Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Swayed by a bar link?

After switching out the driver-side drive-axle in Aimee's Camry last week, in a failed attempt to make a clunk go away, we needed a new castellated lock-nut to secure the main axle nut permanently with the proper cotter pin (AKA a split pin, to any British mechanics who happen to be reading). These are flimsy nuts made of galvanized mild steel, pressed into shape to accept the cotter pin. There's a good photograph on the Wikipedia page here.

I had to chisel the old one off to change the drive-axle, along with the old cotter pin that had rusted into place. We'd driven around for a few days without the nut while I tried to locate one at regular parts stores, to no avail. I decided one of us needed to make a trip to the Toyota dealership. Aimee decided to shop in Bangor this last Friday, since we needed some of the regular items she gets from the larger stores there, so she drew the short straw and was asked to go the the dealership parts counter to pick up the nut.

Understandably, Aimee was at a loss to understand why this tiny nut was so important that it required a special trip to town. If we could safely drive around without one, why worry?

The answer, of course, is that this is a safety feature. In particular, the axle nut is torque-loaded to only 217 pounds-feet, which is a lot of torque for a small component, but not such a large amount for a threaded shaft that must be an inch in diameter. The lock-nut and cotter pin combination holds everything together and prevents the wheel falling off. It might be permissible to drive without this device for a few days, assuming you remained alert and checked it frequently, but leaving it off and forgetting about it would likely be a recipe for disaster.

The dealer didn't have it in stock, and had to have the part sent over from the warehouse. This required a second trip the next day. We decided to make a day of it and take in a matinée showing of Zero Dark Thirty. While we were at the dealership picking up the nut, I asked for an estimate of what it would cost for them to diagnose the Camry's mystery clunk that I had failed to diagnose myself. The answer was a half-hour of labor at $47 plus tax, which sounded a lot better than another several hundred dollars of parts. If they could tell me what was wrong, I could do the work myself.

Now, you have to appreciate the reluctance with which I approached this process. Generally, I despise the parts and service operations of auto dealerships, and hold them at least partly responsible for the collapse of civilization.

What I don't like is the "front-counter/back-room" dichotomy. Unlike the traditional mom-and-pop repair shop, the modern "professional" approach at the dealership is to isolate the customer from the technicians using a service desk staffed by non-technical types whose job it is to fill out the paperwork and over-sell the services of the technicians. The Toyota dealership in Bangor, Maine is a masterpiece of this black art. Having called ahead and made an appointment, the hapless customer drives into a heated indoor reception area. They leave their keys in the car and go up to the service desk to sign forms, and are then given the choice of a courtesy shuttle home, or to wait in a well-appointed waiting room. At no time does the customer get to talk to the mechanic.

As a result, the customer is not involved in the decision-making process regarding their auto repair. They never have to deal with the grease and dirt. They don't have to meet a technician with greasy hands and clothes. Everything is bright and shiny and clean and "professional."

Except that there's nothing professional about it. It's all branding, designed to make you believe the Toyota car is a clean, shiny, masterful piece of engineering, and to alienate the customer from the ability to properly assess the price and value of the repair. This reduces the customer's power and responsibility and serves to encourage the increase of the number of technically illiterate people there are in western civilization, while increasing the returns to the dealership's owners.

As a result, while we westerners invented modern technology and engineering, we're being beaten at our own game by the Chinese.

The auto dealership's service desk is therefore complicit in the downfall of western civ.

While I'm their worst-ever customer.

When I go to a dealership, what I want is either knowledge or the use of a special tool only available to the dealer.  I'm perfectly able to fix the car myself given the tool or the knowledge. I can assess very well whether I'm getting a useful repair or a flim-flam job. I'm always going to do my best to minimize my outlay on their inflated service and parts costs. I know I can usually get the part for a fifth or a tenth of the price online at one of my regular wholesale parts warehouses. And my technical expertise is usually way more than the guy at the service counter, so I can easily decide if he knows what he's talking about.

And what really, really pisses me off is the number of times it's been obvious that the service desk guy doesn't know what he's talking about, but talks all the same.

Usually the inhabitants of the service desk have some automotive knowledge, and in the best possible circumstances they are actually former technicians retired from the back room, the result of a dicky back or knee, or a wife that prefers clean hands. But generally they are guys who failed to make the grade as technicians, or didn't try. If they could make the grade, they'd be in the back room, getting paid an awful lot more, their share of $96/hour.

They are of course just as much a victim of this system as the customer, but I don't get to complain to the owner, so if I don't like the results, I have to complain to the guy at the service desk.

I don't mind doing this, complaining. It helps to improve the service for the rest of the customers, and is one of my own small contributions to stopping the rot in western civilization.

In this case I showed up for my appointment at the allotted time of 12.30 pm, and allowed myself to be relieved of my car and ushered to the waiting room. I was not allowed to talk to the technician, even though anyone with any mechanical knowledge at all would realize that even a few minutes between me and my mechanic would help solve the problem, especially in this case when so may parts had already been changed. Instead I took my seat along with the rest of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Luckily, I had bought a book.

I sat and read, and read. After about two hours variously reading, listening to people complaining to their spouses on their cell phones, multiple trips to the bathroom to drain the coffee I was drinking, and a wander or two around the shiny showrooms, I got up and went over to the service desk to see what was what, only to be told my car hadn't even been pulled into the workshop yet.

This was upsetting. But like any slave to circumstance, I returned to the waiting room and read some more.

Feeling more and more helpless, eventually, at about 3pm, I decided to go and actually see whether or not my car was in the shop yet. I distrusted the service counter guy by this time, so I walked around the parking lot looking for the Camry. It wasn't there, so I walked around the whole building, acres large. I finally found a large garage door with small oval plexiglass windows. Peering through the windows, I could just see the blurred shape of the tail end of a green Camry rocking up and down. Obviously the mechanics were finally on the job.

I didn't want the service desk guy to hesitate or forget about me, so I didn't return to the waiting room but instead stood around in the room where the service desk was, pretending to look at all the useless gimcrack accessories for sale there. This strategy worked well, because as soon as the docket came back from the shop, the service desk guy came right over.

He told me the mechanics had said the noise was in the sway bar link, and so I needed to change the link.

I told him I didn't believe him. I'd already changed the sway bar link. I interrogated him about what technique the technicians had used to diagnose the problem. It had, he said, taken two guys and a lift, one guy pushing up and down on the car while the other listened underneath. Eventually I said I'd go away and change the link, and if that didn't fix the noise, I'd come back for another opinion. And I paid my bill, which was only $27, since the guy gave me half-price, either for waiting around so long, or because it only took the technicians a quarter hour instead of a half-hour. On the way home, I stopped off at CarQuest and picked up a second new sway bar link. And when I got home I changed into my insulated coveralls and switched out the link.

And that was that. The noise went away. It was the sway bar link. Go figure. The old one looks fine. But the new one is quiet.

I think I may be the only guy to escape from the Toyota dealership with only a $27 service bill in living memory.

Score one for western civilization.

Maybe we can get on top of this decline-and-fall thing yet, before we decline and fall too far.

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Welcome to our Farm Blog.
The purpose of this blog is for Aimee and I to communicate with friends and family, with those of our students, and other folks in general who are interested in homesteading and farming activities.

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