Repairs: keeping up on shifting options

In a time of self-serve gas stations and disappearing dealerships, motorists are looking for, and finding, other shops that will work on their cars. There are, of course, many different businesses that provide automotive service, but technological changes in today's cars have forced shops to enter the market in limited ways.

A quick glance through the automotive-repair section in the Yellow Pages of the phone book can give a good indication of how many repair facilities are out there.

Some of the most commonplace are dealer service departments; independent repair shops (garages that operate under their own names as well as franchised gas service stations); tire shops (such as Firestone and Goodyear); specialty repair chains (AAMCO for transmissions or Midas for mufflers, for example); and general merchandise stores (Sears, K mart, and the like).

Dealerships still provide most if not all of the services their particular line of cars require. But for regular preventive-maintenance jobs, the dealer back shops rarely beat the price and convenience that some aftermarket shops offer.

Independent repair shops can provide any number of specialty services, although others offer just the basics, such as oil changes or limited tune-ups. Still others perform more involved jobs, such as complete engine overhauls or major body repairs.

Large tire companies have been expanding their maintenance capabilities over the last few years in order to boost their profits.

Firestone, in particular, has undertaken a major expansion program, called MasterCare. The company says this service program will offer both American- and imported-car owners the diagnostic equipment and expertise other facilities can't.

Mass merchandisers, such as Sears and K mart, have auto-service centers that are designed primarily to install the parts their stores sell - batteries, tires , shock absorbers, and the like.

Sears has been the most successful of the retailers. In addition to regular installations, its car-service shops do brake work, install mufflers, and can perform limited tune-ups, plus other services. The prices are competitive and warranties are generally good.

The auto-repair business, however, hasn't been a bed of roses for such companies as K mart, which closed 355 service centers last summer, or for J. C. Penney, which is pulling out of the market altogether.

Firestone has signed leases on 300 of Penney's outlets as part of its expansion program.

The specialty-repair chains, such as AAMCO and Midas, provide impressive guarantees on their work and generally reasonable prices. Although they specialize in one component area, this doesn't necessarily mean they are equipped or qualified to work on every car under the sun.

Dealers as a rule keep abreast of the latest changes in particular models, and they usually have more up-to-date diagnostic equipment for testing emission-control systems, ignition components, and computerized fuel-control units. At prices in the tens of thousands of dollars, much of this test equipment is usually too large an investment for independent garages.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has found one way to fill this gap in automotive service. They have begun a diagnostic service, using fully equiped vans that travel to specific areas and perform engine tests for a moderate fee.

The purpose is to tell a car owner exactly what maintenance service a car needs and, at no extra cost, examine the car after the work has been performed to assure it has been done right. A local AAA club can tell you if and when the service will be coming to your area.

With all of the high-tech automotive components that have appeared over the last few years, George Giek, a AAA official, recommends that, ''If a car develops an operating problem, such as misfiring or hard starting, it is usually best to bring the car back to the dealer.

''The aftermarket shops generally catch up two or three years down the road on these specialized problems.''

Firestone spokesman Bob Troyer counters: ''We don't feel that we are behind. MasterMind is the largest single commitment in that kind of test equipment.'' Mr. Troyer expects the MasterMind program to be complete within a year.

Mr. Giek acknowledges that most of the mechanical components in today's cars are basically the same. Experienced mechanics can even perform complete engine overhauls without getting involved with complicated electronic components.

Another example of the difficulties repair facilities can have in keeping pace with technological change is found in the body structure of the vehicle.

Charles Seitz of the Independent Automotive Service Association says the new unibody construction generally found in Japanese cars but also in some domestic vehicles presents a problem to car owners and mechanics alike.

''All repair facilities are still just learning the techniques to cope with these changes in both mechanical and body repairs,'' Mr. Seitz says.

Describing the new frameless, or monocoque, aircraft-type construction, he says: ''It's not difficult; it's just a new (repair technique) to learn. It takes time to learn and for people to decide to learn it.''

Mr. Seitz warns that if repairs are made on new cars of this construction the way they were made on older models, structural strength could be reduced.

There are, however, cooperative efforts being made by body shops and the insurance industry to train people in new repair techniques.

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