Why I Try To Avoid Auto Part Stores
We have all been there. Many auto enthusiasts know the feeling of disappointment, shock, and pure hatred that shrouds the mind when leaving the friendly local auto parts store in a huff, muttering " I should have just stayed home and ordered the parts online." A lot of us have wasted large amounts of wrenching time from the failures of our local auto part retailers. Followed are some anecdotes and rants about my run ins with my Friendly Local Auto Part Stores (FLAPS).
Full disclosure, I worked for a FLAPS in my college days. Here is a bit of insider knowledge. Those irrelevant questions the clerks ask are programmed into the computers. The software requires those dumb questions to be answered before they reveal the part number. I was astute enough to know that if the customer wanted a wiper blade for their truck, it did not matter whether it was four wheel drive or not. Then, I would just check whatever box so I could get to the part number without embarrassing myself by asking the lame questions. I was the exception, most of the clerks stick so hard to those computer prompts. They are so steadfast in asking if your 76' Ford Pickup has the Bicentennial Sticker Package before they tell you where the tire valve stem caps are. The problem here is that these retailers seem blind to the fact that the public expects anyone working at an auto parts store to have automotive knowledge. The FLAPS will hire anyone that can fog a mirror. Speaking of which.
I know some of my cars are quite obscure around my neck of the woods. I have many people always asking, "What is that?" When I am out driving around. As such, I do not expect everyone behind the parts counter to know all about my vehicles. I just expect clerks to type what I tell them into the computer. There was an occurrence in the FLAPS while in search of an oil filter for Whitney's MG Midget. As I was looking for the filter, my mind blanked and I could not recall the part number. I cannot flip through the tattered reference manual hanging from the shelf either as most of those only go back the last 30 years. That meant I had to go to the counter and have the clerk look it up in the computer.
"What can I help you find?" The clerk asks. "I just need an oil filter number." The clerks asks "What is the make?" "MG" I reply. Again the clerk asks, "What is the make?" Again, I reply "MG." "No, the MAKE?" The clerks asks slower and with more clarity, as if I were confused by the question. "MG", I reply once more with greater inflection. The clerk then asks, "Could you spell that for me?" Seriously, I could not make this up if I tried. I reply slowly and clearly so maybe he could understand. "M... G..." The clerk looked as if I had broken his brain. It was clear he had never heard of Morris Garages. With compassion, I gingerly state, "Just type it in the computer, it will come up, I promise." I walked him through the whole process and together, we found the filter number. From then on I was sure to have it memorized.
On the other hand, there are some that feel when they are given their name on an embroidered, green button up, all automotive knowledge has been bequeathed to them and they sashay into my next grievance.
Some of the horrible mechanical advice peddled from behind the parts counter is bewildering. I have heard a lot of whoppers. However, there is one instance in particular that really got me heated. My ever faithful pupil Matthew, was undergoing his first lesson on refreshing a drum braking system. I was watching him struggle for a while, trying to remove the drum before I jumped in to help. I showed him how to back off the brake adjuster so the brake shoes would let go. The drum still would not budge. Iron oxide had braced the drum upon the wheel hub. I then revealed the "Loan-A-Tool" program that most FLAPS have. I have used this service to rent a brake drum/hub puller in the past. They do the trick when a bit of corrosion makes things stick.
I took Matthew to the store and guided him in front of the clerk to begin his first tool checkout. What the clerk told him sent me into a fit of rage, a grand achievement as I have the patience of a record holding pole sitter. The clerk told Matthew, "There is no such thing as a drum/hub puller. What you need to do is use a big screwdriver and pry it off." I gently brushed Matthew aside and sank my teeth into the clerk. Folks that hawk ignorant advice as maxim is one of my hot buttons.
First, I grabbed that handy little laminated "Loan-A-Tool" mat that lays on every part store counter and pointed to the picture of the drum/hub puller. "If there is no such thing, then what is this!?" The clerk responded, "Well, we do not have one." I replied with a stern tone, "If you do not have one, then say you do not have one. Do not lie to someone and then offer asinine advice. Do you know what rests behind a brake drum? It is a piece of stamped metal called a brake backing plate that is exactly strong enough to hold the brake parts. Prying on that in the manner you suggest will destroy it and ruin a simple brake job."
