Why is it so hard to find a good and fair deal at the mechanic’s?

Greetings Baraza,

I am a regular reader of your column, and I find your articles very educative. Now, my problem: I find it very difficult to get an honest mechanic who isn’t out to ensure you make repeat visits to their garage. This is especially so for women.

In the last few months, colossal amounts have been spent on our Peugeot 405 windows, fuses, starter, fuel pump, cooling system and flywheel (I think — for the starter). The 406 (yes, another Peugeot, so you can guess which part of Kenya we may be from) similarly frequented the same garage multiple times for a noise emanating from the bottom right of the vehicles which, once fixed, shifted to the left, as well as its windows. Mzee recently took it there for something or other, and the car radio is now dead and needs fixing!

After several repeat visits with the 405, which is the car I regularly use, I just had it and decided that mechanics from the facility based at Bul Bul, Ngong would never touch any of our Peugeots with my permission (of course Mzee has his own opinion!).

My fears/suspicions were confirmed when once the mechanic realised that I had had enough, he quickly shifted a fuse from one place to another and Eureka! both windows were now functional! This after multiple visits.

It is only after discussing the issues with colleagues that  I learnt that fuel pumps and starters could be manipulated this way hence the hard starts I had been experiencing throughout my garage visits. Needless to say, I reverted to using our generally honest mechanic who has been with us since 1988 when we got our first car. He is based in  Eastlands though, several kilometers away, hence our decision to get one closer home, for emergencies.

Good day and keep us posted.

Helen

 

Hi Helen,

Remember the “name ‘em-and-shame ‘em programme” I proposed a few weeks ago? Congratulations: yours is our first entry.

That being said, you also happened to get caught between, not Scylla and Charibdis as such, but more like a baby buffalo trapped in the jaws of a crocodile on one end, and the claws of a lion on the other. They unwittingly work in tandem to tear you apart. This is why.

The notorious Peugeot (un)reliability reared its head, pushing you towards a garage; only for you to end up in the nest of a dishonest viper trying to take you for all you have. This brings to the fore certain matters that have occupied my mind for quite some time — since the inception of Car Clinic, to be exact.

There is what I write here, and then there is what goes unwritten. Motoring is a massive field that no one person can claim mastery of; though there are those of us who certainly try. Garages have gained a reputation as routes of ripping off unknowing individuals, and what Car Clinic seeks to do is empower these individuals to rescue them from the jaws of the avaricious.

Well, Mr Car Clinic himself has taken it upon his shoulders to push this empowerment a notch higher. There are two options that I have at my disposal:

  1. Start a lecture circuit: The target audience is the utterly befuddled: they that know not how a car can be rigged to behave badly, forcing the hapless owner to pay dearly to have the sabotage undone (individuals such as yourself). Petrolheads need not apply, but they are welcome for curiosity’s sake. The mission of these lectures is to imbue a certain basic knowledge into unknowledgeable car owners, so that rather than tell the mechanic “There is a funny noise coming from the front right tyre”, what they say is “My ball joints need adjustment, do it pronto; AND DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH ANYTHING ELSE THAT IS NOT A BALL JOINT”. You don’t need to be an automotive engineer to know what is wrong with your car: 85 per cent of these issues can be diagnosed by a layman. I want you and your ilk to have this knowledge. For the other 15 per cent  of problems that may lie beyond the layman’s scope, you have my email address. Car Clinic continues…

*Small Print: Unlike Car Clinic, these lectures will not be free of charge. I seriously need a faster car. That being said, they will not be expensive either; just a token fee towards my efforts to uplift an entire Nation (pun intended) from the darkness of ignorance

  1. Create an online platform: Because this is currently proprietary information, I will leave it at that; but it is a work in progress and the results should be amazing; so amazing that this too, like the lectures, is going to incur a small charge on users, but the benefits will be far-reaching and well worth the payment.

