Technician’s Update : The customer’s always right? Wrong!

Mike Humble

We kick off  this new section of workshop related tricks and tales with a story many mechanics will empathise with – the incompetent DIY motorist who ends up being bailed out by a professional… at considerable cost!

To boldy go where no mobile mechanic has gone before – My self-employed venture from 2005 – 2007

Ask any professional tradesman be it a builder, plumber, gas fitter or decorator about the people they deal with on a day to day basis, they will no doubt recall a tale that could make your foot itch. Back in the pre-recessional days of 2005, straight after the collapse of MG Rover, I made a calculated decision to operate on a self-employed basis as a mobile mechanic in County Durham.

Our local dealer at that time, Reg Vardy, pretty much ditched the whole MGR scenario like a hot coal and, after studying the local press with eyes like a sewer Rat, I observed that no other mobile spanner man had seized the opportunity to look after our beloved British banger.

Selling my immaculate 620ti to raise some capital rather than go to the banks, I sourced a decent yet rough Vauxhall Corsa Van from a nearby town of Guisborough via eBay that was seriously cheap. A cash in hand spray job and some professionally applied laser printed graphics gained me a stunning little van that was a real head turner – exactly what I was looking to achieve. It genuinely looked like a huge toy car which made adults and small boys look and point – a far cry from your average grubby white Escort. After some Golf GTi rims, Manta GTE front seats and some creative advertising which included a website, I was up and running.

It took a little while for the first job to come through, but one of them came via a lady on the far side of Darlington who owned a Rover 25 which refused to start. After some qualifying questions such as previous symptoms, it transpired that the car had been fine until her boyfriend had been under the bonnet. She couldn’t tell me what he had been doing to the car only to say that it had been leaking oil, he had done something and, since then, the car wouldn’t run. I suggested that maybe she could get the guy to call me before I committed myself, but the overtones of her reply suggested they had maybe fallen out over this.

In the end, I agreed to visit, but the keys would be left with her elderly neighbour as she would be at work on the day. Arriving at house I was greeted with a pretty looking Sienna Gold Rover 25 and, as per instructions, I called next door for the keys. A really lovely old gent called Jack, for whom I ended up doing some work on his Astra, handed the keys over, made me a brew and left me to crack on. Turning the key, the car was seemingly trying to start, there was over half a tank of petrol too, so after looking at all the obvious stuff like plug leads, sensor connections and the inertia cut out (always worth checking) I was starting to think I was in for the long term.

Standing on the pavement, smoke in hand, I looked down and noticed something very familiar lying in the gutter – an MG Rover-branded parts packet. Picking it up and calling a good trade friend Richard at Vardy Parts Solutions, it was diagnosed by the part number as a camshaft oil seal for a Rover K-Series engine and all of a sudden it became crystal clear. The small stuff came out of the tool box and, after a few minutes graft with an 8mm, the upper cam belt cover removed so straight away I was looking at a new timing belt. Winding the engine over, all the timing marks were seemingly aligned to perfection, or so they appeared.

A close inspection showed that, while the timing marks were right, the pulleys were 180 degrees out on the roll pins of the camshafts meaning the pulleys were also on the wrong cams, not damaging enough to clash the valves but enough to cripple the car. What happened next was nothing short of spooky, a bloke turned up in a car and he just happened to be my customer’s boyfriend.

I was just about to crack off a pulley bolt with a 17mm spanner and when I explained what the problem was he turned from being a bit of a wannabe gobby knowall into a sheepish told off schoolboy standing there silent for 30 minutes while I refitted the cam sprockets and timing belt. The little 25 purred into life once again.

An easy error – the K-Series has markings not only for static timing but sprocket location as well

After a chat and a smoke, he went on to tell me that he was in the ‘trade’ working for a local tyre and exhaust centre – beware the expansive and never ending knowledge of a tyre fitter. After I had explained where he went wrong, he at least understood the theory of my words and realised the gravity of what could have happened on some other cars – total engine destruction. As mentioned earlier, the elderly neighbour who I went on to do some work for, mentioned that he too had suffered the chap’s spannering skills by means of a new radio which was wired in wrong – it subsequently fused and burned out inside a week.

To be fair, his error with the Rover 25 camshaft oil seal job is a very easy mistake to make. However, the pulleys are not only marked for the correct timing, but also for correct location on the cams themselves, though it is possible without force to fit them 180 degrees out should you not be paying attention. What seemed to worry him more than anything was looking a berk to his partner. I perfectly understood that and so, after being bribed to the tune of an extra £20, I did some creative re-writing to the job invoice in a bid to deflect the blame away and all parties seemed happy with the end result.

