Beauty and the Beast 

A woman's guide to auto repair

I used to trust people, used to think that insurance covered everything and that Girl Scouts give you a fair shake on those damnably addictive cookies. Then I started noticing things, like the fact that almost every time I get my oil changed, I "need" a new filter. Then there was the time the dealership "lost" my car for three hours and still charged me full price on service, or the time I went in for a lube and ended up with a transmission overhaul and a $400 bill. I got mad. Then I got curious. Why do men always seem to know their way around a repair shop and women tend not to know a catalytic converter from a dipstick, let alone where the lever is that pops the hood? Sure, they're gender stereotypes, but if they are unfounded, then why so many books, Web sites, magazines and sketch comedies devoted to Mars and Venus vs. the mechanic?

In order to debunk the mythology, I decided to go inside the world of car repair-all I needed was a car that needed repairing. Lucky for me, the skate (my little blue hatchback) just reached the end of its extended warranty. Right on cue, my transmission started leaking and my battery died. The leak couldn't be fixed without pounding out the left wheel axle, so I decided to focus on getting my car to start. continued on next page

If you don't know where to go, the best place to look is the yellow pages. Even if you have a good thing going with a certain garage, it can't hurt to see what else is out there should you need a second opinion. 131 pages are edged with black and white checkerboard, and that means literally hundreds of options for custom paint jobs, oil changes, muffler replacements and all around car maintenance. How does the average Jill know the difference between one blurb and the next? -Word of mouth, trial and error and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The first is hit or miss as people tend to have different ideas about the definition of "good." The second can be tricky because garages are like restaurants; they have good days and bad days. The third is a grab bag of the first two as the BBB posts all of the complaints made by people who may or may not have skewed visions of what actually happened.

So I called as many places as possible, hoping to flesh out the straight shooters from the smooth talkers. The format was simple-get a name, some advice and the cost of a diagnostic. What I found was actually a big surprise.

Shop #1: Brown's Auto Repair

Al answers the phone. He is cordial and tells me I either need to bring the car in for a diagnostic or take it somewhere else for a battery test. Cost: $34.

Shop #2: Daryl's General Repair

Doug wastes no time in explaining the difference between a broken alternator and a dead battery. He advises me to charge the battery for two hours and then jump it and bring it in for a test. Cost: Free.

Shop #3: Meineke Car Care Center

A guy named Ryan offers me an ignition systems test, which includes the battery, alternator and starter. He assures me that nothing is ever done without thorough explanations and customer permission and that they will jump my car so I can drive it somewhere else if I'm not happy with their service. Cost: Free.

Shop #4: Rod's Auto Repair

A female secretary puts me on hold. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Shop #5: Spangler Brothers Auto Body and Repair

Judging from the name of the establishment, Kevin is the big kahuna himself, and he has a lot to say. He asks about my car (brand, year, performance) and tells me definitively that the battery is fried. He then suggests my cheapest options with some of his competitors (including "Wally World") and tells me exactly how many amps a healthy battery should have if I test it myself. He talks a little bit about warranties, corporate policies and the weather. Cost: $20-$25.

Shop #6: Capitol Auto Body

Someone mumbles a name and chuckles a bit when I hit him with my prepared speech. Apparently, auto body and auto repair are different animals. But he still asks some questions and tries to steer me in the right direction. He recommends a friends' shop and wishes me luck, adding that if I ever need a new paint job ... Cost: N/A.

In the end, I went with my father's recommendation, proving that word of mouth really is the most powerful marketing tool. The guys at Standard Battery were fast, no nonsense and honest. A tech named Justin plugged the skate's crusty battery into something and waited less than a second before declaring, "Yup, it's fried." I watched him switch a new battery in, and he was nice enough to answer my silly questions before charging me a very reasonable price for the part and almost nothing for his labor, not to mention patience.

Where were the fork-tongued grease monkeys with their empty promises and hidden charges? Where were the hassles, arguments and intimidation? According to Rod Page, owner of Boise Muffler for over 20 years, that image is a piece of history.

