Monday, December 15, 2008

I hate computerized vehicles

I knew there was a damned good reason I didn't become a mechanic back in the '80s when I went to college for it. I quit because auto makers were putting computers in cars, and I didn't want to be responsible for telling a customer that they needed a $400 computer replaced, only to find out it was something else (and that happens, even to the best mechanics).
So, I have this different minivan now, and hadn't driven it at night until Friday night. We drove out to look at the Christmas lights, and used the heater and headlights. So the next day, we were out doing some shopping, and I drove by the dealership to see if they had the missing part for the liftgate. My wipers were off according to the control, but they kept wiping intermittently, the left turn signal wouldn't shut off after I turned (and the lever was where it should have been for it to shut off), and the brake light on the dashboard was on. Oh yeah, and the damned bell for "fasten your seatbelt" was dinging, even though seatbelts were fastened and the driver's side window wouldn't roll down (electric windows). The dealer said it was probably some multifunction switch gone bad, he'd see if the guys in the shop could get it in to look at it. While we were waiting, I shut the van off (big mistake). When he came back to tell us to bring it back, it wouldn't start. Just clicked and flashed the headlights when I turned the key. Battery was dead. So we got a jump start, were told to take it home and put the battery charger on it (good thing DH has one of those). Who would have thought that the battery being low would have caused all of that shit to happen? Because when we got it started, everything was fine (evidently the alternator was charging the battery).
So, when we got home, I looked at the battery, and evidently it's the original battery that came from the factory when the minivan was new (it's a Ford Motorcraft battery and has no place on it to punch out a purchase date). The label on the top of the battery says it's replaced free in the first 18 months, 19 to 84 months and customer pays pro-rated cost of replacement. So it's a 7-year battery, van is almost 8 years old, I'm betting the battery is a POS and needs to be replaced. But the dealer's first thought was a part that costs anywhere from $50 to $200 to replace, plus $70 an hour for labor. I don't think I'll be taking the van back to them any time soon for any diagnostic work. I'll stick with the mechanic I know and trust (not to mention, his shop is just 2 blocks from our house). This is the kind of shit that makes me long for the days of carburetors and no computers (I can rebuild a carburetor, have done it several times). Fuel injectors - I don't want to have to replace those, you practically have to tear the engine apart to get to them, and don't even get me started on replacing valve cover gaskets on a front wheel drive vehicle, all the shit you have to remove just to get to the valve, what a hassle. I've replaced timing belts (Pinto and Horizon), replaced front and rear brake pads/shoes, replaced/patched exhaust systems, hell, I even replaced the head on my Pinto (in the winter, in a carport). I've replaced radiators and thermostats, replaced and rebuilt starters. Of course, this was all on older cars, the ones built before 1980 (I've owned cars built between 1961 and 2001, the Windstar is my 26th vehicle in 37 years of owning cars). A lot of those cars were ones I paid less than $500 for, drove for a 6 months or a year (till they died beyond resurrection) and then bought another one (was a lot cheaper than payments and upkeep on a new vehicle, not to mention license plates and insurance was a LOT cheaper).
But, we can afford to pay a mechanic to do the work on our rides now, so I guess I'll just have to learn to deal with strange shit happening on computerized vehicles.

ETA (on 12/19/08) - Well, got the van checked out, and it's not the alternator, it's the battery. Arnie called the dealership where we bought the van to see how old the battery is, it's 7 months old, which means it qualifies for a no-cost-to-us replacement (well, it would if we had bought the battery). Because the battery was purchased by the previous owners of the van, the parts guy at the dealership isn't sure they'll replace it free for us (and the one who can make that determination is out sick today and won't be back till the 22nd). Now I don't think it should matter who bought the damned battery, the dealership will get another battery (at no cost to them) from Motorcraft parts if they replace the battery, no matter who bought it, simply because the battery is bad and went bad within the warranty period. So Arnie is going to check back with them on Monday and let me know what he finds out. In the meantime, he put a new battery in the van for me (no charge until we find out what the dealer is going to do, see why I like him so much?). Personally, I would have foregone the bullshit with the dealer and just paid Arnie for a new battery, but Arnie's way may save us $75 (another reason I like him, he does things the most economical and safest way they can be done). He's a gem, for sure.


