Can I Trust My Mechanic? (despite the fact that he's in the "mechanic files" here?)

I bought a '97 Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon about 2 years ago from a friend. I’m the third owner and the other two were my friend and his father. It currently has 121K miles on it. As soon as I got it I replaced timing belt, oil pan, all 4 brakes, links/bushings, an automatic window mechanism that failed on a rainy day, wheel bearings, and some other small stuff. I paid $1.5K for the car and the put another $3K into within the first 6 months, so I felt like I was driving something safe and worth pretty much exactly its blue book value. I knew from the start that I would eventually need new rear struts, but it wasn’t urgent, and my mechanic has been encouraging me to put off fixing things until I absolutely need to because the front differential gear makes some noise. He said I would know when it was starting to go because it would get much noisier, and up until today, the sound has been about the same, but we talk about this whenever something small needs fixing, and each time I ask “is it worth it, or will the differential gear go before I’ve paid it off on my credit card?” He usually advises that if it is expensive and not dangerous, it can wait.

Last week, I brought it in because it had been leaking oil badly after a recent oil change. He found that the crankshaft seal had become loose and oil had gotten all over everything–including the timing belt. He also determined that the struts could not go unrepaired any longer. I asked if this was worth fixing in light of the state of the differential gear, and he advised that I should replace the crankshaft seal and the timing belt if I ever wanted to drive the car again, and that the struts were no longer safe. This work was going to cost $1.3K

I had known about struts forever, so wrote that off as an expected expense, and (though this did not pan out in the end) I had a hope that I could get the company (let’s call them “Valvoline” for the sake of of discussion) that performed the oil change to take financial responsibility for knocking the crankshaft seal loose, so I approved the repairs. The mechanic held on to the car A LOT longer than usual, and was much harder to communicate with than usual, but the repairs were done by the end of the week. I picked up the car, drove about 30 miles in it over the course of 24 hours, and then the differential went. I can’t afford to repair it, even though everything else on the car is in great shape.

So here is my question: Would the mechanic have been able to tell by looking at it that the differential gear was on it’s last leg? Is it possible that he could have looked at 24 hours before it went and NOT been able to tell it was about to go? Did he know, and encourage me to spend money on something that was about to die, or is there no way that he could have known? I’m not sure there’s anything I can do at this point, but I’d like to know how trustworthy this guy is for future reference.


First, the mechanix files on this site aren’t some kind of orderly, reviewed, or verified source of info. Its just a spot on the internet where people can leave comments about their experiences with mechanics. Its pretty haphazard, so the question is whether you trust whatever 3 or 4 people happened to post something about the mechanic you ended up going to.

Second, while avoiding quickie lube chains is a really good idea, there’s no way that they damaged your crank seal while changing the oil. I suppose sabotage is possible, but quickie lubes aren’t going to chase after repairs like this.

Third, I think the question is odd. You’ve known that the differential was an issue since the beginning. The mechanic told you so. Is there some way to know exactly when it is going to go completely? No. And the guys been doing work on the car and charging you all along while you knew the differential was bad. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so nonchalant about it, but a lot of more trustworthy shops actually do tend to be fairly conservative about what they tell people must be done. The alternatives are those shops that want to fix stuff (read: run up a big bill) at the slightest hint of an issue.

I will hazard a guess that a ball or roller bearing in your differential failed. These can be noisy before they fail and I agree that the time of complete and total failure is impossible to predict after noise from them begins.

I would ask if it would have been possible to use a very thick gear lube in your differential but there may be something about a Subaru that does not permit this. It might have stalled off the anticipated failure for an unpredictable time. If there is a cover over your differential that can be removed, it still would likely be difficult or impossible to see which bearing was in the process of failing. Knowing the exact bearing that was failing would not matter anyhow.

If your differential was destined to fail and you intended to keep the car, then it may not matter if it failed sooner or later unless you wanted to delay the cost. Getting it repaired sooner will cancel the worry.

It sounds to me like you have a good mechanic there.

The mechanic files are too small to be scientific in my opinion. As with most comments, they’re subjective and may not reflect the entire story either.

