How Pep Boys Makes Money
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Today's cars can be complicated things. Computers,
sensors, wires, the typical backyard mechanic can't keep
up with it all, and service costs are ridiculous.
Fortunately for me, my combination of geek hobbies
(computers and cars) makes it easier to keep driving
cars that many drivers would have sent to scrap long
One fact the driving public is kept unaware of is that
any fuel-injected car, if well-maintained, will always
pass its annual emissions test. If it fails,
there's something broken. Typically, the worst
smog offenders are Grandma's 1994 Taurus with a clogged
air filter originally installed at the factory.
At any rate, the time came for me to get my 1986 Mustang
GT smogged again. (Actually, I was well overdue,
but that's another story.) I took it to a local
Pep Boys station for service. It failed the safety
inspection; the rear brakes needed adjusting, the front
brakes were "loose", and the rear marker lights were
(Oh, by the way, a 1986 Mustang does not have rear
It also failed the smog inspection; the HC
(hydrocarbons) were way too high. I kind of
expected this, since the car barely sneaked by last year
for HC. Now, in PA, if you fail for smog you get
30 days to fix the thing and get a free retest.
The gave me a sheet (printed out by the smog-test
machine) with a list of parts that could cause high
hydrocarbons. It all seemed reasonable (except
that Throttle Position Sensor was listed twice).
They also tried to tell me that if they didn't do the
repairs for the safety inspection that I'd have to pay
for the safety inspection again ($25). They
"strongly hinted" that if they didn't fix it that they'd
find something else wrong the next time and I'd fail
anyway. No thanks, I'm not paying someone $130 to
turn two bolts and replace light bulbs that don't exist.
They also noted that if I spent $150 (or more) in
emissions-related repairs, that I'd get a "waiver" so
even if I still failed, I'd get a sticker. I had
heard of that in CA and NJ, but that seemed reasonable.
I still wanted to fix the car, though.
So, I started fixing my car. The intake manifold
gaskets were leaking, the fuel injectors were slightly
clogged, the ignition system was worn out, two sensors
were bad, all kinds of stuff was wrong. It turned
out the biggest problem was a set of Taylor plug wires,
three of the eight showed infinite resistance (instead
of around 600 ohms), but the MSD 6A ignition was
covering up the problem.
I dutifully saved all my receipts and documented my
repairs. In total, I spent a little under $250
repairing my car, but it ran a hell of a lot better.
I even have a fancy Equuis code reader that asks the
car's computer what's wrong.
The big day was Saturday, December 20: I woke up early
and went down into the garage to finish up the car.
I changed the oil, checked the brakes again, and ran
another diagnostic test (using the code reader) just to
make sure everything was fixed.
So, I take the car and all my receipts up to Pep Boys
for my free smog re-test (and another $25 safety test).
Sunday afternoon, it's done. It passed the safety
test (despite my not replacing those two phantom marker
lights), but now it's failing due to NOx (oxides of
Nitrogen). Usually NOx means your EGR valve is
dead. Well, I'll fix that later, I've got the
Apparently, in Pep-Boys Land, not all of the parts I
purchased count towards a waiver. Specifically,
the intake manifold gaskets and sensors.
Fortunately, I don't live in Pep-Boys Land, I live in
the Great State of Pennsylvania. In the Great
State of Pennsylvania, the law says:
The cost of hoses, gaskets, belts, clamps,
brackets or other accessories directly associated
with these components may also be applied to the
067 Pa. Code § 177.281. Issuance of waiver,
Of course, the service manager DID tell me that if I
paid for a diagnostic, maybe they could fix it...
That's nice. I want my god damned car back.
So, I print out a copy of the law and drive as calmly as
possible to see Manny, Moe and Jack.
I get there and show the law to the guy who's playing
service manager. (Real Managers don't work on
Sunday in Pep-Boys Land.) He looks it over and is
flabbergasted. I guess not many people know their
rights and obligations under the law in Pep-Boys Land.
My lovely bride Liz,
meanwhile, is dutifully jotting down names.
He goes into the service area to talk to the tech who
worked on my car. The tech's name is "Ed", but the
name on the smog printout is "Anthony". How odd.
He comes back a few minutes later, and starts quizzing
me on how I diagnosed the problem. Kind of funny,
I had to explain my diagnosis to him, he didn't
understand it at first. They must have skipped
that chapter at ASE Master Mechanic school.
(Note that I have the highest respect for ASE Master
Mechanics, it's Pep-Boys that's the problem.)
Then he starts telling me that the gaskets don't count
because I have no way of proving that they actually
needed replacement, and maybe I was just throwing parts
at the problem. I guess they didn't teach Logic at
Pep-Boys Assistant Manager school either, because he
couldn't tell me how I could prove that the things he
said DID count (spark plug wires, fuel injectors) were
So, we went back and forth for a half hour or so, and he
promised that he'd call the state inspection referee
station to resolve this on Monday. He wanted me to
leave my car there. No thanks, chief. He
also eventually admitted that he wouldn't be making the
call, someone else would. Yeah, right.
So, I got in my car. It's wasn't running very
well, the idle was kind of choppy. I started to
I drove the car the half mile home, giving the engine
plenty of time to warm up. I plugged in my Code
Reader, the one that showed no problems twenty four
hours earlier. I ran the self test.
33. "Unable to verify opening of EGR valve."
The EGR system is fairly simple. It consists of
the actual valve, a vacuum motor to open and close it, a
sensor so the computer knows how far open or closed it
is, and a solenoid so the computer can control the
You'll love this. I had to take a picture:
For those who are unfamiliar, the thing with the gray
hat is the EGR control solenoid. Note the black
and white plastic hoses. Now, I can understand if
you're not all familiar with the anti-smog equipment on
a 1986 Ford, so here's a picture with it connected
The dainty hand providing contrast is attached to my
lovely wife, Liz. (She was so mad, she actually
touched under the hood of my car!)
Note how it's plugged in correctly now. Of course,
the Code 33 no longer appears on my Code Reader, since
the computer can now control the EGR valve.
I'm fucking livid. Sometime between the time I
dropped the car off and the time I picked it up, the EGR
solenoid hoses were unplugged. If I acted like I
was supposed to, when Pep-Boys called back to tell me I
failed smog, I would have said "Oh no! Run the
diagnostic and fix my poor car!" They then would
have sold me a new EGR valve or sensor (or both),
plugged the solenoid back in, and my car would have
magically passed the smog test.
Pep-Boys has a
scamming consumers with smog tests.
Looks like you fucked with the wrong nerd, Manny.