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Alignments; Tricky, or Dishonest?

I have a Honda Element with 37000 miles on it now. Thought that an alignment might be a good idea, as it just got new tires.

I consulted 2 shops: One a National chain; The other, a 60 year old, 2 location family business I’ve worked with for 40 of those years.

Both shops came up with different answers:

Chain said: Fronts OK; Backs need work.

60 yr old business said: Backs are perfect; Fronts need adjustments.

Why should a person TRUST anyone with with that kind of discrepancy? PS…I got the Fronts done, backs checked but not needing adjustment. I trusted the 60 yr. old shop; Their price was higher. Am I a fool for doing that? I reacted to my gut feeling. Their explanation: Computer alignment data (as from the Chain) isn’t always right…60 yr old shop uses bubble and measurements method…etc.

Before I comment I need more info than “backs OK fronts need work” “fronts OK backs need work”. Who should comment on a shops honesty with such slim details. Really poor quality information provided in your post. Give details,what specs. were different?

Why have you started a second thread on this when you got answers on your first thread??


When a shop does an alignment check, they should give you a print-out of their measurements, in degrees. You should have three measurements (camber, caster, and toe). You have no way of knowing which shop gave you bad information unless you have the data on those sheets, and unless you have a third confirmed measurement. If one shop gave you one of these print-outs and the other didn’t, I would trust the one that did. If neither of them offered you the data, ask for it next time or go elsewhere for your alignment checks.

My lack of detail was only due to a lack of space here.What’s done is done.

Correct. I have the measurements from both shops; Far too detailed to list here.
A 3rd shop would either come up with similar measurements to one or the other of the first 2, or come up with a 3rd set. My point: Who do we trust, and why.
I’m willing to drive the car and see if it makes a difference. If not, I have them done again, for another $65. Again, who do you trust, was the questions here.No further reply is required.

This is interesting to me because I had a chain shop tell me that the rear end was out of alignment when I bought a couple of tires from them, but the front end was within specifications. I would normally have purchased the tires from an independent dealer that I have done business with for many years, but I have a friend who lost his job and works at the independent store and receives a commission for sales. The chain shop didn’t seem to want to do the alignment because it involved using shims in the rear wheels. At any rate, I went to my independent shop and had the 4 wheel alignment. I didn’t ask about what they did. I have much more confidence in an idependent shop than a chain. I hadn’t noticed any unusual tire wear before having the work done, and the vehicle steered and tracked just fine. However, I had been forced off into a curb and hit the right rear rather hard, so I decided to have the alignment done.

Well, I think we agree on the Independent vs. Chain thing…My point is, I have the numbers to indicate that the two shops were of a totally different mindset on their math - and that the independent (60 years in business - NO commissions) is someone that I trust, but had totally different numbers, using totally different measurement tools (Old School vs. New School) This shop does work on many high performance and professional race vehicles…You’d think they know what they’re doing, right? I often get accused on this site of supplying less information than needed to “prove my points”, but my only question was, “Who Do You Trust”. You and I agree, but WHY the different numbers??? Would I accept two totally different numbers from a CAT Scan? EKG? I don’t think so.

Years ago when I was a graduate student, I had an alignment done by a large retail store with an automotive department. When I got the car back, it didn’t drive right at all. I noticed that the service department had written “Student” on the invoice. I went back for an adjustment and they wouldn’t make it right. The filling station where I traded knew a good alignment mechanic and had the car aligned for me. The chain had the front wheels towing out instead of towing in. I’m often not sure some of the chains have technicians that know how to use the equipment.

Exactly. Your experience is why I went with the Independent-"Old School " guy. He showed me the way he did it. He believed in it, and has for 60 years. How would I know if the “technician” at the chain put into the computer right CAR, let alone the readings. You, and others know where I’m going here…Including the former replies above that assume I have not included enough detail. Alignment should not be a “black art”…It either IS or it Isn’t aligned.ALL readings from ALL shops should match if it’s being done correctly. BUYER BEWARE.

Just because someone has been doing something for 60 years doesn’t mean that they are doing it correctly today.

