Home » That Time I Forgot To Put Oil In A Customer’s Car When I Worked At A Quick Lube Shop

That Time I Forgot To Put Oil In A Customer’s Car When I Worked At A Quick Lube Shop

Quick Lube Smoked Subaru Ts Copy
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What’s the worst thing you can do to a car you’re working on? One of the first thoughts that came to your mind was probably blowing up the engine. Worse yet, what if that engine doesn’t even belong to your car? A couple of years back, I made the kind of automotive mistake that’s the stuff of nightmares, and I still feel terrible to this day.

It was the spring of 2015, and I had just finished what was intended to be my junior year at Ferris State University when I ran out of money. I needed a summer job or possibly something longer than that. After filling out dozens of applications, a Valvoline franchisee was the first to reach out.

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Welcome To Quick Lube

In addition to Valvoline selling various types of automotive oils and lubricants, it’s also the name that many quick lube shops across the country operate under, either through a licensing agreement llike Valvoline Express Care, franchise agreements, or direct ownership. My former employer in Midland, Michigan operated dozens of locations across the state and in Ohio.

Valvoline Shop Selfie
My home Valvoline store back in the day, and a vanity selfie I snapped on break.

I was young and very green. The tasks for new hires are primarily watch-and-learn, help where you can, and try not to get in the way. So, it is not too different than any other service job. Once you graduate from being an active threat to yourself, the first few weeks you’re top side or “topping.” Not in a social or partnership sense, but as in working on the upper deck of the floor. After that, it’s “pitting.” Pitters are the workhorse of the quick lube world. It’s a less-than-glamorous gig that involves crouching under cars on an elevated platform (in the aforementioned pit), pulling drain plugs and replacing oil filters.

Valvoline Filter 2

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For those curious, Valvoline used in-house branded filters, supplied by Fram. If you tore them apart, they looked pretty similar to any other oil filter. There’s even an app for techs to look up parts on their phone if the POS system is otherwise occupied. Slightly ironic though, considering phones are banned from use on the shop floor (for appearance, productivity, and safety reasons).

Learning The Basics

So two weeks in, and I’m topping every day, all day long. The role is to be the “showman” for the customers, making them feel like they got a “full service” treatment. Working topside means checking fluids, yanking out air filters (sometimes even before customers had a chance to say not to), inspecting the serpentine belt and setting tire pressures, usually according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, listed on the door sticker. Of course, there was the task of adding oil once the drain plug was reinstalled.

If you want to go step-bye-step it’s:

  • Introduction
    • Guide the customer in
    • Assist the Customer Service Advisor as they greet the customer and scan them in
    • Check the front headlights, high beams and turn signals as the CSA monitors the rear taillights and brake lights
    • Pop the hood, use a prop rod, and check the transmission fluid if applicable
    • The customer turns the car off off, puts the keys on the dash, topper yells out show time, letting the pitter know it’s safe to climb up onto the catwalk and start working on the customer’s vehicle
  • ABBS
    • Air filter, brake fluid, battery test, serpentine belt inspected and report findings to the CSA
  • Breakpoint #1: start the process on the second bay
  • Tires And Fluid Checks
    • Come back and check/set the tire pressure (very rarely did anyone account for warm vs. cold tires and the impact that has on PSI)
    • Top off the washer fluid, make sure you don’t splash it on the pitter below
    • Check the coolant, take off the cap(very careful with a rag) and make sure the pitter is clear
  • Breakpoint #2 
  • Oil Time
    • Verify the pitter is using the correct oil filter as listed on the POS system
    • Once you hear the callout “oil filter tight, drain plug tight, ready for oil,”  ensure you are using the correct oil weight and quantity and grab a gun.
  • Second Checks
    • Visually and verbally confirm with the pitter that the drain plug and oil filter are tight
    • “Clear for zoom”: stand to the side of the vehicle and ensure the pitter is off the catwalk
    • The CSA then asks the customer to start the vehicle and gently rev their engine to 2,000 rpm (“zooming”). This was done to see if the oil filter and drain plug were properly secured. It’s better to check for leaks now than have something fall off when the customer drives away
    • The customer shuts off the vehicle
    • Pitter wipes off any excessive oil bottom side, reattaches skid plates or access panels if equipped, closes the fall net
    • The topper pulls out the dipstick, wipes it off, and reinserts it to get an accurate reading. The dipstick, with the oil showing at the full mark, is then presented to the customer.
    • Double-check all caps are tight and the air filter is secure
    • Closes hood and guides customer out

That “zoom” part is going to become important here in a sec.

This photo shows what appears to be a slightly weeping oil pan gasket. Techs were also instructed to initial and date filters they installed with a Sharpie so if there was an issue, it could be addressed with the right person.

