I grew up in the back of two-door family cars ranging from a ’67 Camaro to an ’83 Civic 1500 “S”. It never seemed like a hardship to me. Nor does it seem like a hardship to have my six-year-old son in the back of my Accord Coupe. He knows how to let himself in and out of the back seat. It’s no different from having a four-door sedan and letting him out of the back door. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t even think about it.
The other one percent of the time is when I clean the interior of the car. It takes the strength of Hercules and the flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil headliner to get the explosion of fast food, Legos, school paperwork, and miscellaneous unidentifiable items out of the cave behind the front seats. And then I have to condition the leather, you see, which would work better if my arms were between six and eighteen inches longer. So having done all that this past Sunday, I figured I’d do my other least favorite job: brake dust removal. I was already in a bit of a bad mood, crouching next to my Griot’s Garage bucket and shaking out my favorite horse-hair wheel brush, when I saw it.
Oh, hell no.
It was just a two-inch scratch on the rim of the rear wheel, from parallel parking downtown. Most people wouldn’t think twice about it. But I just about lost my mind, because:
a) I don’t scratch wheels. In more than fifteen years of owning cars with low-profile alloy wheels, I’d only scraped one wheel prior to Sunday.
b) That wheel also being one of the wheels on my Accord. I’d scraped it a few months ago on a curb. But two weeks ago I had the tires rotated as part of a 22,500-mile service, which meant that this was a second scrape, likely from the same thing.
The idea that I’d scraped two wheels in under a month was enough to make me consider tearing up my license and riding a bicycle downtown from now on. I was still in a foul mood as I put some Armor All on the front tires, which were torn up from a couple of trackdays.
I’d just had the tires rotated front to rear. By rights, the worn shoulders should have been on the back now. But they were still up front. And a quick check of the other three wheels revealed that none of them were scraped. That was good news because it meant that my lifetime wheel damage count was stuck at one. But it meant that I’d been walljobbed.
Car and Driver’s brilliant and innovative technical editor, Patrick Bedard, wrote a column entitled “The Wall Job” back in the magazine’s glory days. A “wall job”, if you haven’t already figured it out, is when a shop takes a car in for service, parks it against the wall for a few days, then returns it to the customer along with a bill for work that the customer cannot readily verify. The various consumer-protection laws that require the customer be given the option of getting the “old parts” back are meant to address the wall-jobbing problem. I don’t know how effective they are. To begin with, most people can’t tell the difference between a control module for a Rolls-Royce Ghost and a distributor cap for a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, and they aren’t interested in getting a bag full of mystery junk with their credit-card receipt.
Furthermore, much of modern automotive service leaves no parts behind. The five hours of diagnosis with a Bosch “Hammer” tool that your dealer supposedly put in before figuring out why your 964 Carrera stalls at lights? The road testing that was necessary to figure out that mystery vibration? How do you know how much of it was done, if any?
The first thing I did when I realized I’d been wall-jobbed on my tire rotation was to pop the hood on the Accord and look carefully at the oil. Oil changes are famous walljob candidates, but in this case the dealer had done right: the oil was clear and clean. The filter, too, looked new. So that much, as least, was correct. On the other hand, I had serious doubts that the “multi-point visual inspection” required by Honda, and paid for by me, had been performed.
I looked at the receipt and saw that I’d paid $19.95 plus tax for the rotation. That’s something I can do myself, but it takes me a bit of time and annoyance to do it. Twenty bucks to save a dirty half hour of my time is a deal with which I can live. But twenty bucks for nothing? The hell with that.
This morning I called the dealership. My service advisor was brusque at first. “Why do you think your tires haven’t been rotated?” I explained. She seemed doubtful. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want my twenty bucks back.”
“Are you willing to bring the car by so we can look at it?”
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the tires have been rotated.”
“Not in this case.” And then I discussed the nature of my part-time job as an automotive writer and how I could earn twenty dollars back by mentioning the name of the dealer in an article.
“We’ll call you back.” Which they did, an hour later. Good news! My entire seventy-eight dollar service had been refunded. And they’d be happy to rotate my tires for free. I told them I’d handle it myself, and that I was satisfied with the deal. In truth, I wasn’t. Not really. From now until the time my car is out of warranty, I’ll be verifying everything they claim to have done myself. I could change dealers, but what’s the point? The new dealer could be just as bad, or worse. Better to deal with these people. Maybe they’ll be more likely to do the work now.
I’ve written time and time again about how far more of the car business revolves around dealers than most people realize. Everything from product mix to warranty terms is a product of interactions with dealers. They are enshrined by state laws that the dealer associations purchase at considerable expense. They are the true customers of the manufacturers. And when their interests conflict with yours, they will nearly always win the battle.
After hanging up the phone, I asked myself if this incident would keep me from buying another Honda. The truthful answer is: probably not. I don’t like Honda dealers in general, and I’ve yet to see one that treats the customer with the consideration and truthfulness that I’ve experienced as an owner of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes, and even Land Rovers, but that’s what you get for shopping in the discount aisle. Wal-Mart doesn’t treat its customers the way that Nordstrom does, and Honda dealers don’t treat their customers the way that Audi dealers do. Moreover, Honda can’t do much to change the state of affairs any more than a husband in a thirty-year marriage can dictate terms to his wife, and for pretty much the same reasons.
If the manufacturers had any real power on the ground of customer/dealer interactions, they’d make damned sure dealers didn’t endanger their next thirty-three-thousand dollar transaction to make a quick twenty bucks on a walljob tire rotation. But dealers don’t look at it that way. They see the chance to make a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars, every day. That adds up in a hurry, and it makes a lot more difference to the bottom line than another “mini-deal” to some jerk who has the invoice price and the incentives printed out in a manila folder and doesn’t want to pay a penny of net profit on his next car.
So from now on, I’ll treat my dealer like Reagan treated Gorbachev. Trust, but verify. And if the day ever comes that my opinion or my vote might possibly matter to anyone as regards the possibility of manufacturer-owned stores in Ohio, I’ll be right there in the ballot box. But really, what chance is there of that? What chance do mere voters have against people who make twenty dollars a shot all day, every day, for precisely nothing? How do you out-vote someone who uses your own money to buy votes? Didn’t there used to be a political party that promised to rebalance the scale in the favor of the consumer? What about the Supreme Court? I hear they’ve been doing a lot for individual liberties lately – but when it comes to dealer franchise protection, they sided with the multi-millionaire “little guys”, not the customer.
I guess you really can put a price on change. That price is $19.95.