QDear Tom and Ray:

Back in 1996, I took my 1985 Toyota Tercel to a Toyota dealership at 60,000 miles to have the timing belt replaced. They told me it was a 12-hour job, but they'd have it done for me to pick up after work, eight hours later (it's been a few years, and it's possible the timing belt was not the only work to be done, but the projected 12 hours is the key to my story). I assumed they'd have at least a couple of guys working on this "12-hour job," but when I came to pick it up, I could see just one guy still working away on my car. I commented on this to a mechanic who was apparently done for the day and was hanging around the parts window, and asked whether there weren't more guys working on my car. She said: "No, just him. And he's really busting his keister to get 12 hours of work done in eight hours." My car was finished shortly, and naturally they charged me for 12 hours of labor. Apparently the dealership has a standard time it charges per job, regardless of how long the work actually takes. My question is not whether this is ethical; clearly, it's not. My question is whether this practice is common in the industry? -- Jan

ARAY: Actually, this is extremely common, Jan. I would even go as far as to say it's standard practice. It's called the "book rate."

TOM: All repair shops use a flat-rate book that estimates how many hours a specific job should take. For instance, the amount of time allocated for a timing belt on an '85 Tercel is 2.4 hours (so, yes, they were doing more than just that). That means the average knuckle-scraping mechanic with four brain cells left should be able to finish the job in 2.4 hours.

RAY: An experienced mechanic, who has done the job 50 times, knows exactly which tools he needs and never needs to look at the manual, can almost certainly do it faster. Sometimes a lot faster.

TOM: But it protects you -- as a customer -- from paying extra for a slow mechanic who has to relearn the English alphabet before he can even read the manual.

RAY: So, the book rate does provide some predictability for the customer, even if most mechanics tend to "beat the book."

TOM: Where it becomes unethical is if they use it to double-charge you for redundant labor. For instance, the book rate for changing the timing belt is 2.4 hours. The book rate for changing the alternator/water-pump belt is 0.8 hours. So, to do both, you might think you should pay 2.4 plus 0.8, or 3.2 hours' labor, right?

RAY: Wrong. Because in order to change the timing belt, you have to remove and then put back the alternator/water-pump belt. So, to charge you any additional labor at all for that is unethical.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I was selling an old car that was starting to burn oil. One of the guys who looked at the car pulled the oil filler cap, and the engine died immediately. He said a mechanic buddy told him that this is a test for bad compression. We tried it on his car, and it didn't miss a beat. I had never heard of this before. Is this a true test, and why does it work? -- Rick

RAY: There's no relationship between the oil cap and the engine conking out. Unless the car in question is a Saab.

TOM: For some reason, we've found that on many Saabs, when you remove the oil cap, the engine will stall. But that's just due to an engineering quirk that produces a massive vacuum leak when the oil cap is off. I have no idea if it was intentional on Saab's part. But Saab's the only car I know of that does it.

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(c)2005 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman