Just like doctors, mechanics have seen it all. Car problems are a mystery to most regular drivers, but sometimes the fix should have been obvious. Here are some amusing, head-scratching, and occasionally shocking tales from mechanics who can no longer say that the customer is always right. After you read these stories, you’ll check your car twice before bringing it to the repair shop.
25. Locked Out
I locked my keys in my car one time. I managed to get back into it and when I tried to start the car it wouldn’t do anything. It’s not that it wouldn’t turn over, but that nothing happened at all. None of the lights came on. Nothing. I started freaking out and called for help. A couple in the parking lot stopped and tried to help me while I was waiting on my parents. We checked everything we could think of. The fuse box, the battery, and the ignition. Nothing seemed wrong with the car. Forty-five minutes pass and my parents arrive. We spend maybe fifteen more minutes looking at the car before we decide we might need to throw in the towel. That’s when it dawns on me. My car’s security features are made so that it cuts off all power when you set the alarm off. When I jimmied my way into the car to get my keys the alarm system was activated. The only way to reset the car is to unlock it from the door. If you don’t then there’s no way to start the car otherwise. I got out of the car, locked the door, unlocked it and started the car with no problem.
24. Oops, Indeed.
I learned to drive on a manual transmission and never drove an automatic until I was 22 (5 years after getting my license.) Among other problems I had that day – phantom clutch, anyone? – when I finally turned off the car I could not get the key out of the ignition. It just wouldn’t come out, no matter what I tried. It was my friend’s car, so I had her come look at it. She couldn’t get it out either. After about an hour of cursing, her neighbor finally walked past, took a look, and figured out what was wrong. I hadn’t put the car in park before I turned it off. Oops.
23. The Legacy Of Lint
Here’s a story from when I had to drive the dealer’s roadside assistance truck. 2am call to a Porsche GT3 that won’t crank. No biggie, I’m half asleep and grab the jumper box. Again no crank. But this time my half asleep brain realized the key didn’t feel right when it went into the ignition cylinder. I took a closer look and found pocket lint was jammed in the laser cut groove preventing the key from fully going into the ignition.
My car was recently totaled, and my brother-in-law found an 02 Cougar for us. Previous owner was some retard high school chick that treated the car like a worn out hooker, and almost as soon as we brought it home the starter went out. Take it to the shop, they fix it, then when we go to pick it up they’ve got the hood open and the wheel off trying to figure out what just went wrong. Compressor kamikazi’d and messed things up again. Finally get it back, it seems to run okay, get ready to pick up my boyfriend from work, thing won’t turn on for the umpteenth time. Call father-in-law, he says he doesn’t know what’s wrong and the way it’s parked his jumper cables can’t reach, and the car won’t go into neutral, so the next day he has the brother-in-law come out with his longer cables. He opens the hood, sees the battery cable slipped loose. That was it. My father-in-law didn’t even look when he opened the hood, and I had automatically assumed it was something serious enough that it’d be way over my head.
21. “It’s In Drive”
I had to call roadside assistance once because my car would not start. It was 2 a.m. I was freezing and I had no jumper, so I was getting a bit stressed out. I didn’t know why it wouldn’t start. I called my cousin. He came and could not figure it out either. The roadside assistance guy rolled up, had one look in the car, and said, ‘It’s in drive.’ He put in park and turned it on.
20. Low On Fluids
I took a couple semesters of automotive classes in college. We would work on cars for random people who didn’t have the money to pay for parts AND labor. One lady had her car towed in because it was making weird noises. We checked a few basic things first. Then, we started it to see what the noise sounded like. The exhaust system spit out a whole bunch of nasty sludge and smoke, but wouldn’t actually run. It turned out that she thought the opening to add gas was the opening to add everything. When she first started having problems, she dumped oil, antifreeze, brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid in there to ‘make sure it wasn’t running low on fluids.’
19. No Wonder Her Car Pulled To The Right
A lady came in and said that her car would pull to the right. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I drove it for a good ten minutes and nothing seemed wrong. She came in later and I asked her if she would drive and show me when it would happen to see if she was causing it by accident. We got to driving and she said it only happened when she took her right hand off and reached for the glove box. I had to explain to her, for ten minutes, that when she did this, it turned the wheel. I am still not sure she understood when she left.
