Then and Now

Back in the 1960s odometers flipped back to zero when they passed 99,000 miles, and if a car made it to that flip without needing major repairs it was considered an uncommonly good vehicle.  My wife and I both drove cars of those vintages in our early years, and even now she has still the mindset that a car with 100,000 on the clock is pretty much used up. But there are multiplied thousands of cars in every state in this day and age that have more than doubled that number and are still running strong and looking good.

Contrary to what some old-timers might say, cars weren’t better back in the day than they are now. Those vehicles weren’t as protective of the occupants, the fuel economy and emissions were dreadful, and I can’t count the hours I spent in my early career fiddling with carburetors and distributors. Electronics have changed everything, and the changes keep coming.

Now, I will concede that the electronics on twenty-first century cars has become something of a nightmare for technicians who aren’t willing to keep up with the changing times. Mechanics and parts people alike are more likely to reach for a smart phone, a tablet, or mouse and keyboard when it’s time to look up parts and info. Heck, my people punch into Alldata and Identifix right there on the scan tool screen when they’re looking for information. Sometimes I find them “Googling,” but with all the ill-informed self-taught posters online, that’s like digging through a box of rotten pecans or smelly apples hoping you might find one that’s edible.

But the fact that Microfiche parts catalogs and paper shop manuals began to disappear in the ‘90s isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a changing world, to be sure.  But one thing that never changes, even though cars go farther now than they ever have, is the fact that time and chance will bring them to our door. Everybody who travels needs a mechanic sooner or later. And even those who don’t own vehicles benefit from the services of those who service the wheels that carry them.

A Revealing Question…

I was working in my office preparing for the Fall semester when a teenage boy and girl came into the shop where I teach auto mechanics to ask if I could help get her car started.
As I walked with them, the boy told me about an expensive automotive program he was going to attend somewhere in Florida and boasted about the big money he would make when he was finished with that $60,000 program.
As we opened the hood on her Honda, he pointed to a part and asked if that part was the starter, and I said,
“No, that’s the distributor. The starter is down there.”
The problem wasn’t complicated – all the kids really needed was boost, and so I fetched a vehicle and we jumped the car off. The boy asked a couple of questions about my program, and one of the questions he asked was more revealing than he realized.
“Is your program hard?”
It seems that there are more than a few young people who want to go through an easy training program and get an easy job making easy money – lots of it – so they can live an easy life. And while the life of an automotive technician can be extremely rewarding, no successful automotive technician can honestly say the occupation is an easy one.
That’s not to say every task an automotive technician performs is hard, but a steady regimen of solving vehicle problems for other people requires heavy duty gumption, not to mention the need for expensive tools, intelligence, resourcefulness, and deep critical thinking skills.In order to be proven, we have to be tried. It’s the stuff of life.
Growing in Christ is no exception.

Catch-up Maintenance

Whenever we get a vehicle in for one simple service and find a lot of stuff that needs attention, any well-trained, reliable technician will make a list of the needed repairs for the customer, putting the safety-related ones at the top.  Loose front end parts, failing brakes, expired or worn out or expired tires, and so on.  The caveat is that if a customer is shocked by a large estimate of needed repairs they didn’t expect (and it happens more than once), they’ll tell all their friends your shop tried to sell them the moon.  And today, it doesn’t take many needed repairs produce a hockey-stick estimate that climbs off the chart above what some customers can afford to have done. Even if they can afford the repairs, some savvy customers will opt to get a second opinion, so honesty is always key when making a list like that.

Show-and-tell is the best way to handle those situations.  And your communication skills must peak in situations like this. Someone has quoted Einstein as having said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  And we all know some customers are sharper than others when it comes to absorbing what you’re telling them.  Some will nod and act like they understand what you’re telling them when they don’t have a clue.

The other way the “Laundry List” goes is when they bring one with them when they come, and in my department, we get that regularly.  These folks are typically the busy drivers who have been putting off first one repair and then another one for quite a few thousands of miles and then they’ll decide they want all those problems handled all at once. And some of their repairs aren’t quick and easy either.

One of the recent ones we got was a 2005 F150 with an inoperative moon roof that was stuck in the open position, no taillights, inoperative outside rearview mirrors, an erratic gas gauge.  That same day we got a 2009 Chevy C2500 with a “fix whatever you find wrong” order, and there was quite a lot we had to do to that one. Then there was the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder with a Laundry List that was a knuckle-busting adventure from beginning to end.

Happy Customers

This family loves the work we do, and they tend to bring us most of it, but this was the first time we had ever seen the Pathfinder.  On the phone, the owner told me the instrument cluster was acting crazy, and I figured that’s all she wanted done initially, but then  by the time her husband got there with it, she had added that she wanted the heater core replaced – what an afterthought that was! It had long ago been bypassed. The good part is that she wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and so the first-timer I would give the heater core could engage in the struggle without being under too much pressure.