Disclaimer: I worked this job from June 2015 to August 2016, when I was just a kid, so these are the specifics as I recall … but they might not be 100% accurate or in step with Valvoline Instant Oil Change (VIOC) policy at the time, and may not be VIOC policy now. I left the job on the verge of a second promotion to go back to school. By then, I had built enough of a credit score and proof of income to get a private student loan through Sally Mae. In hindsight, dealing with Sallie Mae and its astronomically high APR instead of waiting a year to turn 23 and having my mother’s income fall off the FAFSA was a terrible financial decision.  

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“You Just Need To Zoom The Car”

About this time, I got loaned out for the day from my store to the busy one across town. They were short-staffed staff and were grateful for all the help they could get. No big deal, right? The steps are the same and the equipment is a pretty familiar way. What’s the worst that could happen?

Over at the busy store, things were going fine. It was a little hectic and this store’s manager was a tough-yet-fair. He believed in the VIOC way and gosh darn it, you’re going to live up to those ideals. I eventually get to take lunch and a chance to breathe. I come back and take over for “D,” a true veteran of the job. He was quick, efficient, and skilled. D told me, “You just need to zoom the car and show oil (to the customer).”

Or at least that’s what I thought I heard.

The CSA zoomed the vehicle with the customer. I presented oil, which showed full on the dipstick, and did second checks. Everything seemed fine as the Subaru drove off and went about its day and I thought nothing of it.

2010 Forester 3
Nine years later, I don’t recall the specific model. It was likely either a third-gen Forester or a fifth-gen Outback. We’ll go with the Forester for illustrative purposes.

Cut to a couple of days later, I was summoned by the district manager for a meeting. They said no oil had been put in that Subaru and the engine had burned out on the highway a few miles from our location. Presumably, its bearings got really hot and wore down to nothing.

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I was mortified and expected the worst – termination, legal action, you name it. But to my surprise, the district manager handled it differently. He acknowledged my error but also seemed to understand my apology was heartfelt, and that I was serious about doing better. As for the customer’s situation, the district manager said they sourced a new engine for the Subaru and got it installed, supposedly at a price tag of $15,000. I guess if you look at it with heavily rose-tinted lenses, the mistake might have worked out in the customer’s favor. And the less said about the oil burning and general longevity of Subaru boxer engines at the time, the better.

Screen Shot 2024 05 06 At 3.15.24 Pm
Image: eBay (JDMHOTLINE)

Beyond the initial shock and embarrassment, I still wondered if I had misheard D or if he had just misspoken. Outside of what I was told about the engine burning out and that the company replaced it, I know nothing about what actually happened to that Subaru, and I could have sworn there was oil on that dipstick. I remain both confused, and deeply apologetic.

Thousands of cars later and I never had another claim issue. But regardless, it’s a stark reminder that some tasks should be seen through from start to finish, with no breaks and no room for error. This is the one car that still haunts me at night and still feel remorse over so many years later. Hopefully, in your wrenching journeys, you never experience a grave mistake like this.

Photos: Author, Google Play App Store, Subaru

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LostinTransit
LostinTransit
2 months ago

I’m so glad the shop I take my cars/truck to allow me to walk the shop and keep and eye on the techs.. plus the tech are glad to see my and ask about my stores.

Norek Koss
Norek Koss
2 months ago

Story, story, my daughter uses little Suzuki get to work. Before I change oil in garage to be sure She can get-go to work safely. Guess what happened, the filter was not for this car.When she start the car in the morning, filter stayed at home. 🙁 The car is scrapped.

AircooleDrew
AircooleDrew
2 months ago

This stuff happens at the dealership too, and further reinforces why I do all of my own maintenance on my cars.

This happened to my mom’s Subaru about ten years ago. She had a new Crosstrek at the time, and she and my dad had purchased the oil change plan at the dealership when they bought the car. Well, the oil change tech forgot to refill the oil after emptying it, and the engine died on the interstate on the way home.

The silver lining, however was that her car was one of the early FB20’s that had pretty significant oil burning issues, and the new engine Subaru put in didn’t burn hardly a drop in between changes in the 3 or so years after that incident that they kept the car.

Sometimes it works out..?

Last edited 2 months ago by AircooleDrew
Brent Jatko
Brent Jatko
2 months ago

I helped a friend change the oil on his dad’s Seventies Olds Cutlass Supreme (it had never been changed since new). The place that sold us the oil filter sold us the wrong one. We filled the oil, started the car, and oil squirted all over the place.

We got the right filter at no charge and finished the job but it was a big mess!

