A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Can you fix this?

I was listening to “Car Talk” on NPR last weekend when the Magliozzi brothers took a call from a woman named Kathy who said she didn’t have a problem with her car, but rather her husband, who is a mechanic.

The woman complained that her husband couldn’t remember anything she’d told him just 30 minutes later, but he can recall in detail a car that whizzed by him at 60 mph six months ago.

The ensuing banter made me think of boats and marine mechanics. See what you think.

cartalk2

Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

Here is the edited transcript.

Tom and Ray:

“Fixing cars is very complicated. It used to be very easy. When we first started doing it, this was easy. That’s why we got into it. We figured it was something we could handle [laughter]. But like a disease it sneaked up on us and all of a sudden it got very complicated. It really, really did. I was thinking about it: Fixing cars is like almost being a doctor. And then I thought: No, it’s worse! If you’re a doctor, you basically have one make, two models [more laughter]. With a few variations. And the list of diseases. … Every once in a while they add one or two, but they also cure one or two, so you don’t have to worry about them anymore. They disappear.

“But cars are constantly changing. There are 600 makes and models of cars being sold in this country right now. Not to mention all the ones that have been sold in the past. So it’s like 12,558 cars. … It’s sort of like if you went to the doctor and you said, ‘Check my heart.’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s see, where is the heart in this model? Where were you born? What year? What’s your production date? Oh, that means your heart is down here in your big toe.’ How can you remember all that?”

Now Click and Clack get back to the question: “So mechanics are frequently distracted. So even though they’re looking right at you and it appears that they are listening, they aren’t.”

Given the millions of 20-plus-year-old boats on the water today, just how many variations are there, given all the builders, models, engines and accessory changes and options that have ensued during the past few decades? Simple: A ton. Clearly it keeps the repair and service folk on their toes.

I ran the scenario past Gordon Connell, executive director of the American Boat Builders & Repairers Association, to get his perspective.

“It would be easy to take the word car out and insert boat,” Connell wrote in an email. “At which point the conversation would become exponentially more complicated when you consider the number of boat manufacturers and the sheer volume of boats, models, age ranges and the boat owner’s expectation that the boatyard or mechanic has the solution to every problem they come in with. This should clearly show how amazing the boatyard business actually is and may explain why the boat mechanic, fiberglass repairer, electrical systems repairer, propeller specialist, etc., are increasingly costly and hard to find.”

Connell continued: “With hundreds of makes and models of cars that are, on average, less than 10 years old with a higher degree of standardization than the thousands of makes and models of boats, including custom-built boats and yachts, it is understandable why the boatyard business operates on such small margins. Providing high standards of marine service and repair to such a large number of boats with so many different engine models, electrical wiring systems, plumbing systems, electronic systems demands continuous training, a broad knowledge base and significant ongoing equipment and infrastructure investment.”

I also called my mechanic last night to get his take. Erik Klockars said that what gives him heartburn is not so much the great number of models and variation as it is the growing complexity of new boats and the fact that marine diagnostic tools aren’t as sophisticated as those in the automotive world.

“The older stuff is like a vacation when you’re working on it,” he says.

Erik, not surprisingly, also had an opinion on the doctors vs. mechanics question.

“You want to know the biggest difference is between doctors and mechanics?” he asked. “Doctors always have to work on a model while it’s running.”

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