UPDATE: An earlier version of this article has been updated to correct the spelling of Russell Whitmoyer’s name.
by Karim Doumar
Our cars are so advanced that many of them can talk to us and are aware of surrounding hazards before we are. They are filled with electronic systems and gadgets meant to improve our driving experience.
Unfortunately, as cars have advanced, so have their problems – repairing them is more perplexing, convoluted and expensive than ever before – and local mechanics have had to adapt accordingly.
“You’ve got to think a lot more; you’ve got to buy a whole lot more test equipment and you’ve got to stay on top of how to use it,” Chris Offner, a mechanic at Smokey’s Garage on West Broad Street said. Today, mechanics must repair systems and codes in addition to mechanical failures.
“There are a lot more computers, a lot more diagnostics, you know, getting into the computers, reading the computer codes, running tests, back probing and stuff like that,” Zac Foley, a mechanic at A-A Auto Service on W. Jefferson St., said of his changing vocation.
As car’s complexities increase, the at-home maintenance and upkeep capability of the average person decrease.
“Nowadays, pretty much all you can do is check your fluids, check your tire pressure and make sure that stuff is good. Otherwise, as computerized as things are getting, there’s not a whole lot you can do,” Offner said. Mechanically, all the old advice, that most of us know and few of us follow, for car care still stands.
“Do your regularly scheduled maintenance,” Russell Whitmoyer of Falls Church City Sunoco on West Broad St. said, adding that it can be done “at a dealer or a shop; anybody can do it.”
According to Offner, “if you stay on top of the maintenance, you will have fewer big repairs in the long haul.” It sounds like obvious advice but the mechanics say it with a tone of resignation, as if they know car owners aren’t going to comply as they should. According to Foley, another big help is to drive your car regularly.
“I just had a car today and the guy said he hadn’t driven it for three weeks but he had been driving it regularly before that and it just – everything was rusted; there were spider webs everywhere!” he said, adding that “you don’t have to go on really long trips, but the worst thing you can do is let it sit for months and weeks.” There’s also the simple fact that inanimate objects, like humans, are cranky about the weather.
“Cars don’t like heat and they don’t like extreme cold and we get a good bit of both,” Foley said, claiming that some of the most common issues he sees, “just with the season changes in Northern Virginia, are a lot of battery issues.”
Sometimes, even if you’ve done everything right for your car, a combination of bad luck and cosmic humor, in the form of cute, furry creatures, work together to bring it down. This happened with a woman who, about 10 years ago on April 1, brought her car to Falls Church City Sunoco.
“She brought it in with the check engine light, the battery light, alternator light and every other light,” Whitmore recalled. He opened the hood of the car like he would for any other job but he found something he did not expect: a groundhog who had made a home near her engine –perhaps for warmth.
“It came out of hibernation and into her car,” he theorized. The havoc-wreaking groundhog ate through many of the wires and tubes under the hood. It was not friendly. Whitmore drove the car to Mt. Daniel School where a Fairfax County Animal Control vehicle met him and took custody of the confused creature.
“I called the Falls Church News-Press but they didn’t believe me,” Whitmore said with good-humored irony.
Whitmore isn’t the only local mechanic who found himself face to face with a furry fellow.
“I’ve seen a live bunny rabbit pop out of the bottom of a car,” Foley said. A customer needing a battery change came to A-A Auto Shop. “To get to the battery, you had to pull the upper part of the engine off and, sure enough, once we got that off, there was something fuzzy down there,” he said, chuckling. Despite its presence, the bunny didn’t actually damage the vehicle.
“It was just sitting there trying to get warm and took a ride over here when the customer needed a battery,” Foley said. While Whitmore’s groundhog was stubborn and resistant, Foley’s bunny was docile.
“We poked it with a stick and sure enough it hopped out the bottom of the car and started running around,” he recalled of the situation. “We kind of just chased it around the shop until it finally went out the bay doors.”
In addition to various mid-sized mammals, eccentric customers are another hazard of the job for mechanics.
“Thanks to Advanced Auto Parts, you get a lot of customers that think they know what they’re doing,” Foley said, taking a dig at his competition. Thomas Cole, a service technician at Jiffy Lube on West Broad St., has his own ways of dealing with eccentric customers.
Cole has a customer who “comes in and he wants his old oil in his vehicle,” he said, “I don’t know what for; I don’t argue; I just give it to him.”