Home » When It’s Time To Say Goodbye To Your Car: Tales From A Service Advisor

When It’s Time To Say Goodbye To Your Car: Tales From A Service Advisor

Rip Deadcar

I’m a service advisor in a little shop in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part my job is what you would expect. Scheduling and checking in cars, telling the owners what is recommended and eventually releasing them back into the wild. There’s an aspect of therapist in there as well as I counsel owners on how to deal with the problems their car can throw at them. Every few weeks a car will come in that isn’t destined for that happy return to its family, it’s at the end of life.

We have four bays and, for the most part, work on four brands. Our shop only has two advisors in the office, so there’s rarely a slow moment. Within our four brands, we see a wide range of cars; anything from brand-new high-performance sports cars to abused four-wheeled appliances that haven’t seen more than a quick lube joint in the last decade will show up in our parking lot.

[Ed Note: This is Andrea’s first article! She’s a new voice with a great Twitter account. A friend suggest I reach out and I’m glad I did as it’s great to be able to highlight new, fresh voices. If you enjoy this column let us know in the comments and maybe we can do this more regularly. – MH]

Eventually, something on most cars will go bang. Or sometimes it’s a tapping noise. There are often puddles involved as well. Sometimes the voice on the other end of the phone is frantic, other times rather casual. Usually, a tow truck is involved in these calls, but some manage to weakly limp in under their own power, shaking like a nervous chihuahua or pouring fluids in a way that the EPA might declare their parking spot a superfund site. Instead of the usual two-ish week wait for an appointment, we try to fit them into the schedule in a day or two. At the very least we’ll start with a diagnostic so we can perform a little bit of triage. Sometimes this can take mere minutes, such as “I can put my hand into the transmission.” Other times the list of problems is very, very long. 

A couple of times a month I make the same phone call:

“Hi, this is Andrea at the shop, is this Jimmy Car Owner? Uh, yes, so I don’t have the best of news. I’m very sorry but it seems the *insert major part here* has *insert catastrophic damage here.*” Your drive shaft has disconnected and punched holes in everything around it. Your drive belt has been sucked into the engine. Somehow, one of your pistons has migrated into the oil pan.”

Each time, I always try to deliver the news in a tone of voice one might use to tell someone a beloved pet has terminal cancer. I tell them what their car needs and that the repairs would exceed the value of the vehicle. The reactions can vary wildly, from sounding on the verge of tears to outrageous laughter. 

Everyone expresses grief differently and, at the end of the day, I’m delivering news of a death; dumping a bucket o’ grief over them like a water park splash pad. I have seen the full five stages of automotive grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Often, these are related to the recent history of the car:

“But it was fine two days ago!” 

“The guy I bought it from said it only needed a…” 

“Can you fix it?”

“What am I going to do now?” 

“I guess I should call my insurance.” 

If you are ever in this situation and have full coverage, you might consider jumping to that last one. I’ve seen cars mechanically totaled with all sorts of surprising stories, from driving over a heavy local agricultural product to “my dog jumped on the park button.” Our job is to say what’s wrong with the car, usually not evaluate how it got to that point, so if you say you ran over a cabbage at 70 miles per hour and it somehow put a hole in the block, who am I to doubt you?

“How much will it be to fix it?” is a normal question in this situation. Replacing an engine is not cheap, on the low end, it’s $8,000 at our shop to replace a dead engine with a good used one. Usually, that’s when people realize this really is the end. They come to collect their belongings, pay the diagnostic bill and leave the key for the tow truck driver who is taking it to the junkyard or the insurance auction. 

I once took photos of a young couple posing in front of their dead car. I’ll never forget the sticker on the driver-side mirror of that one, “object in mirror is close to death.” Rest in peace, little Mini.

Roughly one-in-10 will ask for an actual engine replacement estimate and go through with it. They bought it at auction and expected it would need work or the car has sentimental value far beyond the monetary value. For the former, I’d like to say cut your losses, but it’s not my call to make. For the latter, I will move heaven and earth. It may take a while but you’ll get to ride with your dead loved one’s ashes in the passenger seat if you want to.

I usually count myself lucky that, overall, I like my job. Granted, I’d rather be a fabulously wealthy beach reviewer or become some sort of Italian shitbox nun living in a cloister surrounded by questionable delights, but I get to be around cars all day and often get to teach people a little about them, which brings me a bit of joy. 

Unfortunately, because I care so deeply about cars, it also breaks my heart to declare them dead on arrival. I have to take a couple of deep breaths before making those calls. I know what it feels like to be on the other end, too. At the end of the day, sometimes what’s in the best interest of the owner is to tell them it’s time to say goodbye and I would hope to get the same honesty if I was in their place. 

