My car is a 1994 Geo Prizm. Doing the math, you see that my car is 18 years old. That is not very old for a person — in fact, you normally wouldn’t even pay attention to a person who isn’t at least that old — but it is quite old for an automobile that is in working condition and being driven regularly. In the United States, the average car on the road is 10.8 years old. By those standards, my Geo Prizm is a senior citizen!
Like most senior citizens, my car has begun to fall apart and make odd noises and leak fluids and embarrass me in front of my friends. Miraculously, however, it has not yet cost me a lot of money. I got the car for free five years ago from my metaphorical Aunt Karen, and apart from the expense of getting it from Aunt Karen’s house in Ohio to my apartment in Oregon, I’ve had to spend very little on it.
But I feared recently that this was about to change. The car has a manual transmission, and one night I noticed that it was suddenly harder to shift from neutral into first gear than it was supposed to be. Going from first to second was a little tricky, too. What did this portend? I didn’t think it was the gear shift itself that was bad, simply because I’d never heard of a car having to have its gear shift replaced. That didn’t sound familiar. Maybe it was the clutch? That sounded better. “Yeah, the clutch went out. Had to replace the clutch.” That rang a bell. That was definitely a thing that I’d heard men say before.
It got worse over the next couple days. The gears would grind terribly when I shifted into first, second, or reverse, and the act of shifting required far more arm strength than I was accustomed to using (for anything, not just shifting). So I called my dad. Dads in general are supposed to know about cars, of course, but my dad actually made a living as an auto mechanic for several years when I was a kid. For that reason, he is very good to have around. (I can take him or leave him otherwise.) Based on my description, he said it was possible that the synchronizers were bad and that the transmission would need to be rebuilt, a labor-intensive project that could cost well over a thousand dollars — far more than the car is worth. The car is not worth very much at all. It basically doubles in value whenever I fill the gas tank.
I began to prepare myself for the possibility that the end was nigh, that it was time to convene the Death Panel, declare my car not worth curing, and set it out by the curb for the garbageman to collect. But we weren’t there yet. After a few more days of increasingly difficult shifting and incredibly loud gear-grinding, I took the car to AAMCO, which everyone knows is where you go for transmission problems. Meineke is for mufflers, Jiffy Lube is for oil changes, and AAMCO is for transmissions. They used to have TV commercials that said “Double-A — honk honk! — M-C-O.” Any auto-repair chain that spells out its name for you on TV is surely trustworthy.
I left my car with a guy at AAMCO named Dave (all garages have a guy named Dave), who called me a couple hours later to report his findings. He said I had two problems. I said, “Oh, I have more than that,” and he said he was just talking about the car. With this bit of bonhomie out of the way, he explained. One of the clutch-related cylinders was leaking hydraulic fluid and would have to be replaced. In addition to that, the clutch itself was damaged due to the something of something, and the flywheel and the friction plate and the hey-hey and the glavin. He could very well have been making up words. All told, it was going to cost around $800. I told Dave at AAMCO that I would call him back.
Quickly, before I could forget everything Dave had just told me, I called my dad to get his opinion. Now, the thing you have to understand about my dad is that since he used to be an auto mechanic, he despises auto mechanics. He assumes they’re all crooked and dishonest, the whole lot of them. If you drive your car into a shop with flames leaping out of the engine, and the mechanic tells you that the engine is on fire, my dad will recommend guarded skepticism until he’s had a chance to look at it himself.
I reported what I could remember of what Dave had said. My dad, unsurprisingly, was suspicious. While it was possible for the cylinder to be bad AND for the clutch to be in need of replacement, it would be a major coincidence if both occurred simultaneously. The problems I was having could very well be explained entirely by the bad cylinder, which would only cost a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty bucks, to replace. Furthermore, my dad said, the only way Dave could know these other things he was saying about the clutch was if he had taken the transmission out of the car and pulled it apart — which he obviously had not done, since that’s a big project and he’d only had the car for a couple hours. Based on what I was telling my dad about what Dave was telling me, things didn’t add up.
I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to call Dave back and say, “Hey, Dave, sorry, but my dad thinks you’re lying”? That was going to be awkward. Besides, it was possible — likely, even — that I had not conveyed everything to my dad with the utmost accuracy. Dave had used terms I was not familiar with to describe parts of a car that I was not familiar with. (The parts of a car that I am familiar with are as follows: tires, steering wheel, gear shift, pedals, stereo, cup holder.) Further clarification was needed. My dad offered to call and talk to Dave himself. I told him to go for it.
Am I 37-year-old man who had his dad deal with a possibly dishonest mechanic for him? Yes. YES I AM. But I don’t look at it as having my dad fight my battles for me. I look at it as having an acquaintance who knows a lot about cars helping me out, and that acquaintance happens to be my dad. (For the record, though, I also have no problem with my dad fighting my battles for me.)
So Dad called Dave, then called me back several minutes later with this diagnosis: Dave at AAMCO sits on a throne of lies. When my dad asked Dave to explain in greater detail what the problem was beyond the damaged cylinder, Dave responded with — and this was my dad’s phrase — “a stream of nonsense.” He said that when Dave had realized he was talking to someone who knew a thing or two about cars, he had paused only momentarily to recalibrate his story before plunging ahead with a fanciful and elaborate tale of clutch-related problems that my dad did not buy for one second. It all came down to Dave claiming to know things about my clutch that he couldn’t have known without spending several hours pulling the transmission apart, or without being a car psychic, which isn’t a real thing.
