Need a whatchamacallit for your car? Here's how to find it

Buying auto parts can be a mind-boggling experience, with lots of sellers from which to choose and a wide range of prices. Here's what the do-it-yourself mechanic should know to get the best buys at the fairest prices. Who makes parts? A new car contains about 15,000 parts. Most are designed, built, and supplied to automakers by original equipment manufacturers (OEM's), which can be independent companies or manufacturing branches of the carmaker. These parts are made to rigid factory specifications and should perform effectively until normal wear or premature wear (caused by poor maintenance, abnormal operating conditions, or both) creates the need for replacement parts.

Replacement parts are manufactured by two primary types of companies: (1) the OEM's that supply Detroit, and (2) the replacement parts manufacturers.

In many instances, both groups market products under their own names, as well as under private labels for mass retail outlets.

A third type of parts manufacturer offers rebuilt parts. These ``remanufacturers'' buy used parts; clean, recondition, and paint them; and then ship them to market for resale. Some of the most popular rebuilt parts available include generators, starters, alternators, carburetors, water pumps, engines, and transmissions.

Prices vary widely among the three types of parts, and even among the same parts in different stores, because of the wide variety of parts sellers. Rebuilt parts are the most economical of all, ranging from 30 to 60 percent cheaper than those by OEM's.

Most auto-parts manufacturers guarantee their products against ``defects under normal usage'' through the use of warranties, which normally appear in writing on the part's container. Rebuilts usually carry a 90-day warranty, but OEM and replacement-part warranties are generally longer, ranging from 90 days to the life of the car, depending on the brand, grade, and type of the part. For example, a $40 replacement battery and $12 replacement shock might carry two-year warranties, but a $50 or $60 OEM battery and $18 OEM shock might carry life-of-the-car warranties. Who sells parts?

In the past only professional mechanics had access to the wide range of parts needed to do all maintenance and repair services. Today you can buy almost any part you need from one or more of these sources:

Mass merchandisers. Usually they offer the lowest prices on popular ``general maintenance'' parts, such as air and oil filters, spark plugs, points and condensers, fan belts, sealed-beam headlights, windshield wipers, and the like. They also offer one or two choices of shock absorbers, mufflers, and other major components for the most common makes and models of cars.

These stores offer OEM, replacement, and sometimes rebuilt parts, many of which are sold under the store's house brand. Mass merchandisers generally do not carry parts for all models and years, nor the more uncommon parts for major brake overhauls, complete exhaust-system replacements, carburetor replacements, etc. Also, their sales personnel generally are not equipped to advise you in selecting the correct parts for your car, your pocketbook, and the way you drive.

New-car dealerships. The company that sells your make of car is a good source for the parts you can't find at a mass merchandiser or for advice before buying.

Dealerships carry extensive inventories of OEM parts for their service department, and they are the only source for body parts, power-steering pumps, and other major components that are exclusive to your make and model of car. Of course, you'll pay more for these low-volume parts, and more for even common parts. Items such as windshield wipers, headlights, and fan belts can cost up to 50 percent more than at a mass merchandiser.

Auto parts stores. Also called ``jobber retailers,'' these outlets used to supply only professional mechanics, but now most of them sell to consumers as well. Many of the newer stores are primarily for the public.

Most auto-parts stores carry brands of OEM, rebuilt, and replacement parts for many makes and models of cars, excluding the ``dealer only'' parts previously mentioned. Others specialize in OEM parts or ``used and rebuilt'' parts.

Those affiliated with the National Automotive Parts Association sell non-OEM replacements only and are supplied by some of the best rebuilt- and replacement-parts manufacturers in the business. Look under ``auto parts and supplies'' in the Yellow Pages for a complete list of auto-parts stores in your area.

Personnel in auto-parts stores are usually steeped in parts knowledge. If you ask them, they'll gladly recommend parts that are best suited for your car and driving habits. For example, they'll suggest heavy-duty shocks instead of standard units if your car's suspension is weak. Should you shop at an auto-parts store catering primarily to mechanics, however, you might not receive quick advice or service, as the salespeople often spend considerable time taking phone orders from mechanics or helping the professionals in the store.

Mail order. If you don't need the parts immediately, this is a practical source for good-quality parts. Catalogs are available at order centers in their respective retail stores. The J.C. Whitney and Honest Charley catalogs (available at newsstands) also offer a wide range of parts for both foreign and domestic cars.

A further advantage is that these companies generally ``guarantee satisfaction or your money back,'' a protection other sources may not offer.

Wrecking yards. Rummaging around junked cars may not sound appealing, but if the environment doesn't bother you, a wrecking yard or automotive recycler is a good source for low-cost auto parts such as batteries, tires, wheels, engines, trunk lids, hoods, bumpers -- you name it.

Typically, these yard operators strip and salvage parts from wrecks. Then they test or check items such as bulbs, taillights, headlights, mechanical parts, and electrical components to make sure they're in working order. The used parts are offered for resale at 50 to 75 percent less than what they would cost if new.

A new transmission for a car may cost up to $1,000, but a used transmission in good condition will cost perhaps $350 to $400. In addition, many used-parts dealers also offer warranties, some up to 100 days on mechanical and electrical parts. Another advantage of recyclers is availability. Indeed, they may be your only source for parts for older cars.

There are about 20,000 dismantlers in the United States, and many of them are connected via a telephone network that allows used-parts dealers to find what they need from dealers in other areas of the city, state, or even the country.

Look in the Yellow Pages under ``automotive wrecking'' for dismantlers in your area. Those affiliated with the Automotive Recyclers and Dismantlers of America most likely provide the services listed above.

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