My job is to break the news, but I’m here to help you find the best way to move forward too.

 

(topshot by Sally Torchinsky)

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99 Responses

  1. I have a 1989 Ford Ranger that was purchased new by my wife’s grandfather as a work truck. Long story, but it has a lot of sentimental value. We inherited it in 2017. Unfortunately for an Autopian, it’s 2wd and an automatic. But it is an extended cab pickup! Super useful as a 3rd vehicle in a city. It has 44k on a 2x rolled over 5 barrel odometer (who thought that was a good idea?!). Oh, and it now has a blown transmission.
    It has been sitting for ~2 years for me to decide what to do with it. I replaced the fluid, with no luck. It’s effectively worthless in it’s current state. A new transmission is <$3500 from a shop and if I do it (within my purview) it's still <$2000 just for a remanufactured transmission.
    Should I donate it?
    Should I just bite the bullet and fix it? (Ill advised in the article.)
    Should I make it electric? (It's not the best candidate, but my god would it be a fun project!)

    1. All vehicles have at least scrap value so it’s not completely worthless. If it’s sentimental enough to you and you have the time/space/money I see nothing wrong in fixing it or making it electric.

    2. Boy, I really like the idea of small extended cab pickups, so this is s struggle. I miss my little old Tacoma extended cab, a manual which did not make it any more fun to me. The problem with a used transmission is that it’s still a used transmission.

      Understanding the “sunk cost fallacy” suggests that you ask yourself “Would I buy this truck for $3,500?” Given it’s overall condition and what else you might expect to pay? $3,500 for a 30 year-old truck with a quarter million miles on it is a stretch for me, but I don’t think it’s a crazy one. If a 3d vehicle is valuable to you, I’m not sure you’d get anything better at that price.

      1. Yeah, 30-year-old pickup with a quarter of a million miles for $3500 sounds steep on paper, but knowing where it has been that entire time makes the age/mileage WAY more palatable in my mind. Old man pickups are the best in my experience. They are usually extremely well-kept and not run too hard. Buying the same truck from some young punk would give me much more pause. Also, as you stated, you are not going to get anything better for the price.

    3. I think you need to talk to your wife and see what she thinks. It was her grandfather’s truck. Does she have that much sentimental attachment to it?

    4. An old pickup is EXTREMELY useful and it was free. As long as the rest of the truck is in decent shape, replace the transmission, fix whatever else needs fixing and you have a great little truck for $2-3k. You can’t get close to touching another decent workhorse for that coin. It won’t eat much – insurance and taxes are gonna be CHEAP, and will be extremely handy to have. On top of that, it has family history which is cool. No-brainer for me.

    5. Make sure to get a quote for a rebuild at a reputable transmission shop – I’d wager your price would be much more in line with a reasonable number. For an automatic of that vintage, a rebuild should be very straightforward.

    6. It would be awesome to make electric provided:

      1. You are comfortable building your own battery.
      2. You are familiar with all the safety need of HVDC.
      3. Where you live won’t bat an eye for registration/no inspection.
      4. You’re comfortable putting in more than double the cost of the shop transmission and not being able to walk away at any moment for no value back.
      5. You’ve checked on what liability insurance for it (and where you park it!) may be like and are good with all that.

      That said, I always vote to keep the old soldier! It’s a body on frame truck. Should be simple to LS manual swap if you want, or find a way to add a cheaper transmission with a little fabrication.

    7. Save that Ranger, there are fewer and fewer of these left, if you don’t go electric perhaps a junkyard transmission would work? Should be loads cheaper than 2K$

  2. And I’m putting a used engine into a 220,000 mile 2000 Corolla.
    It’s gonna cost me more than what I’ve spent on the thing the whole while I’ve been driving it for 18 years, including the original purchase, but dammit that car ain’t done yet.

  3. Welcome aboard Andrea! Very much looking forward to more for you 🙂
    I’m sure you have stories already planned but if not, a “best of/worst of” mentioned by another commenter would be fun

  4. I’ve only ever had to junk one car, a 2003 Chevy Trailblazer LS. I still feel sad about it.
    It was the most comfortable car I ever owned. I loved it despite the absolutely terrible fuel economy of the 4.2 inline-six. And it brought my first kid home from the hospital, so I’ll remember it forever.
    When I bought it, I was new to New England. I wasn’t fully aware how big of an issue rust can be here, and I haven’t checked the frame thoroughly. Big mistake.
    About a year later, I braked a bit harder to avoid hitting a car that cut me off, then SNAP.
    Steering wheel alignment was way off-center all of a sudden. Not good.
    I nursed it home, only to find out the entire lower control arm ripped out of the frame. The left front wheel suspension was only held by the stabilizer and steering links.
    Normally that would’ve been repairable but the Trailblazer’s front section of the frame where the control arm mount is located is fully boxed in.
    No body shop wanted to touch it.
    Oh and the car had passed MA state inspection a week before this.
    Rust can be the worst, it can silently total an otherwise perfect car. It was even treated with Krown, the body itself had zero rust on it.
    The frame looked OK but the boxed-in part rusted from the inside out from all the salty water that collects there.

    1. “Oh and the car had passed MA state inspection a week before this.”

      I guess that’s why cars in other states without mandatory inspections are “less safe” somehow?

      All snark aside, it’s enough to make me wonder if there have ever been class action lawsuits against state DOTs for this kind of nonsense. What if you’d crashed into someone else and hurt or killed them or yourself when this happened? Who’s at fault? I mean, your ‘Blazer had literally just been certified “safe” by your state for use on its roads. Isn’t that fraud?

      1. File this one squarely under “be careful what you wish for.” If you want the state to decide the mandatory inspections should include triple the effort at triple the inspection time and fees, in exchange for (in all likelihood) a low single-digit hit rate of additional problem discovery, then by all means lobby them to correct this deficiency.

        Some vehicles just have weird little spots that collect salt, mud, whatever and do not correctly drain. Then you get random failure points that aren’t obvious until they go. Usually if it happens often enough to be a widespread problem, you get regulatory action, TSBs, and recalls (e.g. third-gen Honda CR-Vs that could lose a critical rear suspension bolt to an internal rust-out).

      2. I mean, they’re supposed to check the frame/unibody as part of the MA inspection, but for $23.50 (the garage’s cut of the $35 inspection fee) how thorough do you think they’re gonna be? Keep in mind that they also have to check emissions, brakes, exhaust, steering, suspension, horn, glass, mirrors, wipers, wheels, tires, lights, fuel tank, bumpers, seat belts, air bags, and a bunch of other stuff. $23.50 normally pays for about 12 minutes of a mechanic’s time in MA (if that), so you can bet that most places want to get inspections done and dusted as quickly as possible in order to move on to stuff that doesn’t actually cost them money.

    2. We do not have inspections where I am so the best I can do is put ***DO NOT RECOMMEND DRIVING, VEHICLE UNSAFE*** in the paperwork then let them go with a recommendation to slowly drive directly home or to the junkyard. Sometimes it can be frustrating and a little scary, but putting it in writing covers my butt as best I can.
      -Andrea

      1. Great piece, love the perspective. This is a completely un-researched comment coming from a good place, but I would assume working as a woman in that position/field you have some people relieved that they don’t have someone mansplaining things and are grateful, and others who are complete jerks and speak down to you. Accurate, and enough meat for a future piece?

        1. It’s a mixed bag for sure. There are some people who feel more comfortable working with a woman and some who prefer a man. There have been a couple where I picked up on cultural hints and deferred to our male service manager because working with a woman is a bit taboo for men from some parts of the world. Things like that aren’t offensive at all and I’m happy to step aside to respect their beliefs. The funniest was a guy who looked right past me and the female owner of the shop and asked a tech hiding behind a computer waaaay in the back if he was in charge. ????

  5. I also forgot to mention how service advisors screw you over. I took my VX to a n Isuzu dealer in Vegas for a leaking rear seal still under the warranty. The dirtbag advisor told me i needed a rear transaxle fluid replacement. I assume the money for the warranty wasnt enough for them. I mentioned i had this done a week ago and they were lying scum and should die. They declared their innocence. We checked it out and sure enough the fluid that was put in a week ago was still good. The service advisor excuse was when the good mechanic replaced the fluid they didnt spill anything so they figured despite my claim noone replaced the fluids.

  6. Hi Andrea. Great first article. Hope to see more from you. I took a quick look at your twitter feed, looks like you are doing some painting. What is the story behind the red and black wall? Your design?

  7. I worked for years as a service writer at several shops, ranging from mom and pop shops to national chains. I also worked at a Tire Barn all through highschool. I’m currently a manager at an auto parts store, so I deal with a lot of shops. Unfortunately most of what you hear about mechanic shops are absolutely true. When I was about 19 I watched a “Mechanic” spray paint a bunch of front end parts instead of replacing them. Andrea’s shop seems like an outlier to someone like me. I have one shop that I would even consider bringing my car to, and it’s a tire shop. One of the craziest things I see is how shops always buy the cheapest part……every single time without exception. I’ve been selling parts for a few years now, and not once has a shop ever asked for a premium part. I know I sound cynical, and I know there’s lots of good people working in automotive repair. There’s just so much unscrupulous behavior in the auto repair business, and uneducated consumers just pay the bill.

