Saturday, April 09, 2005

Fun-Loving Malibu Juice

Today we finally found out what that strange belt-squeak noise was in the engine of my car. Of course, we had to find out the hard way rather than have a mechanic tell us.

As I reported recently, I knew my car was in need of some kind of repair from the odd sounds its engine was making. Since we were already having to go to service stations on a semi-daily basis for the wife’s car and it’s many recent flat tires, I decided to bite the bullet and take mine in for its 100,000 mile tune up. I took it to one of my two usual repair places, the local Chevy dealership. I’ve actually had mixed experiences with them in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees for a mistake he had made. But they were the Chevy dealership so they ostensibly would be the ideal place to take a Chevy, so there I went.

We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because the wife’s rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day. On the little after hours drop off sheet that I had to fill out with snow falling on my head and wind freezing my fingers, I noted that the belts should be paid attention to as there was a loose belt-squeal sound coming from them. I also checked that I would need an oil change.

“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” the wife asked as I climbed back into her car.

"Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?

The following morning, the wife called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes just to make sure someone did. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they’d already found that the car had a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. The wife asked if this was something dire in need of fixing or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait provided it wasn’t actively leaking antifreeze. Otherwise we needed to have it done. Well, we’ve seen no leaks whatsoever in our driveway, so they said we’d be cool until we did.

“Did you tell them to do the oil change?” I asked.


“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.

Despite claiming they would phone us when they knew what was wrong with the car, the garage never called. In the afternoon, I phoned them to learn that the car needed new brake drums in the back. They also said they didn’t want to go ahead with the 100,000 mile tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice. Whatever. I didn’t want to pay for it twice either, so that was okay. They also said they couldn’t hear any belt squealing so they hadn’t done anything with that either. I approved them to fix the drums and asked them to call me when they were finished.

Naturally, they did not.

Around 4:30, I called them back because I knew they closed at 5. Their receptionist was never able to get the repair department to answer the phone, but said she’d have them call me back.

Again, they did not phone, so at 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.

The next morning, the wife drove me back to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished. If worse came to worse and I needed to get to work, I could always just walk because it’s not terribly far to the library. However, when I arrived they claimed my car was already fixed. So I paid them for the brake drum replacement, noticed they’d charged me for a lube job, which I assumed was the oil change. It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.

The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound. I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only happened on warm days. Then, on the following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever brakes were applied at low speeds. Not good.

On Wednesday morning, we took the car back in and told them it wasn’t fixed. The man at the counter seemed a bit angry at this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all. He said he was 4 mechanics short that day and might not be able to get to it. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway to see what was wrong being as how we don’t like driving around with horrible clunking sounds coming from allegedly repaired brakes. Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought he should.

“And would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked. “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the man even angrier, but he agreed he would try if they had time.

I went to work.

Again at 4:30 I gave them a call. The Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking noise in the back right tire when braking at low speed and a squealing noise much liken unto a loose belt from the engine pretty much all the time. He still said they couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.

On Thursday morning, the wife dropped me off at work and I gave the dealership a call around 10:30 to arrange the aforementioned auditory aid session. Angry man answered and said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything. I told them they might not hear the belt squeal, but the clunking was pretty obvious. He suggested I needed to come in and drive with them. Great! Super! It's only why I called to begin with.

“Sure thing,” I said. “Could I come by at noon?” He said that I could.

At noon, Mrs. B dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there and seemed angrier when he saw me. He told me that all the mechanics had gone to lunch from noon to 1, so I’d have to come back later.

“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that before you said it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.

Angry man flared. Likely he was mad because he’d been the one who screwed up and told me to come at noon when he clearly knew no one would be there. He was also likely mad that I’d pointed out his faux pas and was clearly in the right.

“Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong," he said. "Let’s just go give her a drive now.”

“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.

Once he dug up my key and lead me outside, he started making for the driver’s side door of the car.

“Uh, would you mind if I drove,” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole the Mechanics drove this car twice and couldn’t hear a thing thread from before. As he was doing so, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.


“Hear that?”

Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanic for putting him in such an embarassing situation. I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and on down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make dude that much more uncomfortable for once again having been shown up. The belt never would squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.

“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”

“Oh, really. I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.” I pointed to it for him.

"Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.

We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.  And later in the day, after I'd phoned them to ask their diagnosis of my car, they indicated that when they had replaced my brake drums the week before, they’d managed to replace one of them with a faulty brake drum. Good job there, Peaches!

Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical missions trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse. This past Saturday it sounded particularly bad and was doing its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout the driving experience. I was a bit concerned that something might go wrong with it before I could get to the "liberry" for my Saturday shift. I made it there okay, but almost didn’t make it home.

As I was nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way. As I reached the street itself, I noticed that the power steering was no longer working. As I reached my driveway, the battery light came on. I parked and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off it's track is because the alternator had fallen off.

No, really. It. Fell. Off.

I’m talking, broken off from the engine block entirely at the bracket.

“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.  "Those complete and utter morons," I added.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by this. However, you'd think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that's reminiscent of a belt being loose that they'd actually, oh, I don't know, HAVE AN EFFING LOOK AT THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!


I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company TEXAS-BASED AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY. Genuinely love them.

In addition to being very good insurance for the money we pay in, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. Just the friendliest most helpful people you could ever care to deal with. And when you phone up USAA you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person, and a shiny happy real person at that. And the insurance reps are not only happy but are willing to actually help you out and make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!

For instance, Linda, the rep I spoke with Monday morning, commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. Then she cheerfully arranged for a tow truck to come and get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happens to be within walking distance of my house. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh, so marvelous insurance! Glory Be!

The tow truck driver, who Linda said would probably not get there for an hour, actually came in 20 minutes and successfully hauled my car away.

After 8, I phoned Mrs. A and told her I might be late for my 1-5 Monday shift. She said she'd let Mrs. C know.

I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place. I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.

“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.

“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.

Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.

Now, I don’t know if the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing or not. I seem to recall them having to put in a new serpentine belt several months ago, (perhaps during the key-yelling incident) but I can’t swear to it. I know they didn’t do it on purpose, because these people seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage. I am of half a mind to call them up and see if I can get a copy of all the work they’ve done on my car just to make sure.

I asked my new repair guy to give me a call when the car was ready. And a mere six hours later, he actually did. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you guess. I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all. And the guy was really nice, too. He showed me the old broken alternator bracket and the bolt upon which rested the entire lack of a nut. I think I’ve found my new repair shop.

The only real mixed blessing of the day was that due to lack of transportation, I missed all of my Monday shift.

Shucky. Shucky darn.

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An employee of a small town "liberry" chronicles his quest to remain sane while dealing with patrons who could star in a short-lived David Lynch television series.