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Car Behaving Badly: Can You Find a Good Mechanic on the Road? Maybe

Updated on November 22, 2012

Let us look at a subject that frightens many a well-adjusted adult—automobile repair. Pigeon at Two O’clock. Those predatory mechanics are out there just waiting for those untutored, pigeon car owners—or so it seems. How does one distinguish the predatory mechanic from the prince? Knowledge is Power. Take an automotive course at the local community college. He who understands what goes on under the hood is less likely to be fooled at the hood and the cash register.

But come on. How many of us have even read our car manuals? My manual provides all kinds of useful information such as how to change the engine coolant and how to replace the spark plugs. Of course, I am afraid to do these things. I am willing and able to check the oil and even add some if needed. Or I would if I could get the hood open. The hood on my present car hates me. My old car, the hood liked me. But this one, usually I have to find a guy to open it. The only thing that soothes my humiliation on this point is the number of guys who seem to have trouble with it.

But, realistically, most of us only know a little about engines. We have to trust our judgment about people in choosing a mechanic. Whenever my mother moved to a new city, she did what most intelligent adults do. She spent time investigating mechanics. She queried friends and co-workers on their experiences, good and bad. Once she had a sufficient number of testimonials pointing to a good mechanic, he became her mechanic. But if a car chooses to act up while on the road, far from home, what then? I would like to tell you two stories about mechanics on the road.

Once, when I was a child, as she drove us home from a camping trip, my mother faced a case of car behaving badly. (We were not true outdoor enthusiasts; we just did not have enough money for any other type of vacation.) The radiator kept losing fluid though it did not seem to have sprung a leak.

My childhood recollections of that trip are hazy. I know we made stops at several stations. I recall one where, in my mind’s eye I see a mechanic, bent over, ‘flushing’ the radiator. After two (or three?) mechanics my mother decided to forego mechanics and coax the car home. I remember a state trooper fetching us a bucket of water from a nearby tiny stream, although we did not pour the water into the radiator immediately. It was during this trip that, for the first time, (but not the last) my mother admonished me to wait until a radiator had cooled before adding water. Water poured into a hot, thirsty radiator could crack the block. I had no idea what a block was, but I realized, to turn around Martha Stewart’s favorite phrase, this was not a good thing.

At that time, my mother drove a little English station wagon called a Hillman Husky. When we arrived home she took the car to the dealership. (This was the one dealership she actually liked.) After listening to her story and a recitation of the car’s symptoms, the men looked at each other. They did not move. They did not twitch. Without even bothering to examine the car they diagnosed the problem as some kind of missing cap.

I know she would have noticed if the radiator cap itself had been missing. Even I would have at that age. Perhaps radiator caps were switched between our car and someone else’s. Perhaps someone was else was having exactly the same trouble we were having. Whatever this cap or lid was, the two facts I did understand were: one, simply replace this little thing and the problem would be cured, and two, this little thing-a-ma-bob cost Two Bucks. The other thing I remember clearly is how disgusted my mother was.

My mother, who knew a little more about cars then most people, was not easy prey, but she was not invulnerable. So is there anything one can do to protect oneself from predatory mechanics when far from home? Perhaps. Sometimes. If the situation has not yet reached the stage of having to be towed to the nearest garage ER. Let me now tell you the second story.

After having lived in the South for a while, our family decided to head back to New England. My mother went ahead at the beginning of the summer. My grandmother and I were scheduled to follow at the end of the summer in our new, old second car, which our trusted mechanic had found for us.

The car performed well that summer, despite an incredible heat wave that affected the whole nation. The car would also perform well for the next ten years until it was hit from behind while parked, minding its own business. But during the trip north it was a case of car behaving badly—a little. The car decided to gobble oil.

Every time I bought gas, I had to add oil. I was advised that after a long period of driving, I should let the car sit awhile, before checking the dipstick, to allow the oil to drain back to the oil pan. That made no difference, not even if left overnight.

As long as I added oil, the car seemed to be happy. It drove smoothly. It did not buck. It made no funny noises. It did not overheat. No little puddles of oil appeared under the car when it was parked for a time. But we were far from either home and I was apprehensive. Was this a symptom? Was a disaster looming if I waited until we got to our new home, where my mother had already lined up a mechanic, to have this problem tended to?

I had a dilemma—risk doing nothing or risk being fleeced. The garages on the interstates, upon which we were most traveling, were less likely to be serving a sizable number of locals. What locals would want to go onto the interstate to get to a garage? I reasoned that these facilities generally served a captive, transient clientele. Most of their customers were likely to be many miles away before shoddy workmanship showed up. That fact could leave garages unconcerned about getting a bad rep among the local population. These garages might be spectacularly good—the best in the country. But if they were not, I would not know until too late. I, like all those other folks traveling hundreds of miles from somewhere to elsewhere, had no one to turn to but strangers.

Then it hit me. Where did the locals go to get their cars fixed? I turned off the interstate to find a restaurant in a semi-rural town. My grandmother and I had lunch among friendly folks most of whom had been living in the area for years. I enquired where I might find a good mechanic. The general consensus was I should go to a nearby gas station that had a good, part time mechanic. In turn, the gas station folks, because their mechanic was off that day, sent me further a field to a full-fledged garage. There, two honest men put our trusty Impala on a lift, examined it thoroughly, and reported they could not find anything wrong with it. I don’t think they even charged me for the examination. They had one suggestion, that I use a heavier grade oil.

A few days and several hundred miles later, my grandmother and I arrived at our new home. There, the car settled down to a normal oil consumption level. My personal theory is that this low-mileage car, which had been driven by the proverbial old lady to church and back, had never been on a long trip before. It had never been asked to go three or four hundred miles in a single day. The poor thing simply went into shock. It never, again, had to drive quite so far at one stint and thus, behaved itself. The next ten years saw occasional repairs—sometimes expensive. But the Impala chugged along happily until, at the age of twenty-two, it was so cruelly battered by a drunken kid.

So folks, get to know your car. Most will be your friend if you treat them right. Read your manual. Maybe take that course. And do you have a good mechanic? If so, have you hugged your mechanic today?

© 2012 Teddi DiCanio


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