Pappa P
Pappa P
2 months ago

As others have stated, I think you were the fall guy on this one, so don’t feel bad.
I had a similar situation servicing go karts at Canada’s Wonderland many years ago.
We had to lock wire all drain plugs or they would back out from vibration. It was the last step in the oil change.
I came in one morning to find a car on the lift. The drain plug was lock-wired, and attached was a note reading “oil change done.”
I quickly pulled the dipstick to verify and it was wet, so I went onto the next step which was to pin the throttle and calibrate the governor.
After 5 minutes at full chat, I shut it off and heard an unnerving screech. The engine had seized due to no oil.
Luckily, being a Honda, it just needed a $150 con rod and was back in service.

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
2 months ago

My worst screwup was when I forgot to torque the camshaft sprocket bolt on a BMW E30 after doing a timing belt. It was fine for a day and then I get a text (while on a plane waiting to take off for a week-long vacation) from the customer telling me the car wasn’t running right and was making awful noises. So I got to think about that for a week until I got back. Once I was back in town, I took a look at the E30 and found that the camshaft sprocket had come loose and the timing had skipped, ouch.

Long story short, I got to pull a head, replace all of the valves + valve stem seals, clean everything, lap the valves, and reassemble everything along with buying a new crank sprocket. I was very broke at the time so I had to basically learn how to disassemble and reassemble an M20 head, since I couldn’t afford to take it to a machine shop. It was a good learning experience, and ultimately the customer was understanding about it so in the end it worked out okay.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
2 months ago

And this is why I do my own oil changes.

On a related note, when I bought my Honda Fit back in 2019, I got a ‘free’ oil change as part of the deal.

Problem was, the free oil change included the use of the wrong oil filter. They used some crappy “Service Champ” brand oil filter that was half the size of the correct filter.

So I immediately changed the oil again. I figured that if they couldn’t use the correct filter, they probably used the cheapest bulk oil, and possibly the wrong type.

So in doing it myself, I know a decent oil filter is being used, the correct oil is being used and the crush washer for the oil drain plug is also being changed… and the drain plug isn’t going to get overtightened or stripped.

Same deal with “free” tire rotations. I’ve observed too many instances of shops messing up the installation of wheel lug nuts… either forgetting to tighten them, overtightening them, cross threading them… thanks but no thanks… I’ll rotate the tires myself.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
2 months ago

Even dealerships can screw the pooch. Had a friend whose wife took their Camry to the local dealer for an oil change. When she got home she told her husband it smelled funny driving home. He pops the hood and there was oil all over the engine bay. The tech forgot to put the filler cap back on. He petitioned for, and got a new engine for that one.

Kaiserserserser
Kaiserserserser
2 months ago

I refuse to use these places anymore. For a while i would sometimes because they had coupons that were so enticing that it was actually cheaper than doing it myself. But latest experiences were

1) Took F-150 there and it seemed to take a little longer than expected once the oil change began. I traded the truck into a dealership where my cousin works and after he informed me that they had cross-threaded the heck out of the drain plug and just smeared a bunch of sealent around it

2) Took my GT500 there. Multiple guys noticed the car and made a comment or gave a thumbs up. After waiting half an hour for my turn, without even touching his computer the guy tells me “oh yeah we don’t do high performance engines like this, too much risk” and sent me away.

ElmerTheAmish
ElmerTheAmish
2 months ago

I worked at a less-than-reputable quick lube for a couple years in college. This reminded me of 2 similar instances:

Lucky for me, I was able to catch the oil-less engine during the check. It was super busy, and I was covering 4 bays more or less by myself on the top deck. I asked someone to start the engine so the pressure test could be done, and was running around to the other bays for a moment. The guy hollered at me that there was no pressure reading on his gauge, and I had a quick heart attack! I instantly asked him to turn the engine off, and when I pulled the dipstick, no oil at all. I’m fairly certain we never saw him again (not that I blame him).

The other was a little Civic del Sol. When it came in one weekend afternoon, the kid in the pit pulled the plug, and nothing came out of the oil pan. We informed the customer, and finished the service.

A week later, I turn up for work and see that car sitting in one of the bays. When I asked what was up, I was told the story of a very angry father who had just had the car towed back from across the state (at least 120 miles), because the kid brought the car into another quick lube (I forget now why they did), and there was no oil in the damned thing! When I was able to verify that we had seen the same thing, I’m pretty sure I saved the job for that kid in the pit.

Also: The GMT360-based Trailblazer family had possibly the worst air boxes in the industry. Screwed down, with at least two of the screws a royal pain in the ass to access! Because of that, I became really good at getting to those air filters for the upsell, since they were all but guaranteed to be filthy from their years of service. I even convinced someone to go back to our paper filter because cleaning the K&N they didn’t know they had would have been more work than it was worth!

