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My Pride's in the Shop, Along With My Car

[Editor's note: Joel is a away for a couple weeks -- working on a top-secret project with Paul Hogan -- and will be posting only intermittently. In his absence, he's asked a few Friends of Achenblog to pinch-write for him. This week's featured FOA are Caitlin Gibson and Rachel Manteuffel.]

I dropped off my car recently for a routine oil change. When I arrived at work the next morning, there was already a voicemail waiting from the mechanic: Please call me back as soon as possible, he said. No further explanation.

This is never a good thing. A car mechanic does not ask for an immediate call back for a happy reason. He does not want to compliment the zebra-print fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror or chat about why you have so many old half-chewed dog nylabones on the floor of your backseat.

I called back and it was as I feared: There would be nothing routine about this oil change. The brake pads were shot, the tires needed to be rotated, my alignment was off. But what really seemed to offend him was my transmission fluid. It was absolutely the "dirtiest" he had "ever seen."

The message was clear. He thought my car was a big ugly pile of busted crud, and that I was guilty of unconscionable neglect. It's a miracle that Car Welfare Services hasn't shown up on my doorstep to rescue the abused vehicle from my automotive incompetence. "Have you ever flushed the transmission fluid on your car?" he asked, with awestruck disdain.

Inside, I was fuming - LISTEN, guy, the only thing I think about flushing is a toilet. But I didn't say that. I didn't really say anything; I made a noise. A high-pitched, humiliating, whimpery noise. I was a total cliché: a woman who knows squat about cars, floundering in her own ineptitude.

The more I hesitated and squeaked, the more I knew I was doomed. Surely the mechanic was sitting on the other end of the line, absorbing all the pathetic uncertainty that was oozing through the receiver, knowing that if he so pleased, he could take it one step further and start fabricating random verbs and imaginary mechanical parts. "We're going to need to disenthwart your flobulator," he could have said, "or else the gallbearing will overcrump." And I would hand over my credit card in terror.

If I were a genuinely tough, no-B.S. type of gal, I wouldn't put up with this. The minute I got the slightest notion that a mechanic was taking advantage, I'd tell him: Listen, pal, I don't know who you think you're talking to, but this babe isn't believing a word of it. Don't try to jack up the bill on me. I would stomp into the garage and retrieve my car and roar off the lot, indignant, intimidating, assertive. The mechanics would stand and watch me go, thinking, Wow, that's one woman you can't mess with. Or possibly, Wow, that's one woman who will not be able to stop her car at the next red light.

And therein lies the reason why I'm inevitably a pansy about these things. Yes I am a person who hates appearing vulnerable or ignorant. But even more, I am a person who doesn't want to die, especially because of brake pads. In the end, the mechanics always win. My pride is worth whatever price is on the bill.

-- Caitlin Gibson

By Editor  |  May 5, 2008; 9:00 AM ET
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Next: Buy Me a Drink? Or a Transmission?


Hi, Cassandra. Hi, Martooni. Thanks Mudge for refreshing my AP world history.

Posted by: daiwanlan | May 5, 2008 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Ah, but being a service manager at a dealership is the sort of job that used to "give you ulcers" and made you live on bland food.

G'day, Ms F.O.A. Gibson!

Posted by: Dave of the Coonties | May 5, 2008 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Caitlin - I am as clueless as you when it comes to all things automotive. But there are many people here who are wise in the ways of the horseless carriage. In particular, there is a gentleman known as "bc" who knows about such things. I am sure that he would be delighted to offer you his insights. But if the word "gladiator" comes up just back away slowly and make no sudden movements.

Posted by: RD Padouk | May 5, 2008 9:21 AM | Report abuse

also be careful if you hear the word olive oil.

Posted by: L.A. lurker | May 5, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

also be careful if you hear the words olive oil.

Posted by: L.A. lurker | May 5, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Caitlin blogs:
"It's a miracle that Car Welfare Services hasn't shown up on my doorstep to rescue the abused vehicle from my automotive incompetence."

Gives a whole new meaning to FLDS--Fluid (flushed, fuming, floundering). Listen: Dirty, Sister!

