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So, What's Wrong With Your Car - The typical question with no typical answer

So, What’s Wrong With Your Car?

It’s the typical question asked at the service desk of automotive repair shops across the country. You’d think the answer would be simple, you know, just tell the service writer what ails the car, but no… that’s not the typical answer from the do it yourselfer.

When asked, some people have a hard time keeping things simple. Their answer isn’t really an answer, it’s more of a statement of the things they’ve done to their car. Now why is that? How come when the service writer asks, “So, what’s wrong with the car?” the answer is, “I changed the battery, the alternator, and I rewired everything under the hood.” Which sounds more like what they did to the car, rather than what is wrong with the car.

It troubles me to hear things like this over and over. All I want to know (as the mechanic about to service the issue) is what is wrong, not what you’ve done. Believe me, any mechanic worth his salt will figure out what you’ve done to the car. What he lacks is the reason you’re here in the first place.

I’ve even tried to rephrase the question, “So, what brings you here today?” That doesn’t seem to work any better. It’s like some unwritten law of responses; the DIY’r type customer has to begin their dissertation with what they’ve done and not the actual problem that brought them to the repair shop in the first place.

Now, if the service writer starts the deliberation with, “In as few words as possible, tell me what is wrong.” It doesn’t seem to help at all, and if the question asked is, “So, what did ya do to it?” that only puts them in a defensive mode which doesn’t improve the answer or any further forthcoming information. Ya just gotta stand there and listen intently and with unbiased interest in their tale of tales.

I often wonder if the whole thing is a pride issue with some of these guys. Maybe what they are really telling the service writer is more in line with how they tried to fix it but failed, rather than actually trying to explain the problem they can’t solve. Somehow the mere explanation of all the individual parts that were changed is supposed to inform the mechanic of things they shouldn’t assume are the problem.

There are those who finish their story with, “and, everything checks out good.” How’s that ever happen? If everything is “good” you wouldn’t be having a problem.

From the mechanics point of view, “everything” has to be rechecked under the guise of the proper identification of any components replaced, the quality of those components that were replaced, as well as checking the wiring. Once all that is confirmed then the mechanic can check the signals and voltages. It’s one of the many things that separate the DIY’r from the professional. A pro will diagnose things rather than simply change parts. A systematic list of diagnostic procedures isn’t that hard to follow, but understanding the results can be.

Apparently that’s where I find it hard to follow some of these DIY’r logics. They’ll come up with some goofy name for a part or symptom based on their background or something they’ve overheard. None of which have anything to do about automotive repair or cars in general. But, you’ve gotta listen to their story, no matter what they say.

I’ve found over years of being behind the service counter, you should never ever interrupt or correct their explanation. Just let them get it all out, and then hopefully work back to “So what’s wrong”. I’ve been tempted more than once to stop them in the middle of their story, hold my hand up and say, “I didn’t ask you what you did. I asked you what’s wrong.” I’m not sure that would go over that well.

While they are well on their way of their next novel and spilling their tool box of parts they’ve changed in verbal form, I’m trying to keep up with it all by writing as much of it down. Usually, I’m crossing off things as their explanation goes further into the story about how they don’t want you to check that part (because it’s new) or that particular part they just mentioned was changed years ago and hasn’t been a problem since, but for some reason (which they’re not sure of), it suddenly has become extremely important to inform me about it. By the end of the story I’ve gone through a blank invoice on both sides, a scratch pad, and ran out of ink in the pen.

To top things off, a lot of these home garage repairmen insist on waiting, or in a lot of instances want to watch. This for the most part, can be just as frustrating for the mechanic as listening to their saga. Most shop insurance policies frown on having a customer in the shop area due to the numerous pieces of unusual and dangerous types of equipment, let alone getting in the way of the process of diagnosing the problem. If you want to watch, go find a You Tube video on the problem, the repair shop is not an educational outlet for the uniformed.