Alex Rockey
Alex Rockey
2 months ago

Many years ago, I gave a quick oil change job a try. One time, there other workers there were having trouble with finding a replacement drain plug for some sort of Jeep Cherokee, I guess. Since it was a single-lane shop, they moved it out and parked it so the oil changes could continue while dealing with the issue. For some reason, reception didn’t get the message and let the customer drive off. This was a dealership with a shop, so they had to repair it. We all got in trouble for it, even me despite not have worked in that vehicle. Even without that situation, I didn’t like that job and didn’t stay for long.

Mike B
Mike B
2 months ago

When I was in high school I worked at an auto shop as part of a co-op program. One day I replaced the valve cover gaskets on old Caddy, one of the RWD/V8 Fleetwood boats. Massive engine bay, yet you could barely see the motor thanks to all the vacuum lines and junk.

A few days later I come in and the Caddy is back. My boss told me it got towed back, turns out when I put the valve cover back on the gasket folded over and didn’t seal, causing oil to get all over the manifold and smoke like crazy.

I got a “slow down and be more careful” talk, but other than that he was cool about it.

Fasterlivingmagazine
Fasterlivingmagazine
2 months ago

Did this, at a bmw dealer. Brand new x3 in for its first, yes first, oil change. Being paid flatrate and in a rush i absent mindedly forgot to put the engine juice in. Realized it a couple miles down the road when the oil pressure warning finally came on and it started knocking. Long story short i was able to warranty the motor and got paid to replace it. Never did it again though.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
2 months ago

A friend of mine used to deliver bottled water for a very poorly managed company. One day as he was driving the truck the oil light came on. He radioed it in and was told he’d have to buy a quart and put it in. He refused, knowing the hassle it would take to be reimbursed if at all (he was a bigger cheapskate than I was) and I’m not sure he even knew how to put oil in the truck. At this time a quart of oil ran about a buck.

So he kept driving as he argued with the company about just sending out someone with some oil. Of course it didn’t take long for him to start losing power, then all power. The engine had seized. The truck was towed to a shop and a *new* engine put in for Dog knows how much money. AFAIK he was not reprimanded but he was “let go” a short time later when the company went broke due to financial problems.

Spectre6000
Spectre6000
2 months ago

When I was a kid, a quick lube tech forgot to tighten the oil drain plug (I’d say torque, but it wasn’t even tight) on my mom’s minivan. Plug and oil fell out on the highway a few days later. My mom was smart enough (unlike the above Subaru driver) to shut it down when the oil light came on.

Don Mynack
Don Mynack
2 months ago
Reply to  Spectre6000

When I was in college, Jiffy Lube forgot to put the oil filler cap back on my car. I was driving it after I left and oil started crawling up the windshield. I immediately pulled over, opened the hood, and the cap was sitting on top of the engine cover. I screwed it back on, headed over there, and they sent me to local detail place for a complete steam clean of the engine bay. What a mess.

Mike B
Mike B
2 months ago
Reply to  Don Mynack

I used to work at a full serve gas station when I was a kid, and there were times a customer would drive off, and later that day it would suddenly pop into my head that I didn’t remember if I replaced the oil cap or left it on top of the engine somewhere.

I never had anyone come back to complain, so I guess it was ok. *shrug*

Robot Turds
Robot Turds
2 months ago

Not cars but lawn tractors. I blew up my fair share of them but usually 8-12HP Tecumsehs. Not sure why but the ” Oil slinger” which served as the oil pump in early 80’s Tecumseh vertical shaft engines were sort of difficult to install: They had to line up perfectly when you put the bottom of the crank case back together. And there was really not a great way to know if you had in fact lined it up correctly. It took experience to know when it ” Felt right”. Anyhow, on more than one occasion I got it wrong and the engines would grenade. Luckily back then we had a huge pile of engines out back so it was a matter of dragging another one out of the pile.

Kuriti
Kuriti
2 months ago

I’m a diesel mechanic working on semis and dump trucks. I’m still new at almost 2 yrs. I was doing a service and got interrupted, throwing me off my normal routine. I had changed the oil and fuel filters and was focused on getting a good prime to start which can be a challenge. As soon as the truck started, I hopped out to check for leaks. This practice came from a previous time where I put the oil filter on in a difficult location and unknowingly knocked the gasket off the top resulting in a waterfall of oil. Anywho, as soon as I thought about oil leaks I realized there was no oil to leak so I turned off the engine immediately. Maybe 5-8 secs. It didn’t throw a low oil code, so hopefully no damage. If you do this long enough you will make the mistake. Only takes once to make you paranoid though. Now I stop and mentally recite all filters and oil before starting no matter what.I’m in the camp that say the plug fell out or the owners drained it for a new engine…

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