On Monday May 17, 1999 I suffered every traveler's worse nightmare when I broke down at Exit 50 of I-85 in Jefferson, GA. As my faithful Dodge conversion van slowly coasted to a halt (conveniently in front of a hotel), I was already digging my AAA card out of my wallet. I know enough about automobiles to tell that smoke, the odor of burning fluids, and the fact that the engine was still running but we weren't moving, were all indications that we weren't going anywhere anytime soon.
I called AAA and they sent me an absolutely wonderful tow truck driver (and his truck) by the name of "Earl". He confirmed my suspicion that we had blown a transmission line and experienced a major transmission meltdown. Since a picture of the place where we died should be in the dictionary under "north of nowhere", I asked Earl to tow my van to the closest Dodge Dealership, which turned out to be Commerce Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep, Inc. in Commerce, Georgia. I decided to go to a Dodge Dealer because I THOUGHT I could count on getting a fair estimate of the repairs necessary. My thinking at the time was that while I had no way of knowing which local independent repair shops had a good reputation, I could count on a Dealer to be competent. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. I now believe that the Commerce Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep, Inc. service department saw a woman, broken down, 500 miles from home and the pupils of their eyes turned to dollar signs. I feel I would have been better off if I had picked some guy off the street with dirty fingernails and greasy jeans and asked him to fix my van. Hindsight is always 20/20
After spending a fitful night at The Discomfort Inn (another long story, but we won't go there except to say that I think it should be a law that all hotel owners along major interstates must speak some English) I called Commerce Chrysler Dodge on Tuesday May 18, 1999 at 8:30am. I was told by "Brent", an assistant manager in the service department that they had not had a chance to look at my van yet, but it was next up on the rack. On inquiring, I was informed that labor costs were $55.00 an hour. That was $10.00 an hour more then my home town dealer, but I wasn't in my home town, so I accepted the rate as reasonable for the region.
I called back a little before 10:30 am, (right before check out at hotel hell), and was told that the transmission had been removed and examined and that it was totally toasted. I was told that it would either have to be completely rebuilt (only the housing was usable) or I would have to get a re manufactured transmission. No surprise there. When your vehicle spews copious amounts of burning fluid from some component at 70 mph, you can usually expect to have to replace that component. I asked what the cost of doing so would be, and was told that they (the service department) would check on various costs and parts availability and get back to me. I left my pager number with the service department in case they wanted to reach me while I was changing locations.
After acquiring a car from Enterprise Rental (who were very accommodating), checking into a hotel where you don't have to be a talented Mime to communicate the management, and feeding our stalwart band (I had a friend and a 100 lb. dog with me on this little adventure) I went to the Dealership to see what was up at about 2:45. I was told that the "parts man had not had a chance to check on parts yet" and that he should be back in 15 - 20 minutes. We waited around until 3:30, then went back to our new hotel which was only about a mile from the Dealership.
I called the Dealership again at about 4:30, knowing they were going to close the service department soon. Jimmy Antwine, the service manager, was in a meeting and returned my call a few minutes later with the news that a re manufactured transmission would cost approximately $2200.00 plus $400.00 in labor. With fluids, waste disposal, gaskets, etc. the estimated total to have a re manufactured transmission installed in my van was $2600.00-$2700.00. This transmission was only available in Jasper Michigan and would not arrive until Friday or Monday of the following week. I was also informed by Mr. Antwine that rebuilding my transmission would cost even more in parts and labor, approximately $3000.00.
Since I had my other Dodge van's transmission rebuilt three and a-half years ago for $679.00 I thought this $2700.00 - $3000.00 charge was excessive. I asked Mr. Antwine if there was something unusual about this particular transmission that made it so expensive. I inquired as to whether it had some type of special overdrive, heavy duty shifting capability, anti lock up safety feature, gold plated gears hand wrought by cave dwelling dwarves only on the new moon, etc., anything that would account for the huge discrepancy in cost. He responded no, there was nothing unique about my model, My van has a regular old 999 transmission that is used in over a decade's worth of Dodge vans and trucks. $2700.00-$3000.00 was simply what the cost would be using parts or a re manufactured transmission purchased from his Dealership. Mr. Antwine explained that they only used dealer parts and that parts for my model were difficult to get. He stated that the $679.00 rebuilt transmission in my other Dodge van (also a 999), that I have put 137,000 miles on so far and counting, would have used "after market" parts, which are very inferior to Dealer parts. I remarked that 137,000 miles on a $679.99 transmission was quite acceptable to me. I told him that I really didn't need a transmission that would out live me and that I needed to call around for other options. I told Mr. Antwine that I would call him back with my decision regarding what I wanted to do before he closed.