Does this car have an automatic transmission? If so, check the final drive oil on the transaxle (the proper term instead of transmission but I digress…) as draining the final drive of gear oil by mistake is not unheard of on Subarus. The drain plug is similar to the engine oil plug and they’re located close together.
This often shows up as a subtle whine which eventually leads to a rumble and in some cases, a catastrophic bang leading to a pile of scrap metal.

Check the engine oil level also. What has been known to happen is that sometimes the final drive is drained and more oil is added to the engine. This leads to an overfill and possibly oil leaks; maybe even a crankcase pressure problem that could dislodge a crank seal.
The only way I could see the oil change facility being the cause of a loose crank seal would be the above scenario.
(Note the transaxle has 2 dipsticks if it’s an automatic. You’re looking for the one on the passenger side that is hard to see.)

Thanks all for the comments–I made the repair to to crankshaft seal/put in the new timing belt already, and will not repair the differential (cost quotes is more than the car is worth,) and I have traditionally trusted this mechanic. I just thought it odd that the car died withing 24 hours of my paying the largest repair bill that I’ve had to date. It’s reassuring to know that it is not possible to predict when the gear will go–I had been told it had a year or two minimum, but that was less than a year ago, so that was the confusion–I wasn’t sure if he could see when it was about to go or not just by looking at it.

Your “front diff” is INSIDE the tranny…its not like a traditional 4WD Jeep for example… and while you have a separate Rear Diff…your front one is basically the entire transmission…so you are basically looking at a new trans…and its a relatively EASY job…well for mechanics it is…Shouldnt be too cost prohibitive…and SOME guys pull the engine to do the T-belt jobs…if so…you could slip in a new/used tranny at that time etc…

WHO did your T-belt? for Gods sakes let me guess…they didn’t replace the $8 front main seal did they? What else did they “skip” any of the idler bearings? The water pump also? Jeezu…THIS is the exact reason I often Rant and Rave about replacing these things when you are already “in there” doing a major service…I’m sorry to hear about that… MAKE SURE you do it right this time…DO NOT just slap a new seal in and call it a day…find out if your water pump was done and the idler bearings, the tensioner…etc…

Look up T-belt Kits on ebay…and it will give you an idea of what is involved in a PROPER T-belt job…the kits are like 150 bucks…its just INSANITY…not to use one and DO what is provided…

HERE WE GO AGAIN…I’m going to get flak for saying to replace things that haven’t worn out yet…LOL… YUP>…and $8 front main seal just RUINED the entire T-belt job…OF COURSE IT DID>…

I think the real question is 1300 force tbelt and front main??? Sound very pricy to me. With that said I would put a good used trans into this car. At this point it sounds like it’s in good shape, and for another 2k what else can you get to replace it?? The devil you know is better then the devil you don’t in some cases.

He did replace the water pump when putting in the first belt and I believe this seal as well. Mechanic says oil overfill popped it, valvoline says it popped because mechanic didn’t lock it down properly. No way to tell who was right–that (and the $1300 of repairs 24 hours before the car crapped out) is why I’ve had doubts about who to trust. At this point, I’ve already spent about $6500 dollars on a car that’s only worth $4000. I’m not going to spend anymore: a “good used transmission” is just another kind of unknown devil…

Dont worry about what the car is worth, its a mute point. At this point you have to figure out your next step. The $6500 you already spent is gone, never to return. Right now as it sits, you car is not worth much. Maybe you can find someone to pay you 1500-2000 as a project car, but that is about it and its a HUGE MAYBE… that plus $1500-$2000 you would spend on a used trans, and you have under $5000 to spend on another car. As you have found out you cant get anything really good at that price point, and you will have to figure anything you get will need much of the work you already did to this car (IE brakes, belts, struts, etc)… You have to figure after the trans you car should be good to go for another 100,000K if you get a good used trans. I am not for throwing good money after bad, but I think you have a good car on your hands, lord knows it has had all of its maitnence done already. I dont see you getting anything better for the price of fixing this one.

