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Automotive Hell: The Placebo Effect


1 AUTO HELLFrom 36055512, Tales

”So, why is it that the red one is so much slower?”

Mr. Ferrari, one of our salespersons, was in my office at Dishonest Used Car Dealership, attempting once again to get me to fix something that wasn’t broken.

MF: “I drove both the red one and the grey one over the weekend, and the red one is just sooooooo much slower! There’s no way I can sell it with how slow it is. It’s not even drivable.”

He was on a tirade about our Vanagons. As you may remember from the story where one made a jailbreak on me, we would buy ratted-out rustbox VW Vanagons at auto auctions and then spend nearly $10,000 in parts and labor swapping in VW 1.9L turbodiesels into them. This had the side effect of making them even slower, with the benefit of them getting exactly the same sh*tty fuel economy as before. In fact, slow does not even being to describe it. They were positively glacial.

Me: “Look, you submitted a trouble ticket this morning, I gave both the grey one and the red one a drive, and I can’t tell the difference. They’re both slugs - all of ‘em are.”

MF: “I don’t understand why this is so difficult. It’s pretty clear to me what the problem is. The grey one has a turbo, and the red one doesn’t.”

Me: “Uh… both have TDI engines in them. They’re both turbocharged. All TDIs are turbocharged, that’s what the T in TDI stands for. Now if there’s something wrong with the red one, it might not be building boost pressure and it would feel sluggish. I can have a tech troubleshoot it, but we’ll have to bill for it.”

Freddy2 094MF: “No, you’re not going to charge us a f*cking thing, because whatever tech put the TDI in the red one just forgot to put the turbo on it, and that’s Service’s fault, not Sales.”

Before I had a chance to interrogate the bizarre misconceptions he was operating under, he marched out.

Now, to people who don’t know cars, turbochargers must seem like magical devices. I suspect people who don’t know how they work think they’re like a lightning bolt sticker or something that you just stick to the side of the engine block. “Congratulations, you are now officially turbocharged. This award confers the right to make more power.”

They’re actually very simple and clever devices, turbochargers - instead of routing the engine’s exhaust directly out the exhaust pipe, it’s made to spin an impeller first, capturing energy from the exhaust. That impeller spins a compressor, which force-feeds air into the engine’s intake, more air than the engine can otherwise draw on its own. More air means you can inject more fuel and more fuel means more power. But because the turbocharger is mounted directly to the exhaust manifold, between it and the exhaust pipe, it’s not really possible to just “forget” to put it on. There’d be a big hole there. You’d notice.

I wrote up a repair order and gave it to Lord Salisbury, one of the techs, to take a look at.

”I say, I’ll be damned if I can tell what he’s on about.”

Lord Salisbury thunked the repair order onto my desk.

LS: “It builds boost pressure just fine. I get 1 bar of pressure at full throttle, right within spec. I put a scope in the manifold - you know those early TDIs like to clog up their intake manifolds - but it’s clean enough. Near as I can tell, it’s just as slow as those vans ever are, but no slower. I had a run down the interstate with the grey one, and I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference.”

Me: “Cool, I’ll bill sales for wasting your time.”

LS: “Let me know what happens.”

Jason2 081Lord Salisbury wandered back to the bay and I paged Mr Ferrari, who appeared immediately from the sales office. I tossed him the Vanagon key.

Me: “Give it a drive, tell me what you think.”

He took off in the Vanagon, only to reappear less than 5 minutes later.

MF: “Whatever you did to it, it’s even worse than before! I couldn’t even get on the freeway it’s so slow! This is not acceptable. I don’t get what the problem is here, just quit f*cking around and put a turbo on it!”

For f*ck’s sake. I paged Lord Salisbury and had him bring the grey Vanagon around and park it next to the red one. We popped open the engine covers on both. I indicated to the two of them a snail-shaped object buried in the engine bay on the grey one.

Me: “Lord Salisbury, would you agree that this is a turbocharger?”

LS: “I would.”

I pointed to the same object on the red one.

Me: “And would you agree this also is a turbocharger?”

LS: “Indeed.”

Me: “So would you agree it is reasonable to say that both of these engines are turbocharged?”

LS: “I would agree.”

Mr. Ferrari did not have a pleasant look on his face.

MF: “I don’t know what the point of this Perry Mason bullsh!t is, but it’s clear to me you two just don’t want to fix what’s wrong with the red one. Get off your lazy asses, put a f#cking turbo on it, and stop wasting my f#cking time!