As for the instrument cluster, it was doing wacky things. The temp gauge, the tach, and the speedometer would come and go, and the brake, ABS, and VDC warning lights would flash on and off just as randomly. The scan revealed a network code or two but not much else. One thing we did notice is that the cluster couldn’t communicate during the dead-needle times. Filing that away mentally, I had Thomas launch into the heater core job.

In the meantime, the two other laundry list vehicles rolled in. That 2009 2500 series Silverado mentioned earlier had been neglected for many a mile and year, with StabiliTrak and Tire Pressure Monitor messages (no surprise), a gaggle of inoperative and busted lights, and inoperative door locks. The 2005 F150 was one a police officer brought in with an inoperative moon roof, tail lamps that didn’t work, and a squirrely gas gauge.

The Silverado wasn’t all that interesting, except for the “StabiliTrak” message displayed on the cluster. The DTC and the troubleshooting led the replacement of the steering angle sensor, which was fairly involved because of the rusty, dusty fasteners.  Robert jerked the steering column out, put it in a vise, and did the surgery – that took care of the StabiliTrak, and the rest of the repairs were fairly straightforward, but we did need to mount a couple of universal tag lights in the rear bumper – you can get a traffic ticket in these parts if your tag lights are out. We also replaced the busted CHMSL/Cargo lamp assembly.  Who on earth breaks one of those? We replaced the driver side power door lock switch for corrosion (it had been wet a lot), but then found two of the four door lock actuators were dead, along with two of the tire pressure monitor sensors.

The 2005 F150’s moon roof was open and wouldn’t close (not good on rainy days), and so when we ran through the process of checking switches and wires we found a bad moon roof motor.  We left the permanent magnet casing off the motor, remounted it, and turned the armature with fingers to close the moon roof, because he didn’t want to spend the three hundred bucks on a motor.  The issue with the gas gauge and the tail lights had its roots in an oddly melted connector shell just outside the frame rail on the left side. The wires leading into the front side of that connector looked like a flame had been held under them or something – the tape and insulation was melted, and that side of the connector was too. We could twist and wiggle the connector and get tail light and gas gauge normalization, and so we opted to clip that connector out and bypass every wire with solder and heat shrink.  It was a good repair, because even if we were to find new replacement connector shells for this, they’d be too expensive to buy anyway.

A Patch Job and a No-Fueler

One of our directors owns a fairly decent little 2001 Tacoma he uses for a deer hunting truck, and he came to me one day to tell me that he was having to add a gallon of water a week to keep the cooling system filled.  It turned out as we investigated, that the coolant was making its way into one of the cylinders and out the tailpipe – one of the spark plugs was ultra-rusted.  Well, he made it plain that he didn’t want to start with a head job on that deer hunting truck and so he asked if I had any other ideas.  For his purposes, we decided to run some head gasket sealer through it, carefully following the instructions on the bottle for time, then we refilled it with coolant mix. About a month later he came by and told me that he hadn’t had to add any more water. Take that for what it’s worth.  When somebody’s in a bind, we do what they ask if it’s not dangerous.

About that time a 1999 Lexus rolled in that wouldn’t take gas at the pump, which can be one of the most frustrating issues known to man, and we found a plugged vent hose on that one. Some insect lost his homestead and that customer was a lot less frustrated the next time he pulled up to the pump.


Back to the Pathfinder

With the heater core in place on the Pathfinder, Thomas came to inform me that the brittle heater pipe manifold under the hood had broken when he was reattaching the hoses to the heater core (no surprise), and this wasn’t something we could fix, so we ordered the $220+ manifold with its built-in plastic water pump and did that job up right.  Filling the cooling system was challenging, but with the front jacked up, we managed to make it happen.

Before we re-attacked the cluster issue, we figured we’d do the alignment, and Thomas started out with the rear wheels, because we always align those first if there are adjustments. The problem was that the adjustment bolts were rusted to the bushing sleeves on one side (doncha love it?) and the first bolt he fought with popped off right below the nut, which had become an irremovable part of the bolt. This was becoming difficult and irritating beyond words.


I called the owner to enlighten her, and she told me the Pathfinder had found most of its early paths at the beach, because that’s where it lived for the first five years of its life. Yeah, I know you northern wrench guys see this every day, but we ain’t used to it down here in the south, although we do see some rides from up your way now and then. We ordered replacement cam bolts from Nissan and a lower control arm from the parts store, but to get the old control arm out of there we had to use the high-speed cutter’s 4 inch wheel to clip the adjustment bolts just inside the flanges.

Got that part of the job done, finished the alignment, and then we went after the cluster. Checking the network with the Pico, we found a pattern that was somewhat noisy, but after eliminating first one module and the other to no avail, (we even clipped the network wires feeding the TIPM, which caused the fan to kick on high), we decided the cluster itself must be at fault, because sometimes it’d talk and sometimes it wouldn’t.

