car to the dealership for routine care and maintenance? Do you prefer to do everything yourself, from oil changes to brake jobs? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle and use an independent local mechanic or a franchise like those specializing in tires or transmissions? Whatever your choice, you likely have a very strong opinion why it’s best.
When I was newly licensed, I asked my dad to teach me a few things every good gearhead should know. I learned the ins and outs of oil changes (complete with hot liquid down my arm), the proper way to jump a battery, how to change a tire using those frustratingly inadequate little scissor jacks, and how to swap out spark plugs among other things. I will be the first to tell you I still have a lot to learn but I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a good bit of grease and brake dust under your nails.
As I’ve gotten older and busier, I haven’t had the time or resources to do my own wrenching. I started going to one of those chain stores mostly because it was quick and I no longer had a driveway; working on vehicles in our parking area is forbidden. It wasn’t my favorite choice, and fell even further from favor after one particularly bad experience: After I left the garage, I heard a loud clunk-clunk-clunk. I pulled over in a shopping center and after a quick inspection, pulled the center cap covering the lug nuts off the wheel. They hadn’t even bothered tightening the lugs, and the cap was the only thing holding them on. Thankful that I had a four-way lug wrench in the trunk, I spent the next ten minutes swearing like Yosemite Sam as I went around the car tightening them properly. I shudder to think what might have happened if my passengers and I had been on the highway instead.
More recently, my Mazda gave me the Check Engine Light of Annoyance (automotive equivalent of the Windows Blue Screen of Death) as I experienced my own unintentional acceleration drama. Thoroughly freaked out, I asked a friend to help me diagnose it and he suggested cleaning the throttle body. One afternoon (and one screwdriver dropped into the opening, only able to be retrieved with a flexible magnetic rod) later, it stopped bucking at stoplights but the light remained on. I figured if ever there was a time to take it to the pros, this would be it.
I’d never been to a dealership but had heard and read all kinds of horror stories. Cautiously, I scheduled an appointment, researched all the TSBs that might be related to the issue, checked for recalls, and crossed my fingers. It seems I found one of the few honest service departments left in our great country (at least, in my neck of the woods). My Service Manager was beyond courteous, completely honest, and went out of his way to make sure it was fixed in time. It turns out I had a giant hole in one of the vacuum hoses that I couldn’t see. Finally, the CEL was gone from my dash. I don’t know how much longer I’ll have the car but it needs some love if I want it to keep running well. Although the prices are more expensive, the dealership lets me use coupons and I trust they’ll get the work done correctly. I know that this is the exception, not the rule, though which is unfortunate.
It was easy to understand my little four-bangers of ’90’s vintage but I can only wonder about the future. It’s getting to where you need a degree from MIT, six years at NASA, and a bit of luck to comprehend the workings of modern vehicles. Cars are rolling Smartphones and have more nannies than a celebrity mom these days. Will we be able to continue the ritual of Saturday shade-tree mechanics? And if not, what happens when your local dealership is more of a stealership that cares more about profits than proper service? It will be interesting to see how this evolves.