18. Nice To See You… Again?
I worked at a Saturn/Saab/Isuzu dealer for many years. I had a lady customer who returned to the service department with her month-old new Saturn, stating that the rubber door seal was falling off. I got the work order and, sure enough, the weatherstrip rubber was falling off. I squeezed the metal in the weatherstrip so that it would pinch onto the body tighter and reinstalled it. Since we almost never had any problems with these door seals, I handed in the work order for my next job.
Two days later, the car was back. The weather strip was starting to come off again. We sourced a new door seal and I installed it, even though the first one was still showing no adverse signs other than hanging loose in the door frame. I finished it off, added some trim adhesive for good measure, and paid special attention to make sure that the seal was fully pressed onto the seam around the whole door frame. I handed in the work order.
One week later, she was back. What the heck? I was starting to get ticked off. My boss was starting to get ticked off at the comebacks. The weatherstrip was hanging loose yet again. This time, I had the chance to see the customer as she headed to the waiting area – suffice to say that she was a large lady. I postulated to my boss the theory that her butt was dragging across the weatherstrip every time she got in or out and that said posterior friction was working it loose from the frame. ‘Fix chubby’s door seal so that freaking thing never comes off again,’ were his exact words. I decided that I was going to use windshield adhesive (urethane) to re-affix the seal.
Urethane sticks to everything and, once dry, it holds tenaciously, unless cut. That is why it is used for windshields. I let dry for an hour with a heater blowing on it, and send the customer on her way. My boss gave me the stink-eye as she was driving away. I did not see her for three months. She rolled into the drive-thru. My boss would not even come out of his office. I got paged to the drive-thru. I got to the car and the weatherstrip was still in place. The rubber, however, had worn away completely down to the metal crimps inside, at butt-height at the rear of the door frame. ‘Miss,’ I said to her as she glared at me, ‘I need to tell you that your car is warranted for defects, but not for wear-and-tear. This falls under wear and tear.’
She drove away and I never saw her for anything maintenance or warranty related ever again.
17. So Much No
I replaced the clutch in a car for a woman, then returned her car. By the time I got back to the workshop, there was a message waiting for me. It was her, saying that she couldn’t get the car into gear. I was driven back to her house where she stood waiting for me, looking like she was ready to murder someone. I got in the car, started it up, put my foot on the clutch, put it into first gear, and drove it around the block, up and down through every gear. She apologized and off we went back to the workshop once more, only to get the same woman on the phone. This time, she was not just a little angry, but screaming all kinds of curses at us.
Back we went to her house. I started the car, put it in gear, and drove around the block again. This time, instead of leaving, we told her to try before we left. She jumped in, started the car, and crunched the gears hard and loud. It was at that point the penny finally dropped. I am almost six feet tall. This woman was about 4’5″. She did not move her seat forward, so she was only pressing the clutch pedal a quarter of the way down.
After explaining this to her, I got an earful of abuse from her, saying that she did not even know that her car seat COULD move, so how was she supposed to adjust it? She said she would be writing to the newspapers to tell everyone about the bad service she got from our garage.
16. What Was That Sound?
My mom had a Cadillac years ago. She said every time she would slow down, she would hear what sounded like a bowling ball rolling around in the trunk. This went on for a week. She brought it to the dealer. She told them that it sounded like bowling balls rolling around when she hit the breaks. Ten minutes later, they asked if she checked the trunk lately. Mine and my brother’s bowling balls were in the trunk.
15. How Did She Not Know?
A woman comes in and says there is a terrible dragging noise whenever she drives the car. I take a look under and see a 4-foot tall, orange roadside construction barrel, crushed under the car.
14. Keeping Cool Around A Customer
An older man came in for an oil change. It was the dead of summer in the Great Plains – 100 degrees Fahrenheit or so. He said he was driving down to Arizona to stay for the rest of year and he wanted an oil change before leaving. Sounded pretty normal. Then, he then told me to put in 10W-40 oil in his vehicle. Looking at his car, I could tell straight up that there was no way this thing needed such a viscous oil. We brought in the vehicle. Wouldn’t you know it, it takes 5W-20. Big surprise. Before we do anything, I politely walk up to the customer and say, ‘Sir, I just want to let you know that the vehicle requires 5W-20 motor oil -.’ ‘Geez!’ he interrupted. ‘It’s always a fight with you people! I’m driving through the desert, and it’s going to be hot, and that oil needs to be thick or it ain’t gonna lubricate the engine! I want 10. W. 40!’