The clerk apologized for his ignorance and revealed that he had never worked on brakes before. With that confession, I gave the poor mook behind the counter some bit of horse-sense. "There is no shame in not knowing, the greater shame is pretending to know and shilling your false knowledge upon others." We then returned to the shop where I scrounged up some scrap metal and welded it together into our own hub/drum puller. It worked quite well and continues to do so. These days, I try to make the tools if I have the modicum to do so.
It seems like clerks at the parts stores love to pretend to be automotive experts. Get someone behind that computer screen and they are the omnipotent automotive god.
I was doing some suspension work on my good friend Leslie's Triumph Herald. While I was in there, I figured I would go ahead and do an oil change as it was close to its annual service. As such, I sauntered to my FLAPS and luckily, they had the correct oil filter. So I grabbed a jug of Mobil 1 Super 1300 15W-40 to go with it and headed to the counter.
The clerk looked at my jug and said, "This is diesel oil." To which I replied, "I know." "You cannot use this in a gasoline car, you have to get gas oil." I thought I would share the details of my task and began my lecture. "I am working on a 1964 Triumph Herald. The 1147cc engine under its hood has a flat tappet camshaft. Older cars with this type of camshaft need a certain amount of an oil additive that is called ZDDP. This protects the camshaft from premature wear. The only readily available modern oils that have the correct amount of ZDDP are diesel oils. These are perfectly fine to run in a gasoline engine as certified by the American Petroleum Institute roundel located on the back of the container." The clerk rolled his eyes, said, "Whatever man," and begrudgingly checked me out. Things could be worse. These interactions can be drug out for over a week.
I needed a new starter for my 1963 Volkswagen Beetle. I shopped around and it turned out my FLAPS had the best price and warranty on a starter for my car. I knew they were going to have to order it. I cannot expect them to carry a starter for a car that has not been sold new in the US since 1979. Never the less, I put the starter on order and they guaranteed it would be ready for pickup the next day. That was faster than I could get it if I ordered it online. I was prepared this time. I took my old starter in and had the part number ready for lookup. Together, the clerk and I confirmed the order was correct. The photographs looked the same and so were the part numbers. I made the purchase and went in the next day to receive my starter.
I opened the box and who would have known? It was the wrong starter. Specifically, the starter for a 1968 and later Auto-Stick equipped Beetle. The part numbers were even different on the box. So we tried again. This was the beginning of my troubles. The starter I needed requires a bronze bushing that gets pressed into the bell housing to support the starter shaft. The starters will not work on early Beetles without it. All new starters come with a new bushing and it was confirmed on the in store listing. I get my new starter. This time it is the correct one. But no bronze bushing to be found. We send this starter back and go for a third time.
On the fourth day of my starter fiasco, I get the call notifying of my starter's arrival. While on the phone, I ask this clerk to confirm the inclusion of the bronze bushing. "Yup, it's here!" "You are sure?" I ask. "Is it wired to one of the mounting tabs?" No." the clerk replied. "It is taped to the end of the shaft." I found that odd as the shaft had always been wired to the mounting tab before. I try to confirm. "So the bushing taped to the end of the shaft is bronze in color and is indeed the bronze bushing?" "Sure is!" The clerk affirmed. "I will be right down." I exclaimed.
I walked into the store with relief. I could get the Beetle back on the road after waiting for days. The clerk from the phone brings me the starter. I open the box and no bushing. I frustratingly ask, "Where is the bushing?" He points to the end of the starter shaft and exclaims, "What's that?" Now, more than slightly annoyed I retort, "That is the steel starter shaft. That is not the bronze bushing. You said there was a bronze bushing. Why did you misinform me?" By this point the store manager steps in and offers to overnight another starter straight to my house and overnight a separate bushing along with it to ensure I had one. I acquiesce. When I get home, I just decide to order a starter from a reputable online retailer for Volkswagen Beetle parts. I know they will not mess things up. I called back and cancelled my order and the FLAPS refunds my card over the phone.
I did come out ahead on this one. Even though I was refunded my money, I still got a starter and bushing delivered to me from the FLAPS. When the better starter arrived from Wolfsburg West, I put that on my Beetle and kept the other as a spare. I am glad I do not to have to relive that fiasco.