But again, I would question the $1300… I figure a t-belt is about $500 (i dont think its a hard job on a subby as its is up fornt and you have lots of room to work), and alot of the labor for the belt is the same labor as the front main (which is a $10 part) so lets be generious and say $200 Extra fo that. That means $600 for the struts which seems very high. Maybe he can cut you a break on the money you already spent…

OHH and PS, unless i am wrong and I dont think i am. the oil pan would have to be WAY WAY over filled to blow the front main. It seems highly unlikely that they would over fill it that much. UNLESS OK was right, in which case I would check your trans fluids to see what is left in there.

You really need to check the final drive oil in the transaxle NOW without driving one inch more. If the final drive is out of gear oil then odds are the oil change facililty drained the transaxle by mistake and the engine oil was overfull because it was never drained.

It’s possible that the oil change facility could be on the hook for any repairs, including another transaxle.

If the final drive has indeed been drained by mistake then at some point you will be sitting on the side of the road after the ring and pinion gears seize and a loud bang occurs. At this point the transaxle will be scrap metal.

oooohhhh maybe the oil was WAY overfilled, because it was already full since they drained the transmission fluid instead! Especially on some subarus, then pans and plugs look very similar and even have the exact same plugs…


Just picked this car up from the mechanic…and not planning on driving any more inches. He quoted another $1500 to replace transmission (not sure if that includes labor or not, but if does, it does rather sound like a deal,) but he still didn’t feel it was worth it–when I asked why he said because “with a used transmission, you don’t know if something else in there is going to go.” Also, though it doesn’t have much in the way of visible rust, the car has always lived in New England, so I’m guessing that there is rust on the undercarriage–though this has never been mentioned.

Breakdown of $1300 bill from last week is: 4 camshaft seals, 1 crankshaft seal, oil pump o-ring, antifreeze (it was a very cold day?), timing belt, and 3 quarts of engine oil= $178/labor $450; 2 rear struts, 2 mounts=$447/labor $200.

I had already filed a complaint with Valvoline based on the mechanic’s claim that overfilling the motor oil caused the crank seal to pop out, but they evaluated the claim (this means they sent someone to take pictures) and also referenced a Subaru TSB that mentioned crankshaft seals and decided that they could not have been liable–they have closed the complaint. Which means nothing–I can re-open it. Just not sure it’s worth my time unless I want to go to a lawyer or something. There is also something I’ve (unintentionally) left out: Though I noticed the oil leak immediately after the oil change, and went back to Valvoline about it, I drove the car 1000 miles before I brought it to the mechanic and had it repaired. If I hadn’t done that there might not have been a need to change the timing belt…Transmission fluid level read was fine on exit from oil change.

In any case, I think I’m going to sell it for parts, bike for 6 months to save money, and then buy something a little newer/with a warranty for next winter. Anybody want to buy a 1997 Subaru that doesn’t need anything but a new transmission? It runs (loudly,) has a great stereo system that can drown out how loudly it runs and cozy heated seats. It’s got several new belts including a timing belt, a new oil pan, brakes, wheel bearings, CV joints, struts, wiper blades, air filter, gas filler tube, and driver’s side window motor. Tires are only 3 years old, and all of its fluids have been very recently been topped off…$2500 the cost of a new transmission will bring it right up to blue book value…

Thanks again for all of the advice!

That front main can be put in incorrectly…however…it cant go anywhere so methinks it BLEW out due to an overfill…OR it was never actually replaced…

I think the oil change facility caused the seal problem and possibly the transaxle problem also. If the final drive is very low or empty that almost always points to someone screwing up by removing the wrong drain plug.

You reference the transmission fluid being fine but I’m not talking about transmission fluid. I’m referring to final drive gear oil which is in the same transission but a separate compartment.
In other words, the ATF can be clean and full with the final drive being empty and a bang waiting to happen.

The fast lube inspectors, for want of a better word, are not high on my list of great people to deal with. I’ve been in the middle of a few customer/inspector problems and have found that none of those guys knew diddly about a car. Their job is to deny and stall.

We had a Subaru came in on the tow truck once with a trashed transmission and that car only had about 20k miles on it. The fast lube had drained the final drive by mistake.
The transmission case was fractured in half and the internals were nothing more than a debris field.
The fast lube inspector insisted that I “patch it together best as possible”. Ha. :slight_smile:

IN that trans there is only one fluid…no separate gear oil…99% sure…No?

