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Sometimes, Advice is the Best Help - - Ya can't help them all, but can help the ones that need it the most

Sometimes Advice is the Best Help


Another day at the shop and the phone rings. It’s a DIY’r asking questions.

“Say, do you program computers?”

“Yes, I do,” I answer.

“I got one from the junk yard, because I can’t afford a new one.” the caller says.


On other occasions it’s someone asking how much to fix their brake lights, because they already changed the bulb and checked the fuse, so it must be something electrical, but they don’t have any money for repairs. In both cases my first response is not to shoot them a price or chase them away, but to ask a few questions. Nine chances out of ten they have no clue as to what’s wrong with their car. (I’d like to say ten out of ten, but I’m giving at least one of these callers the benefit of doubt for they might be right for a change.)


I know I probably shouldn’t categorize these types of callers, but after three decades of doing this same job, and answering the same questions from the same type of people, I’ve got a pretty good idea who is on the other end of the phone. They all have the same things in common. One, no spare cash to properly fix their car, and two, very little knowledge of today’s cars.


Here’s how I see it (from a professional mechanic’s view). As of 1995 the computer systems in cars started to involve more than one aspect of the vehicle. Meaning, the engine, transmission, HVAC, security, and other systems were all combined into a mass of confusing electronic pathways. Factory security systems were the norm, and OBD II became the standard as well. Yes, there were plenty of vehicles with sophisticated systems prior to 1995, but this was a big turning point across the board for all manufacturers. With that said, the problem is those cars are old, the systems are old, the technology is dated (compared to today’s standards), and those cars are more or less past their prime.

Most of these callers are familiar with the early years of electronic systems, the ones where all you did was swap an ECM, or change a bulb or two. Those cars from the mid 80’s are all but in the scrap yard, and the cars from the 70’s and older are now in the hands of collectors and/or people who are restoring them. Thus, the average Joe is more than likely driving around something with a sophisticated computer controlled engine system in it.


I suppose it’s something all the engineers and manufacturers didn’t think about once these electronic marvels of modern society became the average Joe’s transportation. Let’s face it, cars reach a point where they are not entirely worn out, but are still in some working order. However, years ago an aging car could be kept going for a lot less money than today. Sure, the older cars might find that the corner discount parts store may carry a cheap knock off part for them, but a lot of times those cheap parts just add to the problem.


There’s also parts availability to worry about, too. Most manufacturers won’t stock certain components after the ten year mark. Salvage may be the only option, but even then… electrical parts can be a little tricky to deal with, especially when it comes to reflashing a used PCM or BCM from the salvage yard on some models.


This is where some of those questions I’d like to ask these callers come into play. It seems some of these individuals are still under the impression that you just unbolt a part and stick another in like you could on those early electronic cars. I guess they think I wave some magic machine over the hood and all is right with the world again.


Just for my own sanity, I spend a lot of time on the phone educating the caller on the process of reflashing, diagnosing, and repairing their car… probably too much time actually. After all is said and done, the all mighty dollar usually turns out to be the bigger issue, and not the reprogramming for most of them.


With all these elaborate systems aging away on these older cars, it’s not uncommon to have shocked and frustrated customers at the counter. Especially after they pull up to the front door with a 12 year old car, and have HID headlamp problems and are thinking that it’s “just a bulb”. Or after diagnosing their failed wiper system their wiper switch has to be programmed to the car. When I inform them of the steps and the costs involved, the outcome is almost always the same. I already know from past experience just how frustrating all of this is to the owner, and I try my best to soften the blow. It doesn’t help much though, I’m still going to hear all about it, and I know they are not directing their frustration directly at me… but it’s still hard to deal with even after all these years.


I understand their predicament, believe me. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon, either. I spent my younger years struggling along trying to move off of the lube rack myself. Low pay, a broken down dilapidated car, and no money are no stranger to me.


Let’s face it, business is business. It takes cash and plenty of it to keep a shop going from day to day. As much as I would like to help each and every one of them, I know it’s just not possible. I’ve known a few who have tried, but as a professional in the trade I know all too well that ya gotta keep the bays full of paying customers and not the ones that can’t.


The best thing I can think of doing is to refer those individuals to the numerous agencies in the area that offer assistance in these matters. I hope things improve for them, but for now, advice is all the help I can offer.




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Gonzo, this is so true. This winter we had a 95 New Yorker with no wipers and no blower operation. This was a high end car with all the electronics available at the time. After three hours of testing. The conclusion was a bad BCM. Just to be sure we had an electrical shop check it and they confirmed the same. It was not practical to wire the wipers or blower otherwise. The diag was an $800 BCM plus labor. Used was not an option because this car was too old and no BCM could be found to match. The bottom line was $1200 or junk the car.

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This scenario is playing out more and more. We've come to a time when the electronic age is affecting the lower income people with their transportation needs. At any intersection I see cars with the windows down and no air conditioning, or at a fast food drive up window and they can't roll the window down. A lot of them want the prestige of driving a fancy...older car, but find out all too quickly that they can't afford even a small repair.

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Many people are hurting financially. It's no wonder that so many people are trying to save money. But the fact is, when they try to save a few bucks, they end up wasting more.


I don't know where we are headed with this situation. But I do agree with you Gonzo, shops need to make a profit in order to remain in business.


As an industry, we are too often under paid, and go above and beyond the call of duty to try to educate and consumer base that is not willing to learn.

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Luckily the aftermarket has stepped up for the common problems with older cars, example a new PCM for a Ford escape is about $1500 plus programming but there are companies that I can send the old computer to and they fix it and return it for less than $500 ready to go. Same with many European car modules. BBE reman is one company (no affiliation) we use to repair parts that normally would render the car junk if the customer had to buy a new part from a dealer. Still not cheap but the only alternative. In NY the recent catalytic converter law junks more cars (or makes more criminals) than anything else.


It's pretty sad actually, I live in an economically depressed area (one of the poorest counties in the state) and I see families reverting to a one car household or driving with expired inspection stickers due to simple economics.

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