Mistakes happen but they’re even worse when you make them on somebody else’s dime. These mechanics reveal the biggest mistake they’ve made on a customer’s vehicle.
Um…Where’d My Wheel Go?
“The biggest mistake I ever made as a DIY mechanic was letting someone else handle something important and not confirming everything was done correctly before driving.
My first vehicle was a 1967 Ford F-100.
The truck had sat unused on my aunt’s ranch for over a decade since my uncle had passed away. My aunt offered to sell it to me for $1 right after I had gotten my license and my dad offered to help make the needed repairs. All I had to do was chip in for parts, watch, listen, ask questions, and be a second pair of hands when needed. A pretty sweet deal for a 17-year-old if you ask me.
My dad and I spent the summer picking away at the repairs and had it running well enough to use by the time school got back in session. The only things left on the to-do list were a new windshield and a brake cylinder on the front driver’s wheel.
My dad had made the appointment to get the windshield installed for a Saturday morning. He decided that he would go ahead and take care of the brake cylinder while I was at school on Friday so we didn’t have to worry about tackling it the next day (the windshield shop was 50 miles away. Hooray rural Colorado in the ’90s!)
I get home from school just as my dad is finishing up with the cylinder and bleeding the brakes. He is surprised to see me.
Dad: ‘What are you doing here? What time is it?
Dad: ‘Dammit. I know I got a late start, but I didn’t think it was that late. I have to go pick up your bother in 10 minutes. I guess I better get this done.’
Me: ‘Do you want any help? I can help with the brakes and put the wheel back on while you run.’
Dad: ‘That’s OK. I got it. You go work on your homework.’
I head on in and don’t think much of it. My dad is home about an hour later with my brother. We have dinner and call it an early night to get ready for the drive the next morning.
The morning comes and we start making our way, me in the truck and my dad leading the way in his van (he knew where to go). My dad is ahead of me by a couple of hundred feet on the interstate, both of us pushing 80/85 mph. We are about 20 miles down the road.
Suddenly I am looking at the road at a completely different angle and I hear a horrific grinding noise coming from the front driver’s wheel. I check my mirrors and see my wheel bounce a few times on the interstate; it eventually rolls safely to the side of the road. After several hundred feet of grinding, I come to a stop. I hop out and see the bottom of the brake drum is now flat, with at least ¼ inch of the metal gone. It takes 15 minutes for my dad to notice I am no longer behind him, get turned around and find me by the side of the road. Apparently, he had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts and everything went downhill from there.
Instead of getting the windshield replaced, we wound up spending the day getting ahold of new brake parts, lugs and lug nuts and making repairs on the side of the road.
Had I taken just a couple of moments to inspect the wheel after he finished, I probably would have noticed that the lug nuts were not tight and prevented the whole mess. I learned a valuable lesson that day. It is okay to trust others to work on your vehicle, but it is a good idea to inspect things afterward. You never know when someone might be having a bad day. Even the people you trust the most can make mistakes.”
Up In Smoke
“So in 2005 I’d just got out of prison and was still looking for work. Unlike my past this time I was determined to do the right thing and live the remainder of my life in the free world. A friend knowing my intentions let me do some work to her daughters Acura. Before going to prison I was employed at a Honda dealership so I know the Honda’s and Acura’s quite well. It had been almost 5 years since I picked up a wrench and i was a bit rusty. Anyway, I replaced all the mounts. The rear one I had a difficult time with and had to jack the engine up a lot to install the rear mount. So after spending all day working on the car it had just got dark and a friend who had helped me with the job and I went for a test drive.
After driving the car for about a mile everything seemed fine and the car ran great. So as I was driving the car back to the owner’s house my buddy decided to turn on the stereo. You know the ones the kids like these days with all the amps and the bass that rattles the license plate frames. So as he turns on the stereo I noticed a small flash go off under the hood. I wasn’t sure what it was and continued driving. After about 4 more blocks suddenly I start to see smoke billowing out from under the hood on the driver’s side.
So I freak out and pull over to the curb thinking to myself this isn’t good. I then pulled on the hood release cable only to have the lever pretty much fall off in my hand. So now I couldn’t get the hood open. The reason is because the fire that was now burning had melted the hood release cable. Now I’m in panic mode ringing all the neighbor’s doorbells asking if anyone had a fire extinguisher I could use. The problem was I was pretty much covered in grease and if I were in the neighbor’s shoes I myself probably wouldn’t have opened the door either.
