"I get aggravated," said Burnard A. Herndon. "I took my car in to check the carburetor and get a tuneup. I had to connect the carburetor myself before I could leave the place! Can you believe that?"
Herndon, who lives in Rockville, now does most of his own car tuning and repairs to avoid the frustration and expense of going to a garage. A growing number of Americans are doing the same thing.
"My old daddy was a farmer," Herndon said. "He took his tractor apart himself and I worked with him. He always said. 'If you want it done right, do it yourself.' I have no confidence in these mechanics. All they're working for is the God-almighty dollar. They're in there putting in time."
The past five years has seen a "sharp increase" in the number of Americans repairing their own cars, according to Terrence J. Miller of the Automotive Parts & Accessories Association, a trade organization.
More than 60 per cent of car-owning households now have someone who performs some work on the family car.
In fully one-third of these cases, all work on the car is done at home.
"People were looking for any way to save money after the double-digit inflation and the oil embargo," said Miller. "They'd do a tune-up just to save gas. Once a person gets exposed to the fact that there's not all that much mystery under the hood, it becomes a participant sport."
Miller said it takes only 20 minutes to do your own oil change and save $6. You can do your own simple tuneup, once you know how, in a couple of minutes and save $20.
Miller said one result in the rise in automobile do-it-yourself has been a reduction in the total number of service stations in the U.S. from about 250,000 to 189,000.
The automotive parts business also has boomed in recent years with drug and chain stores expanding their auto departments, Miller said.
In part at least the auto do-it-yourself phenomenon results from widespread public dissatisfaction with automobile manufacturers and dealers.
General Motors Chairman Thomas A. Murphy has noted with concern that there are more complaints about the automobile today than about any other consumer product. Only one out of 10 persons in a special survey perceived the automobile and how it is serviced as better than it used to be, while one of every four persons surveyed was found to be dissatisfied to some degree with the quality of his car.
Automobile dealers and salesmen in the Washington area who were interviewed for this series frequently spoke of customer hostility as a widespread reality with which they must deal.
""Auto dealers as a whole have a bad image," said John W. Koons Sr., owner of Koons Ford in Falls Church.
Doing It Themselves
A young woman walked out of the Penn-Jersey auto parts store on Rockville Pike with a steering wheel.
"There's a good example," said the man behind the counter. "This young lady has to change her steering wheel and you have to have an adapter kit to do it. I asked her, 'Who's gonna do it?' "I am." I said, 'Well, there are a lot of instructions," but she thinks she can do it. That's an example of the extent people are going to."
As the counter-man spoke, another customer bought and lugged out of the store a large exhaust system.
The counter man nodded at the customer. "If you drive into a muffler shop they'll throw a figure at you that will raise the hair on your head," he said.
At the Hi-Gear Discount Auto Center in Fairfax, salesman Dave Swecker said that the majority of customers now want to buy their own tuneup kits.
"We've expanded our section on that," he said, pointing to shelves where a bright array of tuneup kits were presented. Swecker, pointed out that the kits are attractively packaged with detailed directions for use on the back, whereas just a few years ago the same parts were customarily sold in plain packages with no directions for use.
"It's incredible now automotive parts stores have picked up recently," he said. "The parts stores are selling what only mechanics were buying a few years ago."
Most customers are not looking for high performance in their cars, Swecker said, but for a smooth ride and for ways to increase gas mileage and save money on repairs.
He said that some people come in asking for advice on how to disconnect the emissions control devices on their cars. But he is not allowed to give out such advice.
Instead, Swecker said, he steers such customers to manuals on cams, valves and exhaust systems that the store sells. The manuals, while pointing out that it is illegal to alter emissions equipment, also tell in detail how to do it, Swecker said.
A Maryland garage operator said that he takes off catalytic converters - a factory-installed emissions control device - and replaces them with simple lengths of pipe at a cost of about $45.
The operator said that some people want to get rid of their catalytic converters because they "restrict exhaust flow so that it robs horsepower."
