12 November 2009

 No clever arrangement of bad eggs will make a good omelet.
     - C.S. Lewis

Like most people today, I'm cautious about how I spend my money. Discretionary spending is a thing of the past. I live frugally, and I carefully track my expenditures against my income. There are challenges at times--occasionally, things go wrong without warning--hard drives crash, roofs develop leaks, windows break, and auto parts can fail. That's just an unfortunate fact of life, and I have to do what I can to minimize the impact on my bank balance.

In May, I noted that my rear brakes were making unusual squealing and grinding noises. I figured I'd have to replace the brakes and calipers (I've been here before), so I dutifully made the rounds to several garages, franchises, and independent mechanics, asking for estimates on the repair. Two or three were happy to give me written estimates of between $700 to $900, telling me that if I could return with a lower estimate from somebody else, they'd match it. I was daunted, but kept looking.

I finally went to Cambridge Tire Center in Stoneham. Without telling them about the previous estimates, I asked what they would charge me to repair my rear brakes. The guy sitting at the service desk said, "A small car like yours? Rear brakes?" I added that the calipers would probably need replacing as well. He shook his head and said, "I've been in the business for 20 years. The calipers are probably just stuck and we don't need to replace them. These young guys always want to replace them because they don't want to be bothered trying to unstick them." After assuring me of his competence, he said, "We can probably do it for about $300, maybe $400, bucks, tops." Cocky, but I figured with experience comes confidence.

A real bargain, considering all the other estimates.

The next morning, I dropped the car off early. I was told I'd have it back by the end of the day. At noon, my phone rang. The call was from Cambridge Tire. The caller identified himself as "the manager," and said there was a change--the calipers really did need replacing, and the repair would cost between $850 and $900. He needed my authorization to continue.

I tried to stay calm. I told him, "I cannot afford it. Don't do the repair. I will come get my car within an hour." I told my spouse what happened. He was incredulous. He asked me how the cost could more than double in the space of a morning. I didn't know, but there was no way I'd let them do something I couldn't afford. I added that it felt like a classic "bait-and-switch," and because of this, I didn't trust them.

The phone rang a few minutes later. It was the manager at Cambridge Tire again. He told me he'd "thought about it," and that "we can work something out." He said that because the estimate had been so far off, he would repair the brakes and calipers for $700, plus tax. I said I'd be coming over to pick up my car. My husband, however, decided that this was a great compromise, and convinced me to call them back and authorize the work.

That evening, I shelled out $729.13 for what was supposed to be a $300-$400 repair. As I left, I promised myself I wouldn't ever go back there.

Less than four months later, my parking brake suddenly stopped working. My car has a 5-speed manual transmission. When I park, I put the car in neutral, and engage the brake. I've always done this; it's reflex. Now, the brake didn't do anything other than ratchet as I pulled it up. In Massachusetts, you can't pass the annual safety inspection if your parking brake doesn't hold the car.

Figuring this might be related to the previous repair, I took the car back to Cambridge Tire in Stoneham. I explained the problem, and "Mr. Cocky" at the service desk said he'd look at it while I waited. He said the cable probably just needed "adjusting," a simple enough fix. Half an hour later, he said the brake cable was "too stretched out" to be adjusted, and that they'd have to replace the whole cable. He said he'd order one for me and call me when it came in.

I waited three weeks before taking the car to a local mechanic a friend recommended to me. I explained my situation, and he put the car up on the lift. Within minutes, he had a diagnosis, and I had a clear understanding about the way the brakes actually work. The caliper on the right side didn't function at all. The one on the left side was sticking and intermittent. He said, "These calipers are defective. This should still be under warranty. Take it to the garage that did it, and have them replaced. Shouldn't be a big deal. If they don't know what's wrong, tell them to call me." I thanked him and left. I gritted my teeth and drove straight to Cambridge Tire, where I said I wanted them to replace the defective calipers. "Mr. Cocky" was nowhere in sight.

Yesterday was the brake re-repair. The service manager assured me my car would be ready before the day ended. At 5:00, the phone rang. My brakes were fixed, and they were working fine. Trouble was, during the test drive to make sure the brakes worked, the "passenger side CV axle shaft" snapped in two, the car was undrivable, and it "wasn't anything we did." The caller said, "If you come here, I can show it to you." I said I'd be right over.

I told my husband what happened. We both went to the garage.

The service manager walked us into the bay where my car was still on the lift. he showed us the broken axle shaft, which was about an inch or so in diameter, snapped cleanly in two. The exterior of the shaft was rusted and grimy, but the break was clean and shiny. He said that it had snapped due to "excessive rust that had thinned out the shaft."


We told him we wanted to speak with the Cambridge Tire manager. He told us the manager would be in at 7:30 in the morning. We said we'd be back then.

Last night we spent a couple of hours researching CV axle shafts and their wear, tear, and failures. According to our research sources, the causes for CV axles to break this way are rare--too heavy a loading on the gear exchange (shifting from 4th gear to 1st, for example), hitting something (potholes or big objects), or metal fatigue (usually due to incorrectly fitted aftermarket parts). I'm a cautious driver, and hadn't hit any potholes, so I knew it couldn't be the first two causes. The third also seemed highly unlikely, as it was the original manufacturer's equipment, and I'd not had any unusual symptoms while driving before handing the car over to Cambridge Tire.

We arrived at the garage this morning to meet with the manager. We actually held hope that the manager would listen to reason, and understand our dissatisfaction with what had happened. I'd driven in with one problem, and a more serious one had developed while one of his employees drove my car.

Unfortunately, not only was Mr. Cocky sitting at the service desk, it turned out he'd been promoted--he is now the general manager of the place. I let my husband do all the talking. My husband--a retired nuclear physicist--spoke to Mr. Cocky about metal stress, and the unlikelihood of this being an event without a human cause. Mr. Cocky didn't want to hear it. He said, "I'm a mechanic. I know what I'm talking about."


Eventually, Mr. Cocky told my husband that he'd "eat" the cost of the part, which he told us was $172, as a "customer satisfaction issue," but that we'd have to pay for the labor to make the repair. $115, plus tax. He said my car will be fixed by the end of day today.


I don't know about you, but I'm sick to death of being held hostage by greedy, incompetent, and arrogant men who create more problems for me than they solve. There's no "customer satisfaction" in any of this. I'm going to ask for the broken part when we retrieve my car from these unmasked bandits.

Excuse me. I'm off to buy a Chilton's, find an expert witness, and hire a pitbull who has a Massachusetts attorney's license.


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