It was another cold icy winter’s day at Dishonest Used Car Dealership. I was sitting nursing a hangover when I heard our Incompetent Tech Guy come in and march into Colossal Redneck’s office. The door closed, there was a minute or two of brief, muted conversation, and then CR began bellowing his stupid laugh.
“HAW HAW HAW! That is the stupidest thing that ever’s been said. One, y’all didn’t buy yer car from us so we ain’t gotta do warranty repair on it, and two, what’cher tellin’ me, it ain’t even broke!”
I was thoroughly confused. ITG marched out of CR’s office and slammed the door behind him, only to come across the hall and march into mine. Great.
ITG: “The 4WD system is out on my Jeep, and I want it fixed.”
ITG had a new Jeep Wrangler, the vehicle he owned before he purchased the black Powerstroke he became so known for. When he came to the company he had a haggard old Corolla, and suddenly he could afford to buy a new car every six months. Obviously taking control of the company’s cash flow had paid some dividends.
Me: “Well, just so you know, it’s under factory warranty, so if you want something fixed on it, it’s gotta go to the Chrysler dealership at the end of the street. They’ll fix you up.”
ITG: “No, they’re refusing to fix it. I want it done here.”
This didn’t sound like the Chrysler dealership I knew. We didn’t have dealings with them often, but the few times I had gotten parts from them for my own Jeep or sent in cars to fix things we didn’t want to handle, they had been competent and honest. I could immediately tell I was in for one of “those” conversations.
ITG: “This morning, coming out of my apartment, I had it in 4WD on account of the ice, and the tires spun. Obviously the 4WD isn’t working right, but Chrysler says it’s working as designed. That’s not acceptable.”
Now, permit me a brief aside while I explain how a differential works. You see, when your car goes around a corner, the wheels on the outside of the curve traverse a longer arc than the inside wheels, which means they have to rotate faster to keep up. If the wheels were forced to go the same speed, either the inside tires would scrub or the outside tires would drag, and turning would be extremely difficult, as the car would want to just push forward in a straight line. Cars, therefore, have a piece of equipment called a differential (or “diff”) between their drive wheels, which splits power left and right and allows differential rotation (have you guessed where the name comes from?) between the wheels.
Differentials come in a few different flavors, but the cheapest and by far the most common is called an open diff. An open diff isn’t a clever object - it doesn’t care whether both wheels are going the same speed or one is stopped and one is going 600 MPH. You can also have a locking diff, which, as the name implies, locks the wheels together either on command or automatically, giving maximum traction but sacrificing turning ability when locked. These are commonly found on serious off roaders and are available as aftermarket parts for Jeeps and trucks and the like.
These require a driver who knows what they’re doing. There are other varieties as well, like “limited slip diffs,” but they don’t factor into our story today.
ITG’s Jeep was 4WD, but it had open diffs front and rear, which meant if it encountered really slick conditions, one wheel on each end of the vehicle could theoretically lose traction and render the Jeep stuck. The vast majority of 4WD vehicles are this way, and it’s still far better than 2WD when it gets slippery out, but it does tend to throw new 4WD owners for a loop if they’re operating off a misconception about how the system works.
ITG was, of course, operating under this very misconception.
I explained all of the above to ITG, but he wasn’t having any of it. We eventually settled into the sort of circular impasse we always settled in, where he kept repeating himself and I kept repeating myself, until CR walked in and broke the cycle.
CR: “Alright, ITG. Yer car’s is doin’ how it’s designed, and Chrysler ain’t gonna warranty it, and we sure as hell ain’t either. But I tell ya what, we can get a locking diff for yer rear axle and put that in, and you’ll get all kinds of better traction.”
The problem with aftermarket locking diffs is that they start at $expensive and go up from there. ITG was probably embezzling money from the company, but he apparently wasn’t embezzling quite enough, so he settled on the very cheapest solution, called a “lunchbox locker,” which is a variety of locking differential that automatically locks up when power is applied. Lunchboxes are kind of terrible, but they do work. The problem, though, is that they can be unpredictable and “snap” from unlocked to locked with minor provocation. They also make ugly noises and require careful driving to avoid having it lock on a corner and push you off into a tree. On a short wheelbase vehicle like a Wrangler, they can be even scarier, as they can cause the tail of the vehicle to whip around if you goose the throttle when turning on a slippery surface. Most people I know with them use them on vehicles that spend most of their lives offroad.