Mike Humble


  1. Makes you wonder how many cars get a bad reputation of being unreliable due to poor/difficult DIY maintenance!

    (I remember someone telling me the XUD was a nightmare to start cold – they’re not too bad so long as the glow plugs aren’t worn, usually 3 of the glow plugs are changed as the 4th is difficult to get at).

  2. Very true Will

    In fact I posted a blog a little while ago about a neighbours left hooker Xantia 1.9 D which suffered exactly the same fate – a garage had fitted only 3 out of the 4 glow plugs (yet still charged for a full set)because no:1 is burried deep behind the fuel pump, though it can be done but not in hurry!

  3. Although not a pro’ I have spannered a bit in my time and I once had the chance to turn the tables on the pro’s so to speak.

    A little old lady who lived next door had a old Ford LTD which suffered from over heating, once it overheated it would then not start for days and days.

    In a panic the old lady called the local Ford dealer sent a ‘senior technicion’ to her house and inspected the car, firstly he removed the $106 dollar service/diagnostic/call out charge from her and then told her that the engine was knackered and needed a complete replacement at $2700.

    Needless to say she said no as the car, well maintained, but old and with only 44k on the clock it sadly wasn’t worth the cost of fixing.

    So I had a look for her… the first time the car over heated her gradson had been filled stright from the garden hose with out letting out the bolt on top of the lump as a airlock… so it kept on over heating… and then it sprayed coolent or what looked like mostly water all over the the distributer cap and then condensation made the cap unservicable and the car wouldn’t fire.

    A spin of a socket on the top bolt, a carfull top off the cooling system and a wipe of the dissy cap and a good spray of WD40 cured the problem and fo ra lot less than $2700.

    The old lady used the car for several more years until her eyesight failed her.

  4. This reminds me of a problem I saw when I used to fix PCs at evenings and weekends.

    “Dave” calls me up and asks me to pop over to sort a PC that’s randomly switching off with no error messages or owt. I couldn’t get there for a week or two, and by the time I’d got there the lad had managed to “fix” the PC by fully re-installing windows. The machine ran OK-ish, but as Dave hadn’t reinstalled any of the driver software the sound, network and display hardware didn’t work right. The second I finished installing all the drivers the PC cut out again. I checked all the software and it was the right stuff for the machine. I then noticed the cooler fan had been running flat out since finishing the install…

    Turns out Dave’s big golden retriever liked nothing more than curling up against the PC case on a cold evening, and as it did so its hairs would be sucked in to the machine until it was a thick layer of dusty awfullness all over the unit’s internals. This made the whole lot overheat and trigger the overheat shutdown. When Dave wiped the PC (and lost all his documents and programs) he inadvertently disabled half the PC’s hardware and this was just enough to make the machine run without overheating.

    It’s true what they say, a bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing…

  5. I have to say that your writing reads better than some so-called ‘soap-operas’; have you considered doing a telly show because, in the local parlance, this was mint.

  6. I’m tempted to put as a counter to this the many costly and expensive tales of “professional” mechanics destroying my cars whilst emptying my wallet!

    OTOH, I know what I will and won’t attempt. Most timing belts are on the “won’t” list 😉

  7. Will: I think the fuel injected Triumphs did, IMO most K-series issues are down to that first service and people not understanding how to bleed the cooling system properly (same goes for a lot of PSA cars, too – even a simple ZX diesel needs very careful filling and bleeding).

    What’s depressing isn’t that backstreet and all makes mechanics can’t do these jobs right – but main dealers, with full training and all the service manuals, where you’re paying three figures an hour for this work. I must admit I find it very, very hard to hand my keys over at a garage now, and a lot of it is down to one or two people in the Scottish Borders where it seemed to be near impossible to get an honest and competent hour’s labour on almost anything.

    • It is not just the back street mechanics, my newly retired neighbour bought a new Mercedes C class from a large MB dealer, at 3 years of age it began boiling over in traffic, in and out of the service bay for diagnostic tests etc , and it included ” Sir it is only a 2 litre engine , it is overheating because it has to work so hard for such a big car”. Sick and tired of the dealer, in desperation he asked me to look it over, twenty minutes of common sense and thinking, I correctly diagnosed a faulty viscous coupling in the radiator fan, £137 for the part, end of problem! I advised my neighbour to seek reimbursement of the £400 he had paid on his credit card and complain directly to the Dealer Principle.

  8. Richard – exactly right, I hate being in a situation where I have to pay anybody to do ANYTHING on my behalf, be it vehicular or DIY – the result is always disappointing, and you can almost always do better yourself if you’re careful and can identify one end of a screwdriver from the other. Trusting anyone to do anything else correctly on one’s behalf is a rare thing unless you know them personally.

    At some point there, you realise it’s your time, not skill, that starts to become the constraint, which is as frustrating as hell! Unfortunatley being able to ‘cope’ is a dying art, it seems!

    Ditto, by the way, very well written article too!

