Mark Giammalvo specializes in driveability diagnostics at his family business, Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales & Service, Inc. in New Bedford, MA.
Mark, who has been with the business for
over 20 years, is an ASE Master
Technician and Parts Specialist. He also holds the ASE L1 certification,
and has an associates degree in business
(Printed in the Journal of The Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, AASP)
The tables have turned. That's an interesting saying isn't it? I recently got to know the history of that phrase. It was explained to me by a waitress during a recent visit to a 275-year-old Colonial Inn, here in Massachusetts. To "turn the tables" refers to 18th century colonial tavern tables that flipped up to form chairs. Back then, to say: "the tables have turned" would imply that the tavern has stopped serving food as the tables have been turned upright to chairs. Sure enough, she "turned" one of the old tables, and in few seconds, it was transformed into an old chair. Although people use this saying quite frequently, 21st century usage of the phrase does not normally refer to furniture. Most often, it is now used to refer to something in life, that seems to have taken on a dramatic change.
I have spoken to many customers in the past twenty or so years. In all that time I've noticed a clear definition into what a customer's perception of a "well built" car is. People buy what they feel is "good." People also buy based on experience and their past performance with a certain brand. In the 1980's, I found that customers in the 20-40 year age bracket often purchased import cars. I can even tighten that group up a little further to say that they even preferred, Asian built cars. At that same time I found that the "over 40" customers were mainly fixated on the American products. The phrase "buy American" was still at the peek of their vocabulary. Many of these customers served our country in one way or another. Some would even tell me that, purchasing a car produced overseas, was simply, not patriotic. Even the thought of saving money on annual fuel costs back then could not convert many of these "dyed in the wool" American car buyers into purchasing imports. Well, in the past 5-10 years, I can tell you that "the tables have turned." On a daily basis I am constantly amazed by the amount of 40, 50, 60, even 70 year-old customers that will not even consider purchasing an American car now. It is sad in a way. After all, we do live and work here. We are all Americans. Why the sudden change of automobile preference in the customers of these older age brackets? Why the conversion of that final group of former American car buyers? Whatever happened to that sense of patriotism when it comes to an automobile purchase? All one has to do is strike up a conversation with any of these perspective buyers and they will tell you why. Let me tell you, the conversations aren't very nice. You will hear many a troublesome tale. Ask these customers and you will learn the same common denominators that molded their new buying philosophy. They are all sick and tired, and even fearful, of the same things. They are tired of all the abuses and violations they had to endure in an effort to purchase a car that supposedly saved American jobs. They are tired of all the large ticket repairs that seemed to strangely happen right after the warranty period ended. Tired of all the bad engines and failed transmissions. Tired of being picked up by that truck with the bright orange lights. Tired of bumming rides and missing so many hours out of work. Tired of being late for appointments and family obligations. Tired of all the water leaks, electrical problems and strange noises that no one could find. Tired of the frequency of alternator, water pump and starter motor replacements. Tired of that "loose suspension feel" after 30,000 miles. Worse than all these sins though, is the fear that they still remember. The fear that is so indelibly visible in their eyes as they recall what happened. The fear caused when their car died out in the middle of the intersection at rush hour. The fear caused when their car suddenly stopped running on the interstate in the middle of the night. The fear caused by those "phantom intermittent" problems that so suddenly, and without warning, rendered the car inoperative. The fear caused when these phantom problems disappeared at the service facility, hampering any possible diagnosis. Finally, the fear caused by the technician being forced to release the car not knowing whether the car would quit again.
Believe me, I know. I test drove one of those cars home tonight. It is an American car that has a history of leaving its 70-year-old female owner stranded every 4-5 months over the past two years. We have driven, inspected and tested systems and subsystems on this car during that time frame. Typically, as with intermittents, this car will rarely become symptomatic while it is with us for service. It always starts fine and runs well after the tow truck drops it off here. Today, I briefly witnessed some strange data readings while our scan tool was connected to the vehicle. Unfortunately, the problem did not happen long enough to pin point a solution. I will drive it a few more days. Again, with no resolve, I will have to return the car to its owner. That bothers me because I can see the fear in her eyes.
These owners have had to endure a lot. Frankly, they have had to endure to much. Now, those same buyers are making more educated car purchasing decisions. Decisions based on past product performance and current quality ratings. These people are the twenty first century, Internet savvy, automobile buying public. There's another old saying that comes to mind here: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." You can bet that these people will not be "fooled" again.
One cannot say that the American assembly line workers are to blame. Many of the quality import cars are now built here in the U.S. by U.S. workers. Besides, our country is known for the manufacturing of many great products. Just look at some of our other industries like furniture or defense weapons. We have the skills, quality and know-how to make a great product. If labor then is not the cause of the poor design then perhaps the cause is the design itself. When will the manufacturers realize that they need to spend a little more time and a little more money on the product. Another words: "When it comes to manufacturing parts on a car that are critical to the running of the engine, just make sure that part is one of high quality and durability."
Perhaps this change in buying trends will be good for the industry. Perhaps it is stirring the pot a little. Maybe, at some point, quality will improve enough to gain these past owners back. Even General Motors has now realized this. In their newest advertising campaign they are up-front in admitting their past mistakes. Mistakes in quality, mistakes in judgment. Their newest ad campaign begins: " The longest road in the world is the road to redemption. Thirty years ago, GM quality was the best in the world. Twenty years ago it wasn't. The story of our long journey back...Ten years ago we had a choice. We could keep looking in the rearview mirror, or out at the road ahead. It was the easiest decision we ever made. The hard part meant breaking out of our own bureaucratic gridlock..learning some humbling lessons from our competitors . . . "
As an update to this story, I finally did figure out what was causing the stalling on the Buick. It was actually two separate items. You would never think that a brake system part could cause a driveability problem but it did on this car. During moderate braking I noticed the car stumble at stops and the O2 sensor in the datastream swung lean and stay their. It took a while to figure out. A vacuum leak in the brake booster was causing the admittance of unmeterd air resulting in a lean exhaust. The computer, in seeing this, kept adding fuel to the mixture to the point that the car started stumbling, although it never caused a stall. The stalling situation was caused by the computer itself. After about 20 trips and numerous hours of test driving I witnessed low voltage readings on the ecm voltage line in the datastream. After checking the 3 power and 2 ground wires I was able to verify that this was an internal computer problem. Every time the internal voltage dipped blow 5 volts the car would stall.
In the end, the customer decided not to repair the car. She bought a 2002 Toyota Avalon. I guess I won't be seeing her in the service department much any more.