Reader Question: My 1997 Ford Probe died on the highway the other day, and I had it towed to the nearest dealer for service. Apparently my timing belt broke, which had been replaced about 30k miles ago. The service technician put a new belt and tensioner in. After that he said the car still wouldn't work because I had damaged a cylinder and needed a new engine. I told him not to replace the engine. Now he wants to charge me $615 for parts/labor on the car when it still does not work. Can he charge me for this?
Dear concerned car owner,
He probably can. Did you sign a work order? Did you get some kind of written or verbal estimate? If you did not give them authorization to perform the repair then you might not have to pay for it, but you better contact your attorney first. If you gave him authorization to replace the timing belt and the tensioner, then you owe him that agreed-upon amount regardless of the outcome.
Some engines are "interference engines," which means when the timing belt breaks, it can do internal engine damage. Your car is equipped with an interference engine! The mechanic should have warned you about the chance of severe engine damage before he started the work-especially since the belt broke while driving at freeway speeds. To check if your vehicle is equipped with an interference engine, use this great Website Gates.com.
Sometimes you just don't know if internal engine damage has occurred until you replace the belt and try to start the engine. He probably should have done as little as possible (install just the belt and the minimal amount of parts) until it was "safe" to assume the engine was ok.
Since that did not happen, what can you do now? You can negotiate the current bill with him and take the car somewhere else to either have a new engine installed or have your damaged engine repaired. You can leave the car where it is and negotiate the price of the new engine, or you can write the car off and sell it as is. In my shop I would discount or split the charges with you for customer goodwill if I was your mechanic doing this job.
Since this vehicle is almost 7 years old, it might not be economical to replace this engine with a brand new engine. You might want to consider purchasing a used engine from a junk yard and have this mechanic install it for you. Salvage yards today use high tech networking techniques to quickly locate used parts in salvage yards throughout the U.S., so locating a quality used engine for your particular vehicle might not be as daunting a task as you might think. GetUsedParts.com is a great free service to locate used parts.
As far as the timing belt breaking prematurely with only 30,000 miles, I can say I have seen this happen many times. Most timing belt driven engines like yours have one or two belt tensioners, pulleys and belt guides located inside the timing belt cover, and some use the timing belt to drive the water pump. Problems with any of these items can lead to timing belt failure. Since the timing belt and these additional items are inside the front of the engine, a periodic visual inspection is not feasible. Replacing the timing belt and any other needed additional parts every 60,000 miles or as directed in your owner's manual is your best protection against this type of catastrophe.
Austin C Davis
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