  1. OK, I realize this was by no means your point, but have I mentioned recently how awesome you are? Every time I read one of your entries I learn something new and interesting about you. :)

    I wish you and my dad could get together and talk cars. He bought his first car for $50 (in the early '60s) when he was 16, and rebuilt the engine on his own. He said he drove it up to show it to his dad, who was working on a roof at the time, and he almost fell off the roof to see the thing actually running. :) Anyway, he shares many of your views on computers. Right now a friend of mine is getting an indicator light in her hybrid vehicle and they have tried like 5 times over at the dealership to fix it, with calls to the manufacturer, and nobody can figure out why it is lit or how to get it to go away. They keep getting it to turn off, then she takes the car and anywhere from 5 minutes to a day later, it comes back on and she has to turn right around and take it back to the dealership. Fun computer times.

    My mechanic story: A few years ago, in snowy weather, I slid as I was turning left and hit the curb with my right front wheel. The rim was broken--but I was pretty sure that was all or most of what was wrong with it based on the fact that it was driving perfectly fine. So I priced some rims on eBay but ended up just taking the car to the dealership because I figured it would be easier. I will now name the dealership because based on this encounter I think they are crooked and I hate them: Gene Butman Ford in Ypsilanti, MI.

    I was already grumpy about having to replace the rim, but "grumpy" turned to "shocked" when the service tech told me it was so out of whack that they couldn't get it to align, and then presented me with a laundry list of extremely expensive repairs totaling nearly $2000 that they claimed were required. Then, and this'll tip you off as to what was really going on, they said they'd be happy to help me file the claim with my insurance.

    I talked to my husband, who agreed with me that we should get a second opinion (I believed at that point that they were being honest, but it was way more than we had foreseen spending and I wanted to make absolutely sure it was all necessary and also see if I could get it done cheaper elsewhere), and then called the dealership to tell them to please just replace the rim and not do any of the other stuff. They then informed me that the tire associated with the damaged wheel was "unsafe" and needed to be replaced (this was not on the original laundry list). I said fine, whatever, just give me my car back. So they did get the cost and labor for the tire and rim out of me, which, whatever.

    So I took the car to a mechanic I found in the phone book, which I will now name because based on this experience I think they are awesome: Main Street Motors in Ann Arbor. :)

    I told the manager at MSM that I needed a second opinion on the damage to my car. I even ended up showing him the dealership estimate, even though I had originally decided not to because I didn't want him to be prejudiced by their opinion... but I guess in the end I decided I'd rather he have all the info. So for better or worse he knew exactly how much he could have gotten out of me if he'd wanted to.

    Anyway, he said he would check it out and had one of his employees give me a ride back to work. To make a long story short (too late), he called me back later that day and told me that not only did he see no need to perform any of the repairs/part replacements the dealership said were necessary, but he had put it on the machine to align and it was already in alignment. He only charged me for a couple hours of labor. And he had a cat roaming around the office. :)

    I now believe that the dealership knew what the insurance would authorize for the type of accident I had had, and was just trying to get the money out of me/the insurance co. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to paint all mechanics or dealerships as dishonest by any means (in general I think they work hard and honestly and often don't get enough respect for it), but this was the first time I'd really had one try to take me for a lot of money, and it was a wake-up call.