    1. FWIW I just had my catalytic converter replaced after it was stolen. The shop REFUSED to use aftermarket parts, instead insisting on OEM. They claimed their experience with aftermarket converters was they’d have to do the job a few times before they got it right vs once with OEM. Since insurance was footing the bill I had no problem with that.

    2. We are a little bit of an outlier in that respect because whenever possible we stick to OEM or Genuine parts or at very least the best quality available when those aren’t an option. We fix plenty of cars that went to other shops that didn’t use quality parts.
      -Andrea

  8. I typically buy cheap beaters. So by the time *I* get rid of a car, it’s basically only good for parts or scrap… or someone who wants a project.

    And I have literally driven the wheels off my cars. I had a 2005 Focus where the front passenger side wheel came off due to advanced rust (lower control arm failed).

    And I’ve had other cars I decided to get rid of when attempting to jack them up and the jack would go through the rockers that had been converted to rocker-shaped rust.

    Usually for me, it’s rust that kills my cars as opposed to any catastrophic mechanical failure.

    1. As a community member of the region where the road salt is as common as salt in the breakfast meats of the local farmer population, I have to agree with the notion that rust is the really killer here. Mechanical issues (if they can be diagnosed) are usually fixable at a fair cost. Once the tin worm sets in, however, the car’s days are numbered.

      I’ve never gotten rid of a car for just rust, though. It’s usually a combination of rust and some other issue, like burning through oil like a high schooler burns through Monster Energy drinks. For my wife’s ’96 Civic, it was the rust AND the driver’s window that wouldn’t roll up properly, AND the spark plug that shot up through the hood.

      At some point the cost and headaches just outweigh the value of keeping them. RIP little Midori Civic.

  9. For most of my life, my cars have been in better condition when I sold them than when I bought them. Until I had kids. Now I’m about to part out and scrap the second vehicle that we’ve literally driven the wheels off of.

    Great article, Andrea! I hope to read more from you in the future!

  10. I’m good at the mechanics but terrible at diagnostics.
    I can take anything apart and put it back together.
    I only take my car in to a shop so they can tell me what I need to do.
    Thank you service advisors, but no thank you from my wallet. I’ll do the work myself.

    1. Occasionally we get people like you and it’s best if you let us know up front that you just want a diagnosis, that’s fine by me. Where it gets tricky is when people think their skill level is higher than it is. In that case we usually see them a month or so later and have to rediagnose due to the attempted work and the problem is often worse. The key here is really being honest with yourself about your skill level.
      -Andrea

  11. This is really quite a lovely perspective on one side of the emotional calculus of car ownership, and how it brings people together. Thank you, Andrea.

  12. Welcome Andrea! I moved to the Northwest six years ago and the only thing I miss is my trustworthy independent mechanic/tire shop. An advisor willing to discuss repair options honestly is probably the best thing anyone can hope for in these situations.

    I had a similar conversation many years ago about my 95 Nissan pickup. At around 75,000 miles I had someone cut me off at the end of a highway offramp and after an emergency stop just inches from her bumper my engine was dead. Towed to the shop and they couldn’t even turn it over by hand; dropped the oil pan and they found some non-metallic grit. I assume maybe a spark plug head shattered, but by that point I wasn’t going to pay for more investigation as my insurance refused to help unless I was actually in a collision.

  13. Nice article and looking forward to more. I’ve junked every car I’ve ever owned, well of course except for the one we’re driving now. Buy them used and drive them until the wheels fall off, doing what maintenance can be done until the repair cost is about half or more the value of vehicle. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to let them go (I miss you Saab 93), but in the end, it’s nothing personal, just business.

  14. I imagine in the days before consumerism and its mass production put an insured value on major purchases, folks just fixed their broken wagon and patched the holes in the roof until it was time to move on.
    The repair quote “cost of repair will exceed value of vehicle” really only refers to a market resale value. It doesn’t help that when that car is no longer worth fixing it’s time to empty the pocketbook anyways for another vehicle. You now face a multi-year commitment for monthly payments, higher insurance rates, and the prospect of having to deal with car salesmen when you’re in dire need of new wheels.
    I looked and looked for new and used cars after I burned the valve out of the #3 cylinder in the old Corolla, and if supplies and prices had been within a whiff of pre-pandemic levels I’d be driving new right now. Fortunately I had a backup car to drive and have been working from home. The need wasn’t as pressing, so I scrounged around and found a used engine I actually got to see and hear run in the donor car. That old car still has value to me. That value is somewhat sentimental, yes, but mostly it’s kept me away from the wrong end of the presently lopsided supply/demand vehicle situation.

