Saturday, February 10, 2007
Marney Rich Keenan: Home Life
Women and car mechanics go together like oil and water

I have this thing about auto mechanics. Most women do.

It stems from a genetic predisposition to be suspect of anyone who charges for parts and service that read like a foreign language.

I’m sure it’s all part of a testosterone conspiracy: from the plastic shield on their computer keyboards, and their dark-colored, baggy jumpsuits, to the way they coyly say they’ll phone later with an estimate.

Yeah, right. An estimate of how much they can take me for.

I swear they see me coming in the parking lot. The word “sucker” must be glowing on my forehead. I imagine them snickering: “Heads up, guys. Looks like we got ourselves another ditsy female.”

And since 99.9 percent of auto mechanics are males (who don’t even think twice about the fact that they will go to their graves with that disgusting black grit underneath their fingernails), I really feel feminism failed us by not making auto mechanics a required field to master in order be on equal footing with the other half of the human race.

(I read recently, in a tribute to Betty Friedan on the first anniversary of her death, that she never learned to drive. This upsets me. Honestly, it does.)

So, you can imagine my surprise when my 17-year-old daughter and I took her 1996 Volkswagen Golf into Munk’s Motors in Waterford where we were politely greeted with handshakes and asked for permission to call us by our first names.

Our adviser, George, took copious notes on everything we reported wrong with the car, giving each “issue” as he called them, a preponderance of deep consideration, as though he were a physician trying to connect symptoms to fit a diagnosis.

We’d bought the car on the cheap just a few months earlier with the expectation that we would be putting money into it. We first took it to our local mechanic for brakes and an overhauling of the exhaust system, dishing out $1,500 in a matter of 48 hours. All on trust, I might add.

Then we brought it to Munk’s because of the dreaded telltale signs that the transmission needed work. I don’t know much about cars, but I know enough to know that if the transmission is shot, it’s likely the whole car is facing its demise. Still smarting from $1,500, I was overjoyed that someone was actually taking the time to show us what every hard-earned baby-sitting dollar that belonged to my daughter was going to try to correct.

We ended up spending 2 1/2 hours there getting a complete primer on what we could realistically expect out of an engine with 126,000 miles on it and a 17-year-old’s budget.

I can’t tell you how righteous it felt to be treated with such dignity; to be invited into the epitome of the male castle (no, not the bathroom), but the “monkey pit,” that waist-high square hole in the floor of garages where you can view the underbelly of the engine.

We were handed mini-flashlights, and with our necks craning upward, we learned, for example, what a catalytic converter is, and what it should and should not be doing.

(Emphasis on should not.)

And whadda ya know! It was down in the pit where we discovered that the catalytic converter that was installed by our local mechanic a few weeks earlier was the wrong part for our car. We were also shown where the oxygen sensor was placed erroneously in front of the catalyst element, instead of behind it. To make matters worse, the clamps that hold the exhaust together were poorly placed, causing the whole system to leak.

Well! Talk about being empowered!

When my daughter and I got home, we were positively giddy, explaining to my husband in our newfound lingo just how we knew we’d been wronged. “Anybody who knows anything knows that for the fuel monitoring system to work, the oxygen sensor has to be behind the catalyst element,” I huffed.

“Yeah,” chimed in our daughter. “Even the cat itself was the wrong part. Really Dad you should have seen those clamps. Shoddy workmanship like I’ve never seen before!”

A few days later, the shiny new exhaust system was installed, free of charge, amid profuse apologies from our local mechanic. He blamed a worker who’d since been fired. He even offered to give us a $100-off coupon for service.

It felt really good to get compensated like that. I was very proud, until I talked to my brother Rob. He took his SUV in and was told his brakes were improperly installed, and it would cost $700 to be fixed. Begrudgingly, Rob told them to go ahead and fix the brakes. But when he went to pick up his car, Rob refused to pay his bill. Instead he told them to check their records for past service on his vehicle. He said he was not going to pay twice for a job that should have been done right the first time.

Home life Marney Rich Keenan’s column runs in The Detroit News Features section on Thursdays and in Homestyle on Saturdays. You can reach her at (313) 222-2515 or