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A letter from Stew


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The Foreign Service Newsletter:
February 1999


I am pleased to announce that Kris has joined us full time as service manager, taking the place of John. John is continuing to work for us part-time.

Also, I am pleased to announce the addition of Bill to our staff of technicians. Bill has many years¹ experience and has returned to the auto repair industry after a two year hiatus.

Speaking of an hiatus, our trusted coworker Ed is taking one from the auto repair business. We wish him the best, but are confident he will return to being a car mechanic within a few years - hopefully at the Foreign Service.

The personnel changes allow me more time to talk with customers and tackle the difficult trouble-shooting problems necessary with today's cars.


We are now accepting Discover, as well as Visa and Master Card.


Just a reminder that we now have two loaner cars available. These are reserved on a first come, first served basis. The only charge to you is a 15 cent per mile fuel charge. Be sure to call us the afternoon before your appointment to make sure that your loaner is available.

We MUST have your driver's license and insurance information on file before we can give you a loaner car. We can make no exceptions to this rule. Also, if you do have a loaner, we are unable to leave your car out for after-hours pick up; in other words, you¹ll have to be here before 5:00.


We got a call recently from a fellow with a Volkswagen Golf. The car's problem was the engine ³malfunction indicator² light coming on (the new term for ³check engine² light, accompanied by intermittent rough running. He had called five other shops and was told that they couldn¹t help him because they didn¹t have the computer interface tool. I was happy to tell him that we did have the tool, and he brought the car in a few days later. Using the tool, I was quickly able to to tell (though the car was running fine when it came in) that one of the cylinders was misfiring, and I quickly traced the problem to a bad spark plug wire.

The computer interface tool is a software package loaded into a laptop computer, with a serial cable that is plugged into the DLC (diagnostic connector) on the car's main computer. Œ96 and later model years have this diagnostic connector. Diagnosis of running problems will be easier for us, and cheaper for you!

We invest in the future of car repair, and are proud of being on the cutting edge of technology.


Did you see the recent ³Focus Five² report? It raised some serious questions about car repair. It also raised some serious questions about television journalism. Best of all, there are several lessons we can learn from it.

For those who didn¹t see the reports, this is what they did. They took a lower mileage car and replaced several normal maintenance parts -- such as the spark plugs and the fuel filter. Then they took the car to several Precision Tunes for a pre-trip check to see what the shops would recommend. A short time later, they changed the license plates and used a different driver and tried again. What did they find? Some shops recommended nothing, some advised maintenance ³by the book² and some advised replacement of the new parts. The reporter (posing as the car owner) gave the shops no information on the cars.

Why did they select Precision Tune? My guess is because PT's marketing strategy is to sell preventive maintenance. And without any information from the owner, they can¹t be blamed for recommending maintenance based on the vehicle mileage. They can be blamed for not noticing that the parts they were replacing were brand new; but who's to blame for that? The mechanic whose job it is to do what he or she is told and not question the service writer? In my thirty plus years of working on cars, I have seen plenty of parts that were bad right out of the box, and replaced them on the suspicion that they were defective.

What would we have done if this car had come to us for a pre-trip check? After interviewing the client and discovering there was no maintenance history on the car, we would have recommended a pretrip check or a 30,000 mile check out to reveal any imminent problems. We would have assessed the condition of the tune-up (by inspecting the air filter and a spark plug) and probably decided that the tune-up was in new condition.

The reporters stated that PT was not following their owner's manual for recommended maintenance. The reporter said that fuel filter ³renewal² (tech talk for replacement) is not recommended until 60,000 miles for ³normal operating conditions². Hello! Normal operating conditions are not what we experience in this climate. Sure, you can wait until your fuel filter clogs up completely before you replace it (after the car kills), or the spark plugs get stuck in the cylinder head and have to be machined out, or the air filter is so clogged dirt starts seeping down into the engine, or the battery cables get so gunky you have a no start. Believe me, these things will happen long before you reach the first recommended manufacturer maintenance interval.

In fact, most of our local dealers differ from the manufacturers and suggest their own personalized maintenance schedule.

The difference between us and places like Precision Tune is that we try to tailor your car's needs to your budget, and we try to give you the big picture of the car (in terms of upcoming work, repair dollars, etc.). Let me give you an example of how this benefits you, if you let it.

One of my clients recently came in with an emergency problem. She said she hoped the problem wouldn¹t be too expensive since she had just blown her car budget on some ³front end work². This took me aback, since I knew we had an excellent working relationship and had been monitoring the state of the car and prioritizing the repair work in order to keep within her budget.

I also knew that we had not done the front end work. What happened was this: she had gone into a franchise place for a ³free² inspection and oil change, and got the sell job that the CV joints were ³really bad² and she¹d be crazy to continue driving on them. She was busy

and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, there it was on our work order -- the CV joints were going bad, but there were two other more important safety items on the list too. So, months before, we had determined that the CV's could wait until after the other safety things were done.

Was she sold unnecessary repairs? No...and yes. To the guys checking the car out, the CVs were bad. Was this the most appropriate item to spend money on at the time, had they known the whole history of the car as we did? Absolutely not. This is typical of what franchises do. They see what they want to see, and don¹t look at the whole car or the client's budget.


Now I¹m going to switch gears completely and talk about the plans to eliminate the annual vehicle emission testing requirement. Our politicians are not being leaders.

I think that elimination of the testing requirement is a big mistake. This is not self- interest -- my business does not profit by cars being tested. In fact, it's far more profitable to repair cars after they've been running poorly for quite some time and consequential damage has occurred.

Why do I think the law good when even the PCA thinks it unnecessary? I see the broken cars getting fixed that otherwise would not be fixed. The modern car can malfunction for quite some time before the problem manifests itself (due to the high level of computer adaptability). The car will work while in the process of causing further damage to itself. Oftentimes, an emission test is the first sign that something is awry with the car; and catching these problems early is going to save you a chunk of money in the long run.

Why should those of us who maintain our cars have to breathe the foul air generated by a few people who won¹t pop their hoods until the car stops running? A very small number of cars are the ones responsible for the pollution problem. A malfunctioning car can easily produce 500 - 1500 or more parts per million of hydrocarbons while a normal car produces five to 15.

I laughed when I read that the program isn¹t necessary because the air quality hasn¹t really improved. Maybe this means that the program is a failure, not a success. It isn¹t tough enough. The worst polluters are getting waived back out on the road because of the price cap put on necessary repairs.

The Twin Cities has come close to violating the federal smog laws for major metropolitan areas. If we do violate the smog laws, we will be forced to implement an emissions program as strict as California's - and even I will be whining about that! This will not be something that our governor can shrug off as being too inconvenient, the feds are very heavy-handed when dealing with smog problems.

Have you flown over the Twin Cities lately during daylight and noticed the bubble of foul air over us? This is a real eye opener! This used to be present only when the weather created air inversions. Now the yellow muck is there anytime.

When you think about the fact that respiratory problems are the number one health issue with children and that air quality is a large factor in this problem, it really is a no brainer. Just because our area meets an arbitrary air quality standard established by the federal government doesn¹t mean that our air is as clean as it should be.


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