Ray Salehar, an automotive safety engineer with the state Motor Vehicle Administration, said it is a violation of both state and federal law to alter, remove or render inoperable any pollution control device, including catalytic converters.
Auto Repair Blues
"Anywhere from 25 per cent of mechanical work that's done (on cars) is either incompetent or fraudulent in some respect," said Pat Goss, owner of a Bladensburg Gulf station. Goss has been a consultant on cars for the Federal Trade Commission and currently is automotive consultant to the Prince George's County consumer protection agency.
He said that the main problem with auto mechanics is that there is no requirement in Maryland and most other states that they be licensed to meet certain standards. "If you can go out and make extremely good money without any training then why get the training?" he said.
Goss said that at his own service station he insists on high standards and therefore has "a terrible time" keeping his mechanics. He said he recently fired one mechanic who he was training and paying $3.50 an hour because the mechanic was not doing a good job. The mechanic immediately got a job elsewhere at $7.25 an hour, Goss said.
Nat Williams, a former Peace Corps consultant and lifelong mechanic who shares Goss's concern over poor standards among mechanics, has opened what he calls his Technical Learning Cooperative in downtown Washington to provide proper training for mechanics.
The young mechanics who train under Williams do not have to pay for their training and receive a salary for the work they do onpeople's cars under William's close supervision.
Williams said there is "a terrible shortage of mechanics of any quality" in the U.S. today.
"What we've done is implement the oldest kind of training techniques," he said. "We're teaching people how to repair things as opposed to how to replace things with new parts. That involves many more skills than most mechanics have today."
Williams also said that many cars today are "so complicated" that people cannot repair them themselves and are thus "forced into dealerships" where the work is done at high prices.
Goss said that he thinks auto manufacturers intentionally design cars to make it difficult to repair them.
"So much of this stuff is just incredibly, needlessly complicated," he said. "This has been a known fact for years and years on expensive cars and even on the little cheapie cars it's becoming that way. I think it's to keep the do-it-yourselfers from being able to do-it-yourself."
He noted that the Pinto engine arrangement is now such that "it's practically impossible to charge and adjust the points on it."
Goss said that one customer came in needing a new tail lamp assembly. The customer had tried to make the change himself but had discovered that the screws to the assembly were hidden so that the bumper had to be removed before they could be reached.
"Something that should take 10 minutes takes an hour and a half," commented Goss. "The people couldn't believe that anyone (the manufacturer) would do anything that insane."
In yet another case, Goss said, he had to remove an entire dashboard to replace an instrument light. "You're talking about a 75-cent bulb and $40 in labor to put it in," he said.
Goss said consumers should be on the lookout for "tricks" and "scare tactics" that dealerships and garages use to jack up costs and get business.
"They'll use scare tactics like telling you. 'Well really can't be responsible,'" said Goss. "There are tricks to demonstrate to the customer that parts of the front-end are worn, even if they're not."
Goss also said he pays his mechanics a straight hourly wage, avoiding the commission setups that many garages have because he thinks they amount to "an incentive to steal."
"I just got sick and tired of being stupid at the gas station," said Mildred Shramek, explaining why she was taking a course on auto repair. "When I went in, I had no idea what they were telling me."
Now when she goes for repairs, she tells the mechanics what she wants done. "I told 'em why my car wouldn't start right and the part I needed," she said of a recent trip to a garage. "They didn't believe me so I said, 'Come out here and I'll show you.' I really felt good because I saved $17.50."
Shramek was enrolled in an auto repair course taught by a young couple. Jeannette and Danny Dimmick, under the auspices of Prince George's Community College.
The course is one of many taught in the Washington area by various public and private organizations. Most courses are oversubscribed by people eager to learn how to repair their own cars.
The Dimmick's course was for women only, although they said this had little to do with notions of women's liberation. The women tended to ask more questions and become more involved without men present, they said.
The class of about 15 women spent most of the evening in a parking lot watching the Dimmiks perform simple repairs and adjustments on a van.