    1. This is one of the biggest challenges when I advise it’s time to move on. There’s a balance to it and I know I don’t have all the info for the situation because I only know the car side, I don’t know their financial situation or anything like that. The key is to listen to the owner.
      -Andrea

      1. It is a delicate balance. Most times I saw service managers quote that “exceeds value of vehicle” it was likely simply to gauge whether the customer was up to the task of fixing it. I wouldn’t doubt, though, that some of the service managers were trying to help make sales for the dealers I worked for.

        1. I’m at an independent so there’s no attempt to sell cars and honestly it’s not in our interest to tell people to buy something else, but it is in their best interest and that’s what counts.

    2. It’s a good point. Yeah, the car may be worth only $2000 even after a $1,000 repair, but it’s not like you can just take that $2,000 down the street and buy something better. Chances are, if you’ve owned the car for a long time you at least have some idea of what’s wrong with it and what to expect, whereas another equally crappy car is going to be a total unknown.

      I recently sold a car that had become too troublesome for me to want to keep dealing with for $3,500. The car I replaced it with cost north of $20,000. I’d been sinking time & money into the old car for a while, learning to wrench and keeping it going without having to pay the cost of a mechanic. That bought me about three years.

      When it got to the point where A) I no longer trusted it to be “reliable transportation” to and from my job, and B) I was putting basically a car payment’s worth of parts into it every month anyway and cursing every minute that I had to spend fixing the damn thing, that was when it was time to bite the bullet and replace it. But it wasn’t as simple as just, “Sell old car, replace with new car of equal value.” A car of equal value would still have been a shitbox. I needed to spend way more than the value of the old car if I wanted to get into something decent.

  15. Hey there Andrea, great article, hope to read more from you!
    Could I ask you to write more about those cases where you move hell and earth to bring back a car from the dead? I would love to hear about that – the car, the owner, the repair and the history 🙂

    1. Perhaps some time, but that gets difficult as I would need the owner’s permission and all of that. For privacy sake I’m very careful not to share details of customers, specific cars, the shop I’m at or anything like that.
      -Andrea

  16. At a previous workplace, we had a customer with a 1992 HiAce, 2R, Auto, 660,000km personal courier van. The man refused to let go of it, or upgrade, he just continued to request repairs. The auto exploded, the driver seat tore from the body, the rear springs almost fell out, the headgasket blew and while I was replacing it, the chain guides collapsed into the sump.

    I went through the work history and tallied up the expenses on the van to over $35,000AUD. I couldn’t believe it.

  17. Great article! I hope to see more from you in the future.

    My favorite advice in such situations comes from Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers of “Car Talk.” When a caller would tell a tale of some devastating mechanical failure in a long-winded, beloved car – transmission went out, needs a complete new steering rack, anything with a higher price tag than the retail replacement value of the vehicle – they would ask a simple question: “Do you LOVE the car?” Because if you love the car – I mean you really, really, LOVE the car – spend whatever it costs to keep it on the road. But if your love doesn’t run that deep, say goodbye and get something else. Only prayer, deep reflection, and long conversations with whatever higher power you acknowledge can answer this question for you.

    1. I thought of the million-mile (then: iirc, it 2 million before owner died) Long Island Volvo I first heard about on Car Talk when I read someone’s comment on cost of owning a Corolla for ~18 years above. Would love to know what it cost to keep it rolling all those miles/decades

  18. Different strokes for different folks. As an independent contractor for 10 years driving a delivery truck during a pandemic well you do things differently. My 1st truck 3 rebuilt engines in one year. Only paid for 1 Jasper paid for the rest because they build crap now. But the a transmission rebuild that crapped out in a week? Yeah after $100 a day rental for 7 months the local rental agency sold that crappy truck to me as i was the only person who would rent it. I drove it until inspection and traded it in on a 2007 in 2017 E350SD with 1,800 miles on it. Drove it replaced an engine and transmission in it. At 2,000 miles a week you arent sentimental but a $6,000 rebuilt engine is cheap on a a vehicle you yourself know has been cared for. Glad i am not paying Seattle prices. My mechanic actually drove to NYC to pick up the motor and worked until 10pm to install it and delivered to my house so i could go to work at 3am. No charge for going go NYC to pick up the motor and no charge for OT working late. I LOVE MY MECHANIC IN A NONSEXUAL WAY. But really $10,000 for an engine replacement? I got 2 for that.

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