The front differental requires 75w90 GL5, capacity 1.2L.-with automatic transmission.

In my personal experience working at Dodge dealers I was never able to sell a differential service on an LH vehicle (Concord/Intrepid) which also has a seperate front differental. Fluid replacement was required every 15,000 miles (severe service) but the service writers didn’t believe this was true. It’s not that important I guess, the first owner doesn’t keep the vehicle long enough to matter, the second owner doesn’t spend money on services and in the end it become the problem of the third owner like the OP (100,000 mile plus) when a failure occurs.

With a manual transmission the gear oil lubricates both the gearsets/shafts and the final drive gears with oil freely mixing in both sections.

If this is an automatic transmission, which it appears to be, the ATF covers the auto transmission section only.
The final drive assembly (ring and pinion, spider gears, etc) is a separate compartment and lubed by hypoid oil. There are a number of seals that keep the fluids separated.

In some cases, and not as prevalent as it used to be, those seals would prematurely leak and cause the hypoid oil to migrate into the ATF. Sometimes the car’s owner would be not be aware of the whine that was starting to develop until it was too late; this meaning a prematurely worn out final drive or a blown transmission. This would depend on how bad their hearing was or how acclimated they became to the whine.

In the case of the 20k miles Subaru I mentioned above, this one died from a quicky lube experience. An elderly couple just a few hundred miles into their vacation had a fast lube change the oil while they had lunch at a restaurant next door. After hitting the road they noticed a whine and figured they would get it looked at when they reached OK City. They never made it because the transmission scattered itself about 40 miles after leaving the fast lube joint. Per the usual, the fast lube drained the final drive by mistake while thinking it was the engine oil plug.

Note the 2 sticks on this one. The long one on the drivers side is ATF and the stubby one on the passenger side is for the final drive hypoid oil.

Right OK44…If we are talking an Auto tranny…there is only ATF… A manual can actually call for ATF believe it or not …(91 Ford Explorer 5sp is an example) OR ONLY Gear oil.

Are you guys saying that there is an Auto tranny out there that has a separation for the DIFF and that diff takes Gear Oil? WOW That unusual …I sure haven’t ever seen one… interesting…Hmmm

I looked at the link and all I see is a normal ATF Auto tranny…what other dipstick? LOL… Oh I had to “Enlarge” the photos to see the other pics… That looks like the SPeedo Cable to me…not another dipstick…I mean it DOES look like a dipstick…but I think that’s just something they shoved into the speedo …Wow…I’m confused for sure. No worries I keep it in mind and look into it a little

Sure seems like a dipstick, I must admit…Sure is a new one on me, I can tell you that


Yes, it has 2 sticks and both of them are shown in the link with yellow handles on them. That stubby one is for the hypoid oil and the Subaru does use both ATF and hypoid.
What happens sometimes is that someone inadvertently drains the final drive and they overfill the engine oil, forget to refill the final drive, or they check the wrong dipstick. With the latter they see it’s still full and assume everything is still fine while not knowing the other stick is the one they should be looking at.

At times the seals would leak internally and hypoid oil would mix with the ATF. This could cause shifting problems or premature transmission failures if left unattended.

I used to do a lot of reseal jobs on these things and it was actually one of my favorite jobs; monetarily speaking.
Flat rate paid around 7-8 hours and I did so many of them I got where I could do them in less than 4 hours.

I did go all out one time just for the heck of it to see how fast I could put a new clutch kit in a manual transmission Subaru and nailed that one at 1 hour and 20 minutes. However, that’s a very difficult pace to maintain without running the risk of making mistakes or suffering mental burn out.

No SH%$ ! LOL…never saw that before… I hear you re: the clutch job on a Subaru…Once I made the HUGE HUGE mistake of pulling the transmission to do the clutch job on an 02’ Subaru 2.5RS…WHAT an IDIOT… The last one I did I got it done in under 2 hours also… Easiest clutch job in the world if you DONT pull the transmission…LOL…Whodathunkit on their first attempt with all other cars as the basis of your knowledge