auto maintenance February 06, 2018

You have to want it

Much of auto service may seem very mundane. Old and worn parts are taken off by following instructions that sometimes include pictures. Shiny new parts are installed and everybody is happy. Carefully written diagnostic charts are followed. A vast amount of information has been gathered, waiting to be accessed, to guide you through the most difficult of problems. Except when…

Based on a true story

A customer of ours, with whom I have had a decade-long relationship, needed help. Katie’s beloved old pickup truck had suffered a catastrophic failure of the rear differential, and due to the age and nature of the truck it was simply not worth repairing. She was in a real bind, having landed a promising job after a long bout of unemployment. She was lost so I volunteered to help. Since she had several small dogs she routinely had to transport, I suggested that a late model Dodge Caravan would be her best option. (I like minivans — they are very practical.)

I browsed the inventory of a large national chain, who for legal reasons we will call AutoMax, and found a 2010 Caravan with under 40,000 miles at a reasonable price. Katie went immediately to AutoMax, and after driving the vehicle and obtaining a Carfax report decided to purchase the van and the extended warranty.

After driving it a couple of days she decided it was a keeper and we put new tires on and performed all the maintenance the former owners (it was a company lease) had missed. About a week later she was back because her turn signals were intermittently not working. One of our techs found a bad spot on the ignition switch at which power was lost to the turn signals and a number of circuits.

A word about this ignition switch: It is a Mercedes design which incorporates the worst features of both an electronic switch and a mechanical switch. Many of you have newer cars where you only need to have a fob or transmitter on your person, and with the push of a button your car is on. Some of you have a car where a metal key still turns in a lock cylinder. The Mercedes system uses a plastic rectangular fob (full electronic with no contacting metallic parts), but it must still be put into a receptacle and turned in order to turn on the ignition and start the car.

Back it went to AutoMax, who put Katie in a loaner and sent the van back to Dodge because there was a recall on the switch. Dodge stated that the recall had already been done, but improperly, and they had now corrected the problem. Back it went to AutoMax, and back it went to Katie, and off she went…

Until a few days later when the vehicle suffered a complete engine shut-off while she was driving at night. Back the van came to us. Knowing about the ignition switch problems, we suggested a new ignition switch as the place to start. Back it went to AutoMax. Now they do have a service department there, and the service people were very polite, but I got the distinct impression that if it was much more than a flat tire it was beyond their realm.

Back it went to Chrysler who declared that they could find no flaw with the ignition switch, couldn’t duplicate the problem, and weren’t going to honor the warranty. This was getting serious. A long-time customer bought a vehicle on my recommendation, and the vehicle had a flaw, rendering it unfit to drive. She was still within the period of time she could return it, but had already put new tires on, along with other maintenance.

I suggested to AutoMax that they simply pay the Dodge dealer to replace the switch, no questions asked. They agreed to do so. Except the Dodge dealer stated that no, they wouldn’t replace the ignition switch for any money because they could not get the part. This was starting to get interesting.

I called my local Dodge dealer and asked my parts contact if he could get the part. He said yes, but it might take a couple of days. AutoMax, dreading the thought of having to take the car back, happily agreed to pay us to replace the switch. I had a long heart-to-heart with Katie, letting her know that since only she had experienced the shut-off, nobody could know for sure. In the end she was the one who would have to live with the outcome.

She opted for the repair and AutoMax delivered us the van. I called my dealer and ordered the part, only to be called back an hour later to be told the part was on “restriction.” I tried to get a straight answer as to what that meant but all I could get was they don’t think you need an ignition switch.

Since when the heck did manufacturers base their parts availability on what I need? When I order an alternator, starter, brake pads or even a computer they never question whether I need it. They just take my money.

Now I began to doubt myself. I decided to drive the van as my own (with permission). I drove home 30 miles with no incident. I took my son out to dinner, and again, no incident. When we came out of the restaurant I started the van but somehow I felt something was different, maybe some lights or a dinger hadn’t come on. I don’t know – it was just different.

I looked at the ignition switch which had remained in the “start” position and had not fallen back to the “run” position. My son asked why I was laughing so hard. Just wait, I said. I started down the road, and the first little bump I hit caused the ignition switch to recoil back towards the run position with such force that it overshot and went to “off,” shutting the van down.

Now I could duplicate the problem almost at will. It seemed dependent on what phase you put the key in and how long it ran. As soon as I got home I called Katie to tell her it was 100% an ignition switch problem. She called back a few minutes later to tell me that when the incident occurred she had heard her keys jingle as her car stalled.

The next morning I called my Dodge dealer to inform them I would bring a team of lawyers and armed men if necessary, and would pry the switch out of one of the vehicles on their lot, but lo and behold, with the new information they were willing to sell me an ignition switch. How kind of them.

There were a few more adventures along the way. The old key fobs refused to be re-programmed, so 2 new fobs were added to the butcher’s bill, but it has been six weeks now and everything is fine.

Near as I can figure, a parts restriction means they are having a massive demand on a part and can only provide them to people who really need them. Or more likely, they know that the parts, including the ones in their inventory have a massive defect, and they are desperately trying to avoid putting more junk on the street before an improved part can be produced.

Either way, straight down the line, no one seemed to want to cooperate in any way, shape, or form with the repair of this vehicle. In fact, certain parties that will remain unnamed (Chrysler Corporation) threw up active road blocks.

That’s why you need someone on your side. I know that in these times it is tempting to go with the lowest price, but when the chips are down, you really need someone in your corner who won’t rest until your problems are solved.

I know that everyone at Wiygul Automotive Clinic – from the owner, to the counter people, to the technicians, to the shuttle driver – shares that commitment to take extraordinary steps to solve your problems. Come by and see us.

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