  2. spacedcowgirl - I've had a lot of different mechanics, some good, some bad (just like doctors, gee who'd a thunk it?). It helps that I have some automotive experience to fall back on when a mechanic tells me what's wrong with my vehicle. My last vehicle, the Caravan, had a problem with the speedometer right after I bought it. I would be driving down the road and it would quit working (the odometer still worked) or I would start it up, take off and have no speedometer (if I pulled off the road, put it in park, shut it off and restarted, the speedometer would work, or I could just put it in neutral, running down the road, shut it off and restart it, and the speedometer would work). Took into the dealer where I bought it, told them all of this, and they said it was the speedometer sensor and replaced it. That didn't fix it. Took it back a couple of days later with the same problem, they said it was the speedometer head and replaced it (we ended up splitting the parts and labor costs 50/50). That still didn't fix it. Took it back a couple of days later with the same problem and they were getting ready to replace a computer on it (can't remember which one, this was 4 years ago). In the meantime, the battery died, and lo and behold, when I replaced the battery, no more problems with the speedometer. But the dealer was perfectly willing to keep throwing parts at it until they could finally figure out what was wrong with it (and even splitting the cost, I ended up spending almost $400 to fix something that wasn't wrong because parts were bad and needed replacing, but was caused by a bad battery). Had a similar problem with the Caravan just before we traded it off. The dashlights quit working, thought it was a burned-out fuse, replaced the fuse, dashlights worked for 10 minutes, then quit again. At the same time, if I forgot to turn off the headlights before I turned the van off, the headlights wouldn't go off. Was told it was probably a short in the dimmer switch, but it wasn't that (took the dimmer switch completely out and the headlights still wouldn't shut off). Took it in to be diagnosed on the machine they use, and was told it was the body control module ($300 parts & labor to replace it with a used one). So, that fixed the headlights, but I still didn't have dashlights (well, I had them for about 10 minutes again). Took it back, and they said it was a shorted wire under the CD player my son had installed. Another $80 to have that fixed and when they put my CD player back in, they didn't put it in correctly and every time I hit a bump, the CD player/radio shut off (face plate was loose and couldn't get it to seat properly). The shorted wire wasn't from where my son installed the CD player, he used the connector kit and connected all the wires, it was a loose wire from who knows where, the garage didn't know where it was from, they just put one of those screw caps on it. So, DH decided the Caravan was nickel and diming us to death and it was time to trade it in (not to mention it had a big dent in the passenger rear quarter panel and the sliding doors were rusting out, and it had 165,000 miles on it).
    I am very careful about who I let work on my vehicle (Arnie is awesome, he always calls if he runs into anything unexpected and shows me what he's found and what needs to be done), and I have run into enough mechanics in my lifetime that I pretty much know if I can trust one or not just by talking to him (if he thinks that I don't know anything about cars just because I'm a woman, he's off the list of mechanics I'll use).
    I come by the talent honestly, I think, since my dad was a mechanic in the Air Force and worked on our cars when I was a kid (and when he got out of the Air Force, he worked on farm equipment, tractors and combines and such). At family gatherings, I used to sit and listen to the men talk about cars and trucks and stuff, it was a lot more interesting to me than the stuff the women talked about (kids, recipes, and the bitches at work). And that knowledge has saved me a boatload of money on car repairs, I can tell you that.

  3. Wow. Ditto what spacedcowgirl said...about learning something new about you all the time and your awesomeness! I am utterly impressed with your car knowledge. And I thought my sis knew a lot about working on cars!

    I had a Pinto for many years. It was a good little car. My husband...then boyfriend, had a Nova. I'll never forget that the Nova had a great heater and a fan that would about blow you away. He loved that car. I did too.

    I remember when he worked on the Nova you could actually see things. You know, there wasn't a lot under the hood. As I was looking down at the engine I could see right through to the driveway....and I could see a whole lot of driveway! Now when you look under the hood it is crammed full.

  4. Kat - I had 2 Pintos and loved them both (but the one with the 4 speed tranny was my favorite, I hot-rodded that thing everywhere). When I bought that one, I didn't know how to drive a manual transmission, but I learned quickly enough once I started driving it. Yeah, it's not like it used to be under the hood, that's for sure. Sometimes I think that innovation isn't all it's cracked up to be (more like planned obsolescence, I think).


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