    • I agree with much of your post, as soon as money gets involved it is the slippery slope, the motor retail industry is high in financial overheads and runs on low margins, ie you and I who don’t want to part with money when settling the Invoice at service reception, therefore any problem that gets in the way of the daily take is a liability. With garage labour charges of £75 an hour vs an median pay rates of £7 to £10 an hour, the dealer ship mechanic has to be 8 to 10 times more productive.
      For the diy enthusiast, (many who actually enjoy get their hands dirty) an afternoon under the bonnet is preferable to several days in the office or factory earning the cash to settle the Invoice

  9. Nice article Mike – thanks 🙂 Jon R is correct; great scriptwriting skills!

    @ Richard Kilpatrick – Amen, brother! Thankfully never had such problems with MG Rover dealers, but they have ‘forgotten’ to do sump work, and ‘remembered’ to replace a dented (but not leaking at all) exhaust section I specifically asked them not to – both asked and unasked tasks fully charged for!

    Mind you, I shouldn’t grumble, I once had a Type 3 fastback VW that passed its MoT, despite being suitable transport for Fred Flintstone (you could literally have peddled through the absent floor in the back seat footwells 😉 Aaah, student days). Black rubber mats covered all, and the lazy mechanic never bent down to look under, or put it on a lift.

    Incidentally, why did MGR not shift the K-series exhaust a few mm down so the sump could be removed without unbolting the exhaust? Ditto the exhaust being so close to the fuel tank (in Metros) that it has to be disengaged, where if it were an inch away it could stay in place. So frustrating…

    For the record, never had an overheating or HGF problem on my Metro’s 1.4L K8 engine. Unlike a sad 200vi I drove a few days back, which clattered so badly it sounded like a diesel imitating an industrial sewing machine 🙁 Not an expert, but it sounded like something in the No1 inlet vicinity had been starved of oil more than a catwalk model…

  10. I once had a Rover R8 214 ( the best Rover out of the three that I have owned). After being parked at Bristol Airport for ten days it started ok, but a mile or so down the road it started mis-firing then cut out, and refused to restart.
    After a quick look under the bonnet, needless to say it was pouring with rain, I called Britannia Rescue. Whilst waiting along came an AA van, the driver got out and asked if I was in trouble. When I said that I was waiting for Britannia Rescue he said he would have a quick look and see if he could do anything. He took the cover off of the underbonnet fuse/relay box and said it could be one of the relays, but he didn’t know what each one did. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if he looked under the lid he had in his hand it had a diagram showing what did what.
    He then said he could not hear the fuel pump, so that must have packed up, then he gave up and went on his way. A few minutes later along came the Britannia agent who asked me the symptoms, went to his truck, got out a large piece of rag, a tin of WD40, took off the distributor cap, gave it a good spray of WD40, wiped it and another spray, then replaced it, saying give it a try sir. Bingo! first time, all the trouble, was condensation inside the distributor, so much for the AA.

  11. Knowledge is the measure of a mechanic, and no-one can know everything.

    That’s why I won’t let even a an experienced mechanic loose on my cars if he doesn’t have experience on the model of car I need fixing.

  12. Back in my van days I had a van fail to proceed properly right at the end of the road, so managed to get the van onto our cul-de-sac. We got the RAC in to diagnose, the aux belt had come off, the tensioner was toast, but we knew it was on its way out anyway as it was noisy. Called the gaffer and he arranged for the vehicle to be sorted at the dealers. The RAC bloke, god bless him, offered to 70-point turn the van for me on the cul-de as the PAS wasn’t operational. I thanked him but refused, wished I hadn’t though afterwards, (mind, try driving a Volvo Olympian with failed PAS… Ouch!) Sorry I digress, we got the van back a day later and the tensioner noise was still there, they’d whacked a belt on and somehow left the failed tensioner well alone! Well done RAC, poor show dealers.

    Same van, commercial vehicle “specialist” replaced the clutch, then used the wrong grade ‘box oil, too much oil in the box and didn’t replace a connector somewhere around the engine bay. Result – the van drove like a pig and was difficult to change gear when cold. They did fix the connector issue when we took it back but eventually it went to the dealers for the correct grade and level of oil. Smooth shifting ‘box was an expensive job in the end. Poor show specialist, well done dealer!

    As for my own levels of DIY bodgery, well the less said the better! But I have a go thats the main thing, and know my limits.

  13. Another great article Mike! Nice one getting a twenty quid bribe too. Your van was possibly the strangest van I’ve ever seen, yet I quite like it although I’m not sure why!