So at least one of the neighbors called the fire department. While all my friend and I could do was watch the car go pretty much up in flames. The fire department managed to arrive before the flames made it to the interior of the car but at this point, it was totaled. And if it wasn’t after the fire department was done ripping the hood open and dousing the flames it was a total loss. Needless to say, calling my friend was a phone call I hated having to make. She answered and in her anticipation, she said: ‘Cool your done with the car how long before you make it to my house so I can pay you’? Oh boy. After taking a deep breath I told her that I was almost there but can no longer make it. I told her on the way there her car caught on fire and burned to the ground. Her response was’ Very funny so when can you be here?’ UGH talking about wanting to crawl under a rock and hide for a year or so, Or heck put me back in for a year as punishment would have felt better…In any case to make matters worse, I asked her to come to where the car was and I’d try to explain what I still really didn’t know how the fire started.
Yes, she was quite surprised to see the car. After the fire department made sure the car was a total loss I felt like a dumb idiot and it took my friend a while to get over it. I had no money but I did get to pay her back by installing head gaskets on a V-8 Dodge truck she had and a few other things. The way I figured it is while lifting the engine I must have stretched one of the power cables going to the amp from the battery exposing the wire which was then laying on metal and once the stereo was turned on Poof!”
Okay…So Whose Truck Was It After All?
“I was up at the front service counter grabbing a work order, first one of the days. The top of the work order had a handwritten note that said ‘KEY IN IGNITION, PARKED BY THE GREEN DUMPSTER’. Work order description of the vehicle in question: ‘1974 Chevy DUMPTRUCK, green. Won’t start, pops back through the intake when cranking over’.
Walking towards the green dumpster at the back of the shop, starting a pre-diagnostic in my head. ‘Ok, ugly old dump truck with intake backfire causing no start. That model year probably has points/condenser set if no one had converted it to HEI. Ignition or mechanical timing issue most likely.
Sure enough, there sits a green dump truck at the back of the shop next to the green dumpster, approximately 70’s model Chevy. I hop in, sure enough, keys are in the ignition. Go to verify customer complaints, attempt to start and what do you know it fires right up and doesn’t miss a beat. Classical ‘It only runs right while at the mechanic shop’ syndrome. I let it run for a while, blip the throttle a few times, accelerator pumps on the carb work no bogging issues under snap accel. Take for a short test drive, no issues. Park the truck back by the dumpster, set the e-brake, and because of the lack of grade. I don’t put the shift lever into low gear before getting out. The parking brake holds like a rock, no movement at all. ‘I will let it hot soak for a while, I will try again after my coffee.’ I said to myself.
I start walking back to the shop, opened and walked through the backstop door, and right before I managed to close the door, I heard a loud pop sound. The door shut but I immediately opened it to look back at the truck. Sure enough, this truck is heading back down the ‘lack of grade slope’ towards the main street in front of the shop. I start to run after it hoping to catch it before it heads out into the road, I’m running faster than I ever have in my life but it’s no good. I watch it continue rolling back, completely miss a concrete post, miss a mailbox, miss side swiping 2 cars by passing through the gap between them, start out onto the main street, where there are NO cars for some reason (unbelievably rare for 8:30 am), it crosses the main street and starts rolling up a church parking lot driveway where it begins to lose momentum due to the slight uphill grade. I manage to hop in it before it starts rolling back down to main street and hit the brakes.
I’m shaking like crazy, in shock that nothing happened, but more in shock that all of this happened right in front of the shop (the front desk/waiting area/showroom was entirely made of glass, completely see-through) and I figured my boss probably saw it and I was gonna get fired.
I drive the truck back up behind the shop, engine off and trans in gear, I chock the wheels (you know, for safety haha) and begin to inspect the parking brake assembly. The cable had snapped right in the middle of the truck, it looked like the cable had been frayed for a long long time, and it just happened to be me when it broke!!
After inspecting it, catching my breath, steadying my hands, and wiping the sweat off my face from all the adrenaline, I head inside to face the music. I look around just waiting to see someone pointing the finger and motioning me to ‘follow them’.
After a minute of standing up there completely still, I began to look around. No finger waving, no mean faces, no one staring at ALL. I’m still shaken up, and I guess I looked pale as heck cause my foreman goes ‘Dang you look like you just saw a ghost! You ok?’ I couldn’t believe it, no one saw. No one got hit or hurt. No property damage. I still had a job. I was still asking myself if this was really happening! I couldn’t keep it in for much longer I told my foreman about it and I was expecting a ticked-off response. Instead, he goes ‘That truck wasn’t the truck you were supposed to work on!’ I say ‘Yes it was! Green, 70’s Chevy DUMPTRUCK, parked out back by the green dumpster! This IS the truck! There aren’t many of these trucks just rolling around nowadays!’
