Some tire dealers seem to think that a low price or free service justifies anything.
However, it will not and cannot justify shoddy workmanship and a general disrespect for a customer.
For nearly 15 years, I've used this column to point out things automotive service people do well and encourage Tire Business readers to follow their example. Many times I cite stuff that service personnel don't do well and recommend ways to do the job better. Most of the time I'm an observer but occasionally I'm a participant. This column's about a time when I happened to be a participant.
To put this affair into context, I've been buying primarily one brand of premium tire for almost 30 years. Once in a while I've strayed from this brand, but I've always come back because the product has always performed well and has been consistently durable and reliable. I then look for a reputable tire seller who can competently install and support this brand of tires.
Colleagues have accused me of paying through the nose for this product, but I've found that you usually get what you pay for. I don't scrimp on tires because ``rubber'' influences overall handling and safety so much. Within the last five years, I bought three sets of these premium-name tires (for two different cars) from the same tire store. The only gripe I had with these fellows, which I discussed in a previous column, was that the service sales people didn't have their names printed on the tire store's business cards. That struck me as being very amateurish.
Anyway, one of my cars was due for tires last September. My favorite brand of tire had performed well and lasted more than 50,000 miles, so I saw no reason to change brands. I returned to the same tire store where I'd purchased these and asked for a current model that met the same criteria as the existing tires. The salesman looked up my sales records, cheerfully recommended some tires and I bought them.
I didn't badger, haggle or dicker. I paid the asking price because I believed I was getting value. So far those tires have performed beautifully.
By last December, it was time to rotate these new tires, so I did the job myself using a floor jack and safety stands. By April 2004, these new tires were due for rotation again. Coincidentally, the car had developed a barely noticeable, road speed-sensitive vibration. Whatever this problem was, I wanted to nip it in the bud for obvious reasons. Considering my heavy travel schedule, I decided to have that tire store check tire balance and rotate the tires at the same time. This would eliminate one possible cause of that vibration and handle a maintenance requirement (tire rotation) in one visit.
When I telephoned the tire store for an appointment, the salesman said I could drop by that afternoon and wait for the car. I wandered around while I was waiting, checking out the tire and battery displays. Then I happened to notice that from where I was standing, I could see the technicians out in the shop through the glass in a door. Lo and behold, I could even see the tire tech working on my car.
Although this young man was tightening the lug nuts with a torque wrench, he was not pulling the wrench handle in a smooth, steady motion. Instead, like many careless mechanics, he jerked the wrench handle quickly and abruptly-wham, bam, thank you ma'am! He wanted to beat the clock.
Read any torque wrench operator's guide. Talk to an engineer or to the experts who repair and calibrate torque wrenches. The only way to use the tool correctly is pull the handle smoothly and steadily until you reach the desired torque reading. The vast majority of auto service people use the click-type torque wrench. You can feel and hear a click when this type of wrench reaches the desired torque reading.
The problem with yanking the torque wrench handle quickly and abruptly is that it's very easy to reach the desired torque reading-whereupon the wrench clicks-and then literally pull the wrench past the reading. For example, the tech sets the wrench to click at 70 ft/lb. But he yanks the handle so quickly that when it clicks at 70 ft/lb, he can't stop in time and pulls the wrench beyond the ``click'' point. The tech thinks he delivered 70 ft/lb but the actual torque on the fastener is 80 ft/lb because he pulled past the click point! Unfortunately, this is a common mistake.
Observing this lad's improper wrench procedure made me suspicious. When he brought the car up front and handed me the keys, I thanked him and asked about lug nut torque. ``Oh, we torque `em all to 95 ft/lbs,'' he nonchalantly replied.
I politely asked him what the factory spec for my car was, but he didn't or couldn't cite it (80 ft/lbs.). Worse yet, he made no effort to refer to any resource material of any kind. He also tried to assure me that the specified lug nut torque for most cars was, in fact, the tire store's preferred value of 95 ft/lb or darn close to it.
I persisted, trying very hard not to sound like a know-it-all or to appear unreasonable. For instance, I needed to know if my wife would be able to change a flat tire on this car with the lug nuts at 95 ft/lb. They had no response for the question but cheerfully offered to retorque the wheel nuts to the spec I cited. I politely declined because by this time, I wondered when-if ever-the tire store's torque wrench had been calibrated. If I wanted the lug nuts torqued correctly, I'd better bust 'em loose and torque `em myself and chalk this visit up to experience.
I plopped a credit card on the counter and asked the salesman for the bill. He cheerfully told me there was no charge for the balancing and rotation because I was a customer. Two more times I offered to pay, but he insisted there was no charge. I really wasn't comfortable with that but accepted it as a value-added gesture.
When I got in the car the steering wheel felt funny. I stopped down the street from this tire store to refuel the car and realized my hands were black with filth! To add insult to injury, the tire kid had slimed my steering wheel. I was so angry I didn't return to the store for fear of saying or doing something patently unprofessional.
Back home I cleaned the steering wheel and checked around for other traces of grease. Then I turned to the lug nut issue. Among the several torque wrenches I own are two recently calibrated, 1/2-inch drive models. I set each one to 95 ft/lb and checked my car's lug nuts. The wrench clicked.
Out of curiosity, I reset each wrench to 100 ft/lb and checked the nuts again. Guess what? Each wrench clicked but the lug nuts didn't turn. That indicates the final wheel nut torque was at least a legitimate 100 ft/lb-25 percent greater than spec.
I suspect the wheel torque was even greater than 100 ft/lb, but I was out of patience and set about loosening and then tightening all the wheels correctly.
On the surface, the fellows at this tire store were very polite. But they lost my business and my referrals because in reality they disrespected my vehicle and me. They lost a customer who not only requests premium-brand tires, but also a customer whom they didn't need to sell.
First of all, I didn't expect a freebie. I didn't march into that tire store and demand they rotate and balance the tires for nothing. I was ready and willing to pay for a proper service rendered.
Second, I agreed to wait for the car. I didn't yell at or browbeat anyone to get the job done quicker. Properly performed work takes a certain amount of time.
Third, there is no sin in not knowing something. But I think it's criminal when a supposed professional makes no effort to look up information-especially something as simple as wheel nut torque. This tire jockey's response was downright embarrassing.
Fourth, don't even think about soiling my valuable car! I'm very capable of getting it dirty all by myself. I needn't hire someone to do that for me. Plus, as I've discussed so many times in this column, soiling a vehicle is the ultimate form of disrespect and a major reason why consumers fail to return to a service facility. Surveys prove that and I'm no different from the folks cited in those surveys.
Fifth, don't abuse my valuable car via improper procedures such as overtightening the wheel nuts by at least 25 percent. You didn't do me any favors, and you're flaunting your incompetence.
Coincidentally, I'm planning a major brake job on the front of this car because it's due for rotors. If you brake hard from about 60 mph, you can feel a brake pedal pulsation. After I verified the gross overtightening of the wheel nuts, I could have screamed that the tire tech warped my rotors. If I had done that, what would the tire store's defense have been? Who would have won that hand?
For the record, I have sent this tire store a photocopy of the page in the factory shop manual that shows the lug nut torque. In previous columns, I have mentioned interior-protection products such as Petoskey Plastics' seat covers and steering wheel covers. I also sent this tire store a box of steering wheel covers.
Last but not least, I offered them a free torque wrench calibration service at Angle Repair and Calibration in Beckley, W.Va. Angle is a first-class company as well as an authorized repair/calibration center for all brands of domestic torque wrenches.
Meanwhile, we just took our other car to an independent tire dealer across town from this tire store. It was a personal referral and the service was great.