"This is an oil wrench," said Jeannette, holding up a msall tool purchased at a drugstore and talking about its virtues and defects. She demonstrated how to change an oil filter on the van using the small wrench.
The Dimmicks drove their van up on some portable metal platforms so they could lie underneath it and unscrew the oil plug. They demonsrated how to change the oil in about 20 minutes.
"Is there only one thing you can unscrew down there?" asked one student apprehensively as the class members crouched and tried to see what was going on.
The answer was no -so everyone had to get down and take a good look at what to unscrew and what not to touch.
The Dimmicks pointed out parts of the engine and showed the class how to change the transmission fluid and how to adjust the points and headlights.
They told the class some tricks from practical experience. "This car here has 110,000 miles on it and the rings are bad," said Danny, pointing to his nearby old car. "I put good oil in it that cleaned out the rings and now it runs bad. So now I've put in some nondetergent heavy oil and taken the good detergent oil out . . . I want to clog the rings up again so that it'll run right."
He said the alternative is to have professional work done on the engine that would cost about $400.
Jeannette said she picked up her knowledge of auto repair a little at a time out of necessity. "I was putting myself through school and supporting my daughter from another marriage," she said. "I couldn't afford to just run my car into the garage every time something went wrong. I picked up some things from my brother, who is a mechanic."
Jeannette said she has also learned that you don't have to pay high prices for auto parts. She said she is able to go into a parts store and get a 40 per cent discount on parts by saying that she works at a service station.
"I don't know why they do it," she said. "It's just understood. They can play with the prices."
At least one woman in the class said she was divorced and had to learn how to do car repairs that her ex-husband used to do. There were also several college students in the class who said they had just bought cars but could not afford to take them into garages for repairs.
Doing It Himself
Burnard Herndon, a budget analyst for the Air Force has been doing most of his own car repairs for 20 years.
He began after an old and trusted friend in a service station explained to him one day that there really was not any point in bringing his car in for regular checkups.
"Just more or less keep an eye on it and if something goes wrong, then bring it in," the friend told him. Herndon, who had been meticulous about bringing his car in regularly before, thought about the advice and decided it was good. It also led him to look under the hood.
At first he did simple things like changing the oil, but gradually he learned to do more and more. He never took a course in auto repair but taught himself as he went along.
"I put brakes on my car," he said by way of example. "I go up and get a set of brakes for $8 on sale here at Hi-Gear. When you have that done in an automotive shop they'll charge you $12 to $16 for the brake shoes and $30 to $50 for labor."
Herndon said he has "always been handy" and in addition has almost total recall. This means that when he takes something apart in the engine, he has no trouble remembering how to put it back together.
At times Herndon thinks that auto manufacturers deliberately are making it difficult for him to work on his cars. When he tried to change the oil filter on his Pinto wagon, for example, he found that it was located inconveniently deep in the engine.
"I had to sweat blood to change it," he said. "When you buy a car, the best thing is to open the hood and see (how convenient it is to work on). Next time I get a car. I might pass up a model because other models are easier to work on."
Herndon, who also has a Mustang, noted these other savings from working on his own car:
A simple oil change costs him about $5 when he does it himself and $11.58 on a special sale at a nearby station.
He can buy an oil filter for between $3 and $6 and install it himself, whereas it costs twice as much to have this done at a garage.
He can buy freon for his auto air-conditioner for a few dollars and put it in himself, but this costs more than $25 when done at a garage.
Eight spark plugs on sale cost him less than $5, but a garage charges him $12 or more to replace the plugs, plus labor.
Herndon sometimes has to take his car to a garage when he is in a hurry or not able to do a specific job. He gets angry when he does so and sees the mechanics "walking around in there drinking coffee, talking . . . I feel they're looking to the future. They think, 'Next month he'll bring the car back if I don't do it right.'"
Herndon said he gets a great deal of satisfaction from working on his cars, even though it often takes time.
"I think a lot of Americans have gotten lazy," he said. "This new generation - everybody is too busy. They say they don't have the time. Well, what is your time for? To do the things that are necessary!"