My foreman says: ‘Sure there is! You and I are going to pick it up from the customer right now! It’s just up the road, parked by his green dumpster!’
Moral of the story: Just because you assume it’s the correct rush bucket, doesn’t mean it is!”
Immaculate Condition? Not Anymore!
“I took an immaculate ‘97 Accord that showed serious ownership pride and created, because of my error, a total loss of $10k inside my shop without anything else damaged. It was a simple job: brake pad change and strut replacement on all four corners. I used two post lifts in my shop. I drive the vehicle between the two posts. Each post has two arms that reach out under the vehicle and lift it from the frame mounts. This is a very popular, simple lift used in most shops. I used a muffler stand in assisting the installation of the struts. Muffler stands are about five feet tall with a pinhead that when turned will lift an additional 2–3 feet. These stands are used by muffler shops to mock up and hold the new exhaust system in place under the vehicle so it can be welded and attached to the frame. I used the jack to put upward pressure on the lower control arms to help replace the new struts.
Mid-afternoon, I had accomplished nothing on this job due to customers and phone calls and needed to get the job finished ASAP. I let phone calls go to voice mail and put myself into overdrive. Once the job was completed, I removed my tools and parts from under the vehicle and slid the muffler jack out from under the left rear tire toward the rear of the car. In my haste to finish, I never once double-checked myself, as I trusted my supreme mastery of the task.
So, as I stood next to the driver’s door, lowering the vehicle on the lift, staring out the front of the open bay door deciding what I wanted for dinner, I didn’t have a clue that the left rear corner of the car was not dropping as the rest of the car was coming down. In the end, one inch was all I needed. I failed to confirm the muffler jack I slid toward the rear of the car had cleared the bumper cover. That rear corner was still held up by the jack!
My peripheral vision noticed the driver’s door pitched forward. In a panic, I released the lift‘s switch and nervously watched the car teeter precariously…for about half a second. Then the car shuddered and took a nosedive. The front right corner hit first and the car bounced between the lift posts like a pachinko ball. ‘Oh Fudge!’ (Okay, maybe not those exact words…) The bumper cracked, the fender bent. Creases were in the doorstop to the bottom. The C pillar looks like a washboard. I thought I was going to hurl. Then my reality sank in, and I truly wished this was a normal customer, not my mom.
That evening I had to make one of the worst phone calls ever: ‘Uh, I finished your car…but you’re not able to drive it home.’ The best decision I ever made was having shop insurance, which paid handsomely due to the car’s pristine condition, blessedly allowing a large upgrade in the new vehicle she now needed to replace. I’m equally blessed this subject has not since been breached.”
Nobody Will Ever Know!
“I was told by her boyfriend to change the oil on his 1967 Dodge camper special pickup truck. It had a 383 with an automatic transmission.
It was 1971, I was 14 and had never changed oil by myself before. I get all of the tools and whatnot and start draining what I thought was the oil. It was red, oops.
Not wanting to get in trouble for making such a monumental mistake, I put the transmission fluid back into the transmission. Through the transmission dipstick tube with a funnel. It’s not as easy as it sounds. This is the first time I have ever mentioned this.
He was not a bad guy, at least he was not physically abusive to us kids. She was with him for a few months, I never saw him again with her.
I saw him when I was 18, he recognized me. As he was making conversation. He told me he still had the truck but the transmission was slipping.
I know I had a reaction, I turned as red as a hippie can get. My head started buzzing, not from being high on pot. Wondering if he knew what I did, maybe wanted me to replace the transmission. I said something like bummer and changed the subject. Exiting his area as fast as unobtrusively as possible. Never saw him afterwards.”
This Man Is Full Of Stories
“I’ve been a professional, and ASE-certified, mechanic since 1978. I’ve made mistakes and had workplace accidents just like we have all done. Here are the ‘Oh s***!’ incidents that stick in my mind.
1. I was working on an early-80s Mustang the used car department took in. During the manual-shift tranny service I wanted to pull the oil fill plug to check the oil level and quality. Normally, the fill plug is a square-drive pipe plug. At some point, somebody had replaced the pipe plug with a bolt. There were two identical-looking bolts, side by side, and I didn’t know which was which. So after a rousing game of eeni-meenie-miney-moe, I pulled one of them. It came out a bit tough, but not abnormally tough. As I’m pulling the bolt, I felt a snap through my wrench and then heard several clunking noises. I’d pulled the bolt holding the low-reverse shift fork and it tumbled to the bottom of the tranny.
