You are right that if a jump-start works, obviously the starter is working. What you described sounds like a charging system problem. The battery is running down while you are driving. That can take less than an hour or it can occur over a few days or weeks, depending on the type of failure. I can get more into that if necessary.
I do not know where you are, but here in Wisconsin, repair shops are required to have you sign in one of three places on the repair order before anyone touches the car. The first place says, "I want a estimate before any work is done". We don't like that choice because if a problem needs to be diagnosed, you do not want to work for free, and neither do mechanics. How can they give an estimate if they can not work on the car? You will be asked to sign this choice for things where the cost is already known, like for an oil change or tire rotation.
Choice number three says, "Do whatever is needed, regardless of cost". We really hate that one because neither of us is going to be happy afterward. If it ends up being a thousand dollar repair, but the shop figures out a way to get the same results with a quality repair for $700.00, you are going to be upset because a friend of a friend had the "same" repair done last week and it only cost $200.00. The mechanic could have been very conscientious and was looking out for your wallet, but you still leave angry and never come back. This choice is best left for fleet vehicles, not for individual owners.
Choice number two is favored by all shops because there is little room to deviate from what you are expecting to pay. That says, "Go ahead with the repairs up to mega bucks". You fill in the dollar amount based on the mechanic's recommendations or on your previous expectations. In this case if the cost of parts and labor exceeds the amount you signed for by a little, the shop can try to collect that if they can justify the higher cost, but they can not force you to pay the additional amount. It is up to the mechanic to watch the time he spends on your car, and he must let the service writer know if more time or parts are needed. There are a lot of things that cannot be known until well after the job is in progress. Once the service writer is informed, he will grill the mechanic as to the legitimacy and reason for the additional expense because they really hate having to call you with that news. Once you are contacted and agree to the additional cost, they will document the time called and the name of the person they spoke with. They can even go so far as to ask for part of the person's driver's license number to prove they made the call.
If the mechanic exceeds the allotted time, he will be working for free. We do that quite often because if it only takes another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up the job, that is less time than waiting for the service writer to get back to them and tell them to keep working. Shop owners watch this rather closely. Once or twice per week will be overlooked, but if this happens on a regular basis with the same people, the service writer needs to learn to be more accurate when giving the estimates, or the mechanic has to become more efficient or invest in better tools and training. You might not mind waiting an extra fifteen minutes to get your car back, but that makes the next waiting customer have to wait even longer. If the mechanic only produces seven hours of work in an eight-hour day, he only gets paid for seven hours, and the shop loses twice. They lost his hour of productivity that they can't charge for, and they lost an hour from the car they could not get to that day.
For your situation, it sounds like the problem was not diagnosed correctly or at all. If it was indeed found to be something other than what they first suspected, they should have contacted you to get your permission to do the needed repairs. I doubt you were obligated to pay for things you did not authorize but I do not know the specifics for your state. If there was no such law in place, they could "find" all kinds of things that are "needed" on every car that comes into their shop. That is where one bad shop gives all of us a bad reputation.
You were right to insist on seeing the old parts. In fact, we have to give old parts back or make them available for inspection if they cannot be returned. The mechanic was absolutely wrong about refurbished parts. The terminology varies, but to me, "refurbished" implies the part was repaired, then sent to the next person. Reconditioned also seems ambiguous. I like "rebuilt", because the connotation is parts of an assembly, like the housing, and some internal parts that never wear out or break down are cleaned and reused, but all new internal parts like bearings and electronic parts are replaced with new ones. That is all you can usually get from the auto parts stores. The only way to get a brand new part is through the dealer, and those are very expensive. Typically new parts are only used when the car is under warranty and the manufacturer is paying the bill. Even then it states in all warranty documents that they are free to install rebuilt parts if that is appropriate. I worked for a very nice family-owned Chrysler dealership for ten years, and Chrysler's policy states the repair must return the car to "as new" condition. The car was not originally sold with a rebuilt starter or a used battery, no matter how high-quality those parts might be.
Speaking of quality, new assemblies like starters and generators come off the assembly line pretty quickly, and some of those internal parts are just good enough to get the job done, but with little margin for error. Rebuilt parts are hand-assembled and tested at various stages. Often the parts going in are of better quality, or just a little stronger than the originals. Ford, for example, is the master at finding ways to save two or three cents per car which translates into millions of dollars over the course of a year. One way is to leave a few grease fittings off the car, meaning the parts are designed to not use grease fittings. That saved them twenty cents per car in the mid 1970's, and that made news because of the huge cost savings. By the time those grease fittings worked their way through channels, that could end up making the retail cost of the car perhaps twenty dollars lower. Do that a dozen times and pretty soon you have a car that's cheaper than similar models from their competitors.