I have my own Stealership experience to contribute to the name ‘em-and-shame ‘em project. I once took my car to a garage for a thorough cleaning (alongside some repairs) and when they were refitting the interior, someone messed up the gear linkage (the vehicle is a 5-speed manual). When time came to pick up the car I was unpleasantly surprised to discover a certain lack of power, especially when trying to go uphill. It turns out that during reassembly, the 1st and 2nd gear linkage was out of kilter, so basically 3rd was the new 1st, 4th the new second and so on and so forth. I initially thought maybe someone had got water into the sensitive parts of the engine (which is why three years ago I advised against people using pressurised water for an engine wash) and the result was a dramatic loss of power.

Me being me, I also noticed there was no 4th gear, instead 4th was now reverse and wouldn’t engage as long as the car was moving forward. It didn’t take me long to realise what was amiss: the linkage had been incorrectly reinstalled. So I headed back to the garage and asked them: “What the hell, dude?”

WATCH ME FIX IT

Along came one genius of a mechanic, who quipped: “You need a new clutch.”

”No I don’t. I know what a burnt or worn out clutch is like (a colleague once burnt the clutch on the 405 I used to drive) and this is not it. The linkage is off. Fix it. It takes less than three minutes to do it anyway.”

“I tell you it’s the clutch”

“It’s the linkage.”

“It’s the clutch.”

This went on for several minutes, to the point where one unwise mechanic’s ego started getting bruised and he tried brushing me off with “Get your own mech, then; and sod off…”

Now, for those who do not know, replacing the clutch on a front drive car such as a “Mazdalago” like mine is no mean feat. It requires dismantling of almost the entire front end (tyres, brakes, hub assembly, driveshafts et al) and removal of the gearbox; meaning it takes no less than two people to do it. It is also a job that takes several hours, if not days; the risk of damaging other components is very high, clutch kits for certain vehicle models are very expensive and you can see why I did not want them fiddling unnecessarily with my clutch just to prove a wrong point.

Solution? Simple. Grab one lesser ranking mechanic from the same garage by the collar, grab a screwdriver and a spanner and tell him: “Watch this.”

They had absolutely no idea who they had been talking to. I repaired the linkage myself, right there in their thieving, conniving, money-grabbing premises. All it involved was removal of the leather boot around the gear knob (10 seconds), removal of the plastic panel holding the boot (another 40 seconds), take 15 seconds to look at the linkage to see what went wrong, find the culprit, move one wire from one slot into the adjacent slot (5 seconds), test the setup (this took 45 seconds to confirm all five forward gears were slotting in truly and reverse was actually reverse), crank the car, pull forward in 1st gear, pull back in reverse, reassemble the interior and exit the premises.

It lasted less than five minutes and my car was back in proper working condition. So long, suckers! See you in hell! Burnt clutch my foot.

*Addendum: This is the same garage that detained my car against my will (in spite of all invoices being paid), stole the radio which I had to replace at my own cost and still charged me “parking fees” for the period of detention.

Seriously, what the hell, dude?

*********

Dear Baraza,

I sincerely want to thank you for enlightening me. Now when I talk, I sound like a car expert. I religiously follow your column, its actually the main reason I buy the Wednesday paper. They should give you a pay raise!

Now, to my question. My car, a 2008 VW Polo, rides on 14 inch tyres. The road leading up to my place of abode is terrible (I hope the Kiambu Governor is reading this). It’s a murram road which is strewn with stones and is a nightmare for we who have to drive on it. The ground clearance for the car isn’t bad, but it keeps on scraping the ground and I have already had my sump guard re-soldered twice!

I would like to raise the vehicle to improve the ground clearance without compromising on stability. What should I do? Replace my 14 inch tyres with 15 inch ones, or add springs?

Cathy.

Hi Cathy,

Darn straight about that pay raise! And about time too. I might be able to finally afford something faster than what I have now.

Raising the vehicle is not always the best option, although at times it could be the ONLY option. Using bigger tyres will slow your car down somewhat (in acceleration terms) and may make hill climbs a bit dicey, though not so you’d notice. The smaller the engine, or the bigger the increase in tyre size; the greater the effect. It may affect economy by a small percentage too. The most apparent effect will go down to the front wheel-arcs: sometimes using bigger tyres causes the new tyres to scrape against the wheel well on full lock during turning maneuvers. While it isn’t exactly the end of the world, the noise itself is grating and annoying.