2. I was working on a 1974 Lincoln that needed repairs to the climate control system. While working under the dash to remove a bad vacuum motor, I cut my hand. Pretty badly and I bled pretty heavily. All over the snow-white carpet. After I finished the repair of the heating system I got to clean the blood out of the carpeting.
3. I was working on a beat-up, early-70s Ford pickup. It had a 300 CID engine and a manual tranny. Another of those lovely used cars one of the sales folks took in on trade. After doing the under-vehicle work, I lowered the truck to the floor and filled it with oil. I reached through the window and hit the key to start it. The first lunge of the truck reminded me I’d left it in reverse when I parked it on my lift. Before I could release the key, the engine started, and the truck shot off the rack and into the tire machine. Where it continued to run. In reverse. Smoking the tires and screeching quite loudly.
4. Years later, and at a different shop, I was working on a car that belonged to one of the office girls. It was a mid-to-late-70s Chevy Monza I think. She complained that it ran a bit rough and idled very roughly. I suspected a vacuum leak and checked all the usual suspects; hoses, carb gaskets, vacuum heater controls, etc. Finding nothing, I suspected a leaking intake manifold gasket. I decided to troubleshoot the intake gasket using a can of spray carburetor cleaner. It’s really flammable and if the engine sucks it in, the idle will smooth out. I was happily spritzing carb cleaner around the intake when I found the leaking section of the gasket. The idle smoothed right out and even increased a bit. Then the entire engine compartment burst into flames. Apparently, the carb cleaner fumes got sucked into the distributor cap and the ignition spark ignited the fumes. The oils and greased and dirt under the hood then took over and the entire engine bay was burning. No biggie; a couple of squirts from the fire extinguisher put out the fire and nothing was damaged. Except for the bright yellow powder left behind from the dry-chem extinguisher. Whatta mess!
So, there are the four biggest mistakes I ever made that I’ll probably never forget. Each was embarrassing and each was done in front of multiple witnesses. Witnesses that took a fiendish delight in reminding me of them for years.”
How On Earth Did He Survive That?!
“I’m not a mechanic but I’m mechanically inclined and can handle most car repairs myself. The stupidest thing I have ever done was something that I knew better than to do but did it anyway.
I was getting ready to leave work one day and my car wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t even turn over…just clicked. I left something on and killed my battery.
I worked at an apartment complex and had driven a golf cart around all day. A 48V golf cart that had 8 6V batteries. I knew all I needed to do was isolate two of them, hook up my jumper cables and I’d be home free.
But that’s not what I did. I hooked it up so I got the full 48V. Figured I didn’t feel like messing with it and what’s the worst that could happen?
The worst turned out pretty bad. I turned the key and things immediately started sizzling. Everything started smoking. All the lights went bright then instantly black. I shut it off and jumped out.
The car (a little station wagon) was a smoking, stinking mess. Bright copper was showing through where the colored insulation had burned away.
I shut the hood and called my wife to pick me up.
A few days later one of the painters was there and we were talking about it. He wanted to know what I was going to do with it. I told him I’d probably junk it, I was not going to spend the money rewiring the whole dang car.
He asked if he could have it and I said sure. He had it towed to his house and a few weeks later he came into my shop and tossed something on my desk. Some kind of mangled blob. I looked at it and asked what the heck it was.
It was my ‘in the tank’ fuel pump. Melted and swollen. I guess it’s a miracle I didn’t blow myself up.”
Adding Insult To Injury
“One of my worst was in 1980 or so. I had a 74 Gran Torino. I needed to change the rear shocks. I may have been putting on air shocks. I was a teenager and couldn’t afford to have anyone work on it.
Anyway, I had the car in the back yard of my folk’s house. I used the car’s bumper jack and jacked it up. I also had some stands under the frame too. I didn’t pay too much attention but I noticed it started to rain. I was twisting in shock and all of a sudden I became aware the car was starting to sway. It was slipping sideways off the jack! I had left too much pressure on the bumper jack.
I grabbed the car before it could completely unbalance and started yelling for one of my brothers or sisters to come out and help me stabilize it. Due to the rain, no one was outside. I didn’t think I could hold on for very long. It wasn’t heavy but I knew it would fall if I let go. The only solution I could come up with was to try and lunge out from under. I tucked my legs under me, let go of the car, and pushed off out the back as quickly as I could. I didn’t get very far. The car came down on me. Right on my back. My legs are still tucked under me. I tried lifting the car but had no luck. I was not going anywhere so now my shouts were even more frantic. Finally after what seemed like hours but was more like 10 or 15 minutes, my brother heard me. He yelled for my dad and they put the jack under the car and jacked it up off me.