They are looking for short-term profits over long-term customer satisfaction, a business practice that is way too common today in many products. However, when the aftermarket industry gets involved with making replacement parts, it might still cost them a nickel extra to put a grease fitting in the replacement part, but instead of twenty dollars, that might translate into an additional twenty cents to the retail cost of the part. That is a small price to pay for much higher quality.
The whole reason for that sad story is to explain why rebuilt parts can be much better than new ones. I was the suspension and alignment specialist at my dealership, and on a few occasions I had to replace a rack and pinion steering gear under warranty. I saw the cost in the parts department. All cost well over $500.00. When we needed a steering gear for a vehicle that was out-of-warranty, we got rebuilt units from local auto parts stores. Back in the 1990's the cost was around $140.00. If you had a GM vehicle with their huge failure rate, the rebuilt steering gears had a modification that prevented a repeat failure that GM was unwilling to foot the bill for. Instead, their repair was just good enough to get the car out of warranty, then it was up to you to pay for the better part at the next failure. Today very high-quality rebuilt steering gears are available for less than a hundred dollars, and I am sure the cost of new ones has gone up, not down.
So don not listen to the, "I only use new parts" story. A new starter would likely cost well over $500.00. No one is going to go that route when a rebuilt one is less than one third the cost, and may be better.
The place I would start is to visit a different shop in a different part of town and ask them to look at the starter. If it is covered in dirt or it is greasy, it should still look like someone had been handling it. If it is spotless, it may have not been handled, as we usually leave greasy fingerprints on it. Look at the bolt heads or nuts that hold it on. Sometimes those are painted black and we can see the silver shiny areas from the wrench. The important thing here is in how you approach your request for the inspection. First of all, do not tell them the name of the shop that did the previous work. If they are friends, the new mechanic may give a false verification to avoid trouble. If they are enemies, the new mechanic is going to find things to blame on them that might not be legitimate. Some people think they build themselves up by tearing other people down. When we have confidence in our abilities, there's no need to do that. Also, do not tell them you suspect the starter was not replaced. Ask them to tell you IF the starter was replaced. They wont know if you suspect the first shop of not replacing what they were supposed to, or they did replace what they were not told to because that is what solved what they said was a much more expensive problem. For example, it is possible for a bad starter to not crank the engine at all, and it is possible for a major failure to cause the engine to lock up internally and need to be rebuilt. In a real bad example, they could charge you for a used engine, but replace just the starter. This is why do not tell them why you are asking. Let them determine on their own what work was done, if possible.
I can share too that in my city, we have about two dozen new-car dealers and perhaps fifty independent repair shops. I got to know many of the owners because they hired my students. Some of them sat on our advisory committee. When I worked at the dealership, we would borrow service manuals and help with trade-in cars with the local Pontiac / GMC dealer down the road, the Cadillac dealer, the Ford dealer, and one of the import dealers owned by a very nice fellow. All of those dealers were extremely reputable and had a lot of happy repeat customers. You might notice the Chevy dealer is not on that list. He is such a well-known crook that he has no repeat business. One visit to his repair shop sends car owners to a different dealership either fifteen miles to the north or thirty miles to the south for their next repair needs. His sales are pretty much limited to people new to the area. Unfortunately he has purchased the Ford and multiple import dealerships in recent years, and now they all have the same horrible reputations. One way to learn this is to ask any mechanic to list which shop they would go to if theirs did not exist, or where they would want to work if not at their current job. Also, look in the service bays. If a lot of them are empty, like at the Chevy dealership, it is because they have no satisfied repeat customers. Do not let them say it's because their cars do not break down! They all do. Also, new car sales means rust-proofing, mud flaps, running boards, and a lot of other non-failure things that are done in the shop. They should also be busy with the little nit-picking things customers want handled when they're under warranty, but would easily overlook if they had to pay for them. Squeaks, rattles, wind noise, and wind leaks are common warranty items that keep the mechanics busy. Even new-car preps, where we inspect safety systems, pound on wheel covers, install antennas and license plate holders gets done in the shop. Those are done to fill in when there's no customer work.
The same is true for independent shops. If two mechanics are milling around outside on a cigarette break, it is because no customers are in the shop. There is a reason for that, especially when there are so many shops you cannot get your car into because they are booked up for the next week. We have a lot of shops like that here, but we had one notoriously dishonest fellow too. All the other mechanics in town knew of the stunts he pulled. I just noticed about two months ago he is out-of-business, and his shop was on what used to be one of the busiest local roads in the state.