Posted by: Loomis | May 5, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse


*ducking to avoid the tiara flying across the room*

i have a different problem with my mechanic. he's always makes me look under the hood and explaining what the problems are, so i pretend to understand. at least i'm pretty sure he's not ripping me off.

Posted by: L.A. lurker | May 5, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Good morning. I have become very slightly less clueless about cars over the years. I started out knowledgeable. My dad taught me to change oil and spark plugs and check fluids and even figure out a clogged carburetor, or something like that. This was in the days of yore when one could lift the hood and see recognizable engine parts which didn't require electronic gadgets for repair. Those days are long gone.

I used to tell Ivansdad how mechanics had a special tone of voice they used for women they assumed to be clueless (read: women) when talking about their cars. He never believed me, until the day he accompanied me to the shop and listened to the mechanic describe what had to be done with the car. He was considerably startled and apologetic, and indignant on my behalf. Ivansdad, that is, not the mechanic.

Posted by: Ivansmom | May 5, 2008 9:42 AM | Report abuse

My problem with automotive work is not unauthorized repairs, but completion times with infinite flexibility. I have been told that the wisest thing to do is to multiply the expected duration of all repairs by 10 and then take the square root. Evidently this works for price estimates as well.

Posted by: RD Padouk | May 5, 2008 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Ms. G (being slightly formal, until we are properly introduced). My heart goes out to you, dear child. (I can get away with that "child" cr@p because I'm almost as old as Mudge.) But you are going at this the wrong way.

You should expect from the outset that there is (begin italics, if we had them) always (end italics) going to be something else to fix on a car. As you aluded, the name of the game is to keep just enough of the necessary moving parts, moving. But no more. It's like paying your electric bill 5 minutes before they disconnect you.

In order to play this game sucessfully, you must have an avatar, somebody to represent you to the mechanic. It must be a guy, unless the mechanic is a girl. (Hmmm, in that case, it must be a handsome guy.) He must be knowledgeble about cars, or a very good actor. He should be a monster, somebody who instills fear in Ahnold himself.

When said avatar enters the garage, he should be dripping with motor oil and grease, as if he would do this job himself, but he's too busy giving AirForceOne a tuneup to do right now.

So, go find yourself somebody. Yeah, bc's a good choice. Especially the monster part. The guy's an animal.

Posted by: Don from I-270 | May 5, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Don - I use the same approach with my doctor.
I always press him to define exactly which conditions will actually, you know, kill me.

Posted by: RD Padouk | May 5, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Cars have flobulators? (If it doesn't have futtock shrouds and a taffrail, I'm pretty much lost myself.)

Posted by: Curmudgeon | May 5, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

When I was visiting the little bitty college town that we're about to move to, one of the you'll-love-it-here-you-really-should-take-the-job comments I got was that in a town that size, you never have to worry about whether your mechanic is cheating you. If someone is dishonest, word gets around town right away, and they're out of business. Definitely a plus.

Posted by: bia | May 5, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Unnecessary transmission fluid replacements strike me as a risky proposition at best. The chance for doing more harm that good seem pretty high.

My rather bush league days of shade tree mechanic are long gone. Oil changes, spark plugs, distributor caps (that shows how long gone those days are), batteries, and halogen bulbs were about my limit. I've done fan belts a few times, but the time I tried to replace a dead alternator went very sour because the idiots at Pep Boys sold me the wrong one. That was when I hung up my grease monkey hat. Find a good mechanic, learn his name, and trust him.

My BS meter goes of the scale when they come in with the dirty towel full of transmission fluid. Of course it's dirty. It's been in my car for a couple of years.

I believe in the radiator flush every two or three years, and I get pretty negligent about air filters. I have been cowed into the timing belt replacement a few times, but I keep track of those so they're not replacing it every 5,000 miles.

Posted by: yellojkt | May 5, 2008 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I replaced the rear brake pads on my wife's care this weekend. Like all good maroons, I managed to break something. In my case, it was the bleed screw. Snapped that rascal in half, leaving part of it burried in the caliper. THEN I discovered that NOBODY has that sized bleed screw on hand. My wife was not amused. Big sigh.

