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AUTOMOTIVE WRITER BLEW LID OFF U.S. AUTO REPAIR INDUSTRY

SHARE AUTOMOTIVE WRITER BLEW LID OFF U.S. AUTO REPAIR INDUSTRY

Bob Sikorsky dropped into the office the other day to give me the latest edition of his book, talk about car repair ripoffs and promote something called Slick 50, an engine oil additive for which he is currently a spokesman.

Sikorsky is, to quote his business card, "automotive consultant, author, New York Times syndicated columnist and America's most read automotive writer." (Gee, and I thought I held that title.) He is also, says the card, a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers.To his credit, Sikorsky blushes a bit when he hands you his card, muttering something about the Times putting all that self-hype on it without his permission. Sure, Bob.

On the other hand, someone said it ain't braggin' if it's true and maybe he is the country's best-read automotive writer. One thing's for sure, his book, "Drive It Forever," is the bible for people who want to join the ranks of those who drive their car for 40 years and put 50 zillion miles on it before donating it to the Smithsonian or something.

And his book, "How To Get More Miles Per Gallon," sold 1 million copies back in the '70s when people were still trying to adjust to triple digit prices at the gas pumps.

Sikorsky is also well known in the industry for an article he did for the Reader's Digest three years ago in which he took a 10,000 mile tour of the country in a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera sedan to find out how many auto repair shops like to play fast and loose with unwary motorists.

That tour "blew the lid off the auto repair industry" as they say in the magazine promotion biz, revealing that, in his stops at 225 garages in 33 states, Sikorsky was ripped off 56 percent of the time. Unfortunately, Salt Lake City was among the cities given a black eye in the article thanks to an unscrupulous local mechanic.

Sikorsky's search for an honest repairman went like this: The Olds was made virtually "like new" at a Washington, D.C., dealership prior to Sikorsky's heading out on his trip. At each stop, Bob would first pull a single spark plug wire loose, then go in and tell the mechanic the car wasn't running right.

Only 28 percent of his stops resulted in a correct diagnosis and repair of the problem. Three out of four times he was either denied service, had to wait for hours or days, or was victimized by dishonesty, incompetency or both. When a mechanic worked on the car, he got a satisfactory repair only 44 percent of the time.

The other 56 percent performed unnecessary repairs, sold him unneeded parts or charged for work they didn't do. Worst of all, some of their work actually created new engine problems.

Although most of the "repairs" involved relatively inexpensive scams such as selling him new spark plugs, plug wires, fuel filters and carburetor adjustments, some went for the big kill, such as the San Antonio shop where a mechanic took the car out for a test drive with Sikorsky in the passenger seat.

"Boy, it ain't got no power at all in second gear," Sikorsky was told. "It's real obvious the clutches are burnt." The mechanic's solution was to rebuild the transmission for $395 to $495 "depending on if I can save the torque converter."

In fact, said Sikorsky, the car did seem to be straining to climb a hill. Looking down he saw that the mechanic had one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.

At the Salt Lake garage, Sikorsky was told "Here's your problem" by a smiling mechanic holding up a spark-plug wire. It had a "bad cut" the mechanic told him that was causing the engine to misfire.

To his amazement, Sikorsky saw that the wire was cut, freshly cut, with a neat half-inch wide incision around the insulation, a cut that had not been there a half-hour earlier. The bill for the "repair" was $24.75.

To avoid falling victim to an auto repair ripoff, counsels Sikorsky, motorists could help themselves by becoming more knowledgable about their cars. One way to do that is to join the ranks of the high-mileage fanatics - and it wouldn't hurt to buy his book, of course.

"Drive It Forever" has 212 pages of advice on how to do just that, but if there is a bottom line on making your car last a long time, says Sikorsky, it is this: Make sure all of the various engine lubricating fluids - engine oil, transmission oil, rear axle lubricant - are changed regularly and often.

Sikorsky practices his own doctrine. He owns a 1975 Volvo 244DL which has logged 363,000 miles. The engine has never been touched and there have been no repairs on the transmission or rear axle.,

He concedes that most Americans probably don't want to drive the same car for 15 years, but with the average car now costing around $15,000 and the payment book stretching out to five and six years, motorists are now holding on to their cars for almost eight years.

Bob gives seminars around the country on "driving it forever," and interest has never been higher, he said. His book, published by McGraw-Hill Paperbacks, sells for $7.95.