Article by: Richard Truett
When it comes to the vehicle maintenance I can't do myself, there's nothing better than a pair of factory-trained hands. So, unlike many Americans, I take my older cars back to the dealer for service.
But that's exposed an interesting problem: Service departments may no longer have the tools and diagnostic equipment to service older cars. Here are two recent examples.
The vehicle I drive daily is a spotless, low-mileage 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, the perfect urban assault vehicle for Detroit's gnarly, potholed roads. I recently took the Jeep to the dealer for the trailer hitch recall, figuring while it was there, I would get some regular maintenance items done. I ended up writing a check for $1,000, mostly for preventive maintenance, but that still left some items on the to-do list undone, notably automatic transmission service, which includes changing the fluid and cleaning the filter.
"If a dealer were to lose a tool, we have the ability to loan a tool to a dealer on a temporary basis."
The service manager at Suburban Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram of Troy, in Michigan, told me the store no longer has the special tools to open up the drain plugs in the transmission and torque converter and completely flush out all the old fluid. That cost the dealer $99 in lost revenue.
Let's consider the economic implications of this lost opportunity. The Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ, which was produced from July 1998 to May 2004, including my Laredo, was a monster hit for Chrysler, with more than 1.4 million units sold. At the end of 2014, nearly a million of these very durable Jeeps were still registered in the U.S. That's potentially a lot of money for Jeep dealerships' service departments.
The Jeep isn't the only service department misfire I've experienced lately. I always wanted to own a Ford Taurus SHO with the acclaimed Yamaha V-6 engine. So, I scanned classified ads from all over the country and found the nicest, cleanest example on the market: a dark green 1995 model with fewer than 70,000 miles. Well, almost no car you buy over the Internet arrives without a few surprises. The SHO had oil leaks and a few other nagging issues.
The most bothersome was the always glowing, always annoying ABS warning light on the dash. My local Ford dealer had no problem replacing the leaky camshaft seals and doing a few other jobs to get the car roadworthy. But the service department no longer had the special Ford-issued diagnostic equipment to read the trouble codes stored in the SHO's computer module.
There's no telling how much not being able to do that repair cost the dealer in lost revenue.
In fact, no Ford dealership in the Detroit area had that tool. The dealership I took my car to, Royal Oak Ford, just north of Detroit, hadn't seen a 1995 SHO since 2005, the service manager told me. No independent repair shops had the diagnostic equipment either. So the light was still on when I sold the car.
Ford says it has no policy requiring dealers to maintain factory-issued repair tools and diagnostic equipment once vehicles are out of production. The decision is up to each dealer. General Motors offers dealers two ways to service older cars, says Tim Turvey, GM global vice president for customer care and aftersales.
"We have a loan program. If a dealer were to lose a tool, we have the ability to loan a tool to a dealer on a temporary basis. We've got everyone covered from a GM owner's perspective," he says. GM also keeps all its diagnostic information and processes accessible so that technicians can go directly to GM for answers to technical issues for vehicles that are long out of production.
As quality continues to improve and fewer components fail under warranty, service department revenues could take a hit. Older used vehicles, then, are a potential gold mine for service departments. Ford, Toyota and Nissan recognize this and are supporting older vehicles with a greater array of service parts.
Hopefully, dealers will retain or pool the needed special tools and diagnostic equipment with other local dealers.