Using taller suspension gubbins may be a slightly better alternative; but the payoffs are funny handling and a compromised center of gravity; but again, not so you’d (immediately) notice.

If you are looking to gain an inch in height, I’d say go for the bigger tyres. For one, they offer improved rough road feedback in terms of comfort (don’t sacrifice/undo the extra inch in loft with a low profile tyre: keep the side profile constant) and also this is an easily reversible transformation compared to changing your suspension for the day when the road is fixed or you live in a more accessible neighbourhood.

Which brings me to the third point; one that may have nothing to do with motoring: have you thought of moving house?

*********

Hi Baraza,

I must say you do a good job and your analysis is unmatched.  Kudos for the great job!

The past few weeks have seen more questions and comments regarding the Nissan Bluebird Sylphy and I must hop onto the bandwagon at this point and ask for few clarifications.

  1. The steering column vibrates whenever I apply brakes at speeds of 100kph and above. My mechanic recently gave me an outrageous quotation to fix it, which I doubted, considering it’s a fresh import that is barely three months old. What would be the cause and the remedy?
  2. I recently visited a petrol station to have the car serviced and upon checking the CVT oil, the mechanic gave it a clean bill of health even though I have driven the car for around 9000km. He has advised that the oil should be changed after 60,000km. How true could this be?
  3. Please pardon me for this as I have little understanding for physics, but he advised a complete removal of the thermostat to allow proper cooling of the engine. The reason was that the preset conditions for the thermostat would perfectly work in Japan temperatures, and that its existence here would even cause other sensors to blow up! What is your professional take on this?

Ngugi

 

Greetings Sir,

Feel free to hop in at this point. Now:

  1. The steering vibrating under braking is a sign of warped brake discs, which may explain the outrageous quotation.

A “fresh import” is NOT a new car, otherwise it would have a warranty and you’d be able to take the vehicle back to the dealer and ask them “What the hell, dude?”; at which point they’d either replace the brakes or give you another car. As stated: the cause seems to be warped front discs, and the remedy is replacement… at great cost. You have my sympathies, but that is what one gets when dabbling in the “previously-owned” corner of the market.

Just to be clear: the vibration is ONLY under braking, right? There could be other causes which I suggest you deal with first (as they are cheap and easy to do) before committing yourself to buying new brakes. First is fairly obvious: wheel balancing and alignment (more balancing than alignment). Much as they tend to be speed-specific (sometimes), they also tend to be an issue irrespective of whether one is accelerating or braking. Another cause would be a loose front end component — tie rods or ball joints — which need tightening. Alternatively, the tyres themselves might not be fastened properly. Eliminate these three from the lineup of possible suspects before forking out your hard-earned for new front brakes.

  1. What does the vehicle manual say (in Japanese)?

Some CVT transmissions are sealed for life. Is yours one of those?

  1. What are these “Japan” temperatures?

Cars are tested to operate within a wide scope of temperatures, with extremes being the South Pole on the lower end and the Mojave on the upper. Surely both Kenya and Japan fall within these two extremes, don’t they?

It’s an old wives’ tale. The thermostat is meant to keep the engine operating within a certain temperature range; it does not do any actual cooling or warming. What it does is act as a switch to disable the cooling system (water pump and fans) if it gets too cold so that the engine warms up quicker, or to get the system working overtime in case it gets too hot. More commonly, if the engine is supposed to operate at 130 degC, 130 is still 130 whether it is in Mt Kenya or Mt Fuji.

Removal of the thermostat usually accompanies direct connection of the fans and water pump to the car’s electrical system. The result is on cold days, the car takes longer to warm up, wasting a lot of fuel in the process and risking oil-related problems as the oil is still viscous and won’t circulate fast. There is also the risk of draining the battery with the engine off and the ignition key in the “ON” position.

Go back to that petrol station and ask the man: “What the hell, dude?”

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