First off, 60 years ago, just about every vehicle out there was equipped with a live rear axle.
Today, just about every car for sale is now sporting independent rear suspension.

A live axle is pretty simple.
As long as the shocks and springs, and mounting points are in good condition, you set the front tires in relation to the drive angle of the rear wheels. Unless the rear axle is dog tracking badly, that’s perfectly fine, and there shouldn’t be any issues with the front end alignment.

An IRS system is a whole different beast, and vary wildly between cars.
Basically with an IRS system, both the front and the rear wheels have to be pointed to a common point of straight ahead.
Some allow for camber adjustments in the rear, while others don’t.
As the springs sag, and the shocks weaken, the adjustments for that wheel change.

If you have a bad shock/strut on one side that has completely failed, it can throw out the camber specs on just one wheel. I had this on my Porsche Boxster when I bought it. The RR strut was dead as a doornail, but on the alignment rack, the LR tire was the one that was out of spec, and couldn’t be brought into spec.

Personally, I would trust only a shop that uses a Laser Alignment system, and that requires the make/model of car to be input into the system, and the wheel diameter/width also be entered for each position. Also, the tech needs to make sure to inflate the tires to the proper spec before taking the alignment, because if the pressure is out on one location, that will show up in the readings.

Since you trust your guy, I know you are fine.
Personally, I would go to a third shop with a good alignment system, and see what their specs come back as.


Alignment racks (old style or computer align) should be calibrated ever so often. It’s possible that one or the other, or even both, may not have seen this procedure in quite a while and this is why the discrepancy exists.

A computer rack can be off just as much as an old style one. Like most things in life, it depends.

You could always scan the documents and upload them as JPEG or GIF attachments to one of your replies.

I would trust them both. For one thing, cargo weight will change the alignment measurements. If you had a full tank of fuel one time, and an almost empty tank of fuel another time, it will affect the measurements. RV owners know this well. When you buy a new RV, you have to load it up with cargo, fill the water and propane tanks, and then take it in for an alignment. Your Element is a lot smaller and lighter, so the weight of a full tank of fuel will have a small but measurable effect on the alignment of the wheels. I am willing to bet if you had two identical vehicles, with one being aligned at one shop, and the other aligned at another shop, you would not be able to perceive the difference by driving down the road.

Years ago, we had a man who ran an alignment shop and had a great reputation for getting things right. If he took a vacation, he would limit the cars he would take appointments to align his first day back so that he could get his touch back. I told him about a bad experience I had had in the automotive service department of a department store in another city. He went to his desk and showed me his appointment book. He had appointments for cars from dealers who had alignment racks as well as chain stores with alignment racks that sold tires. He told me that if these shops had problems and the customer yelled loudly enough, these shops would bring the work to him. Unfortunately, this person retired and is long gone.

I trust old school. I’ve personally had bad alignments from laser/computerized alignment equipment. I don’t blame that on the equipment but on the fact that the operators may not know what they are doing and have very little understanding of how the suspension works. Sometimes the equipment needs calibration as well, especially when it has been subjected to numerous operators at a chain shop with a high turnover among the employees.

If you can do an alignment “old school”, you have to know what you are doing. On a Honda, you have to get the rear wheels right before you can get the front ones to align properly.

I have a shop on my short list that does not do alignments. I asked the owner where he takes his car for alignment. He gave me the name of an indie I had never heard of. He liked this place because he would request they align the car to the center of specification range, not just within specs, and they would do it.
Short answer stop by a good indie that does not do alignments and ask the owner where they go for alignments.

There is something to be said for 40 years of association with a shop. Have they ever given you reason to doubt their capabilitis or honesty? Probably not or you’d have gone elsewhere long ago.

I worked for a large retail chain in the auto shop for a few months many years ago. I did tires, brakes and oil changes. They had an alignment rack that used the bubble method. A sight glass device was broken; the shop manage said it didn’t matter. Months - and dozens of alignments later - when the rack was finally serviced, it turned out id did matter. All those alignments were wrong.

Bottom line - find someone competent whom you trust.