I then called Gene's Transmission in my hometown of Portsmouth, VA, where I have gotten several transmission replacements in the past, and told them my story. I asked them how much I should expect to pay for the needed repairs. Parts have gone up a little since I bought my last transmission from them. I was told that I would pay $800.00 - $900.00 to have one rebuilt at Gene's if the housing was still useable. I asked the mechanic from Gene's Transmission, "Mike", to call Jimmy Antwine at Commerce Dodge as find out if there was something I was missing. There is a big difference between $800.00 and $3000.00. I asked him to ascertain what I would be getting for $3000.00 that I would not get for $800.00. Mike called me back and explained that he could not see the benefit to putting a $3000.00 transmission into my van. The one year warranty he offered was the same I would get from the dealer. I know from experience that Gene's backs up their work and since I knew the tow to VA could be had for at least $700.00, I decided to send the van home for repairs.
Jimmy became very agitated when I told him my reasoning. I told him very nicely the costs in GA were too high, and explained that I would save $1000.00-$1500.00 by sending my van home for repairs. He got extremely irate, saying that a $800.00 - $900.00 transmission "would not last very long." "That no original parts were being used" and that "non Mopar parts are inferior." He also stated that "No one can give you an estimate on rebuilding a transmission on the phone without seeing the transmission."
I tried to explain where I had gotten better prices, and that I did not understand how pricing a rather standard transmission could be so difficult. His attitude just got nastier and nastier.
I finally asked what I owed for the diagnostic. He quoted me a figure of $344.00. I said that this was excessive for 2-3 hours of work at the most. Jimmy became very rude when I questioned the huge fee. I was told by Jimmy that "they had a man working on my van all day." "It took all morning to get my transmission out." "A man worked all day to find parts." His statements directly contradicted what I had experienced. At this point, I got off the phone and went to the dealership in person. I asked to speak to the General Manager. Got a man named Bobby Hill. I explained the problem in detail and why I objected to the high fees. I did not object to paying a fair amount, but I could see no reason I should have been charged for 6 hours of labor.
We met with Jimmy Antwine. I told Hill that I figured I was into them for 2-3 hours of labor at $55.00 an hour coming to approximately $165.00. Jimmy screamed at me that "the book" called for 6 hours to remove and inspect my transmission. I asked them how this could be. I knew that, unless Jimmy was lying to me on the phone, at 8:30am they had not yet started the van, and by 10:30am they had it out and inspected. I was told that "we charge what the book calls for, not for how long the job actually takes." When I questioned the fairness of this policy, Hill told Jimmy to "be quiet, we will just have to come to an arrangement with this person (me) because they had operated in "good faith" and I was not.
At this point both men became very abusive defending their high charges. Hill kept saying that they had done all this work in "good faith." I pointed out that they had nothing from me in writing, that I had received no estimate from them beyond the verbal $55.00 an hour quote, and that I did not have to pay them anything at all to retrieve my van, but that I was quite willing to pay a fair amount for the 2 hours they spent to remove and look at my transmission an an hour or so I know it took them to look up the costs of parts. After much insulting commentary the bill was lowered to $266.00 for four hours. This was still an hour or so more then they had earned, and I was even charged a $12.38 "disposal fee" for fluids that I know for a fact I spewed onto Interstate 85, but I paid it to end the encounter before the scene got any uglier.
By this point both Hill and Antwine had been badgering and berating me for over 30 minutes. I was so angry I was not saying a word any longer. I just stood there saying nothing. I handed them my American Express card and drivers license. Then, for some unknown reason Hill had an employee make a photecopy of my drivers license and credit card. Both he and Antwin continued to posture and attempt to intimidate me while Antwine worked on their computer to modify my charges. When Hill once again began to berate me for "taking advantage of their good faith," I broke my silence and told him "you just keep on, say all you want. I'll have my say when I get home to my keyboard."
