Automotive ethics ? Does the garage owe me?

I had a terrible experience driving my ?88 VW Jetta GLI to mom?s house, 400 miles away, this Thanksgiving week. I think my regular garage is at fault and perhaps owes me something for this $928 disaster. Here is the sequence of events:

11/19/07: Car begins misfiring 300 miles into a 400 mile trip. Called AAA tow truck & the driver noticed that my distributor cap was loose; in fact, one of the clamps was undone. Also, the engine was low on oil. Car was taken to the VW dealer 100 miles away at my final destination.

11/23/07: I pick up repaired car at the VW dealer which discovered that the oil filter and valve cover were very loose. More important, the distributor cap, rotor & plug wires had to be replaced - inside the distributor cap was a broken ? inch diameter indention where one of the clamps holds the cap down.

Prior to leaving on my trip 11/19/07, here is a partial record of repairs this garage did to my car:

11/16/07: Clutch and left front axle replaced.

9/18/07: Oil change and new coolant reservoir; Checked engine for poor fuel economy & oil consumption - Garage claimed that car was running OK, no oil leaks.

7/19/07: Replaced shifter parts

6/27/07: Checked engine for poor fuel economy & oil consumption - Garage claimed that car was running OK

5/14/07: Replaced oil pan gasket; oil change

6/15/06: Spark plug wires, distributor cap, rotor replaced

Is it possible that my regular garage was responsible for causing the loose oil filter, valve cover, and more importantly and expensively, the loose, broken distributor cap which must have ruined the 16-month old plug wires & rotor?

Please advise me how to approach this with the garage owner, whom I have been patronizing for 4.5 years. Or should I eat the cost and look for a new mechanic?

What does the garage owe me, if anything?

I don’t think your mechanic owes you anything. The distributor cap and wires were replaced 6/15/06, more than a year ago. I think the cap BROKE, which is why there is a chunk missing out of it, and also why it was loose. This is not your mechanic’s fault. It’s a plastic part. It broke more than a year after it was installed. These things happen.

I can see why you needed a new cap and rotor, but I cannot see any reason the plug wires could not be used again. A broken cap has no effect on the wires. I think the dealer just made some additional profit by installing new wires. $928 makes me think they overhauled the engine. Or they should have for that much.

As far as the “loose” oil filter and valve cover gasket, we would have to define “loose.” if you put a wrench on the valve cover bolts of a car as old as yours, the bolts might easily turn a little, and snug up. Is this harmful? If the valve cover gasket wasn’t leaking, NO! And your mechanic repeatedly told you there were no oil leaks. Did they install a new gasket? If so, more profit!

Same for the oil filter, which is only supposed to be HAND TIGHT. One mechanic’s version of hand tight varies slightly from another. Again, if it wasn’t leaking, it was tight enough.

If there were no oil leaks, why is the engine consuming oil? Simple, it’s a Volkswagen, and oil consumption up to one quart per 1,000 miles is considered NORMAL, even for new ones. How many miles on your '88? And how often do you check the oil level?

I think the dealer took advantage of you (they’re very good at that). What you needed was a new distributor cap and rotor. THAT’S IT! Whatever they did to drive the bill up to $928 was just bogus crap, and you should be mad at them, not your mechanic at home.

Please list everything they charged you for. This is outrageous! $928? It should have cost you $100.

Does the 1988 Jetta have a vacuum advance on the distributor? I ask this question because I had a 1975 AMC Pacer that developed a miss because the distributor cap was loose. I would bend the clips to better hold the cap, only to have it come loose again. I finally remembered the problem my dad had with a 1949 Dodge. The diaphragm in the vacuum advance had a hole and would let gasoline fumes get into the distributor and the spark would blow the cap off. My AMC Pacer had the same problem. Now I don’t know if the Jetta has the same set-up, but if it does, it is easy to check for this problem. Remove the vacuum hose leading to the spark advance and try blowing into it. If there is no resistance, the spark advance diaphragm is shot and needs to be replaced. A bad spark advance diaphragm would also keep the spark retarded which would explain the poor fuel economy. Someone more familiar with the Jetta might be able to answer the question as to whether or not it has a vacuum spark advance. I don’t lift the hood of a car any newer than my 1978 Oldmobile Cutlass 4-4-2.

If you have had good service for 4.5 years from this garage, I think you should stick with them.