I was hurting. The circulation to my legs had been cut off so it took a bit for it to return. When it did it was like fire. The car’s fuel tank came down on my back. It absorbed most of the impact so it was just the weight of the car holding me down. It had a big dent in it and I had some nice scrapes on my back but that was it.
I finished the shocks the next day. This time I put the car on solid ground and made sure I completely removed the bumper jack.”
“It was in 1980 when I had just finished replacing the disc brake pads on the front end of my Chevy Camaro, including a full disc brake resurfacing and thorough cleaning and repacking of the front wheel bearings and tightening the spindle nut to the correct torque and locking it.
After I had everything back together, I went for a test drive and everything seemed OK.
I went to a friend’s house around 5 miles down the road and as I drove up to his place, there was a mild clunk, clunk sound. Thinking it might be the road or something else, I parked and went in to visit with my friend.
When I left, I heard the same noise and thought it would go away when I left the neighborhood. It didn’t!
It kept getting worse to the point that it felt like I was driving on square wheels. As I drove, I kept trying to think what part of the bearing or disc brake system could possibly have that effect, or sound so clunky. I just couldn’t figure it out.
I pulled over about 2 miles from my home just to check. As soon as I looked at the wheels it became obvious and it hit me hard!
I had only hand tightened the wheels lug nuts and had not torqued them down. They had slowly loosened up as I had driven the car and the clunking was the wheels moving around on the bolts.
Thankfully all the nuts were still there and the bolts had sustained only minimal impact/wear damage and were still fully usable.
Felt like a real idiot for a while after that. A real ‘DUH’ moment.
It has not happened again!”
That’s Gotta Hurt
“Who? Me? Absolutely never! Except for once. But just once I ruined one, I mean two, at the same time.
In about 1995 I was to do a carb overhaul on a 1985 Toyota pickup truck. A base, no-frills model with a 4-speed stick trans, no a/c, plastic seats, and a 22R engine. A real plain Jane. I took the air cleaner housing off and manually set the auto choke to monitor the pull-off diaphragm when it was first started cold. Back then there wasn’t a clutch safety switch and I didn’t realize that the truck was in gear. I reached in the window after setting the choke and fast idle by hand and turned the key to start it. Well, being in gear, it took off across my shop in first gear and on fast idle. Uh oh! I grabbed the door handle and opened the door to jump in and stomp the brake pedal. And I did just that. Or so I thought. I was in a panic and with my heart pumping. There was the screeching cacophony of loud noises, and smoke all around me, and then I felt something knock me in the head. Hard. The major hit I took the noggin was the Chrysler Lebaron convertible coming down onto the roof of the Toyota after it fell from the lift that was steadily ripping from the floor. When I came to my senses I realized that my foot was on the gas pedal rather than the brake pedal, hence the loud banging around noises. The smoke? That was the tires smoking up from doing a burnout
The truck? Well, it was totaled and about 6 inches shorter than stock. The Chrysler? Well, it was a convertible so we took out the seats and several of us jumped on the floor to flatten the hump that I custom made all by myself. The owner never knew anything happened because it was as good as new after our custom frame and bodywork.
The guy had his truck from day one and absolutely loved it even though it had a gazillion miles on it and looked like it was bombed out with a mortar shell. He was a big biker type ironworker that worked on nuclear plants and I’m freaked that I ruined his truck knowing how much he loved his truck and that I was half his size. He didn’t have a phone where he stayed so I went to his house and told him the situation while groveling and apologizing profusely. I drove there with a 1987 Toyota with a/c, auto trans, new tires, and a lot fewer miles on it that I purchased from a local dealer I knew. I paid $2500 for it a half-hour after the incident and gave it to him. He was in shock and said it was all good. He was still ticked off though, I could sense.
A week later I saw him coming up to my shop and my stomach knotted up fast. He wasn’t smiling. Well, when he came into my office with his wife I thought he was going to stomp me. But, he then asked me if I remembered what I did to his truck. I of course said yes and apologized again. Profusely. He then asked me if I could do the same thing to his wife’s car since they were there to drop it off for an oil change and it was also a rust bucket. I knew then all was good between us and he’s still a client to this day. Thank God there’s no more carburetors and cars have clutch safety switches these days.”