Mistakes are just a normal part of life and we know they’re actually pretty common in the automotive repair world. They can happen for any number of reasons whether it’s you’re just plain not paying attention, maybe there’s a note missing in the repair manual, maybe you don’t have any repair information at all, maybe you got the wrong part, maybe it’s a really hard job or again, maybe you just flat out screwed up. Well, in my 13-plus-year career I have messed up more than one thing, so today we’re going to talk about the six major screw ups that I’ve personally made in my career. And luckily no one got hurt on any of these screw ups!
(This is in no particular order.)
I did an oil change on a common rail TDI several years ago, hurrying through it, as it was something I’ve done a million times, which is generally when the most screw ups come into play. I did the oil change, got everything all set, filled out all the paperwork, pulled the car around and as I got out of the car, I see the customer, who says to me, “Hey man, there’s something leaking down on the bottom of my car.”
So I look down and oil’s just pouring out of the bottom of the car. I hit the hood, I pull the engine cover up and lo and behold I didn’t tighten the oil filter housing down all the way so it had just pumped oil right out of the engine. After about 40 minutes of cleaning all the damn oil out from underneath the engine compartment, I finally handed him back his keys.
Definitely one of those tail between my legs kind of feelings. It was super embarrassing, a mistake that should not have happened, especially not to someone who’s changed oil in those cars for a long, long time. But again, we all make mistakes. And luckily the guy was pretty cool about it.
This is probably one of my biggest mistakes that I’ve made in my career, and probably the one that crushed my spirit the most. I got pulled into this job, the third person in. One guy had taken the transmission out, one guy had disassembled it and I got it at the point where it needed to go back together. So I organized all the parts, got it all the way back together, put it in reverse, the wheels turned, I’m like, yeah, cool, I did a good job. Then I put the car in drive and it wouldn’t go forward.
A day or so of fiddling around and making sure that I had everything put back together the way that it was supposed to, I finally accept the reality that I’m going back in. The transmission comes back out, I disassemble it all the way down to where I started and find that the very first part that I should have put on wasn’t in there. It’s a small seal inside of one of the barrels at the bottom of the transmission. So I wasn’t real happy. I will tell you though, that transmission went together considerably faster the second time than it did the first time. Luckily I didn’t run into any issues after I got it back in but the big kicker is it still did the same thing that the customer was complaining about initially, which ended up being a normal condition on this car. Not only did I have to take the transmission apart twice, it was one of those deals where I felt like I did it for no particular reason.
And since we’re talking about transmissions, I had done a torque converter on a W8 Passat. It had a fault check engine for a torque converter issue. I pulled the sub-frame down, dropped the transmission down, swapped the torque convertors in and out, taking care to make sure that the torque convertor was installed all the way because if it doesn’t get installed properly you end up breaking the ears on the automatic transmission pump and essentially destroying the transmission.
So I get it all back together, put the transmission back up in the car, and put the sub-frame in — and this all happens before lunchtime so I was flying through this job. Again not paying attention, I got in the car, and it started up, cool. I wasn’t worried about the fluid level too much because I really didn’t lose any. I start to test-drive the car, stopped and when I put the car back into drive it wouldn’t go anywhere.
We pushed it back to the shop, I put it up in the air, I’m looking all over for what I could’ve done, thinking maybe one of the axles came loose or something like that, and I turned around and saw in one of my magnetic trays there was a pile torque convertor bolts. Yes, I didn’t put a single torque convertor bolt back in that transmission. I’m surprised it made it as far as it did and thankfully it didn’t do any damage to the engine, to the transmission, to the flex plate or the torque convertor. It’s one of those where you’re not happy you have to go back in and install a bunch of bolts (the sub-frame had to come back down to get access to the starter.), but I’ll tell you it’s way better than having to do that job a second time.
Beetle Convertible Glass
I had inherited a job on a 2003 Beetle convertible that had problem after problem with the driver’s door, the window, the whole thing was problematic, which then transferred to problems with the left rear window. I go round and round, adjust the window, adjust the door, adjust the window, adjust the door, get it all perfect. I’m going back through my final checks and I go to tighten the glass all the way and the glass breaks. I’m sitting in the car when this happens and glass is everywhere. I just hung my head in shame and had to spend the next hour cleaning little tiny bits of glass out from this Beetle.
What makes it even worse is after I got the new glass, got it all adjusted, sent it down the road, three or four weeks later it came back with a different issue for the window and it turned out I had to replace the back glass. So I get that one all in and adjusted properly and wouldn’t you know, I break the left rear glass. That’s right, I broke two windows on the same car. Luckily again, the customer was really cool about it. We never actually got all the weird problems with this door straightened out. It was one of those cars that you know is kind of possessed from day one and it didn’t seem to matter what we did, that door was always problematic.
We’re going to keep on the glass trend. I had been asked to replace the high mount brake light on my general manager’s Bentley coupe. It sits right above the rear glass in that car and it looked like it would pop right up. I taped off the window and the roof line, I grabbed my plastic trim tool and I was working the high mount brake light up from paint side, taking extreme care not to mess up the paint. I moved the plastic trim tool to the glass side, kind of walking it up. It was moving a little bit but not a lot. I went back to the paint side and saw a little piece of something in the window track. I flicked it off the car, kept going and then saw another one. Man, what is all this stuff coming off? I pull the tape back and wouldn’t you know, there was almost a perfect pry mark from my trim tool where I had broken the dual laminated glass. And ugly enough, my service manager was standing about 15 feet from where I was doing this repair. I called him over to look at it and he had that hang your head in shame look — just like I did. We went through Bentley to get the window quoted and it turns out that back glass on that Bentley coupe is $2,500 just in parts. Luckily, the boss got a new back glass and the high mount brake light was really easy to replace when there was no glass in it. Thankfully, again the general manager was pretty cool about it — not happy, but hey, I didn’t get fired.
Last but not least was the second heater core I had ever done on a B5 Passat. It took me forever to do. I took my time, took all the pieces of the dash out, then got it all back together and as I was going through and quality checking everything, the seat heater wouldn’t work. Well that’s weird. So I go round and round check all the fuses, it turns out the fuse is blown. Put a new fuse in it, hit the seat heater, comes on for a second, pops the fuse. Two or three more fuses later, I’m going through everything and can’t find out why it keeps popping this fuse. So I take the radio out and all that stuff in the center of the B5 Passat, and I’m looking at it and the passenger’s side is working fine but the driver’s side is not.
I go round and round again trying to figure out what’s going on. I finally notice when I hit one of the other buttons that the seat heater flashes a little bit. When I say I go round and round, I probably spent hours on figuring out what the heck was going on. So I have all the stuff laid out, it’s all in the dash but it’s all apart. One of the other guys in the shop walks over to me, he’s like, “What’s going on?” I explain the situation to him and what I think I need to do to fix it (which would have been wrong) and he’s like, “Cool. You know your connectors are plugged in wrong.” I look and sure enough, they plugged in okay, they just obviously didn’t work. So that was several hours of my time wasted all because of my own stupid not-paying-attention mistake.
I’m sure there have been plenty other mistakes in my career, but making mistakes is part of the learning experience. The big thing about making mistakes is how you handle it. What do you do to make it right? That’s what really sets apart the great technicians. The ones who admit they make mistakes and do what they gotta do to make it right. I promise you on every single one of these mistakes that I just mentioned, I did whatever I had to do to make sure that it was right.
This article is based on episode 118 of the Humble Mechanic podcast.