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A letter from Stew


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Newsletter No  33
June 2000


You may have noticed that our shop rate has recently increased.  We have placed ourselves in the middle of the range for our area, as every shop is going up.  And we still don’t have a supplies charge!  We resisted raising our rate for a long  time, but economic realities have finally caught up with us. 

There are many reasons for the rapid rise in auto repair labor rates, and one of the biggest is equipment.

Car manufacturers are involved in a war against independent (non-dealer) shops such as us.  They are trying to force you to take your car to a dealer.   If they are successful, they will put the Foreign Service and every other independent repair shop out of business. 

How are they doing this?  They are engaged in a repair information lockout to non-dealers.  This is illegal, but shops such as us don’t have the money to take on the car makers.

For example, BMW recently announced that they will not allow ANY service information out of their network beginning with the model year 2000.  Whether they can get away with this remains to be seen.

Car makers have another trick up their sleeves.  They’re making tools (for resetting computers and accessories) and then they refuse to sell the tools to anyone but their dealers.

We have been trying to buy the tool for interfacing with Saab systems for years.  We finally found someone to sell us one “under the table”.  With a price tag of $3,000, it was a good deal.  Saab owners take note:  we can now reset all of your malfunction lights (the check engine light, ABS light, and SRS light).  In other words, we have all the Saab computer tools a Saab dealer does through the model year 2000.

Other manufacturers are following Saab’s example to some degree, and thus our equipment costs are rising dramatically.  We have a reputation for doing the difficult diagnostics, and we have to stay equipped to handle the tough ones.  At this time, we have the capability of interfacing and resetting almost all of the systems on the cars we work on.

While I am on the subject, allow me to do Stew’s Rant (with a nod to Molson and Joe’s Rant) for a moment.  We have received a number of phone calls lately where our client expresses surprise that we can work on their new car.  Dealers are telling new car owners that only dealers have the computerized tools to fix their cars.  BALONEY!  Yes, we are qualified, and yes, we have the tools to work on just about everything.  The only work we can’t do is new car warranty repairs or recall work.  If you are in doubt, call us before you call the dealer about your new car.


AC season is here (at least it was) and it’s time for this year’s update!  The wonderful world of automotive AC repair changes rapidly.

As most of you know, most cars manufactured prior to 1995 used R12 (freon) as the refrigerant in their AC systems.  New production of freon was banned several years ago, because it is a known ozone-depleter.  This never meant that it was illegal to service freon-based AC systems.  What it did mean is that these services must be done by EPA licensed technicians (such as me).

This may be the last summer that freon is available.  The EPA estimates that 23 million lbs. are still in various inventories, and 19 million lbs. will be used this summer - more if the summer is hotter than predicted.   Most shops I know still don’t do conversions to the new refrigerant (R134a) and some are even stockpiling freon!  Why they’re postponing the inevitable, I don’t know.    As for us,  we will work on freon-based systems only as long as our current supply holds out.

What’s involved in an AC conversion?  It’s really pretty simple for most cars.  We replace the receiver-dryer, change over to a different oil, change the necessary fittings and add new labels.

Conversions are very reasonably priced for most cars,  even more so if we do them when the system is down for major repair.  Note to Volvo owners:  conversions to R134a usually result in improved cooling!

Don’t let anyone (yourself included) put any refrigerant blend in your car.  Yes, some of them are “EPA approved”.  What “EPA approved” means is that the refrigerant is not toxic, flammable, or harmful to the environment.  It doesn’t mean that it will work well in your car.  In fact, the opposite is true:  the alternative refrigerants can affect seals, cause performance problems, and most shops (including ours) won’t work on them.  We use dedicated refrigerant evacuation equipment (one for freon and one for R134a), and the introduction of any blend would contaminate our supplies.  We use a refrigerant ID tester to test each system before proceeding with the work. 

Most AC systems fail because of a leak.  One leak can be fixed and another will occur a month (or even a week) down the line.  For this reason, we add AC dye to every system we’re working on.  An ultraviolet light will pick up the dye if it’s leaked out, allowing us to track down the leak.

Rarely do systems fail because they have “gone low on a charge”.  The refrigerant had to leak out somehow.  For this reason, we don’t recommend “topping up” a system without checking for (and fixing) leaks.  It becomes money wasted (your money) when the system goes down again.


If you have a stick shift car, you’re probably used to pulling the brake on when you park (just in case you accidentally park in neutral).

Common perception seems to be, however, that parking brakes on cars with automatic transmissions are more or less an accessory.  This is pure myth.

Many modern cars have self-adjusting brake systems which only self-adjust when you use the parking brake. Not using the parking brake can cause problems, most notably the brake pedal sinking further down than it should.   If you drive an automatic, you should be using the parking brake at least one to three times a week.       

If you haven’t been using the parking brake, though, call us before you pull it on.  Long time corrosion may have taken over and the brakes could seize.


Did any of you catch the program on NPR the other week about road rage?  It focused on the new effort by the State Patrol to catch road rage incidents as they happen (from helicopters), and pursue the offenders.

A great idea, but it’s only one part of the problem, especially for those of us who live in the city or inner-ring suburbs.

Lately it seems like at least twice a week one of us has a new driving horror story to tell.  We’ve seen (or been) pedestrians honked at in crosswalks while crossing on the walk light, or pedestrians nearly run over while in crosswalks.  Hostility toward pedestrians and bikers is definitely on the rise, as well as hostility toward drivers who like to obey traffic laws (for instance, not turning right on red when it’s marked “no turn on red”.)

It shocks me that these things are taking place more and more frequently.  I’m only bringing it up to remind everybody that we all need to calm down and pay better attention to pedestrians and bikers.  They have as much right to the roads as vehicles do.        


If you need a tow, don’t call Gus Post’s old number.  If you don’t know who Gus Post is, skip to the next paragraph.  Many years ago Gus sold his business to another towing company whose rates are not the best.

We recommend Statewide Towing.  They can be reached at 651-633-4262.   You can pay them direct or have them bill it to us.

We don’t get a “cut” or any benefit from referrals - we’re just trying to make sure you get good reliable service at the best price possible.


Many so-called “domestic” cars are actually imports.  Do you own a Ford Probe or a Geo Prizm?  We work on those (the Probe is a closet Mazda, the Prizm a Toyota).

We work on most American minivans too, including Plymouth Voyagers, Dodge Caravans, and Mercury Villagers.  These too are imports.  Confused?  Pop the hood of your car and look for  Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, or Mitsubishi.  Call us if you’re wondering if your domestic car might be an import.

Stop in to visit us, or if you have any questions about your cars, call us at 651-635-0395.


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