• Q. I never would have imagined that my automotive life would be interesting enough to merit communicating with you guys, but 20 or so years after first discovering you, I think I have an experience worth sharing. Actually, it’s my wife’s experience, but she has no idea who you guys are, so I get to do the honors. My wife drives a 2003 VW Passat GLX 4Motion Wagon with just over 47,000 miles on it. She took it to a local dealer for service last May after smoke began billowing from the right side of the car and sweet-smelling liquid was dripping out. The dealer replaced the heater core and coolant bottle, and all was well ... until the next warm day, when my wife noted that her air conditioning (which had worked prior to the heater-core replacement) would not blow cold air. The dealer admitted that they had not properly shoved some hose in some opening, and fixed it at no charge. A few days later, while my wife was chauffeuring her elderly mother around, her steering completely failed. This happened as she was changing lanes, so when the steering failed, she was pointing directly into oncoming traffic. She managed to stop the car before colliding with any of the oncoming cars as she crossed the center line. When the police arrived and interviewed the parties, they noted a threaded bolt, about one-and-a-half inches long, lying on the driver’s floor mat. Everybody was OK, but my wife was very shaken, and she refuses to drive her car ever again. The car ultimately was towed to the dealer, and we have a rental (paid for by the dealer) sitting in our garage. The dealer called this week and acknowledged that they were negligent and did not tighten down a bolt in the clockspring to VW specs. They swear it’s fixed. Should we believe them? •
TOM: Well, we have to give them credit for owning up to their mistakes.
RAY: But that doesn’t nearly make up for the debit we have to take for them being careless morons.
TOM: Here’s my reconstruction of what probably happened. When your wife went in for the heater core, they had to take off the dashboard, which is a big job. That required removing the steering wheel and lowering the steering column.
RAY: While they were replacing the heater core, they created a leak in the AC evaporator. That’s what caused the AC to fail.
TOM: When you brought it back, they forced the guy who had replaced the heater core to take apart the dashboard again and fix the AC problem he caused. I’m guessing he was none too happy about this, since they probably made him do it on his own time for no pay.
RAY: So he was cheesed off, zipping the bolts off with his air gun, grousing about having to do the job again, and working quickly and carelessly. And he forgot to tighten something crucial. I doubt it was the clockspring, since that doesn’t hold anything on. I think more likely it was the nut that holds the steering wheel to the steering column. But regardless, this guy was eager to be done with you — and he almost was!
TOM: The question is, Is it fixed now? I’d say it probably is. But here’s what I’d do: I’d send the general manager of the dealership a certified letter, reminding him of the sequence of events, and that your wife was almost killed due to their negligence. And then I would insist that he have a senior mechanic (not the guy who left the nut loose) inspect the entire car and have the dealership certify to you in writing that it’s now safe to drive.
RAY: By doing this, you’re letting them know that, should anything else go wrong and be traceable to any work they did, they will be held legally responsible for any death, dismemberment or temporary loss of bladder control that occurs in the future. They should take that very seriously and inspect the car carefully.
TOM: That still may not be enough to soothe your wife’s concerns. In which case YOU’LL have to drive the car for a few months and allow your wife to see that there are no further incidents (I’d up the value of your life insurance before doing that, just in case).
RAY: And you have to accept the possibility that your wife may never feel safe driving this car again. She may just opt to keep your new Porsche Cayenne Turbo and make you the new owner of an ’03 Passat Wagon. Congratulations!
• Q. When your auto mechanic offers to help sell your ’97 Subaru, what percentage of the sale is appropriate to give him as a thank-you? If I ask him, I think he will decline, because he sees it as a favor to my husband, who recently passed away and who was a longtime customer of his. •
RAY: Well, you have to be careful that he didn’t handle it like my brother does. I once heard him telling a customer: “That fully restored ’66 Mustang convertible is junk — I’ll take it off your hands for 500 bucks.”
TOM: It had a scratch on the door!
RAY: Assuming this guy really helped you and sold the car for what it’s worth, and you think he would be uncomfortable taking cash, then buy him a gift.
TOM: Sure. Get him a new toilet seat. Most repair shops I’ve visited have cracked toilet seats. Ask his employees if he’s got the standard bowl or the elongated one.
RAY: If you don’t know what he likes, you can buy him a gift certificate. That way, he can go out to a nice restaurant (assuming he can ever get his fingernails clean) or buy something at an electronics store.
TOM: If the car sold for a few thousand dollars, I would imagine that a gift certificate of $150 or $250 would be very well received. As it should be. It’s a generous thing for you to do.
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