"Maybe in the 50s," he laughed, describing the "old shade tree mechanic" with greasy rags hanging from his overalls. Page and his crew are anything but, and I know for a fact they won't charge you for something unless they have to. We talked about stereotypes, and though he acknowledged that some of them are not entirely baseless, Page insisted that most mechanics are trained professionals just trying to do their jobs. "I don't think the problem is over-charging so much as over-selling," he said. "But if things are borderline and we have the car now, we would rather fix it now because we'll probably end up doing it later anyway."

As to being intimidated by industry jargon, Page drew a metaphor from his own life.

"When you go to the doctor and get a diagnosis, most of the words they use are so long and big and tall that I don't have a living relation who can explain them to me," he laughed. This is where trust comes in, because the truth is, most engines are so complex these days that the average person does not have the tools to properly assess or fix major problems, no matter how much research they do. Even the guys who spend a lot of time tinkering with big engines and polishing hot rods with diapers shouldn't assume they know more than the mechanic. "That attitude can be the cause of some problems," Page said, explaining that overconfidence on the part of the customer alienates the technician and can lead to greater costs. "Finally we want to say, 'If you know so much, why don't you do it yourself?' Just be honest, tell us what's wrong and let us do what we do."

On the other side of the spectrum are the nationally known franchises like Jiffy Lube. Steve Haskell, store manager of the State Street location and seven-year industry veteran is convinced that the stringent protocol and training are of great benefit to customers.

"Because we have the name [Jiffy Lube] on the building, we have to do things their way," he said. That means that no matter who walks in the door, the procedures will always be exactly the same. "Our guidelines are designed the same for every customer. We look up the manufacturer's recommendations and offer things to people, but they can always say no," Haskell said. "We're not on commission, so if you buy something it's of no benefit to the employee. Our goal is to educate people about their vehicles so they can make educated decisions."

When asked about his own car repair rituals, Haskell admitted that he is as suspicious as the next guy about trusting someone else with his car and his money.

"Every time I go to a mechanic I feel like I get ripped off. The parts are usually cheap; it's the labor that can get expensive. So I usually go to friends or NAPA, and I always educate myself before I go," said Haskell. "Don't walk in and say 'fix my car,' know what your problem is and be aware of costs and services up front."

That leaves the challenge of knowing enough about your car to be proactive in its care. Many women and men think basic mechanics is up there with calculus, but it doesn't take much to learn how to change your own oil and fix a flat. A 1996 article for The Online Daily (the University of Washington's student newspaper) detailed the education of Jill Lacina, a young Washingtonian who knew nothing about cars until her Ford station wagon needed repairs.

"I knew where the oil gauge was and that was it, [but] I didn't want to be taken advantage of when I took my car in," Lacina said. So she enrolled in an auto maintenance course offered by the UW Women's Center and in one night learned how to install tire chains, change oil and practice good preventative maintenance. AAA, one of the biggest providers of emergency roadside assistance, car insurance and travel services, applauds such efforts and supplements them with a checklist designed especially for women.

"If women put off visiting an auto repair shop because of fear, it could be a recipe for disaster. The more you know about your vehicle and how it operates the better," says John Nielsen, director of AAA's Approved Auto Repair Program. The checklist includes becoming familiar with your car's maintenance schedules, researching different repair shops and cultivating a relationship with your technician that has the same trust, reliability and good communication that characterize healthy relationships with significant others.

And let's not forget the second opinion, a tactic long used by Kitty Fleischman, owner of Idaho Magazine and award-winning Porsche racer in four states and one province. Having grown up with five brothers in Detroit, Fleischman has always been into cars and started learning about their inner-workings when she bought a '67 Porsche 911 in 1993.

"I learned a lot of things the hard way," she laughed. Now she knows the difference between cheap and safe and isn't afraid to share her wisdom with other women. She believes dishonest mechanics don't last long and that most give you a pretty fair deal. "If you have any doubt at all, check with another place before you have anything done. If you see fuel leaking on the ground, take their word for it," she said. "Just use your head."

Despite the bad rap the auto repair industry still endures, every person I talked to, both on cold calls and personal visits, was straightforward, accommodating and always willing to plug the other guy if it was in my best interest. I found no hint of the boy's club mentality I was expecting, and the more honest I was about my level of expertise, the happier they were to help me become more knowledgeable.

"It's not that we're all perfect and we don't have flaws in our workmanship," Page said. "We all have bad days and make mistakes. It's how we deal with them that matters."

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