When we left the Ford dealership one rainy evening a few weeks ago, Danger Girl turned to me and said, emphatically, "I never want to go back there again." I couldn't blame her. In the five months since we'd brought her Fiesta ST from its former owner's home in Venice Beach to sunny Powell, Ohio, she'd put eleven thousand miles on the car, including six SCCA autocrosses and four trackdays. Somewhere in that breakneck schedule of events, the Fiesta had started acting decidedly. . . odd. It was shaking the steering wheel when you applied throttle, and again when you took your foot off the gas. There was a persistent clunk in the right front corner that was getting worse. I'd put the car up on a jack but I didn't see any obvious damage. Still, something had to be done.
A racer friend of our had suggested that perhaps the right front MacPherson strut had blown, So we took the car to our local Ford dealer and asked them to evaluate the "clunk." They said they were unable to duplicate the behavior, which was odd because we were unable to keep the behavior from duplicating itself on every drive. Then they diagnosed the Fiesta's Check Engine light as resulting from an aftermarket exhaust and tried to charge us a bit over a hundred bucks worth of labor for having done so. I was furious at the idea that we'd been "wall-jobbed," which is to say that the "troubleshooting" consisted of putting the car against the wall until we came back for it. Danger Girl was incandescently angry at the idea that she'd been charged $106 for somebody running a OBD-II scantool.
In the end, they let us leave without paying the bill, mostly because I think DG made it pretty clear she'd come back that evening and burn the dealership to the ground whether or not anybody was still in the building. She had them a little frightened. I keep trying to explain to her that violence never solves anything. I've even got her reading a Robert Pirsig book. But in this case, I think it did solve our problem with that unwanted service bill. So that really doesn't help my case.
Our core problem, however, that of the clunking-and-swerving Fiesta, remained unsolved. On the recommendation of the local independent shop that services my Nine Eleven, I booked the little blue Ford into a service garage on the wrong side of the tracks. "They specialize in alignment," my mechanic had said. "I'm sure they'll find out the problem." We dropped the car off Sunday night.
Monday morning, at 8:27AM, my phone rang. "I've got your Fiesta up on the rack," the fellow said. "There's a nut welded into the frame that secures your lower control arm. That nut has broken off, so the bolt that holds the lower control arm on is loose. That explains why the car is swerving when you apply power, and it also explains the clunking noise. I'm not going to charge you for the diagnosis. You can take it to the dealer and have it fixed under warranty."
Although it was remarkably early for me to be standing up, much less making decisions, I was still clear-headed enough to picture what would happen if I took the car back to the dealer and explained to them how they'd completely missed something that a tiny shop in one of central Ohio's most dangerous ZIP codes had figured out inside ten minutes. "How would you fix it?" I asked.
"Easy," came the response. "We'll cut that section of the frame out, weld the nut on properly, weld it back up, apply undercoating so the repair doesn't rust, and align the car. The dealer can do it, as well." For a moment, I considered the fact that this dealership was fairly notorious for cross-threading oil-pan drainplugs, and I cross-referenced that fact against the likelihood of anybody in said dealership being able to operate a welder without burning down the building and accidentally bringing Danger Girl's sworn vengeance to pass with no effort on her part.
"How much," I hemmed and hawed, "would you charge to do it."
"Gosh," the fellow replied, "I'm afraid I'd have to charge. . . close to $200." I considered what it would cost me to save that $200 by going to the dealer instead. There would be the trip back to the dealer, the Fiesta bucking and swerving all the way. At least five interactions where I explained the problem to somebody with an IQ somewhat south of ninety and a profound disinterest in his job, first over the phone but eventually in person. Probably two weeks without the car, if we were lucky. As a former Ford dealership employee, I estimated a ninety-seven-point-two percent chance that the regional representative would have to get involved. I estimated the chances of the dealership welding the thing together straight at twelve percent, and the chances of them applying any rustproofing at a round zero.
"No way we'll take it back to the dealer," I said. "In the words of Kirsty MacColl, let's do it here." Three hours later, the car was ready. Danger Girl brought it home.
"It's perfect," she said. "Better than it ever was. No noise, no torque steer, no nothing. But if it was so simple to figure out what was wrong, why couldn't the dealer do it?" It was a fair question, but it was also a question with a very long answer.
New-car dealerships are in the business of replacing parts, plain and simple. If they can immediately see which part to replace, they'll probably do it correctly. But if there's any uncertainty, you're screwed. When I owned two VW Phaetons, I always showed up with a list of the parts they would need and the order in which they should be installed. Sometimes I provided diagrams and directions. Thanks to my obsessive-compulsive approach to showing the dealer tech his own job, I'd say that nearly half of the problems for which I provided all of the above were fixed on the first try. The other half of the time, the dealer tech went off-script and broke something else in the course of not fixing what I'd shown him how to fix.
This problem with the Fiesta was unique in that it couldn't be diagnosed with an OBD-II scantool and it required an actual repair instead of a parts replacement. As such, it was eminently beyond the capabilities of a Ford dealer. As previously noted, I worked in a Ford dealer for well over a year and not once did I ever see a welder in use. Never did I see a spring being wound, a part being ground to fit or welded up to replace missing metal. And I sure as hell never saw anybody "nut-and-bolting" a suspension to find a problem the way that my new favorite garage just did.
I rather suspect that had I been a Ford dealer employee in 1955 instead of 1995 I'd have seen all of the above and more—but today's service departments have evolved (or devolved, more precisely) to fit the requirements of modern cars that last almost forever using plug-and-play modules for everything from the fuel injectors to the hub carriers. As long as your problem can be fixed with plug-and-play, you're in the pink. If not. . . well, it sucks to be you, my friend.
This is something of which you may not be aware, but there is a constant legal battle going on at all levels of our government to preserve our right to repair our own vehicles and/or to have them repaired by trusted independent shops. There is a movement in this country called . Check it out. And join the fight. Before it's too late. Before a bad computer module or broken mounting nut can turn your car into a very expensive bit of junkyard scrap. It's your car, and you have the right to modify, re-engineer, or simply repair it as you see fit. Or you can just Leave It To Dealer—but I can tell you what will happen then, and you won't like it.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.