This cluster is a “Plug and Play” unit, and when we told the customer what we had decided, the owner found a used one that was right for $75 and when we popped it in there everything was peachy keen.


The 2009 F150 Transmission Problem

In and amongst all these jobs, we had a 2009 F150 with intermittent 6R80 transmission problems. The symptom was that the truck would have spells where it wouldn’t back up and during those times it would also stick in third gear until you cleared the codes. We were told that a transmission shop had pulled the pan and had found good fluid and no debris, and they were kind of stymied as to what needed to be done next, so they sewed it up and the owner brought the truck to us.

We got a Transmission Range sensor code, but that was pretty much it. In the years that I’ve done this, it’s a pretty good bet that the transmission control module (or PCM) is suspect if the transmission starts acting strange and wiping the codes clears it up for awhile. This is obviously not always the case – sometimes the transmission controller will go into limp-in mode for other reasons. With zero experience on this 6R80 gearbox, I called one of my guys who does them all the time – only he’s accustomed to the newer ones. He told me we’d need the “lead frame,” because he has to change them regularly for this kind of problem. That device looks like a big hard wire harness with the speed sensors built in, but it’s actually the Transmission Control Module. Why they call it the “leadframe” is beyond me.

This wasn’t the source of the problem, but another shop had taken a shot at this one before we got it – and apparently they left this busted part in place – we got a replacement before we put it back together

My guy decided to help out and called the parts department to ask if they had one, and then I called, gave them a purchase order, and they billed it out at $125. The way this went down was a perfect storm situation, because the year model was lost somewhere in the process of passing information from pillar to post, and it cost us some work.

When we pulled the valve body to replace the leadframe, we saw that the plastic-and-rubber adapter between the valve body and the pump was cracked, and so I got another one of those from my guy at the Ford place.  The only problem was that when we put everything back together put the fluid in, and found that the transmission wouldn’t engage at all and the TCM (leadframe) wouldn’t talk to the IDS either.  But we could plug the old leadframe into the wires and let it swing and it’d talk to the tool just fine.  What the heck was going on here?

This was strange to me – for years Ford told us that electronics couldn’t cause a no-engagement issue, but here it was.  Things have obviously changed. With the absence of electronics, this one dumps the pressure instead of raising it.

It was then we discovered you can’t buy a leadframe for a 2009 model – you have to buy the whole valve body, leadframe and all ($1000). And even though the later leadframes look identical and are replaceable separately, they won’t talk to the IDS and they won’t function on a 2009 model.  So we got a whole valve body, installed and torqued it, did the fluid fill, and fixed the truck.  It was messy but fun pumping transmission oil into that one through the hole where the dipstick tube used to go and checking it with that tiny plastic dipstick right next to the catalyst with the engine running and hot. That was a knuckle-BURNER. One way or another, we won that fight and all the rest of them on this round, with busted and burned knuckles galore.  Who knows what we’ll see next week?  R.W.M.


The Industry as I See It

Before became an instructor in 2001, I worked in the field for 25 years; the last fifteen of those years were at a dealership in a nearby town that has from 20-25 mechanics and cycles 100 cars a day through those service bays, and I saw a lot of guys come and go during the time I was there. I was the only drivability/electronics guy they had for several years and I had to work out 12-15 cars a day.

But the point is that there was quite a bit of turnover in the service department. I saw some guys who were really good at doing the work but would miss at least one if not two days a week.

I saw other guys who were really efficient and good at their work and came to work every day but had to borrow tools from just about everybody else in the shop because their toolboxes were almost empty.

I saw one guy who came to work with about $30,000 worth of Snap On tools he didn’t know how to use – he couldn’t fix a ham sandwich.

I saw some young guys with no training who came in doing oil changes and tires and graduated to belts, hoses, and used car inspections, but couldn’t fix much of anything beyond that, even after factory schooling.

I saw engine mechanics who could do heavy engine repairs well but couldn’t get the fine tuning done when their wrench-twisting was done – and the dispatcher would pass their jobs to me to have them straightened out.

I’ve also worked with some really great mechanics who were crisp, capable, and sharp, but were looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and bounced around from job to job looking for that gold.

Some mechanics are gifted at doing the work but take a mess with them wherever they go – their benches are piled high with junk and their service bay floors are filthy and some of these “messies” leave greasy marks on the fenders, the steering wheel, and the floor mats. Even though they turn a lot of hours and do a lot of really good work, their customers are ticked off because of the mess they leave.

But then I also worked with a few guys who had a lot of potential I could see from my vantage point in the shop, but there were some service managers I served under who didn’t seem to understand that virtually every one of us – myself included – was at some point in our career, not as good at our jobs as we would one day be. Not a single one of us was a fine-tuned and perfect specimen of anything when we first began our career, whatever that career might have been. We all had (and have) a lot of room to grow.