Sixty years ago, this would be true. People used to change their oil depending on the weather – heavier, viscous oils for the hotter season (such as 10W-40) and thinner oils for the colder season (like 5W-20). This guy never got the memo that oil technology has changed, however, and we no longer need to wildly change the viscosity of motor oil according to the climate. You can keep the same weight and viscosity all year round thanks to technological progress. After some more verbal harassment, we proceed with the oil change as he specified. He decided to stay out in the bay and watch us while we worked, grumbling to himself and occasionally saying a few nasty things to me while I ran his information through the computer and performed some topside procedures.
There are times when you meet someone and you know that no matter how level-headed or reasonable you intend to be, nothing you say will change their mind. This guy was a powder keg. I put on my most obsequious demeanor to keep my head from being chewed off. This car had about 70,000 miles or so. After we started up the car for him to roll out, I listened closely to the engine and I could tell it didn’t sound right. After he drove off, I asked one of my more tech-savvy technicians if he heard the engine. He sure had. When the engine has to really work to heat the motor oil to get it properly flowing, it makes lubrication difficult. He thought that the engine had a lot of its life expectancy artificially cut short because of the man’s obstinacy.
The moral of the story is that, even if you’re predisposed to mistrust what the salesperson has to say, do not always assume that we’re out to get you. In the vehicle maintenance industry, some of us genuinely care that your car receives the right services to stay on the road for as long as possible. If you don’t trust the mechanic, at least trust in the manufacturer’s specifications. Recommending 5W-20 in this instance was not my own opinion, but the word of the manufacturer sent from on high. Don’t always think that your knowledge on a technical subject is always up to date. You’re doing yourself a disservice.
13. Tales From A Former Porsche Tech Consultant
As a former technical consultant for Porsche, I have a few stories. A customer dropped her new iPhone under the passenger seat of her 911. It slipped under the carpet and into the sheet metal of the car. I got the phone out, all the while being yelled at about how it better not be scratched, she was not paying, and we would need to call Germany to tell them her phone got stuck as the result of a design flaw. Another customer said that there was a ‘wooshing’ noise every time she stepped on the gas pedal. The ‘wooshing’ noise was caused by a throttle plate opening and air going into the intake. A Cayenne owner said that the car pulled. On the test drive, I found that the car did not pull but the steering wheel was 90 degrees off. I raised the car up and saw a bent tie rod. Then, the customer cussed us out about how it should be under warranty and that he never hit anything. In my new job as a field rep for a high-end manufacturer, a customer said that her speakers always had feedback and made buzzing noises. She was only playing music with vinyl type feedback purposefully recorded in the background. She demanded the car to be bought back and that they should never have built such a car in the first place.”
12. The Mechanic Knew Immediately
A guy answered a mechanics ad I put on craigslist. ‘I’m not really sure what’s wrong with my car, but it won’t start,’ he said in his reply. ‘Maybe an oil change? If you could check it out, I’d be really grateful.’ I went over to the guy’s house and he shows me his ’92 Honda Civic. It was missing the starter, did not have an exhaust system, had a hole in the gas tank, the oil pan was completely messed up, and the timing belt was ‘misplaced.’ I tore him a new one for not taking care of his stuff and walked out having him already wasted too much of my time.”
11. Poor Prius
I had a Prius come in. The front guy said it would not start. OK, typical. The owner showed up and said his wife was driving it and it just stopped running. Being half electric and half gas-powered, it is normal for the engine to shut off at a stop light and the electric motor to would kick in. This was not the case. We cranked it for five minutes on and off with no luck. It had fuel pressure, spark, and injector pulse. There were only 10,000 miles on it as well. What the heck could be wrong? The next thing I know, I smelled diesel fuel. The tow truck had been gone for an hour and we only had gas cars in the shop. They put diesel fuel in a Prius. She said the nozzle wouldn’t fit so she jammed it in there enough to not spill the ‘gas.’ I dropped the tank, cleaned the lines, and off they went.
