Uh-oh. What's that noise? Coming from somewhere under the hood, or is it back by the right rear wheel?
You may not have any idea what it is, but you know exactly what it means.
Another trip to the mechanic. Another day--at least--of bumming rides, borrowing cars or fumbling with coins and bus schedules. And the inconvenience is just the beginning of what that whomping is going to cost you.
Besides, where are you going to take the car? That place you went last time, where the guy didn't even seem to be listening to what you were telling him? Or that other shop, where they didn't seem to care that you were leaving on vacation in 2 days?
Having a sick car isn't fun for any of us; in car-centered Orange County it's as bad as being sick yourself.
But a fortunate few Life on Wheels readers are so pleased with their regular mechanics that while they don't exactly look forward to their next visit to the garage, the specter of another repair job doesn't leave them trembling or cursing, as some of us do.
They wrote testimonials to mechanics who saved them money, even if it meant sending them to the competition; mechanics who worked into the night without charging overtime rates, just because a customer desperately needed the car the next day, mechanics who recognized their names, who explained what the problem was without being too technical or insulting their customers' intelligence.
For their part, these miracle mechanics just shrug and say it all comes naturally, as long as you keep in mind that you're dealing not just with machines but with people as well.
Volkswagen mechanics got the most compliments in our completely unscientific survey, followed by those who work on other German cars.
"We do take a lot of pride in our work," says Dieter Schnirch, owner of Dieter's VW Repair in Fullerton and the only mechanic recommended by two readers.
A strange noise brought Marvon and Gloria Levine of Fullerton to Schnirch 17 years ago. Another mechanic had told them that he would have to get into their van's engine before he could tell them what it would cost. It sounded ominous.
"Desperate for reliable, cheap transportation, we tried to trade our dangerous car in," Marvon Levine says. But the dealer they contacted said the van's trade-in value would be considerably reduced because of the noise.
"You can imagine our desperation," Levine says.
But after giving the car a $9 tuneup, Schnirch said there were no other problems. That was nearly 300,000 miles ago, and the Levines say Schnirch is the only reason they've kept the van all these years. "Dieter's name is written all over it," Levine says.
When the Levines drove the van to Mexico and Canada, they took along a kit of spare parts from Schnirch. When their transmission started going out, "he made a small adjustment, and it ran for over a year on that. Then when he finally felt we should have it fixed, he told us about a man in Brea who could do the job cheaper than he could," Levine says.
If a repair is minor enough, Schnirch sometimes surprises his customers by telling them, "That's not something you have to leave the car for. We'll fix it right now."
John Cermenaro of Anaheim, another of Schnirch's customers, almost became an auto mechanic himself. His grandfather and then his father owned a small auto repair shop in a small western Massachusetts town. Cermenaro worked in the family garage as a teen-ager before studying engineering in college.
When he moved to Anaheim 8 years ago, Cermenaro began searching for a regular mechanic for his 1977 VW bus. He no longer works on his cars himself because their fuel-injected engines are too complex.
He tried a dealership but didn't like it: "You tell your problems to some guy with a tie on and never see the mechanic."
At other garages, the employees seemed "too busy or just indifferent."
Schnirch worked in a Volkswagen factory in Munich before coming to the United States 30 years ago. That, Cermenaro says, "makes you want to trust him with your Volkswagen right off."
But what Cermenaro likes best is that "after a couple of visits, he remembers you. Imagine that. In this fast-paced, overpopulated urban sprawl, a mechanic who recognizes your name when you call!"
"Sure, I know their names," Schnirch says. "You build up a relationship," one based on mutual needs.
He points out that however dependent drivers are on their cars and their garages, mechanics "must remember we have to depend on our customers for a living."
"As a woman, it's hard enough to go to a mechanic without being patronized or talked down to, or worse, being ignored and having a mechanic talk to your husband because women can't possibly understand cars," says Karen Linzy of Tustin, who drives a 1974 VW Super Beetle.
But Linzy says she doesn't have that problem with her mechanic, Richard Muller of RPM German Automotive in Santa Ana.