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Everything is $200

The last 2 weeks have been automobile repair weeks at the Ramon house. First Lynn’s car went into the shop for some minor work— brake pads and some work on the engine mount. Also the turn signal worked sometimes and sometimes it didn’t—like I asked Lynn to watch the tail lights and tell me if the turn signal was working or not. Lynn watched intently. I knew she could do this because she holds a Master’s Degree from Texas A&M. I turned on the left signal. Lynn said, “It’s working—it’s not working. It’s working—it’s not working.” I considered that too undependable to pass the annual vehicle inspection, which was due last month. So into the shop with the car.

The bill for replacing the turn signal switch was $230 and change. The cost of the brake pad work was $231. Earlier she had the serpentine belt replaced--$203.

My sporty white Toyota Celica was the victim of a hit and run accident in the parking lot of our local university which left a few gouges in the rear bumper. Not enough to disable the bumper—just enough to look ugly. It had to be fixed. So into the body shop for the Toyota. Guess how much to have the bumper sanded and painted. You got it--$215.

There was an interesting pattern developing. I applied my great analytical powers to the problem and hypothesized that every minor thing that can possibly go wrong with a car costs $200 to repair. Not exactly $200—that would look suspicious. But more than $200 and less than $300--so the estimate will be $200 plus a bit more.

Being a man of science, I decided to test my hypothesis. I would visit a number of auto repair places in Huntsville and check on prices to repair all kinds of little car things.

Place # 1—Me “Ah, Rick. Suppose I needed my fluids changed—like an oil change and transmission service. How much would that cost me?”

Rick (after consulting a big blue book and his computer) -- “That would be about $217.”

Me—“Suppose when you got into the transmission you discovered that it needed a valve body repair. How much?”

Rick (more consultation)--“That would be an additional $291.”

Me—“Suppose it’s something simple like a bad oxygen sensor and ignition coil?”

Rick—“That would be $234. Ya know, Don, if you’ve got all this stuff wrong with your car, you really shouldn’t have it out on the street.”

It was obvious that Rick was getting a bit suspicious. I decided to try someplace else.

Place #2. Me—“Hi. I’m Don and I need to get some repair estimates. How to replace my rear brake shoes?”

Repair Person—“Let’s see,” he said consulting a large red book and his computer. “That would run about $244.”

Me—“I see. What if it just needs a brake booster?”

Repair Person—“That’ll cost you $299.”

Me—“I might need a fuel injector and some diagnostic work.”

Repair person—“$255.”

Me—“The carburetor needs rebuilding.”

Repair person—“That costs $298. I’m sorry sir, but I’m obligated to report the condition of your car to the Texas Department of Public Safety.”

Fortunately, I was able to get away before the guy could actually get may license tag number. I made another stop and found out that an air-flow sensor costs $246; Transmission service and a belt tensioner cost $235; an alternator--$273; an ERG valve-$238; a water pump and related work--$266; a valve cover gasket and belt, with a little attention to an air conditioning leak--$287; and finally just a plain old engine tune-up--$248. Then I got the same threat about calling DPS.

My last stop revealed that oil cooler lines cost $$233; a window motor was $259; front and rear shock absorbers were $205; and a battery plus diagnostics was $202.

By now I had enough data to support my hypothesis and draw a very revealing conclusion, namely, Every little thing that can go wrong with a car can be fixed for $200 and change. This does not include major repairs such as replacing the universal joint/transmission tensioning bar and icemaker. No sir. A repair like that would cost slightly more than the Bluebook value of your car.

Although I now knew that all small car repairs cost $200, I didn’t know why. To answer this question I requested and got an interview with our local mechanic, Frank Wayne “Martin” Smelzer, who got his start in the business repairing Model-T Fords right off the assembly line.

Me—“Martin, I’ve discovered that every little thing that can go wrong with a car costs about $200 to fix. Can you explain that?”

Martin—“Yes, sir, I can. Back in 1927, the last year of production for the Model-T Ford, every little thing on that car could be fixed for less than $5. When the first Model-A rolled off the assembly line—that was August 1, 1931, if I rightly remember -- everything went up to about $10. Fifteen years ago most everything cost $100. The economy got better. People had more money, so we started chargin’em $200. I suspect in another 4 or 5 years we’ll be able to get away with charging them $300 for all little stuff.”

Me—“So the cost of repair has more to do with the state of the economy than the cost of producing parts?”

Martin—“Well sure. For example, if you go to a parts shop buy all the parts for a $25,000 car, it will cost you around $250,000. You know it doesn’t cost that much to produce the parts.”

Me—“Well albedamned. Is there anything us poor car owners can do to get around this?”

Martin—“Sure. Do what we did before the Model T. Ride a horse.”