Which would you recommend? Dealership mechanic or local one?

Tuesday February 18 2020

Mechanic at work picture. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


Hello Baraza,

I am in a dilemma — I can’t decide whether to take my car to the dealers to be serviced or use my mechanic in Grogan. I say so because I fear that if I take it to the dealer, he may tamper with it besides just doing the necessary service, meaning that I may end up becoming their regular customer, not to mention the tear-jerking charges they will slap me with. Is my fear unfounded?


Hi Mikey,

No, your fears are not unfounded. There is something about doing repairs and maintenance at the “stealership”. That term in the devil quotes was coined by foreign bloggers and autojournos for a very good reason. Dealerships can be dicey to work with. I will try to give a few examples without naming names because, well, these same dealerships are the people I have to work with in my field. Anyway …

1. Some time back someone had problems with a [insert vehicle make and model here] and, being a complex European saloon, he correctly assumed it would be safest to have it repaired at the franchise dealership. In spite of how choosy this dealership can be sometimes, they obliged him, after all, that particular vehicle had been sold locally by that franchise's predecessor and was still being sold by the prevailing franchise at the time of complaint.


(Full disclosure: this brand of vehicle has changed dealerships a few times. That should narrow down any mystery-solvers’ guesses nicely.)

The affected car owner submitted his vehicle to the dealership and, out of the kindness of their hearts, they gave him a courtesy car. This is where things got interesting:

The courtesy car was not a European saloon. It was a silly little Japanese dot matrix printer, a poverty-spec Toyota Platz beaten to within an inch of its life and shedding tears of despair in the form of a permanent Check Engine Light.

Never mind the image problems this presented to the car owner (most people go for European cars for status), the poor fellow was also in danger of having to perform repairs on the company’s blatantly shady courtesy car out of his own pocket because that CEL was accompanied by a serious misfire from a raggedy 1.0 litre 3-cylinder that is meant to substitute a snazzy 3.0 litre V6.

The icing on the cake was this made man was supposed to tolerate the 3-cylinder life for close to half a year while the dealer floundered around confusedly trying to decide what was wrong with the European saloon and how to repair it. Wow. I know this because of the size of the mailbag it generated toward my inbox from the understandably irate owner. He really wanted to go public with the situation but I decisively held back on this for two reasons, one: this nasty little snarl-up was largely one-sided — the franchise never got a chance to defend itself, even after I highlighted the matter to them; two: there wasn’t any possible positive outcome that would arise from this.

The franchise would point fingers at me in true Kenyan-politician-style and declare we were trying to bring them to ruin via negative publicity — a move they came to pull later anyway, under different circumstances, they would have dispatched an unrepaired car to a victim of injustice who would maybe decide to request the long arm of the law to please slap these people for me and remind them what their responsibilities are, after which maybe one or two heads at the franchise who had nothing to do with the mess would roll as an attempt at salvaging a rapidly deteriorating situation that would quickly turn into a PR nightmare. There are no winners here.

(Addendum: This is not the only complaint Car Clinic received about this particular franchise and how it dealt with out-of-warranty repairs on vehicles it shilled. There is another, more extensive soap opera that I cannot conclusively summarise here involving some he-said-she-said nonsense, a tow truck, non-existent maintenance reports, misdiagnosis, delays, inflated bills, a filthy courtesy car, plus a lot more. It makes for sad and gruesome reading.”

2. Again, some time back, a reader signed in with an angry letter about his experience with the franchise holders of a very popular brand. He had a SUV whose air conditioning compressor had gone into early retirement so he wanted a replacement. Just like his colleague above, he preferred a name-brand dealer over a guy with a spanner chilling under a tree.

He took his car in, they checked it, then he got a shocking six-figure quote to replace the entire air-conditioning unit, at which point he decided it would make a lot more financial sense to just open a window. Air con is for women and children, right? Toxic masculinity for the win. (Just to be clear, he didn’t actually say this last part, but he did decide to drive with the window open instead of spending 200 large on an AC unit).

“Thanks, but no thanks”, he told the dealership. “I will have my car back now.”

“Sure, as soon as you pay us some money. Five figures, or else we keep your car,” came the response.

Yes, you read that right. Because he chose not to repair his car at the dealership, thus denying them some sweet, sweet repair shillings, they took umbrage at his thrifty nature and keen budgetary acumen by immediately holding his car hostage and demanding a ransom. This is not a metaphor, they literally did this. Keep in mind the charge was not a diagnosis fee, the victim already knew what he wanted when he handed his car in to them. When the dealership was challenged as to the origin of this charge, they claimed it was a parking fee …

3. August 21, 2019: I discussed some innovation from an insurance company with an opening section describing what the motor vehicle repair scene looks like, particularly for high-end European marques. The invoices are frankly insane and I won’t repeat them here but the summary is: what should essentially be a cheap cut-and-shut job ends up writing off a perfectly serviceable vehicle because the costs involved are beyond stratospheric, they are way past the moon and well on their way towards the planet Venus. And yet they wonder why Grogan is thriving.

