Tom’s Take: Classic… Or Jalopy? Maintain Your Car, It’s Common Sense

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that in 2017, more than 6,000 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles. One-third of these walkers, skateboarders, and cyclists were drunk, and perhaps another large percentage were staring at a device not looking where they were going. Motoring accidents kill thousands of people every year, giving fodder to those tech nerds who want to take the wheel out of our hands in favor of autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing. Distracted driving has actually overtaken impaired driving in such accidents. But there is another cause that leads to horrific consequences: under-maintained cars — essentially the most avoidable of these sad situations.

Having now been in place, running Beach Cities Garage for a while, we have had a great deal of fun. We have been doing builds and restorations (look for some cool upcoming stories) and may soon embark on a major build of my own. However, like many shops, keeping the lights on requires “customer cars” or routine maintenance. This includes oil changes, brake jobs, cooling systems… Our place here had been in business for a great deal of time, so there is no end to those regular customers. Many bring us sentimental, high-mileage cars that we keep fresh for them. But we also have the “Groupon” customers.

In generating new business, we made a few public offerings on discounted oil changes. In many cases, it attracts the “coupon customer.” Coupon customers are looking for the cheapest means to take care of necessity. I have no qualm with it, as there are many ways to save money, if you need to. Several of those customers will bring a higher-mileage car with several issues beyond a lube, oil, filter-type service. In our routine 32-point inspection, we point out numerous bones of contention. The smart customers realize they have an issue and for self-preservation, the preservation of their car, and the preservation of those around them, will dig deep and fix their brakes, cooling systems, tires, and the like. Others, who can’t afford it, or are just plain ignorant, do not.

Recently a Groupon customer came to us, and in our inspection we pointed out that his brakes were nearly metal-on-metal — meaning there was little or no brake pad left and doomed to a failure. After a fair quote, he signed a work order to get the job done, but told us he “needed the car for the evening and would promptly bring it back tomorrow.” Further, the front tires were at minimum treadwear and cracked. Needless to say, the car has not been back. Hopefully, he went and found another shop and made his vehicle safe again. Although, chances are he is out there as a sort of vehicular time bomb, waiting to have his brakes fail and perhaps kill you or me. Shops can try and plead with a customer to fix items such as this — and it comes with a certain liability for letting them leave in a potentially unsafe car — but we have no right to impound an unsafe car. It would be nice, however, if we could immediately report unsafe cars and customers to the DMV.

Many times, depending on the car, we ask if they plan on keeping the vehicle. We will sometimes just assess that the problems are greater than the value. At that point, we suggest to take it to CarMax and get what they can for it — and offer our services of pre-purchase inspection for helping them negotiate the purchase of a pre-owned car, or tell them to “bite the bullet” and buy a new car. A few have taken our advice and gone that route, while others will make an excuse and drive off in their dangerous weapon.

Money is always a point of contention. But like my friends at Stand21 and RaceQuip constantly point out: “What is your life worth?” Further, what is a life of regret for having killed another worth? Ignorance is another thing. How long does someone drive with an engine light on? In some cases, until they get a SMOG notice from their state’s DMV. Dummy lights mean your car is trying to tell you it’s sick. Your local shop or dealership, in their inspections can tell you the same.

NTSB

Because there are unsavory characters out there in the car business, knowing your own car is paramount. As I have mentioned many times before, the car has become an appliance — like your refrigerator or dishwasher — just a machine that serves a specific purpose. But consider this, besides your home, your car is usually your second largest investment. Proper maintenance is needed to make it work well. Failures, in one of a hundred different systems in a car, could do irreparable damage or put the driver and those around them in imminent peril.

There are also a number of Do-It-Yourself-ers out there. Particularly ones who read these pages — many who are quite competent. Most anything that needs fixing has a YouTube video attached to it, and lots of shade-tree wrenches are able to do many things at a fraction of the cost of taking the car to a mechanic or dealership. At the end of the day though, one must ask, “was it done right?” One way to find out is to get into a bad situation when a repair fails. They can be hard, expensive, and even deadly lessons.

Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

BRAKES! As legendary Corvette racer and brake manufacturer Andy Porterfield once opined — and solved — stopping is more important than going! This is a concerted effort between the middle pedal and your tires. How many tragedies could have been prevented if someone had paid attention to their car? Bald tires and bad brakes could be a fatal combination. Even on their own, they can be the same. Consider also a fluid flush when brake fluid gets old and becomes dirty or acidic. Brakes work on a hydraulic system that engages drums or discs and calipers by pressure from the brake pedal. If this system fails, it could prove to be as bad as bare brake pads when your foot goes to the floor in an emergency stopping situation. Picture a woman pushing a stroller at the crosswalk. How could you live with yourself?

TIRES! Paul Walker and Roger Rodas were well known car guys. They died in tragic and avoidable circumstances several years ago after a nice charity event. Roger, who raced vintage cars, was a competent driver. Despite their reckless behavior, these two guys would have lived to play another day had the tires on the ill-fated Porsche Carerra GT not been 10 years old. This was detailed in an investigative report by my journalist colleague Matt Farah. The tread wear looked ok, but the aged tires and the rubber compound had degraded to the point of not being able to handle the driver speed and input, forcing the car into an unrecoverable spin, eventually resulting in an impact with a tree. Everything from proper inflation (hint: there is a decal on the inside of your driver’s door), age, watching tire wear, timely rotations, and replacement are just part of the game for the responsible owner/lessee.

Toyo Tire

If you notice, most car warranties do not cover wearable parts (i.e. tires, clutches, and brakes) for a reason — they wear out! If you cannot afford to fix and maintain your car, then you should not be driving one. Many in the country call regularly for gun-control after a mass shooting, but a car is a weapon too. In both cases, avoidance of stupidity rules the day in tragic and sad circumstances. If you have the money to maintain a car, but put it low on the priority list, then you are just an ignorant jerk. You are a menace to society for those of us just trying to get home to our families.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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