From what I read here, I don’t see the shop at fault.
Valve cover? What does that have to do with the original shop? Nothing. My guess here is that the oil consumption you have is from the valve cover gaskets since these were prone to leakage with age.

Loose oil filter? Since September of '07 and if it was loose the car should have been leaving oil spots all this time. My guess here is that the valve cover is the oil consumption problem and the oil filter may have been loose by someone else’s standards, but not leaking. Some people snug filters up and some use the ham-fisted method. The latter method is not the right one.

Is the date correct on the cap/rotor replacement or do you mean June of '07 instead of '06?
It’s not likely the cap/rotor was installed incorrectly or left loose. It can only fit one way and if a cap clamp was left loose there is no way this vehicle would have run the rest of that day, from June of '07, or much less from June of '06.

You did not state the mileage on the car, but it’s possible the cap and rotor could be broken because of a worn out distributor. Worn bushings in the distributor allow the shaft (with the rotor on top) to wobble. This in turn may let the rotor hit the terminals on the inside of the distributor cap. When this happens it is very possible for a cap/rotor to break.

It could be argued (legitimately) that it is the shop’s responsibility to check the distributor shaft when replacing the cap and rotor, but it is also possible for that distributor to go bad since June of '07. It’s even way more possible if you mean June of '06.
At this point I don’t see the shop at fault and they owe you nothing. JMHO anyway.

How does a crack on the interior of a distributor cap cause one of the clamps to unbuckle itself?

meezergirl: I can see why you’re upset, but you need to give us more info. What did you authorize, based on what advice from the dealership. Very important also to detail here exactly what was done by dealer, and break down as much as possible the prices for each part and the labor involved. Did the dealer say the oil filter was so loose oil was leaking from where oil filter goes up against engine? This

is very important- ditto for valve cover and its gasket. Unless they found something obviously wrong with the plug wires I don’t see why they replaced them, and a bad cap and rotor would never damage plug wires. Triedag had a good point about the vacuum advance diaphram leaking fuel into distributor area, but think about it- unless dealer replaced this item, I can’t believe you would have made it home w/ a

hole in that diaphram, also, I’m sure there’s a one-way valve on the vacuum hose to prevent fuel from getting into distributor even if there’s a hole in diaphram, which raises the possibility of the distributor cap having been compromised wnen they did the clutch job, where you’re doing beaucoup wrenching under the hood, where the dist. cap is. Most likely they accidently popped off dist. cap clamp; dist. cap

finally moved out of position during 400 mi. trip, and spinnig dist. rotor moving 1000 rpm cracked dist. cap. (With cap on right, rotor comes within thousandths of an inch of cap.) Plus, clutch job was JUST done. This is nothing you can actually prove. Good luck and please post back. KS

Labor: $522.75
Parts: $323.49 including 4 SP, SP wires, distributor cap, rotor, oil filter & oil, trace powder, tax, overnight shipping.

For the last 16 months, I’ve had car in my local shop because of poor fuel consumption and the engine was sluggish accelerating from idle; was getting 24 MPG at 70 MPH. After the VW dealer worked on the car a couple of days ago, I’m back to 32 MPG at 70 MPH, so they at least did that much right and the car runs and accelerates very smooth for idle.

Car has 200,000 miles. Engine has 107000 miles. Distributor has 57000 miles and VW dealer said that it is OK.

Does the 1988 Jetta have a vacuum advance on the distributor? ---- I have no idea.

After the VW dealer worked on the car, I’m happily back to 32 MPG at 70 MPH, from the skunky 24 MPG that I was getting for the previous 16 months, so they at least did that much right and the car runs and accelerates very smooth from idle.

There is still a lot of missing info here.
This car does not use a vacuum advance on the distributor and any oil consumption problem was probably due to the valve cover gasket which can be a problem on VWs due to their design, which looks like this. Cork gasket with a couple of rubber inserts combined with age and heat equals a leak.

I’m still at a loss as to your assumption the shop is at fault on the valve cover gasket since I see nothing on your list about this.
I’m still curious about the date you gave. Is this 06 or 07?

It seems to me there is a lot of miscommunication or something going on during this whole escapade.

Well it is hard to say. Why not ask them. However keep in mind that you should have checked the oil before and during the trip and that distributor cap could have had a defect and cracked after it had been installed.

It is possible that the loose oil filter was the shop’s fault, but how low was the oil, did an oil light come on? And again, you should have checked the oil. Somehow I don’t see anything that would indicate any damage due to the oil issue.

