Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The worst day ever at a car dealership

It was one of those days when nothing went right, save that a final decision was made that changed my life for the better.

My 1985 Plymouth Reliant was not a lemon, per se, but it did have recurring problems like alternators that went bad every 15,000 miles and a major carburetor screw-up at around 25,000. In fact, I eventually traded it in for a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was one of the best cars I ever owned.

It was 1986, probably in the summer. I had moved to Florida for a job with the Postal Service and was living in West Palm Beach. The Reliant’s steering started to make a funny noise, so I decided to take it to the dealer to have it checked out.

Florida Chrysler-Plymouth was just off I-95 on Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. That area was full of car dealers. In fact, in October 1999, I bought my 2000 Oldsmobile Alero (another excellent car, by the way) at Schumacher Buick-Oldsmobile further west on Okeechobee.

I should have known things were not going to be good that day when I arrived at the dealership and described the problem. The service manager was told that there were around 80 cars still awaiting service and repairs. It might be awhile.

With several compadres in the very lousy service waiting room, I sat and we compared stories. There was the retired couple who, that past weekend, had taken home a nice, new Chrysler Fifth Avenue. Unfortunately for them, the engine was leaking oil. All they wanted was for someone to look at it, but the service department was adamant: to the back of the line!

We sat and groused, and for a break me and another guy walked into an area where you could watch the mechanics at work. Most of them were not working on cars, though there was a Plymouth Horizon sitting in one service bay with its engine running, and the battery was smoking. We decided to inform the service manager that there was a fire hazard, and it was dealt with.

But the incident that led to my final decision to never give Chrysler a cent of my hard-earned money was the treatment meted out to a family that had been heading to Miami in their Plymouth Voyager. The vehicle had broken down on I-95 just north of West Palm Beach, and they had the tow truck driver take them to the nearest Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, thinking they’d get a quick fix and be back on the road.

Well, they were informed that it might be a few days before the service department got to the vehicle, and their pleas for consideration fell on deaf ears.

In those days, Chrysler Corporation and Lee Iacocca were big into the supposed high reliability of the company’s cars – something nearly every Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge owner knew was bullshit – and how you’d be treated well at the dealers. In fact, the big company had little control over the dealers and it was a sad reality that the bad treatment redounded to the disadvantage of Chrysler.

Maybe the service department was overwhelmed with the number of cars needing service, but that is still no excuse for the mistreatment.

I finally got my car back, late in the day, and the steering problem was fixed but the steering wheel was way off-kilter. The straight ahead position had the wheel looking like I was in a deep left turn. I brought it back and complained, but was basically told: too bad.

My letter to Chrysler complaining of the service and the dealership got me back a form letter about how everyone at the company was dedicated to good customer service. The only option left was to vote with my feet, and I did. In 1987, I traded in the Reliant – on which I still owed money – for a Firebird, and never looked back.

Unfortunately for Chrysler, those bad memories remain. I cannot in good conscience even consider their products. People have long memories, and they remember how awful the experience was. Of course the folks who work on the assembly line are paying a heavy price, but it’s like that in a lot of industries. Others are reaping the benefits of past success, though, like the top executives, who never have had to deal with the service department of a dealership.

Auto executives often wonder why people hold such long-standing grudges against a certain make of a car. After being mistreated at a dealership, the last thing anyone wants is to go back for more.

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August 13, 2010 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , ,

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