The point is that, as you well know, virtually everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and virtually everybody is a work in progress. Lee is obviously no exception to either of those, but from what I’ve been told by people I have working in the field, Lee is superior to technicians who come from much larger for-profit schools – and I’ve worked with some of those people myself and seen it firsthand.

One of my graduates originally started out at one of those big for-profit schools – his father paid $14,000 for a single semester where he learned almost nothing. He left that school, came to my automotive program, finished it, and has worked for about five years at a large dealership in this area, where he is one of their core people and earns a lot of money.

From what I’ve been told by shop owners, mechanics in this area, and even a man who sent his own son to another one of those expensive schools, students who come from those schools in other states have, for the most part, fallen victim to that “buddy” mentality while they were there. It’s a system where their buddies tell them how they can “play the game” and get past their training with the least amount of effort – and it shows when they finally make it to the shop floor, as you have probably noticed.

What I’m leading up to, is that, as an instructor, I’d dearly love to cut cookies (so to speak) and produce a platoon or so of “Top Guns” every four semesters to place at various shops and dealerships in the area. Lord knows there are enough jobs out there, and fewer people all the time to fill those jobs. The local industrial parts rep told me a few days ago that he could put seventeen people to work tomorrow. Shops are vigorously competing for techs and in some cases hiring warm bodies for OJT.

As it is, I work at a state college attempting to provide a service to the alumni and the community by training people – and many who know NOTHING when they come to me – so that they can be a part of the machine that is the American workforce.

We were at that one meeting at a local high school talking to students whose initial (and primary) focus is how they can make the most money, and the welding instructor there does everything he can to convince all his prospective students that if they become welders they’ll make four thousand dollars a week.

And many of them believe that, even though only a small fraction of them will every achieve even a fraction of that.

But with those pie-in-the-sky wage promises, welding programs do very well. They don’t show their recruits the 12 buck-an-hour paychecks most welders get – they show copies and pay stubs of people who make stupid money for very dangerous jobs, either offshore or in some other faraway place.

I could do that same thing, if I showed pay stubs and didn’t tell them anything else – I have people in the field making upwards of $70,000 a year and more. I have a 22-year-old graduate at a dealership in this same county making (from what the dealership general manager told me) more than $900 a week – and earning every penny of it.

Why are we having problems? Well, it’s largely because the perception is that there isn’t a lot of money in mechanic work, that it’s a thankless profession, and that when you first start out in the field, even with training, you’ll probably be doing tires and oil changes in spite of the fact that you spent eighteen months of your life preparing for that career.

Another perception out there is that you have to work too hard and know too much to make a good living as an automotive technician, and there are entire trade magazine articles about shops frequently that don’t treat their mechanics with respect.

There are some shops where I won’t even attempt to place anybody because those places aren’t good places to work. I had one graduate who worked at a dealership where they paid him peanuts because he was young, yet he was the only mechanic they had who could rebuild automatic transmissions – and he turned a lot of hours, only to have the service manager give the pay for those hours to some of the older mechanics who seemed to be having a lot of bad flag weeks in a row and then cut his pay $30 a week based on the hours he actually gave the guy credit for.

One thing I tell people I’m recruiting is that, in this business, you WILL earn what you get paid and your work needs to be perfect 100 percent of the time to garner the respect of your employer and customers. Nothing less will do. After all, what percentage of perfection do we expect from those who make our hamburgers? Would you eat at a place that promised hair-free hamburgers 99 percent of the time?

That being said, every individual is an individual, and, as stated earlier, everybody is a work in progress and everybody brings their strengths and weaknesses with them when they come.

One dealership I know of seems to be willing to hire just about anybody who walks in the door with a toolbox, to include guys with no experience at all, probably in hopes of getting a lot of work done by people who are being paid very little money.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were dozens and dozens of super mechanics out there who could fix anything and would work really cheap? We all know that simply isn’t the case.

Older mechanics are burning out and retiring because they’re sick of the grind and the changing technology; we all know we need new blood in this industry. I’m trying to do what I can to remedy that, and I can’t turn anybody away who wants to enroll in Automotive.

How many teachers do you know who will fail a student or two at the end of a term if that decision will cost them a thousand dollars a month for the next three months?
Yet at the end of just about every spring semester, I’m faced with that decision, and I don’t rubber stamp anybody. If they fail, I fail them and I take the cut in pay as a result.

Why? Because I’m trying to produce good people. I have time to teach them how to do the work, but there are some of my enrollees who don’t know how to work – and that’s very difficult to teach, but it is what it is.