The shadetree mechanics that lurk in the aisles of the FLAPS instill a fear unto me like no other. We know these people. They are always the "Guy" that will do repairs on the cheap. You think the transmission rebuild from a reputable repair shop is a little pricey? Someone knows a "Guy." They will throw Bar's Stop Leak and sawdust down your gearbox and only charge you $100. Does that work? Somehow yes, but only long enough before the rest of the vehicle melts down, which is not long. They strut up and down the aisles bragging about their shaky repairs like a kid who caught the teacher off guard with a new swear word in class.
I was in my FLAPS purchasing a set of brake calipers for the MX-5. While I am patiently waiting for the clerk to retrieve the second caliper, I am inspecting the first. An old shadetree saunters up behind me, puts his hand on the counter, and leans in with a smug look on his face, as if he is about to give me some mind altering advice. "Be sure to pour brake fluid all over that caliper to keep it from rusting." He professed. "As opposed to actually painting it like I was planning to do? No, lets just douse the part in a liquid that actually promotes rust." I thought. Hoping to end this clearly foolhardy encounter I just replied, "Thanks."
Hoping he would go away. He then starts to brag about how he has an original 429 Cobra Jet engine sitting on a stand back home. "Came from an all original Shelby Cobra." I so wanted to correct him. The 429 Cobra Jet came out 3 years after AC/Shelby Cobra production ended. But I could smell the B.S., could have also been his B.O. Hoping he could get the hint that I did not care, a disingenuous "Cool" was all that left my lips. The clerk finally returned so I could pay and kick rocks.
I wished to use the FLAPS moniker to rant about all the bad stores. We all know which ones they are without naming them. However, there is one store where I have yet to have a bad encounter. NAPA always gets me the right part. They usually have what I am looking for in stock, the parts sold at NAPA are always top notch, and the sales staff are always easy to work with. So why do I not frequent NAPA for all of my automotive needs? Many of us know. They are usually the most expensive. The same parts sold at all of the other places are almost always more expensive at NAPA. All the same, if I run into an unexpected issue and need a part the same day, I will pay up and run to NAPA. Spending a little extra coin just to avoid the pain and frustration is worth it. Unless it is Sunday. Then NAPA is closed and I have to decide whether to call it a day and order what I need online or bite my tongue and go to the FLAPS.
Online auto parts retailers have really been stepping up their game in recent years. Making nearly any trip to the FLAPS redundant. The part search software used online is well ahead of what the FLAPS have in service. I can go to Rock Auto right now and order the spark plugs for a 1910 Stevens-Duryea Model AA with zero issues. Amazon carries most of the regular maintenance parts I need. I order from Moss Motors when the MG needs anything, Wolfsburg West when the Beetle makes a request, Clarks Covair for all things Corvair. With the Post Office being on top of their shipping came, I get my orders within the week. It is great to have better options than than driving around to each FLAPS in town and gaining another bad experience.
Gone are the days when the folks behind the parts counter were well trained and well informed. One glimmer of hope is that those clerks still exist in the far off corners of the community. On one occasion, I had to source a high output alternator for a bus and was striking out at every FLAPS. As I was heading home, I thought I would take a chance and pop into a heavy equipment dealer I noticed on the corner.
It was five minutes before they were closing but they were still eager to assist. I placed the alternator on the counter and the clerk shouts toward the back, "Hey Ed! Come take a look at this." Out walks Ed. A big, grizzly service tech near retirement age. Still in his grease covered coveralls. He picks up my alternator and glances over it. "That's a Delco-Remy 21SI, 160 amps. There is one on the shelf over there. Let me grab it." Ed did not have to ask what the year, make, and model was. He did not ask if the bus has the "Party Like It's 1999" appearance package. Ed just knew what he was looking at.
If the FLAPS chains want to stay in contention with online auto parts retailers, they need to have a commodity that Amazon and eBay are unable to provide. People like Ed. Fill a store with certified parts specialists that have Ed's acumen and the FLAPS could win back the auto enthusiasts. Our modern social climate has placed a lower value on knowledge and experience and placed the bets on the cheap and blissful. Until we get more "Eds" behind the parts counter, just order online. Then, pretend it is Christmas or a birthday when a stack of boxes greets you at the front door.