Posted by: Don from I-270 | May 5, 2008 10:10 AM | Report abuse

The same here Ivansmom. Once upon a time I remember changing sparkplugs, adjusting the choke or even changing water or gas pumps. Of course this was when gas pumps were little mechanical devices located at the bottom of the engine block. I learned the hard way that they are now expensive electrical devices located INSIDE the gas tank. The wisdom of putting electrical device in the gas tank is debatable, but then the maintenance book of this car made it clear the engine mounting bolts had to come off and the engine tilted forward to change the 3 sparkplugs at the back. Yep, to change the plugs you almost had to get the engine off the car. Brilliant.
Now when I look under the hood of my cars with a mechanic I admire the various shiny plastic covers and nod knowingly at the mechanic's explanations.

Posted by: shrieking denizen | May 5, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Confidential to Don:

Blogger has pretty robust HTML features in the comments. The only thing that doesn't seem to work are blockquotes. The day we get italics here there will be dancing in the streets. But we should be grateful for what we have. The poor folks at Celebritology don't even have live-links.

Posted by: yellojkt | May 5, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

You said "futtock." Huh-huh, huh-huh.

Posted by: Gomer | May 5, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Caitlin, honey, I sooo identify with your mechanic problems!

Vehicle maintenance should be a course required for high school graduation.

I have two Chrysler minivans in my past. I replaced the transmission in both of them. (One of them was a manual, for heavens sake!) And everybody I know who kept one till it had 100,000 miles on it replaced the transmission. The last year I had the Voyager, I put $4800 in maintenance: brakes, struts, tires, oil, clock spring (is that right? the part that runs the airbag in the steering column), transmission, etc.

Now I have a Toyota and love it.

Posted by: slyness | May 5, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

My favorite kinda shroud for that reason, Gomer. (I'd have gone for the "poop deck" joke, but even *I* have standards below which I will not go.) (Unless I have to.)

Posted by: Curmudgeon | May 5, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I got 10 years out of my brakes, mainly by not using them (I can time the coast to the light with the best of them). The clutch is original to the car (surprising even me), but what ends up needing to be repaired is never normal run-of-the-mill stuff -- basketball hoop through the windshield (try explaing that one), side-view mirror that no one seems to know what happened to, and currently, the steering wheel cover is really loose.
I'm expecting the seat belts to wear out any day.

Posted by: LostInThought | May 5, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

SCC: explaining

Posted by: LostInThought | May 5, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Good morning, Caitlin.

Thanks for several good chuckles in this FOA Kit.

Just yesterday I changed the oil for my daily driver (9 years, 175,000 miles and still doing pretty well), and did a semi-annual "look it over and see what's what" inspection.

And here's what I realized: Car knowledge is dangerous. I can't even look at or drive my cars without thinking about the dozens of things I know are wrong with it, or maintenance that I know should be done (e.g. that car has 175,000 mi. and is still on the original clutch - how long is *that* going to last? The pedal comes up to the steering wheel before releasing at this point, fer goodness' sake. And the struts and shocks - fugget about it.).

For someone like me, going over my own well-used car is depressing. All of my sins and shortcomings laid out before me in oil and coolant, metal and rubber, as well as evidence of the entire universe running down: Think of it as Entropy in Action, and It's Winning. I mentally started planning to spend extra cash on a monthly basis to try to bring things up to spec - fight the Entropy!-, as if a $50 fillup at the gas station wasn't a joyful enough experience. Yay.

I had to have a good strong Bloody Mary to get myself right after that oil change.

Some people feel funny calling or asking me about car stuff. I honestly don't mind, and I don't think less of people because they don't know about cars. Not everyone can take a car and spread it out into thousands of metal bits on a garage floor and put it all back together and make it work. I don't mind sharing what I've learned about cars and whatnot over the years; hey, I ask people who can *really* cook for tips, advice and recipes all the time.

Back to the original topic: Car knowledge is dangerous, but there's something that's worse.



Posted by: bc | May 5, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Barely awake here, even though it's 10:30 AM. Lots of catching up to do still.

For Boko999 re the chicks - I found one good for a laugh:

Laugh is healthy.

And bh sent me looking for this:

Can't wait to catch up. I'm looking forward to this guest kit.

