By Andrew Markel
BRAKE & FRONT END magazine
When I receive a call from a shop looking for alignment angles, it is usually a rare or exotic vehicle. It might be that 0.1 percent vehicle that has rare options like manual steering, off-road package or all-wheel-drive, that is not in most alignment spec databases. I can usually find the specs. Try me, (330) 670-1234 ext. 296. I know that it happens, I have been there myself.
Note: Some of the names and facts have been changed to protect the innocent.
One morning, I received a phone call on a 2006 Ford Fusion. If it is was for a Peugeot 405, Merkur XR4Ti or Hino 268, I could understand. But, when they are asking for the angles for one of the most common vehicles on the road, I knew some thing was not right. I thought I might have a geometry teacher in his driveway trying to align his own car with a T-square and string.
As I asked about what specs that they needed, it sounded like the technician was skilled and knowledgeable. But, I could tell the call was not his idea. Someone was watching over his shoulder, like one of those hostage phone calls.
I asked him, “So, the owner is too cheap to buy the software update?” He replied, “Positive on that angle.”
“How old is the system?” to which he replied, “Plus or minus 20.”
“How much does he charge for an alignment?”
“Fifty degrees, I mean dollars,” he replied.
“How many does he sell?”, I inquired. He said, “That angle is negative.”
His main concern was the tolerances for caster side-to-side and setback, and how it caused a pull condition. After a while the technician loosened up, almost like his boss left the room.
He said that if the vehicle was newer than 1999, it was not in the database. All he could do was compare the angles to a book that covered up to 2004. It worked in most cases, but it was getting more frustrating as their loyal customers bought newer vehicles.
He said gravy work like struts, control arms and other work requiring an alignment after the repair, would soon turn into molasses if the vehicle was newer than 1999. It got even worse if the vehicle required special parts to bring it in to spec due to the fact that it took extra time to research the adjustment, labor and parts. He had seen the latest alignment systems and could only dream of having all the information right in the bay.
The shop owner did not see the alignment bay as a profit center. To him it was a community property tool that was paid off with his original business loan, and he would never buy another, or invest more into the current machine. In essence it was a measuring tool, nothing more, nothing less. But new alignment systems can be so much more.
More than 30 years ago, BRAKE & FRONT END would publish the alignment specs for a manufacturer’s line. By the end of the year, it was possible to cover the majority of vehicles on the road and still have room for other news and products. Today, that would be impossible.
With more manufacturers, platforms and suspension designs, it would be difficult to even cover one vehicle platform in one issue. Also, there are an increasing number of ways to bring a vehicle back into spec. This is where the alignment system can become more than just a measurement tool. The system can be a diagnostic tool that can interpret the different angles and measurements and come up with the right correction strategy.
As I talked further with the technician, we looked past new equipment and price tags to realize that that automotive repair had become just as much an information business as a repair business.
Time spent looking up specs or correction kits were tasks that were often never billed. Even the phone call, was almost not on the customer’s bill.