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Avoiding blind sides in the bays

Going the extra mile so customers can drive instead of taking an unexpected walk.
Monday, November 1, 2010 - 00:00

Going the extra mile so customers can drive instead of taking an unexpected walk.

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Technicians – particularly those who work at dealerships – tend to develop a skewed view of certain vehicles because almost all of the ones they see are the ones with problems. Granted, quite a lot of dealership service work is preventative, particularly if the owner of the vehicle is prudently following the maintenance schedule. On that same note, when I was doing fleet maintenance, we had a lot less repair work in our bays if we did well on our inspections and services. Also, wise vehicle owners will be willing to spend money on scheduled maintenance to keep their cars running well. But there too often is a disconnect between what the customer expects and what some technicians actually do in the service bay.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that shops nowadays can't find experienced help, and some of them are hiring guys off the street and trying to train them in-house. By default, there are some significant problems those trainees will miss on a routine inspection, especially if they're servicing a lot of makes.

When we as technicians fail to be serious enough about performing routine inspections (and we should do one on every vehicle), we're not serving our customers with distinction and honor. This situation is exacerbated when we consider those customers who pay almost no attention to the recommended maintenance schedules, expecting their ride to give them comfort, cargo area and mobility without asking for anything except gas, tires and maybe an oil change now and then. And that group of motorists typically ignores warning lamps to their own disadvantage. If we can provide early warning and admonition when we service those cars, we should do so.

For the driver and the technician alike, it goes without saying that vehicles are a lot different now than they once were. In the 1930s, a car that went 10,000 miles without needing the piston rings replaced was the exception rather than the rule. In the 1960s, a car that made it to the 100,000-mile mark was considered something of an anomaly — the odometers on those cars typically rolled over at 99,999.

But as automobile powertrain and chassis part manufacturers got smarter (from decades of observing what elements wore out and which ones kept going on high mileage cars in the field), engine technology got better for the consumer.

By the late 1980s, there was a growing number of vehicles rolling off the dealer lots (both American and foreign nameplates) that would see 300,000 fairly trouble-free miles recorded on a million-mile odometer. And since the mid-1990s, the drivetrain components have been outlasting the body and trim parts by tens of thousands of miles.

If the engineers who designed that ridiculous cable-and plastic power window hardware had done as well as the powertrain folks have during the past 20 years, some of us would find ourselves with a lot less to do. One way or another, today's vehicles are vastly more sophisticated, both mechanically and electronically than anything our fathers could have imagined.

Be that as it may, there are some vehicles that seem to have been designed to destroy themselves if their maintenance schedules aren't followed. Examples are the Asian nameplates with rubber timing belts spinning components that aren't designed to be interference free, and they have a definite mileage mark when the timing belt is supposed to be replaced.

Toyotas are very forgiving, as are Fords. For a partial list of the engines that will damage themselves if they spin out of time, check out I always say that it's better to choose the time when the belt is replaced rather than letting the belt choose when to fail.

Inspections: How Thorough Should You Be?

My dad ran a VW shop for decades, and one day a new customer came to him with a proposal. She wanted to have him do a bumper-to-bumper inspection of her car every three months and she would pay him for whatever work he said she needed. In conclusion, the final statement of her verbal proposal soured him on the whole deal:

"If my car ever gives me any trouble at all, it will be your fault," she told him. He sent that woman packing and never laid a wrench on her car. But what she was looking for was peace of mind. She wanted a 100 percent guarantee that her car would never break down. Wouldn't we all?

While we might look high and low for any kind of red flag problem during an inspection, there are some breakdowns that simply are unforeseeable.

My brother asked me to do an inspection on his high-mileage car before he made a trip to Key West. After an exhaustive inspection, I could find nothing that needed repairing. Well, his alternator failed while he was in the Keys, and he had to pay a pretty penny to get it straightened out. When he got back home, I received a scathing indictment for my failure to predict the breakdown. Was it my fault that the alternator failed? The answer is a resounding no.

An underhood shakedown generally won't reveal a soon-to-fail alternator. So should we replace the battery, starter and alternator (even on a high-mileage car) every time we do a pre-trip inspection? Of course not! But what about those times when we miss something we should have checked and an expensive failure results on the road? Let's face it: Nobody wants that dropped the ball box checked when their customer is evaluating them.