Do you still think your fear is unfounded?

Baraza JM, thanks for your articles.

1. Kindly explain how a steam engine worked.

2. Why didn't the early car use a steam engine?

3. The difference between torque and power in layman's language.

Hi Edwin,

1. This is how a steam engine works: Water is boiled in a giant kettle to which is attached a system of pipes that go into a chimney and cylinders not entirely dissimilar to that of a petrol/diesel engine, the only difference being the steam engine is built using American proportions, if you catch my drift.

There is a firebox in the engine room of the train, what non-industry people call the “head”. Into this firebox goes all manner of things — literally anything that can be burnt, really, but preferably coal — which generate heat from conflagration. This heat (and the smoke from the fire) is carried by air through convection into a series of horizontal boiler tubes ahead of and slightly above the firebox. These boiler tubes run through a massive water tank called the boiler. The boiler tubes exit into a vertical column called a chimney at the front end of the train. This is the exhaust pipe, but hold on a minute, we are not done here.

Now, the water in the boiler is boiled (duuh) by the heat being carried through the boiler tubes in a very similar way to how an electric kettle works. And just like in a kettle, once the water boils it forms steam which is pressurised under the general gas equation (a combination of Charles’ and Boyle’s laws). This pressurised steam is directed to a horizontal cylinder inside which lies a plunger, the piston. Boasting a flat cylinder layout, a steam train is exactly like a Subaru. The steam acts like the power stroke of an internal combustion engine: it pushes the piston down the cylinder.

Note: A single-acting steam engine has this piston pushed only one way, on the downstroke, while the upstroke to return the piston to top dead centre is powered by the momentum of the train. This makes it inefficient. A double-acting of counterflow steam engine has the steam pushing the piston both ways, which makes it efficient and a lot more powerful.

If you look at pictures of a steam engine, you will see a horizontal bar connected within the circumferences of the train wheels, but not at their centres. This bar sometimes folds into a Z-shape depending on where its instantaneous position is. The entire bar and its sections are the crankshaft and con rod of this engine, with the reciprocating piston attached at one end and the train wheels attached along its length towards the other end.

This steam that is powering the piston has to go somewhere, no? Remember the vertical column mentioned earlier, the exhaust pipe? Below the point where the boiler tubes are attached along its length is the exit point of the steam from the cylinder’s top dead centre: the exhaust valve. This explains why steam engines have so much effusion spewing out the top: it is a mix of smoke and steam.

2. Early cars DID use steam engines. Or at least the very first car did. Common knowledge dictates that Karl Benz was responsible for the first self-propelled motor vehicle, but he really wasn’t. Someone had beaten him to the chase, and not by a close margin, but by scores of years. A Frenchman called Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a monstrosity in 1769 that was the result of his looking for a tractor of sorts and deciding animals were unsustainable as a power source. He decided to attach a steam engine to a carriage and the outcome of this unholy marriage was an uncontrollable, slow and heavy aberration that he promptly crashed into a wall in 1771 at about 4km/h.

Cugnot’s problems didn’t end there. His patronage was depleted by death and banishment in a 50:50 split, completely desiccating his R&D kitty. Then the French Revolution happened, meaning that though the French government may have wanted to explore this invention further, they had their hands full with internal security matters. Thus this steam-powered car did not see development or production, and part of the reason except the lack of R&D is why Karl Benz went the petrol way: steam engines are very unwieldy and “throttle response” is measured by the position of the sun. This doesn’t mean there were no other steam-powered cars. Oh yes, there were others …

1789: the first US patent for a steam-powered land vehicle was granted to Oliver Evans.

1801: Richard Trevithick built a steam-powered carriage in Britain.

1820 to 1840: steam-powered stagecoaches were in regular service in Britain. British railroads were the result of these stagecoaches facing a ban.

Steam-driven road tractors built by Charles Deitz pulled carriages around Paris and Bordeaux up to 1850.

Harrison Dyer, Joseph Dixon, Rufus Porter and William T. James built steam coaches between 1860 and 1880 in the US. Others like Amedee Bollee Sr built advanced steam cars from 1873 to 1883.

The 1878 “La Mancelle” was a front-engine, rear drive (via shaft to the differential and chain drive to the rear wheels), with the steering wheel on a vertical shaft and driver’s seat behind the engine. The boiler was carried behind the passenger compartment. You may notice this set-up as being a little familiar … The Honda S800 followed this exact formula except with a petrol engine.

In 1871, Dr J.W. Carhart, professor of physics at Wisconsin State University, and the J.I. Case Company built a working steam car that won a 200-mile race.


3. Forget those tongue-in-cheek analogies about power being how fast you hit a wall and torque being how far you take the wall with you. I have a better and much more accurate analogy, which is almost quite the literal definition of both power and torque — torque is the weight of a sack that you can lift. Power is how fast you can run with that sack in your arms.