Why Won’t You Work on My Car?

We only work on some types of cars at here at Art’s Automotive. Sometimes people feel hurt when we refuse to take their car in, and that’s what this page is about. It’s not that we don’t like you, and we’re not looking down our noses at your car; there are valid reasons that benefit both us and you.

Familiarity

First and perhaps most importantly is familiarity with the product. There are general mechanics that will work on whatever rolls though the door. I’ve done it myself, and it’s really hard. As a mechanic you have to learn about every system you encounter on the fly. I respect other mechanics that try to make this business model work, but it’s not for us.

There’s a massive advantage to working on cars you know. About half the time I don’t need to check a service manual when performing a diagnosis. I know how the system is supposed to work. I know the best flow of diagnosis and where all the components are located. And perhaps most importantly, I know what the likely cause of the problem is because I’ve seen it before, so I can take a diagnostic shortcut based on probability. Since diagnostic time is billed by the hour, it’s a lot cheaper to have a mechanic who knows the car do the diagnosis.

I recently helped another shop with a car they had put nearly $3000 engine work into and it still had the original problem. The car’s owner was frustrated because he needed the car for work, and the shop was hemorrhaging money trying to get the car fixed. The shop was competent, but not very familiar with the model of car, and the problem was weird. Anyway, it took me two hours to find the problem they’d been working on for weeks. Not because I’m a better mechanic, but because I knew the model a lot better than they did. That’s one of the reasons we don’t work on everything. We don’t want to be like that other shop. For makes we don’t know, there are other shops that can provide better value for our “customers”.

Tooling

The next reason is tooling. Special tools have always been needed for some repairs or diagnostic work. In times past it was possible to do 90% of what a car might need without special tools specifically for that make and model and refer the car elsewhere for work a mechanic wasn’t equipped for.

Things have changed. A factory scan tool or equivalent is mandatory  for even the most basic repairs. It’s a really bad idea to do even “simple” work, a transmission fluid service for example, without a factory scan tool. Going to a shop that doesn’t have a factory scan tool and doesn’t know that they need one can easily end in disaster.

We own a factory scan tool for every make we repair. The life of each tool (time to obsolescence) is usually about 3-5 years, and all require subscription fees. We average about $20,000 per year for scan tool upkeep, but it’s worth it. We have the ability to do anything that needs to be done, properly. 

For some models, we may be familiar and have the tooling, but still won’t work on them. This brings us to the second type of excluded car: the old car. Now, to be clear, we don’t kick our customers to the curb when their cars get old. Any customer who has been maintaining their car with us can continue to do so.

The car is too old

However, we don’t take on any new customers with cars past a certain age. How old is too old? One thing I’ve learned from 18 years of writing stuff on our website is that as time passes, things change, and I don’t do a good job of updating the website so that all information is current, so I’m not going to give out our current cut-off. We’ll take new customers with cars somewhere between 15-20 years old. Call us and we’ll let you know if we work on your car. If not, we can always offer a referral.

Why no old cars? There are a couple of reasons. The first is parts availability.  Manufacturers are required to make repair parts available for 10 years. After that, they’ll only have parts that are either fast moving and profitable, or over-produced and seldom used parts that they haven’t been able to sell.

If there’s a demand for a part into a model’s old age, the aftermarket will make parts. When the car is less than 15-18 years old, the better aftermarket companies will still make products it. When a car gets older than that, the only way to get parts is to buy from low-end suppliers or to look for “new old stock” on EBay.

As a mechanic, the last thing you want be doing is installing poor quality parts that may not last long or even work at all. Using poor-quality parts will kill a shop’s reputation. Likewise, searching on EBay and waiting for parts to arrive from some guy in Idaho isn’t ideal either.

The second reason we don’t work on old cars is that most of the time the owner doesn’t view the car as “worth fixing”. Inspecting and documenting issues on an old car takes a lot longer than on a new car, but owners typically aren’t willing to put money into repairing the car.

Look! It’s a graph. You can’t argue with a graph!

Older cars are far more likely to break down after repairs for a couple reasons. First, owners only want to do the minimum required, and don’t fix all of the problems we find. The other reason is that when a car is old, all of its parts are old, and are just more likely to break in general.

No shop wants get a “I just had my car fixed at your shop and I’m stuck on the bridge” call from a customer. We know from experience that cars less that 15 years old almost never have issues after we service or repair them.

It won’t fit in our shop

Another requirement we have is that the car (or truck) fit in our workspace. We started building the shop in 1980 to fix Japanese import cars, which were quite small back then. Our bays are roomy with a 1983 Civic on the rack, but a little cramped with a 2014 Odyssey, and it’s nearly impossible to cram a 2018 Tundra into the bay.

We had a great customer who bought one of the newer giant Toyota Tundra trucks.  We let her bring it in because we liked her so much, even though we don’t work on vehicles of this size. It required a 300 point turn to get it on the rack, and once there, we could only raise it a few feet.  During the 4th oil change we ended up scraping her new truck while trying squeeze it into the shop. That incident, coupled with mechanics complaining every time the truck came in, led us to finally say no to one of our nicest customers.

It’s too fancy

We also exclude some high end luxury and performance cars as well. There are a few issues with luxury cars. First is familiarity. Top-of-the line luxury cars don’t sell very well in our area. Berkeley residents for the most part are well off (you need to be to live in a city with a median home value of $1,276,200). However, they tend not to buy luxury with the exception of Tesla. That may change as the socioeconomic makeup of our city continues to change.

A 2018 LS500 is a great car. I’d love to own one as long as someone else paid for the purchase and maintenance because I can’t afford either. The repairs are so expensive that we often find ourselves feeling uncomfortable even telling a customer how much money it will be. We’re sweating and we’re not even the ones paying for the repair!

This might be OK with a well-off customer who is aware of the costs associated with a luxury car, but the luxury car owners who have come to our shop haven’t fit this profile. Usually we’ve had customers with cars purchased second-hand, with no idea how much the repairs will cost, and are shocked when they find out. It seems like people who buy expensive cars brand new are also willing to pay expensive repair bills at a dealership and aren’t looking for value.

If you want a luxury car, I’d recommend buying new and trading in every few years. Luxury cars devalue fast. What was an $80,000 car can be purchased for $25,000 5 years later. Some people who buy a fancy old car instead of a practical new car quickly discover they can’t afford the total cost of ownership. The older a car gets, the more repair it’s going to need. That’s why it devalued so much; it will cost a lot to keep running. 

Anyway, our experiences with luxury cars have usually gone something like this …..

  • Customer: “My sunroof is stuck open”
  • Art’s: “It needs to be replaced”. “It’ll be just under $6000”
  • Customer: “I can’t afford that”!

Or

  • Customer: “My rear sonar isn’t working”
  • Art’s: (After hours of research to learn how the system works) “You need a new sensor and then a calibration”. (Then we buy a $700 calibration tool, use it one time, bill the customer $400, and then never have another occasion to use the tool because luxury cars don’t sell in high volume, unlike Camrys and Accords).