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Tip-toeing through the tune-ups and braking up is hard to do

By Staff | Oct 7, 2015

In olden days, many people would call their favorite auto shop, or a whole bunch of auto shops and ask the price for a tune-up. People doing that today can expect some hedging in the answers they get.

Here’s why a quick answer to that question would be misleading and a waste of time. There is no such thing as a tune-up for today’s cars and trucks. The term was coined about 100 years ago, and became meaningless about 35 years ago. In the days when cars had ignition points that needed replacement every 1,200 miles, and spark plugs that needed changed on the same schedule, and carburetors that needed repeated adjustments because of wear and tear, and timing systems and valve lifters that needed periodic adjustment, “tune-ups” were what we called the process. Modern cars have none of those things, so the procedure is not necessary. Your ignition is electronic and computer controlled, including the timing, and you have computer controlled fuel injection instead of a carburetor, and your spark plugs are good for 100,000 miles.

So, what do you do if your car isn’t running right? What do you ask for, if not a tune-up? You take the car to a qualified automotive technician and explain to him or her exactly what the car is doing or not doing that has you concerned. Allow them to run the necessary tests to make a diagnosis, and then they can give you an estimated cost to make the car run right.

There is room for abuse in this transaction. Some shops might over-sell you. For instance, you might have a piece of carbon shorting out one spark plug, which will make the car shake because of the miss it causes. If the mileage on your plugs is low, simply cleaning or replacing that one spark plug might be all you need. Some shops might tell you that you need all new spark plugs, new spark plug wires and the fuel injectors cleaned. Your problem will be fixed by that procedure because the one plug will be replaced, but the other stuff might not have been needed. The way to avoid that is by getting a second opinion before authorizing the repairs.

Many people still call and ask how much for a brake job. There is no such thing as a brake job. There is only repairing the brake system. In days of old, it was possible to only replace the brake lining, which is the shoes or pads and call it a brake job The iron parts were considered to be permanent and only the wearable material had to be replaced. Replacing the pads or shoes is almost never enough on modern vehicles to make the brakes safe to operate. The manufacturers, in order to save weight and manufacturing costs, have cut way back on the thickness of the iron parts. Many times the drums or rotors cannot be reused. They have a minimum thickness, inscribed right on them, that cannot be legally ignored. When they get too thin they are likely to crack or break and that can cause complete brake failure. Almost all cars now come with anti-lock brakes, which employ a computer controlled system that reads speed sensors on each wheel. Trouble with any of these speed sensors will affect the brakes.

The hydraulic part of the system is also much more troublesome than in the days of old. Rear wheel brake cylinders should never be reused, or leaks are almost guaranteed, and front or rear brake calipers often stick, causing the brake to lock a wheel, sometimes getting the wheel hot enough to ignite the tire, which will usually total the car. The cost of today’s “brake job” will depend on which of these items need to be replaced or serviced, and that requires a thorough inspection with the wheels off of the car.

Asking for an estimate, before an inspection is made, is a waste of time and usually a cause of later arguments about the amount of the final bill.

Again, a second opinion might be valuable, but only after a second inspection.