LOOKING FOR MR. GOODWRENCH

Take heart. In quest of the honest mechanic, we entered the nether world of grease guns, pneumatic tools, and dirty oil pans with our rigged test car. Shock of shocks, we found 26 coveralled angels in 26 trys. Not a bad score, Dallas. We even found, honest, ma, mechanics with a sense of humor: "If you let me do the work, its $20 an hour. If you watch, its $30 an hour. If you ask questions, it’s $40 an hour. And if you help, its $50 an hour. "

IT’S A CLEVER CON. RENT an office. Get a telephone number, place a small ad in local newspapers, simple and straight to the point: Automatic transmissions overhauled, $49.50. Parts and labor included. Free towing service. Joe’s Transmissions. List a telephone number, but no address.

Sit back and wait. Wait for the guy looking for a bargain, a quick fix, a great deal. It won’t be long.

When the fish calls, he’s hooked painlessly. “Sure we can handle it.

Let me send my wrecker.” The con doesn’t have a wrecker. But he has a connection. Some guy with a homemade tow truck willing to pick up the car for $5 or $6. The car is delivered to a regular transmission shop where a transmission overhaul is, say, $100. The shop knows it’s a scam, but as long as the con pays, they don’t notice a thing. They just do what they’re tol

The con calls the fish to dangle another baited hook: The car has arrived, and it needs not only a transmission, but also a $75 torque converter -available with easy financing. So easy, in fact, that the fish is persuaded to apply for $500 credit. The final reel-in? The transmission can’t be saved. The con is so sorry -it’s going to take $497 for a new one. Lucky the fish has $500.

This scam is just one of the reasons auto repair firms are the fifth most complained-about business on the local Better Business Bureau’s files. How can you find an honest auto mechanic? We attempted it, and two weeks and 26 garages later, we were happily shocked to find our car and pocket-book intact. Not one of the mechanics tested was dishonest.

The reason for these apparently contradictory statistic

The mechanics visited all operate within Dallas city limits, where the city’s motor vehicle repair ordinance, coupled with an investigative team to enforce it, make rackets like the one described almost impossible.For our test, we first consulted Ed Meeks, who is not only an investigative supervisor for the Dallas Department of Consumer Affairs, but also a crack mechanic with 20 years experience in an independent garage and master mechanic certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Meeks, who heads up the four-member team investigating auto repair complaints for the city, supervised a tune-up of the test vehicle, a 1978 Chevette, chosen because it was a late model, American-built car. He labeled all parts inconspicuously to allow us to check whether they had been replaced. Then, because our test was aimed at gauging honesty, not competency, he chose a simple disconnected spark plug wire as the problem we would present mechanics.

Shops were selected at random and included chains like Shook Auto Centers, General Tire, Exxon, and Shell; shops specializing in tune-ups, like Insta-Tune, and Guaranteed Tune-up; department store automotive centers, such as Sears and Woolco, and, finally, independent garage

In each garage or shop, the mechanic was given a description of the problem (slow acceleration, chugging, and shaking) and told that the car had been recently tuned. And, in each place tested, the problem was solved at relatively nominal fees, or free of charge.

The typical response of mechanics who corrected the problem at no charge was, “If I tell you what was wrong with it, it’ll cost you $12.50 [diagnostic charge]. If you just take my word it’s fixed, it won’t cost you a thing.” Those who did charge diagnostic fees were usually working in department stores or chain shops. The fee generally did not exceed $12.5

The gratifying results of the test can be credited to a 1974 city ordinance making charges for unnecessary repairs illegal, says Meeks. In the first year after the law’s passage, the consumer affairs office received 4000 complaints. That flood has slowed to a trickle of about 100 complaints a month. One in ten of those ends up in court, and the consumer affairs office sports the highest conviction rate of any city agency: 95 per cent.

“The complaints have changed so much that I’m really aware of the control we have and how much power we have,” says Meeks. “We seldom have complaints now where the consumer alleges he paid for something he didn’t receive, and upon investigation we find, sure enough, he didn’t. We don’t have many consumers saying I paid for a new part and got a used or rebuilt one,” any more. Repair firms know we mean business and that we’ll see them in court if necessary.”

Such cases are usually tried in municipal court, where fines range up to $200. Two convictions over a two-year period mean loss of a shop’s license. In incidents involving amounts of more than $200, felony theft charges can be brought in state district court. Maximum fines of $5000 and up to ten years’ imprisonment can be levied against offenders.

On the surface, finding 26 honest car repair shops looks like good news. But because the consumer affairs office still gets those 100 complaints per month, honesty shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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