When the Wheels Fall Off


Germain McDaniel/Shutterstock.com

It was a bright summer day when our regular customer, a woman in her 30s or 40s who had a haircut that we’d now deem a “Karen”, was leaving the dealer with her brood after a routine service, probably an oil change and tire rotation.

I just happened to look up as she was leaving the dealership, just in time to see one of her luxo-barge’s wheels bouncing across the parking lot, as you see sometimes see after a NASCAR wreck. Fortunately for our GM’s sanity, it didn’t appear to hit any of the customer cars parked on that side of the store.

You know how sometimes people see something bad happening, and in shock, they laugh, even though it’s not appropriate? I laughed.

Thankfully, no one saw/heard me chortle. I took a breath, realized the severity of the situation, and went to flag down a manager or the service writer who’d taken her repair order. I don’t remember now if I was the bearer of bad news (I may have been) or if others in the service drive and showroom saw how it went down. I just remember a lot of scrambling. The dealership version of DEFCON 1.

I don’t know how much more deeply I can go into specifics on this, other than to say our regular and her kids were fine, and the dealer took good care of her. We also lost a good tech that day, as you might imagine.

I felt bad for laughing, it could’ve been a lot worse than a damaged suspension and one less technician on the payroll. What if that wheel had worked its way loose on the highway instead of in a parking lot at slow speeds?

In the end, the regular remained a regular, and talk of the incident died down, and we moved on.

Still, I will never forget the sight of that wheel going its own way, unencumbered by lugnuts.

Some time later, it nearly happened to me. On the interstate.

I was working at a different store, and my Accord needed an oil change and tire rotation. Why take it to the Honda dealer or my regular independent shop when I worked in a service department? One of our entry-level techs could do the job.

Which he did. Except the lugs weren’t quite tight.

They didn’t work themselves loose right away. It was right around the time I hopped on Interstate 88 to head towards the city for grad-school night class that the vibration made itself known. And while a 10-year-old car had some vibrations normally, this was different. You get to know your car after a while, and I knew this wasn’t normal.

Accords don’t typically shimmy and shake like Shakira, even after all those years and miles.

I limped it back to the shop, and the tech was still there. He tightened the nuts properly this time, and OK, fine, no harm, no foul. I liked the dude, and I knew it was an honest mistake, so I didn’t dime him out to management. He apologized profusely, and I was glad to have dodged a bullet.

I tell you these two stories not to scare you about techs forgetting to tighten your (lug) nuts the next time you get your tires rotated. But rather, to remind you that even good techs – the tech in the first story was one of the shop’s best – have bad days.

Should you be really worried about it, you can carry your own torque wrench. Otherwise, keep an eye out for that old shimmy-shimmy shake.

If this car’s a vibratin’ – yeah I don’t have a good rhyme for that. Just get it back to the shop, ASAP, and be prepared to hear a lot of apologies. If you don’t hear some sincere mea culpas, get yourself a new shop.

Loose wheels may look funny when a racecar wrecks, but they’re a service manager’s worst nightmare. When I think of that first story, my mind boggles at how much money that likely cost, in terms of a make-good.

There’s an old joke in service. When a customer has an odd complaint or is just odd, the smartasses in the service bay diagnose the issue as a “loose nut behind the wheel.” It’s the automotive equivalent of an IT guy saying “ID10T error” or PEKAC (“Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair”).

Those “loose nuts” behind the wheel can give a service-desk grunt gray hairs. But it’s still better to have a loose nut behind the steering wheel than several loose nuts at the actual wheels.

[Image: Germain McDaniel/Shutterstock.com]

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