About Them There Sluggards…

It is better to be short-handed than to hire a sluggard; better to have nobody than a lazy body.
I know of more than a few dealership employees I encountered over the years who contributed little or anything to the workflow in the shop.
Evidently King Solomon had suffered through a few sluggards on his payroll:
“As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the lazy man”
Proverbs 10:26 
You know how irritating vinegar is when it’s taken straight, or how aggravating smoke is when it gets in your eyes! That’s how irritating lazy people are to those who hire them.
Whatever they do will take twice as long to finish, and will either have to be done over or thrown out-at twice the cost. Their presence on the job is worse than their absence.
They waste their own resources and everybody else’s.
A tragic picture is painted in Proverbs 24:30-31:
“I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down.”
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t great because he was born in a log cabin; he was great because he got out of it. Now, the chances are you won’t end up in the White House, but unless you want to end up in the poorhouse, don’t be a sluggard!

Communication and Rapport


There are a lot of things our cars can do to communicate their problems to the driver. One way is by burning too much gas or bucking and jerking. They can fail to start or start hard. They can overheat or have less than normal power. They can make odd noises. They can turn on warning indicators of various colors and shapes to warn us of issues we might not notice otherwise. They can create weird sensations, either through the steering wheel, the seats, or whatever. And when we take our vehicle in for service, we have to use our human ability to communicate to the service advisor who’s writing the ticket. He or she needs to know what our cars have communicated to us.

That sometimes weary, stressed, and overworked individual (remember, he listens to peoples’ problems all day and gets shouted down a lot when things go sour) has to use very few words to accurately outline the concern as the customer describes it, and like the rest of us, sometimes the service writer either doesn’t listen well enough or isn’t told everything the technician needs to know about the concern. Some customers don’t want to even describe their concern because, well, communication takes energy and effort. One girl who drove a company vehicle when I was doing fleet maintenance 30 years ago would call me when her car gave some kind of trouble and simply say, “Richard…. MY CAR!!!”

This kind of driver just wants to throw their keys at the service advisor and have their car fixed while they do very little to explain what’s wrong. Unless the problem with their vehicle is painfully obvious, that non-communicative way of doing things just doesn’t work.

Well, after the work order (or repair order, if you wish to call it that) is written, it becomes a part of the shop’s paper trail and a dispatcher hands it to a technician who will read the description of the concern and launch his or her investigation. If things go the way they should, the customer will be satisfied. When he or she isn’t satisfied, well, in a large percentage of those cases, a breakdown in human communication is the problem.

This vehicle just a machine, right? In the eyes of the service writer, a technician should be able to make a diagnosis, then promise that that the $320 worth of parts and labor will fix the customer’s problem and that nothing else will be needed. If the service writer can extract that kind of promise from the technician, he or she feels really good in making that same promise to the customer and comes off looking like a hero – unless the promise happens not to be kept. No tech with any experience will make that promise – the words, “Verify Repair” are at the end of every repair routine where troubleshooting has to be done.

Well, that’s communication, you see – when things work the way they should, the customer has described his or her concern to the best of his/her ability, and knows which questions to ask for clarification. Then the service writer has either typed or written a work order that communicates to the technician what the customer wants repaired – with a note to see the service advisor for clarity if there isn’t room on the repair order line to tell the whole story. The service writer/advisor has received communication from the customer, properly creating the work order, and then the technician is supposed to use his/her ability to read and comprehend and has applied knowledge and experience to determine as nearly as possible what has to be done. Then the technician has to test drive the car to make sure the problem is completely fixed.

Even after the authorization has been given, there’s that annoying part of any repair that tends to sour the service advisor’s stomach. When the “Verify the Repair” stage of the job comes to pass, sometimes more work is needed, even when a good technician makes the most accurate diagnosis possible.

Case in point: Following factory training procedures, I once confirmed that the ignition module was faulty on a high mileage Renault Alliance by pressing on the potting material on the back of the module near its wire connector – the engine stalled. The Renault instructor had taught us this as a reliable test for a vehicle with a stalls-while-driving concern. \

I communicated this information to the service advisor – he didn’t communicate it to the customer, he only told the man that the module needed replacing. That was enough to obtain authorization for the repair, and I replaced the module, then test drove the car. It didn’t stall on that test drive. A week later the car stalled again and the guy came back.

That time I found a bad crank sensor, but it was far more difficult to get the crank sensor to fail – I had to drive a LONG time with my equipment connected before the sensor stopped working. The customer was totally convinced that he didn’t need the first part, and no amount of communication at this point would un-convince him. Ideally, I would have been able to demonstrate the test procedure I used the first time I checked the car. That would have been perfect communication because he would have seen the problem for himself. As it was, things went kind of sour.

Granted, there are times when the technician simply misdiagnoses the problem, and those are the times that seem to stand out, but misdiagnosis, while it is more prevalent in some shops than others, isn’t the case every time – and the situation is compounded when customers and service writers think they know more than they actually do. In those cases, it doesn’t matter what the truth is, it just matters that they’re ticked off.

