Smoking! What messed up the engine?

When it comes to items you hope you'll never have to return, truck engines have to be near the top of the list. William Mason, sadly, is about to do just that.

Mason bought a new engine for his 1986 GMC half-ton light pickup from Advance Auto Parts in May 2001, and, for the next 11 months, everything was fine. But in April 2002, he claims, the truck began blowing smoke and burning through a quart or two of oil a month. He called the store on Seminole Trail and was told to call the warranty department at the company's headquarters in Roanoke. There, in turn, he was given the number for Recon, the manufacturer, and told to call them.

Between April 2002 and April 2003, Recon's techs logged 14 conversations with either Mason or his mechanic, William Rhodes, owner of William's Auto Repair in Charlottesville.

During Mason's first trip to the shop, in April 2002, Rhodes couldn't find anything wrong. Mason returned in late June and said again that the truck was burning oil and blowing smoke. Rhodes spoke to a tech named Steven at Recon, and, according to the Recon log, was told to "check systems, pull plugs and check for oil on plugs, etc." Rhodes was allegedly supposed to call back if he saw any sign that something was wrong with the engine, but Recon claims they didn't hear from him again until July 10.

This time Rhodes spoke with Brian, who logged the following note: "[Rhodes] states plug #1 has oil on it. He thinks it might be coming from the rings but not sure...will do leakdown [a test that locates the source of engine leaks] to determine where oil is coming from."

That was July 10, 2002. Sixteen months later, when I called Advance Auto Parts to discuss the situation, the leakdown test still hadn't been done. Mason, meanwhile, had driven the car for several months after the July 2002 trip to William's, but had taken it back in December of 2002. It's been at William's ever since. The 15-month warranty expired in July 2002, shortly after the truck's second trip to the shop. This past summer Mason finally went to an attorney, who suggested he contact me.

I spoke with Axel Oberg, manager of the warranty department at Advance Auto Parts in Roanoke, who faxed me Recon's log. According to that, Recon techs spoke with Rhodes about the necessity of doing the leakdown test six times between July 2002 and April 2003– yet the test was never done.

As Oberg explained, neither Recon nor Advance was willing to simply replace a $1,600 engine (especially one that's now almost a year out of warranty) unless they had evidence that the engine was defective– and that's what the leakdown test would have shown.

When I spoke with Rhodes, he confirmed that he has never done the test. It takes "four to five hours," he stated, and Mason had refused to pay; Rhodes wasn't willing to do the work unless he knew he'd be paid. Mason, in turn, confirmed that he'd refused to foot the bill, saying that Advance should pay. Oberg, in reply, said that the company would reimburse Mason if the test showed that the engine was in fact defective– but it wouldn't pay up front.

Most such engines, according to Oberg, turn out to have been damaged and not defective. For instance, a replacement engine can be damaged by parts the customer adds on, or by whatever condition ruined the original engine. In that case, of course, neither Recon nor Advance should be held accountable.

In the end, however, Oberg decided that Advance was "tired of fooling with" Mason's situation, and has agreed to give Mason a replacement engine. Mason will pay to have the present engine removed and pay to have the replacement engine installed. If Recon's diagnosis of the returned engine concludes that it was in fact defective, Mason's costs will be reimbursed.

It'll take six weeks or so to get the post-mortem, but when I have it, I'll report the results.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.