I forgot to mention too that in the case of starters, generators, steering gears, and even rear brake shoes, those old or worn parts do get returned just like empty pop bottles to be reused, "rebuilt" in this case. That is why you do not get them back unless you are emotionally-involved with the part and want to keep it. This is where you are allowed to inspect the old part before it is returned. When a used part is removed from a wrecked car, it already belongs to the insurance company and wont be sitting at a repair shop. If it was accessible and the starter was removed, they would never know it or care. A totaled car is sold as "salvage" to be rebuilt or for parts. Salvage yards that buy these cars make a lot of money on the parts, and one missing starter is not going to be an important issue. They may even see it is missing when they bid on the car. I have a friend with a body shop who specializes in rebuilding smashed one and two-year-old Dodge trucks. (Hopefully mine will be done pretty soon). Part of the job includes replacing missing parts that he did not see when he bought the trucks.
If you put yourself in the mechanic's shoes, and you removed a part to replace it, you would surely leave the old one sitting on the workbench or floor to proudly show the customer. The only reason to not make it available is if fraud is taking place, or if a parts runner delivered a replacement part from that auto parts store and he is waiting to take the old one along back right away so it is taken care of.
Now, as a parting note, and to be fair, there is one other scenario that may have taken place. Your vehicle uses a small, silver Nippendenso starter. Chrysler used a slightly different version of the same starter throughout most of the 1990's, and I installed one on my 1988 Grand Caravan to replace a less-common style. That starter had a real high failure rate of the electrical switching contacts inside it. The symptom was one day you would hear a rather loud, single clunk from it but it would not crank the engine. Release the ignition switch, then try again and it would work fine. A week later the same thing happened but you had to cycle the ignition switch twice to the "crank" position before it cranked the engine. Next week it was three times, and it gets worse and worse. I ignored my mother's pleas for help on her 1995 Grand Caravan until the night she lost count after seven hundred tries and a blister on her thumb, but it did finally crank. You better believe I got an earful that night! The point is it gets gradually worse over weeks and months as those contacts continue to arc away. For me, the fix is a pair of three-dollar contacts and an hour of my time, but mechanics will not repair assemblies that way for customers. That is because if they do something wrong or overlook a minor detail, they will have to do the job over again for free. Also, a rebuilt starter has a warranty. But most importantly, even if the mechanic gleefully does the job a second time for free, he knows you are angry because you had to take the time to drive all the way back to the shop. For the same reason no manufacturer will approve or pay for a warranty repair where an assembly was repaired. They will only pay the claim if the part in question was replaced.
If your symptom was that single, loud clunk with a failure to crank the engine, and this is the first time it showed up, it is real likely the starter would work normally when the battery was jump-started. The jump-start in that case had nothing to do with solving the immediate problem. You could just as likely say the starter worked because you scuffed your shoe on the door opening when you got out of the car. If the mechanic was lucky enough to catch the same symptom occurring while the vehicle was in the shop, he would surely recognize the cause because it was so common. That would be a legitimate reason to replace the starter, but only after informing you of his findings. The exchange that you described as taking place afterward was not appropriate.
By the way, most shops charge close to $100.00 per hour for labor. (If I showed you a list of their taxes, government regulations they have to comply with, insurances, and the pile of other expenses, you would never be able to figure out how they could stay in business by charging so little). That means they charged you for over an hour and a half to replace the starter, and including, I assume, some diagnostic time. I looked up the time allowed. If you do not know what "flat rate" is, I will explain that later. When the starter is replaced under warranty, the mechanic gets paid for 0.3 hours labor. When it is out-of-warranty, he gets paid for, and you are charged for 0.8 hours labor. At $100.00 per hour shop rate, that means you pay $80.00 regardless how long the job actually takes. That 0.5 difference is rather unusual in that it is a bigger difference than typical, but not unheard of. Warranty never pays as much as what the job actually takes because it does not include driving the vehicle into the shop. Running to the parts department to order parts, writing up the story on the back of the repair order, stopping to pick up a dropped tool, (do not laugh, they look at that when determining these times), and various other similar things. The non-warranty times also consider rusty nuts and bolts and anything that has to be removed to do the entire job. The 0.8 hours is more realistic. If your total bill that you listed includes the starter and the labor, that would be a good value for a rebuilt starter, and even for a good used one, provided that is what was needed to solve the problem. You will know that by whether the problem shows up again very soon. My point in this wondrous paragraph is that we have no use for a mechanic or shop that defrauds customers because they make the entire industry look bad, but there is at least a little possibility the mechanic really did a good thing for you. Just like with doctors, carpenters, bakers, and any other professions, we speak our own language that you do not understand, so you know things are going to get lost in translation. The conversation you described is not appropriate on the mechanic's part, but I have also been on the receiving end of an unhappy customer after I put my heart into solving his problem. (This was related to a minor house wiring project, at which I am also trained and proficient, but the result was the same). It left me deflated and not very likely to give my best for the rest of the day.
I know that is a lot to digest. Let me know if I can add another chapter to this story.
Friday, September 16th, 2016 AT 9:17 PM