Hill asked me to repeat myself, so I did. At this point he yelled to the 2 or 3 employees in the area, "you all heard her, you are all witnesses." I told him he had no need of witnesses that he would receive a copy of every single word I wrote. I explained, still in a calm tone, despite having been yelled at by 2 abusive men for almost 45 minutes, that I intended to expose Commerce Dodge's attempt to rip off a stranded out-of-towner.
Hill then gave me back my papers and told me that I had to have my van, trailer and golf cart off their property before they closed at 8pm. They would not allow a driver from my hometown mechanic to pick up the vehicles in the morning. Since Hill and Antwine had spent all day stalling me, and then kept trying to bully me into paying even more than I was forced to, until 6:30pm, I was left with one and a-half hours to get back to my hotel and make arrangements to move my property.
Fortunately, Earl from Garman's towing was kind enough to drop everything he was doing and went to pick up my property. He had offered to tow my van, trailer and golf cart back to VA for approximately $700.00 when it broke down initially. This was a very good deal all things considered and I took him up on it. He also picked up my transmission and parts in a box with my van. Earl made it a point to ask if he had all my parts in that box and he was assured by the Commerce Dodge service manager that all parts were in the box or the van.
It was not until my van was at my own mechanic's garage back in Virginia that it was discovered that Commerce Dodge had kept ALL the usable parts needed to re install my transmission. They had kept the drive shaft, the main mounting bracket for the transmission, all nuts and bolts, everything usable. All they had returned in the box were the parts that needed to be replaced. The transmission 'housing" which was intact in Georgia, was now broken and useless. My mechanic called Commerce Dodge and asked if they had my parts. They were told that Commerce Dodge did have the parts. When my mechanic asked what they wanted to do about it, he was told that "Brent" would have to "consult the manager". Since this happened on a Friday, I was told that no decision would be made on the parts they had retained until Monday. I had to go to an event that weekend so I was forced to rent a truck from the guy that does my body work that could haul me and my cart and camping gear to the festival.
Finally by Monday afternoon Jimmy Antwine decided that they would ship me my parts back COD cash. I was supposed to pay an undetermined shipping and handling fee. When my mechanic called me with this latest news, I was not a happy woman. I called the dealership and asked to speak to the owner of the dealership. I wanted his name and phone number and I wanted to tell him that my parts were being held hostage by the goons that were working for him. I was told by "Terry Ward" what a very important man the owner of his dealership was and how he did not "get into issues like this". He refused to give me the name of the owners of the Dealership and he refused to pass a message to them.
Time to call the lawyer. I called a friend who is a lawyer in Virginia. While he made it quite clear that he did not know or practice Georgia law, he suggested I call law enforcement officials in the area to determine if the Dodge Dealership employees were committing a crime at this point. They withhold vital parts from my tow truck driver then want to charge me to get them back. If that's not a crime, in my personal opinion, it ought to be. I called around and finally spoke with a Jackson County Deputy, he sent me to a Judge Chanler, who was very nice, but no real help at all. It seems you can do these things in Georgia.
OK, time to turn to our old friend the Internet. I searched out who owned the Dodge Dealership in question, their address, phone number, etc.. Turned out to be owned, along with several other dealerships and business ventures in the region by a long term husband and wife team, Jimmy and Joyce Williams. I called them at home 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning and spoke with the wife of the CEO, Mrs. Williams, who is also an officer of the company. She listened to everything I had to say and said she would get back to me after speaking with her employees. Within 30 minutes Bobby Hill called me with the news that they would be sending me my parts that day at their expense.
My missing parts arrived the next day and I finally got my van repaired and back on the road a week later than necessary. My final bill for the transmission was $1389.48. Part of the difference between the approximated price of $800.00 - $900.00 and the final price was due to optional upgrades I elected to receive. I had all the rubber transmission hoses changed to metal lines so this will not happen again. Part of the difference was also due to the fact that the actual transmission housing had to be replaced too. The original estimate from my mechanic did not include replacing the transmission housing because I, and he, had been told by Commerce Dodge that the housing was OK to use. When it arrived at my mechanic's garage he stated that it was cracked and there was no way it could be reused. I had another mechanic I know look at the housing that had been returned to me and they confirmed that it was not usable.
Commerce Dodge got me for about $700.00 all total, and delayed the work on my van for a week. Because of the distance involved, sueing them would cost me more then what they soaked me for. At least I can post my story to sites like this one (eight such sites so far and counting) in the hopes that others will learn from my experance and avoid Commerce Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep, Inc. like the plague.