Mechanical Disaster

What started as minor preventative maintenance turned out to be a stressful and expensive month. Knowing the transmission had a small leak I searched for a mechanic that could swap the seal out a bit cheaper than a pro transmission shop could. I found Saul on Craigslist. He talked a good game and led me to believe that he could work on the transmission for a very good price… He had a legit shop and initially I thought I might have a found a great new mechanic for the van (I can’t fit the van into my trusted mechanic’s garage any longer do to the height with the solar and surf board rack). On the way over to drop the van off I started having a timing issue and van was lurching and the engine was dying. Good timing I thought. It made it to his shop. I asked him not only to fix the tranny leak but also the new timing issue. Saul says no problem…

Saul says that he has replaced the tranny seal with no issue and that unfortunately, despite testing every other thing, the reason for the misfiring is that the head gasket is blown. Now ordinarily I’d be very skeptical over such an expensive suggestion. However, it began over heating recently so I checked the radiator and there was no coolant in it. It’s not leaking coolant… and there’s only one other place for it to go. I’m familiar with this and knew what time it was the moment I looked in the radiator. So, not a big surprise but definitely the confirmation of a huge bummer. Head gasket replacement is very costly due to labor.

So at this point, being so deeply vested in the van, we opt to spring for the repairs and get the beast road worthy again with a side of reliable mixed in there too. We have him replace the timing chain and the water pump while he’s at it. A couple weeks go by and the van should have been done but I get no call from Saul. After following up it seems like he’s having issues of some kind but it’s hard to tell exactly what. He claims his tech keeps calling in and that he just doesn’t have it fixed yet. Finally I get the call to come pick it up, albeit with a caveat – that being that the transmission no longer shifts.

Saul claims that it’s coincidental or that the newly functioning seal was responsible for causing something inside the tranny to stick. He also mentions that it is not something he (the guy who claims he can fix transmissions) can fix himself. Apparently I will have to drop it off at a tranny shop but it will only cost a couple hundred dollars to fix.

So I show up to test drive it. First thing I notice, the timing issue is still there!! Plus, the vehicle stalls now, plus it’s leaking coolant now – oh, and did I mention it doesn’t shift!!! Lot’s of curse words bubble to the surface of my brain at this point. His prognosis is that though he claimed the head gasket was responsible, no cheap fix mind you, he now realizes it is electrical but cannot determine where. At this point, his only option to fix it is to replace, get this, the entire wiring harness for the vehicle. Another labor intensive and costly repair.

At this point I know I need to get the van away from this guy immediately, but there is the issue of the outstanding bill and the fact that the van is undriveable now. Horrible situation!! I waste no time in finding a reputable transmission shop that offers free towing. At this point, though Saul is clearly a rookie and got in over his head as an upstart looking for business outside his specialty, I don’t think he is intentionally trying to screw me. It’s plausible that the increased pressure from the seal being fixed caused something else to break in the transmission. The head gasket was indeed blown and though it wasn’t the correct diagnosis for the timing issue, it certainly was blown and did need to be replaced. Also, replacing the water pump fully pressurized a very old cooling system and certainly caused the new radiator leak. Weighing all of this against the fact that he claimed to be able to fix transmissions but broke ours even worse and was then unable to fix what he did, plus the misdiagnosis and wiring harness claim, I decided that I would pay him if he drastically reduce the price. We came up with a fair number and I agreed but stipulated that if the transmission specialist found other stuff or that it wasn’t a simple stuck throttle body valve as he said that I would expect him to cover his mistake. I paid him and had it towed.

The transmission specialist found that the throttle body was indeed stuck, along with torque converter being shot and the clutches were completely smoked too (the result of Saul driving it around trying to get it to shift). A total rebuild would necessary clocking in at $1800. This is before fixing the radiator or dealing with the engine timing mind you. Total catastrophe!!!

We ended up spending a little over $3,000, fixed the tranny, replaced the radiator, and replaced the distributor (the real cause of the timing issue). The specialist said the engine actually runs great and they suspect Saul did a good job replacing the head gasket. We got it back and indeed, the engine runs beautifully. It better.

The upside to all this disaster is that we’ve replaced or serviced basically everything that could cause us a major issue while on the road. Rebuilt tranny, every seal in the engine was replaced along with the head gasket, new distributor, new radiator, new water pump, new timing chain, new coolant hoses, etc, etc. We even got the headlight switch to work properly again. So at the end of the day, when we drive it now, I don’t stress in the back of my mind that a catastrophic old-engine failure is looming around our next corner  In fact, we have a fully serviced vehicle with only 90k on it – something I knew we didn’t have when we purchased it but hoped wouldn’t cost this much to achieve.

I contacted Saul and despite being very courteous and undemanding he was completely unwilling to address his destroying of our transmission. Because of his unwillingness to even consider compromise, and that he did more damage to the transmission than the cost of his entire bill, I felt I had to do something beside eat it and so I filed a credit card dispute utilizing the transmission specialist as a second opinion. We shall see how it all unfolds. Meanwhile, lesson learned about trying to save a buck on important mechanical work. And, as I mentioned, at the end of the day, though we paid for it, we have a very reliable, serviced beast of a van.

Off to S. Dakota for a legit test drive of the various repairs as well as the first voyage with the entire electrical system wired and functioning!!

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