CR ordered the new diff for ITG, and ITG pranced off, proclaiming that he was somehow going to get Chrysler to pay for its installation since, “that’s how it should have been in the first place.”
CR came back into my office and gave a grin.
Me: “What are you so smug about? This is a stupid idea. He’s going to hate a lunchbox in that thing.”
CR: “I know. It’s gonna be f**kin’ hilarious the firs’ time he drives that thing with that lunchbox bangin’ around back there.”
Me: “You think he’s got even the slightest idea how to drive a vehicle with a lunchbox?”
CR: “Hell no, but y’all don’t see me givin’ a s#!t, do ya?”
A week later, ITG’s new differential insert arrived and Mr. Sarcastic pulled the Jeep into his service bay to swap it in. It was another icy day, and a few hours later, MS returned from his test drive. He walked into my office, eyes wide, skin pale as a ghost.
MS: “Holy f**k, dude. That thing is a handful.”
Me: “Don’t like a lunchbox, huh?”
MS: “Nah, it ain’t so much that, I had a lunchbox in my old Toyota. But that short wheelbase on that Jeep… it’s pretty spooky on the ice out there. A couple of times the diff locked mid-corner and the tail just stepped out on me. That 4-liter has enough torque that when it starts heading sideways, it does it in a hurry. Five dollars says ITG doesn’t make it a week before sliding sideways into something.”
Me: “I know, I know. CR put him up to this. It’ll be on him when ITG crashes into a busload of nuns or whatever.”
MS shook his head at the whole situation and retreated to his bay. I IMed ITG and let him know his car was done. ITG immediately appeared from upstairs, and I went over the invoice with him and informed him of how he was going to have to handle his lunchbox-equipped Jeep.
ITG was listening to very little of what came out of my mouth, since he was too busy working himself up into a holy rage against Chrysler. He was pretty convinced that Chrysler was going to pay his invoice for him, and against my wishes the conversation rapidly drifted into a minimally-coherent rant / fantasy scenario of how he was going to “shove this invoice down their throats.” Needless to say, I was skeptical that he was going to have much luck.
Me: “So, how would you like to pay today? Cash, credit, or would you like Payroll to pull it out of your check?”
ITG: “NO! Haven’t you been listening? Chrysler will pay for this! I WILL MAKE THEM PAY!”
Before I had a chance to interject, ITG snatched the invoice off my desk and marched out to his Jeep. I watched CR dart out of his office, the fastest I had ever seen him move. He waved me out to follow.
CR: “Ya smell that? Somethin’ stupid’s about ta happen!”
Sure enough, as we watched from the bay door, ITG fired up his Jeep and, fueled by his righteous anger at the Chrysler corporation who had so fraudulently given him the exact vehicle he had purchased, punched the throttle. The big inline six roared and the Jeep launched itself from its parking spot. ITG whipped the wheel to the left, and, predictably, the Jeep’s tail kicked to the side. With a cringe-inducing crunch, the passenger rear of the Jeep slammed against the side of the building. Our building was made of Cold War-era concrete, so other than a couple scratches to the paint it was fine, but the same could not be said for the Jeep, which now was thoroughly crunched.
There was a typical screaming match, but CR had done a remarkable job covering Service’s asses in the paperwork. It wasn’t all quite English, the disclaimer, but CR had managed to copy-and-paste the hold blameless agreement from the lunchbox manufacturer into the invoice. Underneath ITG had signed, probably having not even bothered to read the big bold text stating “OFFROAD USE ONLY.” He was stuck with the lunchbox, though as a courtesy, CR had Mr. Sarcastic swap the original diff back in, MS graciously placing the greasy box full of lunchbox locker on a pile of paperwork on the passenger’s seat of the Jeep.
I was standing out in the service bay during the technicians’ lunch break only a couple of weeks after the ITG incident, when CR walked up to survey how things were going.
Me: “Hey, that green Wrangler on the lift, do you know anything about it? I can’t find it on the schedule and the techs are out to lunch.”
CR: “Oh, that there’s mine.”
Me: “I didn’t know you had a Wrangler. What’s it in for?”
CR: “Yeah, I don’ drive it much, it’s my offroadin’ toy. Ya know, a friend of ours was tryin’ to get rid of a lunchbox locker real cheap, and I was thinkin’ I’d do ‘im a favor an’ take it off ‘is hands. Jes’ so happens he has a Wrangler too.”
It took me a second, and then it clicked.
Me: “You clever bastard.”