Down the Drain

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Recently, I purchased a previously owned vehicle—the current euphemism for what was once called a “used car.”

While I would love to tell you how thoughtful and serious that purchase was, I can’t because it was neither thoughtful nor serious. It was an emotional response to an irrational desire made palatable by a series of intellectual rationalizations created expressly for the purpose of adding credibility to a purely emotional act of self-indulgence.

Whew! There it is: Psych 101 in a single paragraph! But that purchase isn’t what this is all about. 

You see, one of my rationalizations for purchasing this vehicle was its relatively low mileage. Another was its pristine condition and the fact that it was “certified pre-owned,” which means it had gone through a “comprehensive”160-point inspection and carried with it an extended warranty backed by the manufacturer.

I’ve had the vehicle for just about 5,000 miles and I’ve loved almost everything about it except for a really odd, very subtle sensation: something almost imperceptible, intermittently manifesting itself on light, off-idle acceleration or when cornering as the transmission shifted from one gear to another.

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I’m not sure anyone but an experienced technician would ever notice it and then only if they were looking for it. But, it was something I noticed going around a corner one morning, so I programmed myself to pay attention to it. When it came time for the vehicle’s first service, provided at no charge by the selling dealer, I decided to do it in my shop just to be sure everything I wanted to have looked at was inspected.

I didn’t tell the tech what to look for. I didn’t have to. It was in for normal service, and that meant a road test and a 30-point courtesy check we perform on almost every vehicle we work on. Ten minutes into the service, the tech called me into the shop, “Mitchell, you’d better come and take a look at this.”

The transmission fluid was dark, almost black in color, with a pungent, acrid odor. It’s not exactly what you would expect from a vehicle with “lifetime” transmission fluid and little more than 30,000 miles on it. It’s not what you would anticipate from a manufacturer whose published service recommendations don’t call for any inspection of the transmission fluid until the vehicle reaches 55,000 miles.

This fluid was bad by anyone’s definition, but, under normal conditions, no one would even think of looking at it for another 20,000 miles. Why bother? It’s “lifetime” fluid, after all.

But, a discussion of “lifetime” fluids leads right into the current controversy surrounding fluid exchanges and what some folks like to call “wallet flushing.” And, a discussion of how something like the color and condition of a vital fluid such as what was found in my vehicle could be missed, ignored or dismissed during a comprehensive certified vehicle inspection leads directly to a problem we all face. The problem: inconsistencies that can and will manifest themselves in any craft with no published or accepted standard.

I performed a fluid exchange on my transmission and I’ve driven the vehicle almost 1,000 miles and none of the symptoms or sensations have returned.

Was our inspection uncalled for? Remember, the first inspection isn’t supposed to happen until the vehicle reached 55,000 miles. Was the fluid exchange necessary? After all, the transmission is filled with “lifetime” fluid that should never need to be replaced. But who’s kidding whom? Another 20,000 miles of driving on this transmission fluid and someone would be paying for a rebuilt transmission, and my guess is it wouldn’t be the dealer or the factory!

What does it all mean? First and foremost, it means there is no such thing as “lifetime” fluid. Fluids wear out. They pick up contaminants. They lose their effectiveness and ultimately need to be replaced.

Have the sales of fluid exchanges been abused? Of course they have. But, that doesn’t mean fluid changes can’t be a legitimate response to unusual wear, contamination or performance degradation.

The facts are simple. You and I share a responsibility to the people we serve to keep them safe and on the road. That is our purpose, or, at least, it should be. A part of that responsibility is to ensure their vehicles run as well as they can for as long as they can at the lowest possible cost. Sometimes that means going further and doing more than the manufacturer suggests or demands. 

The real question is: Who gets to pay? Who gets to pay for lack of care, the lack of proper maintenance?

If it’s the motorist, I think it’s better to do whatever you can to fulfill that purpose. Otherwise, you can watch everything that we’ve all worked so hard to accomplish, everything that those before us sacrificed so much for, go straight down the drain.


Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at mitchschneidersworld.com. Contact him at mschneider@ratchetandwrench.com.

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