Dear Car Talk:
I have a dealer repair bill for $3,751 for replacing 12 hydraulic valve lifters in the six-cylinder, 200-cubic-inch engine in my 1966 Ford Mustang. The dealer’s shop people insist that the head was taken off, for $1,100 labor. The rest was for new gaskets, antifreeze, engine oil and filter. The problem is, I don’t believe they ever removed the head from my car – so the work was never done. I complained, and finally the owner of the dealership sent to me a check for $315 for reducing the labor cost. I took it to several other mechanics, who all agreed that the head on this engine has never been removed. I’ve thought about going to small-claims court, but if Fred Goldman can’t get O.J. to pay the $31 million judgment, what chance do I have of recovering my money? – Don
Your odds are actually a lot better than Fred’s, Don. Because unlike O.J., the dealer probably has $3,700 in the bank you can go after.
It’s unusual for the hydraulic lifters on this engine to need replacing. Normally, they’re self-adjusting. But they can get to the point where they require some manual adjustments, or they can fail and need to be replaced altogether.
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If your mechanic wanted to be dishonest, he could have told you that the lifters needed to be replaced when in fact all they needed was adjusting. To adjust them, the mechanic would remove the valve cover, which is a very simple job. Then he’d tighten down one adjusting nut at a time until they were all nice and quiet. Once they were all quieted down, he’d put the valve cover back on and send you on your way.
That’s probably a $200 job, at most. So it’s possible that that’s all they did. That would be unfortunate, because it would perpetuate the image of car mechanics as unscrupulous sleazebags. We hope that’s not the case. Being unscrupulous sleazebags ourselves, we don’t want any more competition.
The only way to actually replace the lifters in this car – if, in fact, they needed to be replaced – is to remove the cylinder head.
So if you have several independent mechanics who will swear in writing that they’ve examined your car and that there is clear evidence that the cylinder head has never been removed, then you absolutely should go to small-claims court and ask for your money back.
That evidence would include looking for the edges of the new gasket where the cylinder head meets the block. If the gasket is clearly old and dirty, the cylinder head probably was not removed.
More-definitive evidence would come from removing the valve cover and looking at the head bolts. If they’re covered in 50 years of undisturbed sludge, then the head was not removed. Any professional will be able to see right away if the head bolts have been removed and replaced recently. And pictures of that should serve as definitive proof.
It’s possible that there was a misunderstanding, Don. Maybe your mechanics, upon removing the valve cover, will see that the cylinder head was indeed removed. Or maybe they forgot to mention that the bill also included a $3,000 contribution to your 401(K). For the sake of mechanics’ reputations, we hope so. But if not, you should take the bloody glove to small-claims court and get your $3,700 back.
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