Dad’s recommendation, basically, was that I return to AAMCO, push Dave into the bushes, and get my car out of there. Naturally, I was still concerned about the social etiquette involved. I didn’t want to tell Dave, “You’re a liar, so we’re going somewhere else,” especially since I knew my car was going to make comically loud screeching noises when I drove it away. It’s hard to take the moral high ground when your actions are accompanied by cartoon sound effects.
“I said good day, sir!” [GRRRRNNNNKKK-KKCCHCCHH! GRRRNNNNKKKNNKKK-KKKKCCCHCHCKHRRNNGG!]
My dad suggested I frame it in terms of “Well, since it’s so expensive, I’m going to get a second opinion before I give you the go-ahead.” That sounded smart. Since it was not feasible for my dad to fly to Portland and go with me to face Dishonest Dave at AAMCO, I handled it myself.
Dave was all smiles and humility when I returned. I think he realized we were onto him. When I said I was going to get a second opinion, he said, “You know, we could just replace that bad cylinder and see if that solves the problem. That would only take about an hour, cost a hundred and twenty-five dollars or so.” In other words, he was now offering to do the thing that we suspected was the only thing that actually needed to be done anyway. My dad had warned me that Dave might try to backpedal. But how could we trust him now? He’d had the chance to be honest and up-front, and he’d been greedy and underhanded instead. There was no going back now. I told him no, I was going to take the car for another diagnosis somewhere else, and I’d let him know if I required his services. We shook hands and parted amicably.
When I got home, I went online to look for another transmission shop. One that jumped out at me was called Guaranteed Transmission. Guaranteed! That sounded good! It wasn’t a national chain, and their website was charmingly terrible, with do-it-yourself graphics and atrocious spelling and grammar.
GUARANTEED TRANSMISSION welcome you to our shop website.
GUARANTEED TRANSMISSION, our mission has been to give our customers a quality services at a fair price….that has been our goal over 25 years in the field and holds true today in the North of Portland, Oregon.
Also we understand our customers needs….whether you are keeping the vehicle or will be selling or trading it in….we have the right warranty.
Each technician at our shop is hight qualified and ready to deliver their expert transmission repair technician and skills for your every repair need.
Our skills technicians always check the level and condition of your transmission fluid, drive, or attempts to drive, your car, raise it up on uor lift & inspects underneath your car for damage or leak
If you have any the transmission problems… No Problem! Bring your car to the experts at GUARANTEE TRANSMISSION shop or please don’t hesitate to call us. Anytime, we have time to take your call.
This was the place for me. There’s no way you can have a website like this AND lie to your customers AND stay in business. I took the car in the next morning. It was a relatively small, appropriately greasy garage, clearly a mom-and-pop operation. The owner, Tinh, a Vietnamese man of about 50, asked what the trouble was, and I repeated what my dad had told me to say: “The clutch cylinder is leaking, and Dave at AAMCO is a liar.”
Tinh said, “Do you know which cylinder?” I said, “Yeah, we do, it’s the clutch slave cylinder.” That’s really what it’s called. There’s also a clutch master cylinder. I don’t like it either. I didn’t want to say “clutch slave cylinder” to the guy until I had to, in case the terminology had been updated since the last time my dad worked on cars professionally. (“Could you help me out? My clutch slave cylinder is bad.” “Uh, sir, I think you mean the clutch dignified servant cylinder?”) But no, it’s still called that, and Tinh opened the hood of my car and showed me where it was. I told him AAMCO had wanted to replace the whole clutch. He said, “No, no, we’ll do this first, and then we’ll see if it needs anything else.” I asked how much it would cost. He said, “About a hundred dollars, maybe a hundred and twenty.”
I went away. Tinh called me two hours later and said it was ready. I came back. The car now shifted smoothly into all gears, without turmoil or calamity. Where the gear shift had previously felt like it was encased in cement, now it felt like it was wrapped in Jell-o. It was better than it had been in the five years since I’d owned it. Tinh charged me an even $100, or about one-eighth what Dave at AAMCO had intended to charge. Tinh has my business from now on, and AAMCO can kiss my Meineke.
Speaking of which, if Dave at the AAMCO on NE 82nd Avenue in Portland happens to read this, I have a message for him.
Hi, Dave. Remember me? I was the guy with the Geo Prizm with a bad clutch slave cylinder, and my dad called you? Remember? You probably don’t get a lot of phone calls from the fathers of grown men whose cars are in your shop. Well, you overplayed your hand when you said the car needed eight hundred dollars’ worth of work. There was no way I was going to pour that kind of money into an 18-year-old car with 275,000 miles on it. If you’d been honest, I’d have paid you the hundred or hundred and fifty bucks to replace the cylinder. But no. You got greedy. You thought I was some rube who could be taken advantage of — which, to be fair, is usually accurate — and as a result, you got nothing from me, while an honest immigrant made the sale and earned my loyalty. So you can just sit there and think about what you did wrong.
Eric D. Snider
P.S. My dad can beat up your dad.
A Year of Snide Remarks was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. This week’s column was sponsored by Lowry Financial Advisors. Sponsor had no editorial control over the column, and the author alone is responsible for its content.