10. Even Mechanics Make Mistakes
I have many stories, mainly co-worker blunders. I had one guy leave the back door of a four-door sedan open and back it off of a four-post lift. The post on the right rear caught the door and bent it forward until it was flush with the passengers front door. The little old lady driving it did not seem too upset about it. We, of course, ended up paying for it to be repaired. I had another co-worker who removed all the lug nuts off the wheel before lifting the vehicle off the ground. He had not even set the hoist up. He just started removing nuts. He called me over because he was confused as to why he could not get the wheel off while it was on the ground.
I had a service manager have one of the techs remove an air pressure regulator off our tire machine because it was too slow to fill up tires. The service manager, later, had his drag racing buddy bring in pure aluminum rims so they could mount some tires for him. The machine ended up completely warping the rims beyond use because there was nothing to stop it from continuously putting force on the rim.
The shop ended up paying out $1,300 for a new rim. I watched the owner of the previous shop I worked for spray brake cleaner all over the underside of a car while it was in the air to clean up some oil, which is no big deal. It is what we all do. But, he did it moments before the tech working on it came back and did not tell him so. The tech was going to get the acetylene torch to cut off some exhaust shielding.
It was too late to tell him before the underside of the car started on fire with a poof. Luckily, the tech had a water hose in front the car to spray it down with. A guy who got canned shortly after I started was fired for accidentally crashing a Land Rover into the pillar between our bays. He said he mixed up the brake pedal and the gas pedal. This was his second time doing this.
The scariest things that I saw pop up were what we called ‘wheel offs,’ or when the tech forgot to properly torque down the lug nuts.
My friend did this on a Hummer H2 with 20-inch rims. The guy was on the road when his front wheel went rolling past him. My friend had completely forgotten to put the lug nuts on that wheel. My shop owner ran to his bay, grabbed the lug nuts, and threw them into the trash. He told the Hummer owner someone must have been trying to steal his rims.
He was a horrible owner. Had I been there, I would have called him on that sort of thing.
Another friend of mine did a timing belt on a Hyundai. He started it to make sure the timing was set right and it ran fine. Sadly, while doing this, the timing belt walked itself off the crank pulley and, being an interference engine, one of the valves slammed a hole through the piston. His shop owner had him put in a used engine with more miles and never told the driver what happened. I, myself, have had bad moments in which the lock on one of the posts of a four-post lift stayed locked, but the rest of the lift kept lowering. In essence, the vehicle would start tipping toward one direction and would keep doing so unless you lifted it back up off the lock. I did this with a BMW 5 series that rolled until the tire chucks stopped it because I wasn’t paying attention.
9. Mortifying Mistake
Unfortunately, I was the air-head customer in this story. Way back when I was in my early 20s, I took my car in for some kind of repair at one of those chain locations. They’d been working on my car for a while, and there were several other customers in the waiting room with me, some had arrived well before I got there. A mechanic came in, called out a car model, and I got up and followed him in to the car. He started explaining what the problem on the car was, when I realized that this was not my car. It’s not even my car model. I have no idea why I thought it was mine. I just brain farted big time. It was pretty embarrassing walking back in and having the mechanic find the actual owner, who was sitting nearby.
8. It Gave Her A Buzz
I once had a woman who came in complaining of a loud noise when making right turns – only right turns. I test drove it. Sure enough, it made a loud buzz and grinding sound. I put it up and looked over the tire and underbody suspension. I did not find a thing. I took it for a test drive with someone else driving as I sat in the passenger seat.
I started undoing small parts of the dash while they make turns. I opened the glove box and BAM – there was a secret compartment behind it. Inside? A vibrating personal toy. Every right turn pressed the power button, slightly turning it on. It went off as soon as it straightened out. I came to find out that she was an exotic dancer and had been looking for it for a long time.