Sometimes, the DIY’r is pretty sharp and might actually have a working knowledge of their car. It’s rare, but there are a few who really could tackle their problem without consecutively changing the alternator five times in a row. Let’s face it, car repair isn’t rocket science, but as the technology proceeds into even more data lines and computer systems it might as well be. Which to me, means an even wider gap between the DIY’r and the professional mechanic, and probably a whole lot more unbelievable stories at the service counter.

Will the question at the service counter change? Will the answers from the DIY’r get to the point before the service writer has to break out a second scratch pad or a new pen? Probably not. There’s something about fixing your own car that brings out the mechanic in all of us. Whether it’s a pride issue or to save the cost of a professional mechanic, DIY’rs will still give it a try with little to no information. Just wing it and see what happens.

Don’t worry, they’ll still sell parts, and they’ll still sell tools, as well as the good ol’ free code read at the part stores. Oh, and there are manuals at these parts stores too, but you don’t need those. They are for someone who doesn’t know about cars, not somebody like yourself? (I’m being sarcastic, of course) So there’s plenty of opportunity for a new “So what’s wrong with your car?” moment at the local repair shop.

When stumped, they’ll find a pro to check their car out. And, I’m sure they’ll still tell the service writer their entire story about all the parts they’ve changed, all the books they’ve read, and how many You Tube videos they’ve watched, without ever getting to the “what’s wrong” until the very end. It’s just the way it is.

But I already know what the service writer is thinking after they ask, “So, what’s wrong with the car?” and the answer turns into a long winded story. Yea, he’s got a pretty good idea what’s wrong with the car...you worked on it first.

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LOL, I had a guy come in last week with an older camry. He told me it needed a starter it would not start about 90% of the time and he had already replaced several parts and knows it is the starter but did not know how to replace it. He asked me to come out to the car and he pointed to the battery and told me "that is the battery" then he pointed to the alternator and said " that is the alternator" they are new I replaced both of them and still have the problem, I started with the battery and when I took it to sear they told me it tested bad and I bought one and replaced it my self. Then I figured it was the alternator, I asked him why or how he came to that conclusion "My neighbor had the same problem and that fixed it" . I smiled and said look I know what the parts of the car are and how they work, fill out a work order I will look at it later this morning and give you a call. A few hour later I go out to the car turn the key, the one solid click followed by no dash lights, wait a second dash lights come back on well looks like a loose connection at the battery, sure enough both connections were loose.. I tightened them charged him half an hours time for my time spending with him listening to his story and the actual repair. Called him told him what I found and he would not believe that was the problem, told him that I was 100% sure and if that was not the problem come back and I will make any repair related to what I had found for free. He did return a week later to give me a 20 dollar tip.. LOL

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I left out the ones who come in from other repair shops telling me there primary secondary is first thing that has failed ... but the other shop knew what was wrong but they didn't know how to fix it


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They bring it to the pro as a last resort after they can't seem to get it right

themselves. If they would bring it in the first place, the stories they have to

tell would be so short and you could get on with the business at hand!

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Beautiful article, Gonzo!


My grandmother used to say that the Devil knew every trick not because he was the Devil, but because we has old.


As I have grown older in this business, I had seen subtle components failures that even the masters have over looked.


For example, many serpentine belts tensioners don't meet the original specification, but they look good and feel right, except that when the car reaches operating temperature the belt skips causing many problems, from power steering jerkiness, to alternator voltage variations, to A/C system intermittent failures. Here comes a DIY's and he has changed the pump, compressor, and alternator, and still will not replace the tensioner because it's too simple a fix.


Then those with a host of electrical problems cause by time and oxidation, that a simple battery service, and cleaning of ground connections will fix, yet they spend thousands of dollars replacing expensive modules.


I have been known to charge hot heads hundred's of dollars after they have annoyed me to tears to fix their cars because they would not stop telling me what they have done to the car. And all I had to do was clean all the major ground connectors.


Crazy thing this mechanic business is. Again, thanks for always sharing your insights.

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