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Motor Car Owners Must Bear Some Blame for Poor Repairs

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Motor Car Owners Must Bear Some Blame for Poor Repairs

H. Clifford Brokaw
The New York Times
December 17, 1922

Service Station Conditions Not Perfect, But Owners' Ignorance of Car Mechanism Adds to Difficulty, Says Automobile School Director.

By H. Clifford Brokaw
Technical Director West Side Y. M. C. A. Auto School.

Owning an automobile in New York City or any other place does not necessarily transform the owner into a victim of bandit service station managers, nor does it put him into the luxury class, as seemed to be indicated by Charles J. Rosebault in his view of service station conditions published recently in The New York Times.

Service stations have their ...{scan failed}... Conditions in this realm of the automobile industry are not entirely satisfactory.  The managers of repair shops are at fault to some extent.  They have not always employed trained mechanics who could deliver expert service.  A large part of the solution of the problem lies in the service station owner coming into a greater appreciation of the importance of trained mechanics, employing only such, and making the charge per hour sufficient to cover the higher wages.

The owner must share a considerable part of the blame for poor service station service.  He must have a little education in automotive mechanics himself, so that he can appreciate the difference between a spark plug and a fan belt. In other words, when a man buys a car he should take time to study the machine, not only to the extent of being able to manage it efficiently on the road but also to know its different parts.

It is not clear that the hero of Mr. Rosebault's story really knew much about an automobile.  In the first place, I do not believe that $30 could cover work in grinding the cylinders and removing the carbon were major items.  What likely happened was that the valves were ground and carbon removed, and the owner in his ignorance got cylinders and valves mixed.

If the service station had not been willing to serve as the customer desired he could have gone elsewhere, or, as it was presumably a matter of lubrication only, he could have done the job himself.  Probably the service station man was right in the diagnosis of the case and did the owner an important service in calling attention to matters the owner was too ignorant to appreciate.

When a man goes to a doctor he describes his symptoms, and after the doctor has looked him over he prescribes the remedy.  His trouble may be a rheumatic pain in the knee, but the physician advises the removal of a tooth to correct the disturbance.  If he has some understanding of his bodily functions he will be able to see the connection between the two.  If he is ignorant, the only return he gets for the fee paid the doctor is the satisfaction he obtains in telling his friends how little the doctor knows.  Education is his only salvation.  When the automobile owner takes his car to a repair shop and describes its symptoms the mechanic looks it over, makes certain tests and decides on the remedy.  The owner perhaps says there is a knock in the engine, probably due to carbon in the cylinders, but the mechanic may find the knock due to loose keys in the rear wheels.  If the owner is well informed regarding the functions of the parts of the automobile he will be able to understand how the seat of the trouble may be far removed from the symptom, but if he is ignorant he immediately assumes that the mechanic is simply finding work to increase the size of the bill.  Unfortunately, there are enough quacks to give some foundation for distrust.

Let me distinguish what is meant by the term service station.  Usually a service station is an automobile repair shop operated by an agent of a manufacturer of a certain make of machine.  A repair shop might be termed a privately owned place where repair work is done on any car.  A garage in a city usually provides only a place for storing an automobile and providing gas, oil, water and washing service.  In rural sections, however, a garage often has a repair department and sells supplies.

I would like to mention more specifically some of the causes that are to blame for the present dissatisfaction.  The manufacturer must take a share of the responsibility.  His selling organization employs a salesman who sells a perfect car.  At any rate the salesman says it is perfect.  As a matter of fact "there ain't no such animal."  The seller often leads the buyer to believe it will run indefinitely without any trouble.  The purchaser, of course, ought to have better sense than to believe this.  And the manufacturer, through his selling organization, ought to curb the enthusiasm of salesmen in this respect.  Now if the salesman says that his make of car will travel seventy miles an hour and the owner finds that driving the new machine forty miles an hour sends it to the service station, his reaction is unfavorable toward the maker, the seller and the repairer.

When an owner takes a car to a service station with the feeling that there may be something more the matter than appears on the surface he often minimizes the trouble in the hope of keeping down the cost.  For instance, if the engine is missing fire he comments on a dirty spark plug as probably being the only thing wrong.  By this attitude he infers that the mechanic should fix the difficulty by repairing the spark plug irrespective of what may really be the matter.  If the expert finds the trouble due to a loss of compression because of a badly seating valve, and that the cylinder head has to be removed to remedy this, the owner is apt to become indignant and assume he is being robbed.  The cry of the owner that he took his car to the shop in practically perfect condition and now it is practically ruined, is as old as the automobile industry itself.  But this is the wail of the ignorant; for the most part and not of the owner who has studied his car.

Consider the matter of a general overhauling.  It is a question if a car should be completely overhauled.  After a machine has been run about so long a complete overhauling is apt to cost as much as the thing is worth in the second-hand market even though the service station charges are fair.  This fact tends to make the owner dissatisfied with the service atation.

Take the case of a locomotive.  A careful accounting has established the fact that in about three years the locomotive is apt to need a complete overhauling.  The cost of the work being greater than the value of the engine, the railroads find it often pays to scrap the machine and buy a new one.

Owners of cars would be less dissatisfied if they would realize that the first cost of an automobile is not the last.  The purchaser should figure a certain percentage of the original cost for upkeep and repairs.  Then he should put away a certain percentage of the car's price each year for depreciation.  At the end of his car's greatest usefulness this depreciation account plus the second-hand market value of his car should equal the cost of a new machine.

Some service stations have decreased dissatisfaction by installing a flat rate system.  When a car comes in to have its breaks lined, the charge is a definite sum irrespective of the time taken to do the job.

The matter of delayed delivery causes irritation.  In this, the owner is partly responsible.  He always wants his car in a hurry and the repair man, with a desire to please, estimates a minimum amount of time to do the work.  When parts of the car are dissembled some trouble may be disclosed which takes extra time to fix and no one can blame the manager for wanting to have the car leave the shop in good shape.  At some service stations no cars are allowed to go out without necessary repairs to the steering apparatus and brakes.  If the owner refuses to pay for this, it is charged to profit and loss.  Not a few service stations, instead of making money, are actually operated at a loss which must be covered by the new car sales department.

The presence of so many poor mechanics is partly the fault of owners of cars.  Because of the prevalence of kicks about charges, managers try to keep overhead expenses down so that lower rates can be made.  Consequently, they employ second and third rate mechanics.  If motorists would appreciate the advantage of paying a fair price for getting trained mechanics the situation would be greatly benefited.  In a word, education sums up the whole solution.  Educate the repair shop manger to the ultimate value of trained mechanics, educate the mechanics in their trade, educate the  salesman to the importance of conservative claims when selling and teach the owners something about the cars they drive.

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