  14. I’m a self confessed muppet when it comes to car DIY. My best was a Mini Racing Green, which I decided to fit front spot-lights to. Stupidly, I didn’t disconnect the battery, and nearly toasted the car when I shorted the circuit. I also once tried to change a light-bulb on my girlfriend’s Micra, losing it inside the light cluster in the process… still rattles around now…..then there was my attempt at ‘panel-beating’ on my first car after it got broken into. Then the ‘easy repair’ to the SID on my SAAB 9-3, which resulted in me buying a new unit at £200!(there were only a few pixels out on the original!)I use an excellent Alfa specialist for everything now!

  15. Simon… I feel your pain!

    I did a head gasket on a mates 1850 Dolomite some years back, I couldn’t beleive my luck after all the head studs remained intact, but can you imagine the trauma and gut wrenching horror after I dropped the split link for the timing chain down into the abyss that is the timing chest of the engine block?

    I nearly cried!

  16. A K-Series mis-diagnose that you often hear of is mistaking a failed crank sensor for a fuel supply problem. Early K-Series used a Lucas 4CS crank sensor that was more prone to moisture ingress than the later 3VRS sensor. This would lead to the engine not starting, but because for safety reasons the engine ECU won’t run the fuel pump for more than a second or so unless it sees an engine speed signal, people would often tear apart fuel supply pipes and replace pumps, before finding the root cause.

  17. Err Mike, why was the split link not on the timing chain? I’m doing at 1850 at the moment.. and I can’t see why you were taking it off!

  18. Ahh I think I know! he sort that did not spot the bolts on the end alowing the cam sproket to stay in situ but take the cam off! (alos makes timing it much easier assuming it was right initially!) Seem to recall this feature on the Maxi 1750 and the Jaguar XK engine

  19. My 1986 Carlton conked out for no obvious reason late one night, couldn’t see a lot so dragged mum out and she towed me home in her Fiesta 1.1. ALL day I worked on the car, cleaning, checking, testing, hitting, slamming the glovebox 3 times-EVERYTHING. All it would do was crank over. My mate urned up for a look while I made coffee, I came out and he said “try it now”, it went first flick. The cause? a tiny piece of rusty metal had fallen from the front edge of the inner skin of the bonnet-and landed slap bang between the contacts on the coil!
    Another conk out and just cranking episode taught me to REMOVE a fuse to check it, not just look at it in situe and assume because the element’s not broken that it’s alright. a bmw 5 series refused to go and after 2 days I removed the fuel pump fuse that I had decided was ok. It fell apart in my hand, fittd a new one and Vrooom !
    I always look for the simplest of things first now!

  20. Hi mike,
    Is the picture above showing the correct position or incorrect position,
    as I think I have the same problem with my rover 75.
    I think i may have put the cam sprocket on in the wrong position.

  21. Not so long ago my wifes little rover 100 ascot broke down.
    We have owned 6 little metros over the years and not one of them failed an mot
    or ever let us down, and when we was out+about in the ascot one day on the m6 we saw a car broken down on the hard shoulder and i always used to say to the mrs he should get a metro, and i would say this every time we saw a car broken down.Well one evening we went out for a bite to eat and on the way to the eating house i said to myself-this little car runs like a dream. Then 2hrs later after eating we came out to the car park and it was raining so hard we got soaked. Then after starting the car up off we went. Then suddenly the car just died on me. i couldnt believe it. I was even thinking sabbotage at one point.I lifted the bonnet but all looked fine nothing looked wrong, so we called the greenflag out, Then after 1 hour passed they turned up in a flat bed tow truck !!! I said arent you going to fix it? He replied its probably the head gasket. I was not happy. i thought what a chimp he is.
    Anyway he took us home with the little metro on the back and i could see the metro from the wing mirror of the tow truck i was thinking what the problem could be, The next day i checked the timing belt-all ok,then i removed the dizzy cap and all looked fine,the carbon brush in the cap for the HT lead was a little worn but fine, So i then removed the rotar arm and ouch- The contact point in the centre of the rotar arm fell apart. so i replaced the cap with a new one and a new rotar arm .£6.50 for the rotar arm and £11.99 for a new cap very expensive nowadays not many cars use them i suppose. Then the little metro fired up like new again but i could have kicked myself for not replacing these parts a year or so ago. We went to birmingham and back 75-80 mph never missed a beat and runs beautifully.But i never comment nowadays when i see a car broken down again never.

    • Great story of your Metro, there were two Metros in the family, both were reliable cars, my brother had a Metro van and as a self employed courier 1000 miles a week was common week in week out all year round.
      There were so many Metros in breakers yards you could buy many parts for loose change, hence on the road he would carry starter motor, alternator, distributor( new points ready gapped) ignition coil etc etc, most parts were stored in the spare wheel well, protected ready for quick install.
      Stored in the garden shed we even had a spare rear sub frame, with the radius atr bearings in as new condition, a common MoT fail for the Metro, with only a few bolts to remove, a rear subframe swap on a Metro was an uneventful task of around two hours work

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