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.
Customer states: the obvious pic.twitter.com/xMxucuFsUl
— Andrea Petersen (@Neondancer) December 20, 2022
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)