When we do vehicle inspections on the cars in the college fleet, one of the things we check religiously is the oft-overlooked air pressure in the spare tire. If we have to add air to the spare every month, we find the leak and fix it. About six weeks ago on my recommendation, because of tread depth issues, a 2008 Impala in our fleet got a new set of tires at a tire shop not far from the main campus. The next time we did a vehicle inspection, we discovered that the tire pressure sensors were all out of place, so we broke out the TPMS tool and straightened that out. All they had to do was mark the rims and put them back where they were to begin with, but for some reason they did a shell game with the TPM sensors. This can be confusing when you're trying to set tire air pressures using TPM readings on the dash. It would seem that an established tire shop would be the least likely culprit in a case like this.

Occasionally we'll stumble across a seriously neglected checkpoint on some platforms that nobody even knows about, and the one I'm writing about right now, I discovered by accident.

Dried Out Corolla

One day a few years ago, my phone rang with a couple of my students on the other end of the line. They were sitting beside the road in their 1994 Corolla about a mile away from the shop, and when we went to retrieve them and the car, it looked like they had suddenly stomped and held the brakes and skidded from the fast lane onto the gravel shoulder. How they managed to point it toward the side of the road is kind of mysterious, especially because it happened so suddenly. When we got there, we discovered that this wasn't a tow rope job, because the car wouldn't roll. A wrecker was called, and an hour later the Corolla was sitting in one of my service bays. The end of that story was that the transaxle differential had run dry of lubricant and had finally rattled to a stop, but the dipstick was reading full.

The problem with that type of Toyota transaxle is that the differential gears are swimming in an oil reservoir all their own. The transmission dipstick can show full, but the differential (it calls for automatic transmission fluid as a lubricant) can be running as dry as the proverbial bone. That was the case with the Corolla, and what's even more astonishing is how few technicians (even those working at Toyota dealerships) know about this peculiarity of design.

Something else a lot of them don't know is how the screw on the fuel pressure regulator damper moves when the fuel rail has sufficient pressure, but that's another story. The differential gearbox holds just less than two quarts of oil and has a plug on the rear cover that must be removed for checking and filling with oil. Out of necessity, the little gearbox even has its own vent. Also, the oil can make its way out of the box very slowly by way of the CV axle seals. To further complicate matters, those seals only leak whenever the car is traveling down the road; they do very little leaking when the vehicle is at rest, so the driver isn't as likely to notice significant pavement stains.

The Leaky Camry

Fast forward to the here and now. My lunch partner (the IT guy here at the college, Alan) drives a 1997 Camry that had been making little spots on his driveway. Our initial inspection revealed some fresh engine oil droplets that had their origin at the left rear side of the valve cover. There was a drop hanging up there, and so I reached for it to let it soak the end of my finger. The engine oil was very clean, and if a drop made it to Alan's nice clean pavement it might be difficult to determine what color it was.

Seventeen dollars later we had replaced the valve cover gasket, dried the oil with brake parts cleaner and took the car for another test drive. The valve cover area was dry, but as I took stock of the differential seals, it was evident that there had been some seepage. It would be smart at this point to check the differential oil level (and kind of dumb not to). With the fill plug removed, I could barely reach the oil with the blade of my pocket screwdriver.

To digress in a necessary way, I had mentioned this fluid level check and potential disaster to my friend Donnie — he owns a shop, and his wife drives a Camry. The whole deal was news to him, so he threw her car on the lift and to her relief he found her differential oil level just fine. But a few weeks after our discussion about the need to check the fluid in this gearbox, a customer who would be making an 1,100-mile trip hired Donnie to do an inspection on a Camry. While everything else checked out just fine, that differential was practically out of oil. Donnie added 1.5 quarts to bring it to the mouth of the fill hole, and the CV axle seals were obviously a concern as well.

Imagine how it would have felt for this customer to have the Camry at Donnie's shop for a checkup, only to have the differential seize up somewhere on an interstate. Would Donnie have checked that fluid level if he and I hadn't discussed it? "Probably not," he says.

The Camry we fixed got new CV axle seals and a gearbox full of fluid before it left the shop, and the owner of the vehicle got the peace of mind he was hoping for. Oh yeah, and he also wound up with a clean garage floor. That was his original concern.


We all depend very heavily on our vehicles and most people don't have the money to buy a new one every time the warranty expires. As technicians, we need to do every job and handle every car the way we would if our wife, mother, sister or daughter was driving it. That means going the extra mile so they don't have to worry that their next mile will be on foot, or worse, that their next mile might be their last.

Richard McCuistian is an ASE-certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years. Richard is now an auto mechanics instructor at LBW Community College/MacArthur Campus in Opp, Ala. E-mail Richard at

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