Dear Tom and Ray: I recently had the timing belt replaced in my son's car (a '97 VW Passat) by a local mechanic in southwest Michigan. The next day, my son left to drive back to New York City, where he is a student. An hour into Pennsylvania, the car clunked, he coasted to the side of the road, and the car wouldn't start. We towed the car to a local west-Pennsylvania mechanic, who determined that the new timing belt had been improperly installed. A thousand dollars later, after replacing the ruined timing belt, we learned that three of the four cylinders in the engine were ruined and we would need a replacement engine, at a cost of around $4,000. Our local mechanic refunded the money we had spent for the first timing belt and said that his insurance would cover the cost of the replacement engine. The Pennsylvania mechanic said he would deduct the $1,000 for the second timing belt from the price of the engine, so all's well that ends well.
The questions: First, are garages like medical practices, in that they carry malpractice insurance for situations like this, or is this something that just my local mechanic has done? Second question: Could the Pennsylvania mechanic have determined whether the engine was ruined without replacing the timing belt? In other words, could we have saved the first $1,000 we paid him? (I'm just curious.)
Ray: Yes, and yes.
Tom: Most reputable garages carry what we like to call "Bonehead Insurance." Why? Because occasionally, we all do boneheaded things.
Ray: Sure. One of your mechanics gets a phone call from his girlfriend, gets into an argument about last night's "Dancing With the Stars" and forgets to refill a crankcase with oil.
Tom: Or my brother lines up the plates on the lift just a little off center, and a 280Z falls straight onto the concrete garage floor -- grille first.
Ray: Hey, that wasn't my fault. I was distracted by the aroma of the coffee truck. Anyway, good shops carry insurance to cover their bigger mistakes. That way, they can apologize to the customer and pay for the necessary repairs without having to be taken to court. It makes everybody happier.
Tom: Now, could the second mechanic have determined in advance that the motor in your son's car was ruined? Technically, no. There's no way to know for sure without either fixing it and starting it back up or taking it apart. But any mechanic with Volkswagen experience knows that when the timing belt breaks on a VW, there's a 99.9 percent chance that at least one of the valves -- probably several -- is bent. And that means the motor is garbage.
Ray: There's one chance in a thousand that all of the valves happened to be exactly halfway open when the belt broke, and therefore avoided being crushed by the pistons. So he should have known, based on the car, that a new belt wasn't going to fix it.
Tom: But since he essentially conceded that he should have known, by taking $1,000 off the bill, everything ended well. You're lucky you found two honest, decent mechanics. All mechanics make mistakes. The good ones make them right.