I’M NOT old by any stretch of the imagination (well, I’m 42, so I guess that depends on what you consider aged), but in the quarter of a century I’ve been spannering, things have changed dramatically.
So what, in that period, do you think has been the single biggest advance in car repair technology? ECUs? On-board diagnostics? Massively improved ramps and power tools?
For me, the thing that has improved my working life more than anything else is social media. I appreciate that this probably makes me a pariah among some of my forebears, for whom ‘diagnostic equipment’ describes the senses of sight, taste, hearing, smell and touch. But in this age of modern and increasingly complex car design, there’s nothing more useful than the combined wisdom of those who’ve been there before you and succeeded, and – sometimes more pertinently – those who have failed.
And you’ll find all of it on Facebook pages and YouTube videos from around the world.
Just last week, for example, I had a Land Rover Discovery Series 2 in the workshop, proudly displaying what those in the know refer to as the ‘Three Amigos’.
No doubt a few of you are already nodding sagely, but for those who have never encountered this particularly colourful display, it involves the ABS, traction control and hill descent control lights all aglow at once.
Back in the mid-2000s, when the Disco 2 was still considered very much a premium vehicle, the book time on this particular job at a Land Rover main dealer was five hours. The fault was with the main ABS regulator block, itself a £400 part.
Consider a main dealer labour rate of £110 an hour, plus the dreaded, and you’re into four figures.
Today, the job requires a £35 shuttle valve. You can buy one as a pattern part and take the regulator block apart to fit it without disconnecting any of the brake pipes. All it takes is a little bit of courage as you need to physically the brake lines to get to it. Go slowly, and the pipework is malleable enough not to sustain any damage.
I discovered this through a YouTube video. Previously, I’d followed the instructions in the Discovery’s online and – while it’s accepted practice to replace the shuttle valve rather than the whole regulator block these days – I was taking it completely out of the vehicle, clamping off the brake pipes and adding a good two to three hours’ worth of labour to the job. Now I know it can be sorted in less than an hour.
I haven’t quite managed as yet the 20 minutes that my Texan YouTube mentor takes, but then it’s unlikely he’s dealing with bolts that have been corroded into place by 12 or 13 British winters…
This is just one example, too. Another quick fix I found online was sorting out the cable adjustment on a VW Group six-speed manual gearbox that had lost first and second as well as fifth and sixth gears.
This can be done from inside the car by carefully removing the interior trim then adjusting the cable with a flat-head screwdriver.
It’s a 20-minute job, and a massively rewarding one when your customer thinks they’re looking at a full gearbox replacement or rebuild only to find they leave your premises just £25 lighter, with a fully functioning car. Yet without social media, there’d have been a load of diagnostic work in advance at the very least.
These days, diagnosing a fault on a car can be pretty straightforward. Professor Google will tell you all you need to know – just give him the make, year, model and symptoms and he’ll come back to you with a list of likely faults plus some step-by-step repair procedures, all played out on the screen by some bloke in a boiler suit with a dreadful accent and a shaky GoPro.
Sadly, some less scrupulous mechanics see this as a meal ticket. If the book says four hours, bill the customer for four hours, even if you had the job nailed in 20 minutes thanks to an internet trick of the trade.
I’m quite candid with my lot, though. If I go to my doctor’s surgery and he shows me what’s up with me online after a Google search – and believe me, he does – then I’ve got no issue showing my customers what I’ve done to their car.
I just hope the doc doesn’t rely on Texan men in boiler suits showing him how to shortcut procedures with a GoPro…
On SuperUnleaded.com: How car journeys made one mother feel she had been torturing her child