7. It Just Wouldn’t Start
I work at a Volkswagen dealership. We had a woman come in (probably in her mid to late 50s) with a brand new 2013 Jetta. Before I even get a chance to look at the car, she says that it will intermittently not start and insists that we replace the battery because she believes it to be faulty. I get into the car to pop the hood and test the battery when I see it–an ignition interlock (a breathalyzer). Well, of course it won’t freaking start! I don’t think she wanted us to take out the interlock. She just didn’t want to admit that was the reason why her car wouldn’t start. So, we replaced her battery to make her feel better and sent her out the door.
6. Customers Of The Costco
I work in the Costco Tire Shop. I have 2 stories. The first one happened last winter. The person bought rims and tires off of us and had them put on as a carry-out. The guy came back a week later saying we did a horrible job balancing the tires. They were vibrating like crazy! He brought the car in. He put ALL the lug nuts on backwards. That made his rims bounce around on the studs a bit and was the reason.
As for the second story, this lady had ran her tire while it was flat and the sidewall got cut in half. The tire fell off. She had a spare on, which her husband did for her. She bought four new tires because she had all-wheel drive. It turned out that she destroyed her rim while driving on it with no tire. We phoned her up and told her we would mount the first three and she could come back the next day for the last. ‘Well, I’d like you to just put the tire up without a rim then, and I’ll get one later,’ she said.
5. At Least She Knew To Add Oil
I had an old lady bring her car in with a loud knock. ‘Well, all I did was add some oil,’ she explained. ‘How low was it?’ I asked, a bit confused. ‘Well, I don’t know, but the light on my dash said “Low Oil,” so I opened the cap and filled it up full. ‘My husband showed me where the oil goes.’ She filled the engine until she could not put any more in. A drain and a refill Marvel Mystery Oil took the knock out.
4. Lost In Translation
I was doing a four-wheel alignment on a Ford Windstar. This was for an older gentleman, didn’t speak much English. So we do high alignment, everything checks out, and we pull it out of the shop and give him the keys. He was in a hurry, so we didn’t have time to test drive it. He drives off and comes back an hour later. He tells us we didn’t do the alignment properly. ‘Oh I’m so sorry, lets bring it in and see what’s wrong.’
We bring it back in. Everything checks out. We try to adjust it a bit more in. We give it back to him. He comes back another hour later saying its not right. Finally, we say okay, let’s go for a ride with you and see what’s wrong. We don’t even get in the car and he’s showing us what’s wrong. Turns out he thought an alignment was when the hubcaps were all perfectly aligned with each other and spun in a uniform speed. He would always try to stop so that they were the right way up.
3. Why Won’t The Car Open?
One day, a car came into the garage I used to work at. The customer was complaining that they couldn’t open the passenger side rear door from the inside. I took off the door panel to check the inner workings and see what I could see. One of my friends suggested I check the child lock. I said it couldn’t possibly be that and that no one could miss that. ‘Try anyway before you go further with it,’ he said. So, I did. It was the child lock. Another time, someone came in with a rattle in the dash. For some reason, they couldn’t figure out that, maybe, it was the handful of loose change in the glove box.
2. She Finally Saw The Light
I had an older lady who got in a fender bender. This lady shouldn’t have been driving, but whatever. I just fix things. She had a 2010 Ford Fusion. It ended up getting two new headlights and a grille. I aimed the headlights and we sent the car off to her after a few weeks.
About three days later, I was called up front. The same lady was up front claiming her headlights were not aimed properly. I had the porter bring the car into the shop, calmly invite the lady and her middle-aged daughter in back, turned on the headlights, and compared them to another car in the body shop. They were virtually the same height. The lady exclaimed that the other car’s lights must have been off too and that we did not know what we were doing. ‘My driveway isn’t lit up like it was before,’ was her reason. After about 25 minutes of showing the lady everything was done right, the daughter finally said, ‘Mom, they’re aimed right.’ Just for giggles, I turned on the brights. ‘That’s what they used to look like!’
If only I could have cut her license up…
1. The Almighty Switch
I had a customer leave after we did an inspection on her car. She came back 15 minutes later in a panic, saying that the car would not stop beeping at her. ‘Sorry,’ I told her. ‘One of the techs must have left your headlights on after checking them.’ ‘No, that’s impossible,’ she said. ‘My car has automatic headlights.’ I reached in the car and turned the lights off. She had no idea, even though her headlights came on automatically, that there was still a headlight switch.