Then there are the land mines that come from communication that is deliberately withheld. For example, I know of a man who bought his vehicle AS IS from a used car lot and then found out after his first oil change that the engine was loaded with thick, gooey ‘motor honey’ to keep the engine from knocking. A simple oil change uncovered a problem that necessitated a massive repair.

Incidentally, one piece of communication that should make any buyer shy away from purchasing a used vehicle from an individual is when the seller says, “I’m not a mechanic…” That typically means the the seller knows the vehicle has a hidden problem but wants plausible deniability when things go south, which they usually do.

There are also those times when one repair leads to another repair that was unrelated, and the mechanic has to communicate to the customer why the work he or she did couldn’t have caused the second problem.

Case in point. My dad put brakes on my sister’s car. As soon as she backed the car out of his shop, her radio wouldn’t work. She replaced the fuse and it blew as soon as she plugged it in. She was convinced that my dad had destroyed her radio while he was replacing the brake pads until I found the problem – a shorted capacitor inside the radio was blowing the fuses. Replacing the brakes had nothing to do with the radio even though the radio was working just fine right before the brakes were replaced. The best way I could communicate that to my sister was to fix her silly radio for free.

Having worked as a technician in shops of various sizes, rubbing shoulders with service advisors, service managers, shop foremen, parts guys, and even customers was the order of my day for twenty five years, and no two days were alike. Service advisor/writers could really put some strange stuff in the work order description. Sometimes the communication failure was painfully evident. I don’t remember which service advisor wrote it, but I remember a fellow tech drawing one work order that read this way:

“Windshield won’t separate rain from water.”

I’m not kidding! What the heck is a technician (or anybody else) supposed to do with communication like that?

Here’s another one:

“Engine won’t start unless left hand turn signal is activated.”

That was on a repair line with three other repair lines under it showing various additional concerns. I slid behind the wheel and found it exactly as he had said. Interesting problem, I thought. So I spent 30 minutes on that to find out that the van had been re-wired to work that way. When I asked the service writer about it he nonchalantly told me that he only put that on the order so I’d know how to start the van. That was a goofy thing to write on a repair line, making me think it was something that needed fixing – he could have attached a sticky note or something, for Pete’s sake!

When the work is done, particularly if it’s a warranty claim, the technician has to be able to clearly communicate why he or she did the work that was done so that the warranty auditors won’t be able to use the technician’s description of the work for a reason to charge the repair back to the service department. And the work order has to be written truthfully, accurately, and in such a way so it is easy to understand.

One of the most important aspects of communication is to always tell the truth. When a question has arisen about something I did or didn’t do in a shop situation, the management always took me at my word because of my track record of telling the truth. Always remember that. The truth needs to be your friend and ally rather than your enemy. I always say that if everybody always did what they were supposed to and didn’t do what they weren’t supposed to there would be no temptation to lie. That being said, a loud and angry supervisor may find himself left out of the loop sometimes simply because the technician doesn’t want to be shouted down.

I was pulling the rear seat out of a nearly new Lincoln one time and I guess I was kind of clumsy that day, because I managed to scratch the paint behind the passenger side rear door – I immediately fetched the service manager and had him bring the customer to the service area. That silver-haired old banker just smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it – If I decide I can’t live with it, I’ll bring it back and have you guys fix it.” Honesty is the best policy, you see, and it’s a lot easier when your service manager isn’t a jerk. But even when he IS a jerk, honesty is still the best policy.

Case in point: Once back in 1995 I had to do some work on a factory installed cell phone in a Crown Victoria, and about a week later, the service manager called me into his office, claiming I had made a personal call on the customer’s phone. I told him the only call I had made on that man’s phone was to Ford – a necessary call as a part of the repair. He said the phone had been used to call a number right there in town, and I asked him to show me the bill.

“See the timestamp on that call?” The service manager looked where I was pointing at the call he had highlighted.

“That’s eight thirty…” he mused.

“Where was I at eight thirty?” I asked.

“That call was made by the salesman when he was delivering the car back to the customer!” He almost shouted.

“No duh,” I replied, and left his office, not waiting for the apology I knew wasn’t coming.

Then there’s LATE communication that comes from NO initial communication. One day I couldn’t find my favorite 3/8 ratchet. Two weeks later I still couldn’t find it. Finally I bought a new one ($54) off the tool truck and etched my name on the handle. Later that afternoon, my service writer came from his desk bringing my missing ratchet – said he had borrowed it several days earlier to do a simple recall in the write-up area and had covered it with some papers, then forgot he had it.

Communication with customers is extremely important. A technician needs to be able to concisely explain WHY a repair is needed. After the customer is done talking to you, that customer should have confidence in what you know and what you do.

