A Parable of Selective Repair


March, 2016

This was written after reading a series of long and vitriolic threads on several of the guitar amp bulletin boards.  In certain circles, the desire to preserve originality overshadows the need for safety, reliability, and good tone.  I created this tale in an attempt to draw parallels to vintage automobile service, in the hopes that mobilia would provide a more universal reference point.  Did I hit the mark?  You decide.

You own a well-established, one-man auto repair business. A guy brings in a rough-but-complete 1965 Corvette on a trailer. He would have driven it in, but the left-front tire is flat and won’t hold air long enough to make the trip.

As you look over the car, you realize that despite its age, it has never had any routine maintenance. Not only is it wearing all four original tires, but also the belts, hoses, fluids, filters, shocks, and wiper blades that were installed at the factory. You recommend that the car should receive this long-overdue routine service. The owner tells you that the car starts and runs fine, and he has driven it on short trips after topping off the left-front tire. He says, “Since that is the only thing wrong with the car, I’d like you to replace the left front tire and leave everything else original and stock.” You explain that all four tires are old, dry-rotted, and well beyond their service life, but he says that he is on a limited budget and since the car is original (though far from pristine) he wants to do as little as possible. After all, he doesn’t want to take a cross-country trip; he just wants to drive around town on the occasional nice day.

Since you have adopted the familiar credo that the customer is always right, you select a suitable replacement for the left-front tire, mount and balance it, and send the customer on his way. He expresses his delight that he will be able to finally enjoy the car, and calls you when he gets home to tell you how thrilled he is to be driving the car.

The next week, he calls to inquire about some unusual driving characteristics. The car now handles differently than it did before, and also behaves strangely depending upon which way he turns. You explain the difference in the new and old tires and their grip level, and he seems to understand. But he starts to wonder about your expertise as a mechanic, because it didn’t feel like this before you worked on it. It handled ‘normally’ in the past. He tries to get used to the new handling quirks, but over time it bothers him, and he calls again. You explain once again that he should really have mounted four new tires, but he is adamant about originality and ultimately agrees to allow you to replace the other front tire, which you do, charging only for the tire and eating the labor as a ‘make-good’ for his inconvenience. He drives away happy.

Two weeks later he calls to say that he has been driving the car a bit and now there is a clunk coming from the right front. It wasn’t there before, but the clunk is real and getting worse. He brings it in, and you examine the right front corner, finding that the shock absorber has blown its seal (probably as a result of the increased amount of driving that is now taking place, on a 50-year-old shock.) You show this to him. He says that it was fine before you worked on that corner of the car, and he wonders aloud if you might have done something to damage the shock when you were changing the right-front tire. You explain that you didn’t disturb the shock at all, but he wonders… And he shares his beliefs with his friends, who, being good friends, take his side. Later, he shows up with a single, non-leaking shock that came off of another 1965 Corvette and pays to have you install it, citing ‘originality.’

After languishing in the garage for so many years, the car is now functional, so in the following weeks he drives it more and more. And other problems develop: belts slip, hoses burst, ball joints clunk and grind. Each time he brings it in for a spot repair, but in his mind a pattern has developed. He keeps bringing it back to you, you ‘fix’ it, and it keeps breaking. He wonders (at best) if you might just be a bad mechanic, or (at worst) if perhaps you may have inadvertently caused these failures while you were working on other items. Repeat visits ensue, and you use up a lot of time and goodwill (and money) trying to remain in his good graces. Still, he doubts your work, and tells others of his doubts.

Then one beautiful afternoon, he decides to get a bit zippy on an entrance ramp. The old, original left rear tire blows, and the car spins into the guard rail. Fortunately, he is not hurt, but the car is badly damaged. He blames you for your inferior work, tells his friends, and posts his side of the story on several bulletin boards and blogs. Others post, taking his side. Your reputation suffers, and business drops.

On balance: at the other end of this continuum is the mechanic who removes the VIN and slides a whole new car in underneath it. Everything is right, but nothing is original, and the expense is enormous. While some customers may want a comprehensive, frame-off restoration, most owners would rightly consider this excessive and unnecessary.

SO: A dialog must take place to determine what the customer wants, what the tech recommends, and whether there is overlap and agreement. And just as a customer can choose to go elsewhere, so too can the tech refuse a job that does not seem to be in everyone’s best interest for a satisfactory outcome for both parties.

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