Posted by: omni | May 5, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

We used to have a Dodge Carvan that went through a couple of transmissions, too, slyness. Also, the headlights on it were the worst on any vehicle I've ever driven.

Now my wife has a Toyota (Highlander hybrid) and loves it.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | May 5, 2008 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure a mechanic's condescension is necessarily gender based. I've been spoken to the same way by lawyers, bishops, and dental hygienists.

Posted by: Boko999 | May 5, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

We had two Caravans and never had any problems because we traded them in as soon as the warranties expired. They were really very expensive leases. Our Hyundais have 100,000 power train warranties, so hopefully we don't have to use them.

Posted by: yellojkt | May 5, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I am not an animal - I'm a car guy!

Don, if it were me, I'd rather replace the brake caliper than to try to get that snapped-off bleeder screw out of there.

It shouldn't cost too much for a reman part, and typically does not take very long. Plus, you can trade the old caliper in, get a few $$ off of the price, and the broken screw becomes someone else's problem.

One other quick note: The magic of a classic Mustang is *gone* when you're looking at it as thousands of parts scattered across a garage. Especially if someone's complaining about it.

On a side note, "Iron Man" Tony Stark is my kinda guy in many respects: Lots of cool cars in his garage, he's got great tools and knows how to use them, and is a tinkerer. Loved it in the film when he pulled the Edelbrock head off of his flathead-powered '32 Ford (I *think* it was a '32) hot rod.


Posted by: bc | May 5, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Amen Boko. In my case I would substitute Dr. Ing. (Doktor Ingenieur) of German persuasion for the bishops. Can't remember talking with a bishop lately but I had to deal with arrogant German Dr. Ing. more than I care for. One of them, a mechanical Ingenieur, was explaning to me (the metallurgist) how German stainless steels are better because they are, you know, German and Germans invented SS. Almost plugged him right there.

Posted by: shrieking denizen | May 5, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Hi omni, thanks for the nice photo of the duckling and puppy.

Posted by: Boko999 | May 5, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Another quick note about auto trans fluid changes. It depends on the situation of course, but I've seen more trans problems occur after a fluid change than at any other time. Of course, you should change the fluid frequently, but if you don't my recommendation would be to just leave it until you see water or some other serious contaminant in there.

Seems like the fluid gets "friendly" with the trans, the seals, bands, clutches, etc., and once you change to fresh fluid, the new stuff does not have an understanding with the neighborhood, and there's some friction as they get to know each other, usually in the form of a blown seal or a leak. This shouldn't be the case, but it seems to be.


Posted by: bc | May 5, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

These two young women are setting a *blistering* pace. Check out the new kit by Ms. Manteuffel.

Posted by: RD Padouk | May 5, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

1. I think the "Quick Lube" guys must get a commission for every engine flush they sell with they way they push for everyone. The best one, though, was the indignant comment about how bad the air filter was, and how incorrectly it had been installed (answer: same place, five months prior).

2. dmd, late reply: questions to jurors are much more limited here.

3. Ivansmom, think South Pacific, then start singing "I'm gonna wash those heirs right out of my life" and the musical to Richard III writes itself.

4. Boko, completely different situation. That account we sent you reflects a great deal of time researching the principles of flobulation in application to your situation. Do you want to end up disenthwarted?

Posted by: SonofCarl | May 5, 2008 11:10 AM | Report abuse

BC and yello are probably right. "change the transmission fluid" is right up there with "change the air in the tires" for known scam alert sirens. So I also doubt the brake pads, but you don't want to mess around there. I personally wait until I hear a squeak, and then do brake pads IMMEDIATELY. No squeak, however, no worry, but that's just me.

Since they used to ration gasoline in WWII, I figure it's because the military needed to use a lot of it. I wonder how much fuel (more than normal times) they are using these days. Just wondering.

All this hooraw about the dittohead saboteurs voting in Dem primaries has me musing. How do the maroons choose their nominee for their state legislature races; their local county commissioner races; their US Senate and House nominees of their party, if they are all voting Dem just to be mischevious? Answer is, they DON'T get to participate in their own supposed party. What madness.

Posted by: Jumper | May 5, 2008 6:19 PM | Report abuse

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