“This car does not use a vacuum advance on the distributor . . .”

Thank you. I knew that I was shooting in the dark on a modern car. I do remember seeing the cap blow off the distributor on the 1949 Dodge and this is the only way I could think of that the cap might work loose.

meezergirl: There are alot of “unknowns” in this situation. First; go to your garage. Don’t say a WORD re your calamity. Ask them if they can check the play in the dist. bearings. They pop the cap off, grab the rotor, and wiggle back and forth to detect play- no real science to it. The charge should be quite minimal, if anything; or; maybe have another shop do this. Now as to what your garage did wrong:

  1. Loose oil filter: If the filter was loose but not to the point of leakage, no damage there. If it was loose and leaking, then that’s negligence on your garage’s part, but it still looks like: no damage- if your oil light never came on. You seem quite knowledgeable about your VW, and I think you would have noticed oil light come on. Turn ignition key to “ignition” only, like you wanted to just play the

radio, not all the way to “start”; and see if oil light comes on, which it should, proving it’s not burnt out. Even if it is you still have to show oil was low enough to do perm. damage, so put this on a list of questions to ask dealer by phone- if you really want to unravel this situation.

  1. Loose valve cover nuts: Not your garages fault- the not-so-great VW valve cov. gasket will eventually take a “compression set” (get skinnier making nuts looser). Now if the dealer found an oil leak, and your garage charged you recently for checking for a leak and said no leak, you have a gripe. Dealer apparently checked for such a leak because you were charged for tracer dye which is the most scientific way
    of pinpointing a leak. Did dealer find a significant leak? Add this to your list of questions.

  2. Dist. cap scenario: This is where I think you really could have a gripe, but only if it was determined earlier that dist. bearings/bushings were OK. (See ok4450’s post of 11 25 07; 9:24 PM) If they were, then how could clamp have come off? (See my earlier post for this and note that clamp came off 3 DAYS after clutch job.) You can’t PROVE they bumped clamp off but you can create legit doubt in

their mind re this, helping your chance of a “goodwill” offer on their part. (partial reimbusement; credit toward further sevices, etc.) If you convince them cap is their responsibility then rotor is too. Take into account any partial AAA towing payments too.

Your garage had no part in hurting plug wires, but add to your list of Q’s for dealer: Why did they replace plug wires? Were they damaged in a demonstrable way? If they were replaced 6 of 06 I can’t see why they would need to be replaced under the theory of periodic maintainence on 11 23 07 unless you put beaucoup miles on VW. If they were obviously bad, and you’re pleased w/current engine performance,

maybe this service was worth it. If your garage charged you to determine that you didn’t have a running problem on 9 07 and you’re getting (33% better MPG!) now, garage has egg on its face. (The check on 6 27 07 may be too long ago too be considered in the same light.)

I feel you should have a “sit down” w/owner/mgr. Make a list of points to discuss based on this and other post’s info. Compose yourself- don’t “bang fist” on desk. Appeal to his/her sense of fairness. Don’t be disuaded, I see customers having one-on-one’s w/mgr’s all the time. Based on garage’s response and their overall previous track record w/you, decide whether you should go back.

Meezergirl- I spent an hour analyzing this conundrum, and a couple more posting this, and got a parking ticket while doing so!; so PLEASE post back and let us know how it worked out. Good luck! KS

KS—Thank you for your advice. Actually, my biggest gripe was the distributor cap problem. As for the SP wires, VW said they tested at infinite resistance. On 6/15/06, my local garage replaced the SP wires, distributor cap & rotor. The wires and dist cap were parts that were ‘under warranty’ thus I was charged only labor, because 8 months earlier, 10/21/05, the SP wires were replaced, testing at infinite resistance, and the dist cap showed signs of arcing. Before left on my Thanksgiving trip, I did have to add a quart of Syntec and was surprised when I was stranded that I was low on oil after only 300 miles. VW claimed that I was a little over a quart low. I will get back to you with the resolution after I talk to my local garage before the end of the week. Thanks again.

It’s entirely possible that the distributor clamp was knocked loose or bent during the clutch job.
What I’m having a hard time comprehending is the vehicle apparently running well for 3 days and still running well at the 300 mile mark of your trip before it started screwing up.
This vehicle should have been running somewhat poorly on the day you picked it up after the clutch job if the dist. cap clamp was loose.