And with that, he stomped back into his office. Lord Salisbury rolled his eyes and slammed closed the engine covers. We stood out in the lot for a bit trying to figure out our game plan. At a certain point, Mr. Ferrari would get fed up enough that he would go to Rom and The Amazon, and the two of them were a whole order of magnitude more insane and unreasonable than he. We stood, surveying the two vehicles for a bit, just thinking about how we were going to solve this nonexistent problem. A moment later, Miami Vice, my new lackey, stepped out of the office to see what was going on. He was a smart kid and a hard worker, but he didn’t know much about cars.

MV: “What’s going on, guys?”

Me: “Oh, Mr. Ferrari is a dipsh!t. He’s got himself all in a tizzy about the red van not being turbocharged or something.”

MV: “Well, it isn’t, is it?”

Lord Salisbury and I gave a quizzical look. Miami Vice explained his reasoning. The moment he said it, it was blindingly obvious.

Carolanne 018v”Hey dude, can you get me a quote on a new turbocharger for an early TDI? 2000 Jetta ought to work.”

I was on the phone with my contact at the old Volkswagen dealership I used to work at. He was a grizzled old man who knew these cars inside and out. He was grumpy, irritable, and addicted to pain killers. He was great.

Him: ”They’re not cheap. You have one blow on you? You know, it’s usually not the turbo on these, it’s often the VNT vanes sticking or a clogged manifold…”

Me: “No, no, I just need a price on a turbo. It’s a long story.”

He laughed. He had been around long enough to know what was going on.

Him: “Looks like with your discount, it’s $550.”

Me: “Cool. Hey, do you have part number 1C0-853-675-AGX-2 in stock?”

Him: ”Looks like I’ve got three. You want it on your weekly delivery, or you want it rushed?”

Me: “ASAP. This afternoon if I can have it.”

Him: “You got it. You want that turbocharger on the truck too?”

Me: “Uh... yeah, I guess, why not?”

Terri18Later that afternoon, a white van bearing the VW logo pulled into the driveway. The driver tossed me a box with a turbocharger and a small envelope inside and drove off. I summoned Lord Salisbury to the red Vanagon.

Me: “You wanna do the honors, or shall I?”

LS: “Oh, I suppose I can muster up the strength to do it.”

I handed over the envelope, and from it, Lord Salisbury pulled out a part. He cleaned off a spot on the lower right of the back of the van, and, with all the gravitas he could muster, placed the part in its new home. He stood back and admired his handiwork. There, on the back of the Vanagon shone in all its glory, a little chrome badge that read “Turbo”. We had previously stuck a turbo badge on the grey one just as a joke since it was so miserably slow, and now the two matched.

This was Miami Vice’s great insight. The grey one said “turbo”, and it had a turbo. The red one did not say "turbo", ergo it must not have one. Brilliant, right? Undoubtedly, at some point the lack of a badge on the red one had registered somewhere in Mr. Ferrari’s primitive lizard brain and now it was, unconsciously at least, tainting his perception of the van’s performance.

Lord Salisbury dusted off his hands and went back to work on his other projects for the remainder of the afternoon. As for me, I summoned Mr. Ferrari, who appeared in a moment from his office.

Me: “I had Lord Salisbury do a bunch of work to the engine today, including bolting on a brand new turbocharger from Volkswagen.”

MF: “Oh good, you even got the little badge on there.”

Good, he noticed.

Me: “What I’d like you to do is drive the grey one first, then the red one, and tell me whether you think they drive about the same. Sound like a plan?”

Mr. Ferrari climbed into the grey Vanagon and went off on his test drive. A half hour later, having driven both, he came into my office, positively beaming. According to him, the red one drove like a brand new car and it was easily the fastest Vanagon we had. In fact, he had half the office staff give it a drive and everyone agreed, it was a speed demon by Vanagon standards.

From then on, we added a turbo badge to every diesel Vanagon we built. It was never an issue again.

Oh, and the repair order? Somehow someone accidentally billed Sales for a $1200 turbo replacement rather than a $20 badge. Lord Salisbury somehow got paid 6 hours of labor to stick a badge on the back and an extra TDI turbocharger somehow wound up in inventory, but I don’t know anything about all of that.





Psh! Doesn't he know that 'da red wunz go fastah'?


He sure sounds like an ork, doesn't he?

Kai Lowell

My cats are now wondering why I am cackling like a madman.

Tech Support Survivor

Why? Because it's red.


Should have put tiny flame stickers on the side. Then it would have been even faster! More dakka-dakka!

Kai Lowell

It needs racing stripes.

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