If the customer has no confidence in you, (and that confidence always has to be earned over time) then your employer will have less confidence in you as well. Get credentials. Display them appropriately. Communicate professionally.

And just because you think you know more than other people about some things, well, that doesn’t give you a license to be an arrogant jerk or a ripoff artist. Ever met a mechanic who was an arrogant jerk? He’s insecure and immature. My personal axiom is that it is NOT possible to be both rude and mature at the same time.

At the shop where I worked the longest, the general manager discovered that I could generally calm a customer down even when nobody else could.

Sometimes saying the right words at the right time will do the trick. In those cases, less is more. Example: Customer brings his truck to our shop because the engine hunts and surges when he’s taking off… This one has a stick shift, not an automatic. The technician who worked on it found the problem and corrected it, but the porter who brought the vehicle around wasn’t too good at driving a stick and so it looked to the customer like the truck wasn’t fixed when in reality it was.

The service writers tried to explain the situation but he only shouted them down. He had paid his bill and his truck was “jus’ like it wuz,” so to speak. So I heard my name over the loudspeakers calling me to the writeup area even though I wasn’t the one who did the work.

“Can you talk to this guy? He’s pretty furious and we can’t get him to calm down.”

“Sure,” I said, moving to where the customer was standing with folded arms and an icy glare.

“Let’s take a test drive,” I told him. We settled into the seats of his truck with me behind the wheel and I eased out of the parking lot onto the bypass and then down into the Wiregrass Commons Mall access circle. He ranted while I drove. The truck always accelerated smoothly, every time I took off. I let him rant and rave until he had pretty much spent his emotional energy before I interjected a comment.

“Ya know, I sent a VCR to North American Phillips in Atlanta to have it repaired awhile back, and when I got it back it was still giving the same problem…” He banged a fist on his knee..

“YEAH! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Ain’t it a pain?” He raved on for another thirty seconds and then calmed down, convinced that I had walked in his shoes at least once. He noticed as I accelerated from a standing stop two or three more times.

“I guess it’s doing better than it was. I guess I’ll just drive it for awhile and see how it does.”

I smiled and nodded, turning off the access road on my way back to the dealership. He drove away satisfied.

For any workplace to operate efficiently, the various players have to communicate accurately. When communication breaks down, the job breaks down. That’s why they stopped building the Tower of Babel, but that’s another story.

How Does An Engine Work Anyway?

Well, mechanically, It’s a big air pump. A 4.0L engine, for example, is designed to move 4 liters of air during a full cycle – that’s under ideal conditions, by the way. If you were to put a balloon over the exhaust and catch the air, you’d get 4 liters of it each time the crankshaft spins 720 degrees.

So we know about the 720 degrees of crankshaft rotation, but what else is going on?

Two turns of the crankshaft will carry every piston through four strokes, but we’re going to focus on what happens in just one cylinder, which is the smooth bore in which the piston travels.

A piston generally has three grooves around its crown, and specially hardened rings fit in those grooves. The piston is attached to its connecting rod by a polished and hardened pin, called a ‘wrist pin.’

As the crankshaft is turned, either by the starter or by the power strokes of other pistons, the piston we’re focusing on is drawn down into the cylinder to pull the air and fuel in (we call that concoction the ‘mix’), then the piston goes back up to squeeze the air, gets a hit from the explosion of air and fuel that happens when the spark plug fires, then drives the crankshaft around as it goes back down.

The piston is connected with a special rod to the crankshaft, which actually drives the piston during three of its four strokes. The crankshaft, camshaft, and everything else in the engine is oiled, either with pressurized oil or splash oil.

That’s a whole different system. Each cylinder has a companion cylinder – we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

There are usually two compression rings that ride in the top grooves machined into the piston (those rings are missing in the picture, but their grooves are visible) and one pair of oil scraper rings that ride in the bottom groove along with a separator.

The oil control rings are a different material than the 4 compression rings and are designed to squeegee almost all the oil from the cylinder walls as the piston moves down. The green area you see outside the cylinder walls is where the engine coolant flows, because those cylinder walls get really hot.

So what controls the flow of the air? Well, the first place the air goes after it leaves the air filter is a throttle plate you control with your foot when you apply the accelerator.

Air movement through an engine is controlled by parts called ‘valves,’ that are shaped sort of like big nails (see photo), but they’re mounted with the head down and they move to open ports that allow air to enter and leave their particular cylinder. The one shown is an intake valve – the piston in the photo is at top dead center (TDC) and can be seen right below the valve. The white area is where air comes in.

Valves are held against their seats by strong springs attached to their stems, and they’re opened by egg-shaped lobes called ‘cams’ on a shaft that spins at half the speed of the crankshaft. The shape of those egg-shaped lobes determines how much the valves open and how long they stay open, which has a great impact on the way the engine idles as well as on how much horsepower and torque it produces.