The plug wires should not be ruined by a dist. cap being loose. I also do not understand several sets of wires being tested as having infinite resistance. This means infinity and if all or some of the wires had an infinite reading this means the vehicle should barely chug itself out of the shop or refuse to run at all.
Someone better check the distributor shaft just in case.

For what it’s worth, I would not be taking a car of that vintage to the dealer, you’re going to pay through the nose every time. I looked up your same parts on the NAPA website:

Bosch distributor cap: $14.69,
Bosch rotor: $8.29,
Bosch wire set: $61.39,
Valve cover gasket set: $7.49,
Bosch oil filter: $8.09 + Oil (Let’s say $25.00, tops.)
And we’ll estimate $4.00 / plug for some nice spark plugs: $16.00

For a grand total of: $140.95 in quality off the shelf parts, and even if you doubled that price for shop markup, you’d only be at $265.90. And I can just about promise you that an indy shop would charge way, way less for labor on that kind of job.

I’m not saying that the dealer treated you badly, I’m just saying that for an '88 Jetta, you’ll bleed yourself dry taking it to the dealer.

Karl, nice post. Question for ya…how much play is ok in the distributor bearings? I recently changed the cap/rotor on my 85 Olds Cutlass and didn’t really push on the rotor, but I do remember it being able to wiggle a bit. Is that normal?

I did a recall on a Chrysler LH vehicle several years ago and left a wrench on a nut that holds lower control arm on subframe. About 3 weeks later car came back for unrelated service and my wrench was still there- not even jammed onto the nut but w/the web of wrench just loosely sitting on nut. Not proof but good indication that dist. cap could’ve stayed put for 300 mi; it did still have 1 clamp holding it.

You,d think it would run rough for the 300 mi. but who knows? meezergirl- notice rough/poor engine performance up untill stall?
Here’s the $64,000 question- If worn dist. bearings were enough to knock cap AND clamp off, how did meezergirl make it home w/ that dist? I GUESS it’s possible…

The techs that ohmed out the plug wires just got the word “infinity” confused w/ “out of limits”, out of limits meaning say, ohmsmeter was set to read no higher than 10,000 ohms but value was say, 25,000 or whatever- meter would read O.L; 25,000 being in this hypothetical case,
way more than allowable.(I guess grafite conducter inside insulation could have become “open” creating actual infinite resistance but does this ever happen? I don’t know.

I agree if dist. bearings/bushings are worn significantly it’s all over for showing garage’s responsibility here.

Jad2007: I’ll get on Alldata tomorrow- not sure if these specs published anymore but poss. they want ZERO play. If your dist. shaft siezes camshaft gear may shear off dist. shaft gearteeth- big trouble. My 72 Valiant died one time from worn dist. bearings and yet cap wasn’t damaged.(Regarding meezergirl’s scenario) Also caps and rotors haven’t changed much in 30 years or so. I,ll get back you. KS

You could go to Pep Boys or something and ask them to take a dist. for your car out of box and let you feel play- esp. if you said you might buy it if play was alot different than your’s. KS

OK, maybe you do need to rethink your local mechanic. If he or she can’t make a Jetta deliver more than 24 mpg at 70 mph something is SERIOUSLY wrong. You didn’t say that the first time!

I still think the dealer bill is padded. I can change 4 spark plugs, wires, cap and rotor in under an hour. Add another 20 minutes to change the oil and filter, and you’re still under two hours. How does two hours labor equal $522.75? Only at a VW dealership!

Parts? You’re looking at 4 spark plugs, a cap and rotor, and a set of plug wires (which I still think were unnecessary). Call your local parts store and price them. Then add and oil filter and four quarts of oil. There is no way they add up to $323.49. NO WAY!

The dealer charges WAY more than necessary. I’m glad you Jetta is running better, and I hope you can find a mechanic who knows what he or she is doing, but the dealer still took you.

Jad2007: Can’t find any specs on Alldata. Consensus at shop is that there should be zero play new, and a judgement call for an existing distributor. Great help, right? So consult Pep boys, per my post of 11 27 07 9:41PM. Automotive machine shops still re-bush distributors, some of

them- call one and pick their brain for 30 sec. They may be glad to show off their knowledge. Good luck KS

Thanks for all your time on my question, Karl. Just so I’m clear…they are saying I should not be able to twist the rotor by hand at all, it should be solid in it’s position?