Verdict: The engine was not defective

If you've been awaiting the autopsy report on the replacement engine William Mason bought from Advance Auto Parts, the results are now in– but first, let me bring any newcomers up to speed.

When I wrote about Mason's engine ["Smoking!" November 13, 2003], the various parties– Mason, Advance, and Recon Automotive, the engine's manufacturer– had been at an impasse for over a year.

Mason put the replacement engine in his 1986 GMC half-ton light pickup in May 2001, and, for the next 11 months, everything was fine. In April 2002, however, he claims that the truck began blowing smoke and burning through a quart or two of oil a month. The store on Seminole Trail, where he'd bought it, told him to call the warranty department at the company's headquarters in Roanoke.

Mason's mechanic, William Rhodes of William's Auto Repair in Charlottesville, initially couldn't find anything wrong, but spoke with a Recon service tech in June 2002 and, according to Recon's call log, was told to check several things and call back.

When Rhodes called back, on July 10, the log says that he had found oil on one plug and thought "it might be coming from the rings." He agreed to do a leakdown– a test that locates the source of engine leaks– but 16 months later, when I entered the picture and called Advance to ask where the matter stood, Rhodes still hadn't performed the test.

The leakdown test, it turned out, was the reason for the stalemate: Without it, Recon and Advance couldn't determine whether the engine was defective. According to Axel Oberg, manager of the Advance warranty department in Roanoke, most such engines turn out to be damaged rather than defective. This can be the result of, for instance, parts the customer added on, or treatment the engine wasn't designed to withstand.

If the engine wasn't defective, neither Advance nor Recon could be held liable– yet Mason refused to pay for the leakdown. Finally, saying that he was "tired of fooling with" the situation, Oberg struck a deal with Mason: Advance would give him another replacement engine– even though the warranty had expired five months earlier– if Mason would pay to have the current engine removed and transported to the store on Seminole Trail. From there it would be sent to Recon in Philadelphia for a post-mortem. If the engine was indeed defective, Advance would reimburse Mason all his out-of-pocket expenses. If not, they wouldn't– but, in either case, he would be allowed to keep the second engine.

And now, the verdict: The engine, according to Recon, was not defective. Oberg summarized the findings in a letter to me.

"The engine had been overheated, detonated, and not properly maintained," he wrote. "Under normal circumstances, an engine operates at a temperature of 195 degrees. This is controlled by a thermostat, water pump, radiator, fan, belts, hoses, and antifreeze or coolant. None of these items [is] part of the engine purchase. All these items must be checked and replaced if necessary. There is no record that this was done."

How could they know, I wondered, that the engine had overheated? Here's where things get fascinating. "Attached to each engine," Oberg continued, "is a 'heat tab.' This metal tab contains a single drop of lead in the center. At or above 255 degrees, the tab begins to bubble and at even higher temperatures, it begins to melt and run. The heat tab on this engine has begun to melt and run off. This would indicate that the cooling system failed, causing damage to the engine. This is not a factory fault."

Oberg went on to report that the "pistons showed signs of detonation," which results from "installation-related problems" and "is not caused by any defect in the engine." Finally, "the oil drained from this engine was in poor condition. This would indicate that perhaps the oil had not been changed in a considerable amount of time."

In conclusion, Oberg wrote, "I am very sorry that Mr. Mason experienced problems with his engine... However, the bottom line is that this engine was not defective."

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.