The camshaft’s primary job is to opens the valves, and it is driven by the crankshaft via gears, a chain, or a belt.

During the intake stroke when the piston is traveling down and air is entering the cylinder, the appropriately named intake valve is open. It closes when the piston has traveled as low as it will go.

The piston rises into the cylinder (driven by its connecting rod, which is clamped around a smooth pin on the crankshaft), squeezing the air and fuel mix, and right before it reaches the top (usually about 10 degrees of crankshaft rotation Before Top Dead Center, or BTDC), the ignition system fires the spark plug, which ignites the ‘mix’ of air and atomized fuel. That starts a controlled explosion that slaps the piston pretty hard right as it’s starting back down on its power stroke. This all happens really fast.

5 If this process is working right, all the fire in the cylinder has gone out by the time the crankshaft has moved 24 degrees past top dead center on that cylinder’s travel. The cam sensor tells the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) when this 24 degree mark has passed so the PCM will know when to safely deliver the next fuel spray.

Now, about those companion cylinders: Engines with even numbers of cylinders will have two of their pistons moving together – For instance, on a four cylinder engine, pistons 1 and 4 are at TDC simultaneously while cylinders 2 and 3 are at BDC (Bottom Dead Center). A hundred and eighty degrees of crankshaft rotation later, 2 and 3 are at TDC and 1 and 4 are at the bottom of their travel.

When 1 is on Compression, 4 is on exhaust – 2 and 3 work that way too – these are companion cylinders (1 and 4, 2 and 3)

Why is this significant? Well, you have to understand that to work on an engine. The harmonic balancer is a weighted wheel on the front of an engine (the pulley that drives the belts is generally either bolted to it or is a part of it), and that weighted wheel is marked so you can find Top Dead Center on cylinder number 1.

The problem is that if you aren’t aware of where the camshaft is (remember, it turns only one round for every two rounds of the crankshaft) is, you might have number 1 cylinder on TDC exhaust instead of compression. When installing the ignition distributor on engines that have one, you have to know whether you’re on #1 TDC compression or TDC exhaust. That’s not too hard to figure out if you pull the number one spark plug, put a cork in the spark plug hole, and slowly turn the engine in the direction that it runs until it pops the cork out of the hole. That’ll happen while the #1 cylinder is approaching TDC compression, so the next time the zero mark on the balancer lines up after the cork pops out of the number one spark plug hole, you’ve found the spot you’re looking for.

Another Funny Memory – true story

I didn’t drink and I didn’t smoke.  Most of the other guys smoked, and they all drank, except for the preacher’s boy.  We all went to the same church, too.   My choice against these things was wise, to be sure, but it wasn’t because I was  any sort of spiritual giant.  I was just a hard-headed non-conformist.


An old Dodge loaded with some of my friends had left the pavement and was carefully picking it’s way down a farm field road between the county road and the state highway that leads to the beach.  Those guys had some beer hidden in the brush out by a fence post and they had decided to retrieve it and  consume it that afternoon.

Sam was with me, and he usually drank with these guys, but he had decided to ride with me and stay “dry,” that day.  Sam wanted to know where they had stashed the stuff, and so he had me follow them.  We picked our way down the muddy two-rut road behind the Dodge full of under-aged beer drinkers. They had recovered their cache and they were popping tops now, turning up cans of warm beer as the big car moved slowly toward the state highway.

As they pulled up to the pavement and looked to the south for any oncoming traffic, we all saw the same thing.  A highway patrol car was sitting a few hundred yards down the road with his radar out, probably hoping to nab speeders coming back from the beach.

The under-age drinkers kept their beer low, terrified at the close proximity of the lawman, even though he was facing the other way.  Bob, the driver of the Dodge, gingerly clicked his turn signal on and eased onto the pavement, very predictably moving away from the trooper like he was driving a baby carriage.

“I have an idea,” Sam told me, shooting a sidelong glance the trooper car. “Pull out with a lot of noise but without spinning your tires and pass them….”  I saw his point.  We’d certainly get the cop’s attention that way.

There wasn’t much traffic and the trooper was probably bored stiff.  If we did it right, we might be able to at least put some fear into  the under age guys who were drinking in the Dodge. I gunned the old Galaxie I was driving and heard the bellowing sound of my glass packs as I pulled out on the highway like I was going to a race.

It didn’t take much speed to pass the creeping Dodge full of my terrified peers. As I zoomed past them I glanced in my rearview to see the trooper whip off the shoulder, wheel around, and head in our direction.

I never exceeded the speed limit, and there  was nothing unlawful about my maneuver. I  had stopped accelerating at 50 and had leveled off.  The trooper had no reason to stop me.  As for wide-eyed beer-drinkers in the Dodge…

Well, when he passed them on the left, they were throwing out beer on the right.

“The guilty flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”                   Proverbs 28:1