Learning to love a lemon

Owner-operator Larry A. Ward of Ohio bought his first brand-new truck in 1997. He says things started to go wrong immediately. Steer tires pulled to the right. Gauge lights flickered and died. The dashboard fell into his lap. The horn honked by itself.

Again and again the dealership fixed the latest problem, under warranty, and bid Ward farewell, only to guide him back into the bay a few days later.

“The truck was down there in the shop every weekend for the first year,” Ward says. “My friends joked that I not only bought a new truck but a 12-door garage and a crew of mechanics to go with it.”

Ward’s home and the dealership are in neighboring towns, but in the first six months, driving between them put 3,000 miles on his odometer. He outlasted three warranty managers and numerous mechanics. The last time his wife, Brenda, mailed copies of all their service documentation, the postage came to $21.

Yet, years after declaring his new truck a lemon, Ward still drives it. He says he has no choice.

“Everything on this truck has been replaced three or four times except for my steering column, and that’s been replaced only once,” Ward says. “I suppose it’s been a year and a half since it’s shut me down. The back windows still leak, and the windshield still leaks. I think this is my fourth windshield. But here I am still driving it because I can’t afford to do anything else.”

A newly purchased truck with chronic service problems means its owner is in for a long haul indeed, experts say. Many of the consumer laws that benefit four-wheelers don’t apply to commercial vehicles. Suing is difficult, expensive and often unsuccessful. Getting a new vehicle as a replacement is almost never going to happen. Often the best you can do is what Ward did: Act professionally with the dealership and, when you’re on the road, squeeze that lemon for all the miles you can.

“Occasionally a truck, as any machine, will experience a system or component failure,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off, says Mark Curri, national service director of Volvo Trucks North America. “A lemon is not inherently a bad truck. Typically, the lemon perception results from a problem that goes misdiagnosed or mistreated. Our job is to make that problem go away in a reasonable amount of time.”

By the time members call the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, it’s often too late, says Gary Green, OOIDA’s assistant supervisor of business services.

That’s because they’ve already sabotaged their relationship with the dealer by throwing a tantrum.

“It might help the way you feel, but it ain’t going to get the truck running,” Green says. “If you tell the dealer, ‘I’ll never buy another one of these blankety-blank so-and-so engines again,’ you just took away that dealer’s incentive to help.”

Instead, there are benefits to working with the system, as Ward did. “Most of the guys on the shop floor couldn’t believe how nice and kind I was,” he says. The dealership paid for all the repairs and lent him trucks to drive in the meantime.

“I know that truck is your baby, but the key factor is to remain businesslike,” Green says. Too many truckers demand that their truck be replaced. That happens rarely and only if “you really get your ducks in a row,” Green says. “And it still takes a long time.”

Owner-operators who demand a new truck sometimes vow to take their case up the chain of command, to the district or regional or even national service manager, forgetting that the service department’s job is to repair and maintain trucks, not to trade them.

“We will always steer them back to the dealer,” Curri says. “We are a support system for the dealers. Some people don’t even want to talk about fixing the truck. But why not fix the truck we have?”

Smart shopping tips:

  • Don’t buy a truck on impulse or from someone you don’t know.
  • Develop a friendly, professional business relationship with your dealer.
  • Understand all warranty terms.
  • Get a copy of warranties and extended warranties.
  • Keep all paperwork. Provide only photocopies; keep originals.
  • For grievances involving dealers – shoddy work by mechanics or bad information from the sales staff – contact the Better Business Bureau closest to the dealer. You can find the local address and phone number at www.bbb.org. BBB does not get involved in heavy truck manufacturing defects.

    Many truckers also mistakenly believe that state “lemon laws” protect them. Such laws mandate refunds or replacements for defective four-wheelers – but typically not big rigs, as Ward learned is the case in Ohio.

    “In most states, the lemon laws are not going to apply to commercial trucks,” says Michigan attorney Steve Lehto, author of The Lemon Law Bible. The Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, sometimes called “the federal lemon law,” likewise doesn’t cover commercial vehicles, Lehto says.

    “Lemon laws generally target consumer vehicles – automobiles, primarily – that are for personal use and not business use,” says Richard Woods, attorney with the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

    One exception, Woods notes, is Nebraska, where the state Supreme Court ruled this year that a commercial truck owner need not prove the existence of a specific defect in order to win a lemon-law suit. Rather, indirect circumstantial evidence can be sufficient. The opinion reads, in part, that a jury may conclude “that if the breakdown was not due to improper use of the truck, then it was due to a defect.”

    Another state with a good lemon law is Texas, Green says. “And the state attorney general’s office in Texas is really helpful, but only if you’ve bought in Texas, of course.”

    Lemon laws aren’t the only legal recourse. Each state, for example, has some version of the federal Uniform Commercial Code, which provides remedies for breaches of warranties and other contracts. Lehto and Woods suggest asking a knowledgeable consumer attorney, such as the ones working for your state attorney general’s office, about the applicable breach-of-warranty law in your state.

    These laws can be confusing. Consumer laws vary widely, for example, on details such as how often a vehicle has to break down to be considered defective and which state’s law applies if the vehicle was bought in one state and registered in another.

    Whatever the laws of your state, fully understanding the terms of your warranty is vital, experts say. Green boggles at how many owner-operators drive a new truck off the lot without even a copy of the extended warranty they just paid for.

    “Get it in writing and see what you’ve got,” he says. “And you want to make sure you get that warranty card filled out and entered into the computer. The dealer is supposed to do that for you, but you’ve got to make sure.”

    Consider a new truck warranty more an insurance policy than a cure-all. “Most of them cover specific things,” Green says. “The sales guy might say it covers everything down to the wipers, but that doesn’t make it so.”

    Many warranties don’t cover towing, which can run up to $1,700, Green says. And no warranty or law will reimburse you for downtime while your truck is in the shop. “It can turn out to be very expensive, even if you don’t have to pay for the repairs,” Green says. “It’s nothing to be down for two weeks waiting on a turbo.”

    Like other manufacturers, “Kenworth does not pay for income lost due to downtime,” says Rick Drollinger, Kenworth customer service manager. “We are, however, sensitive to this issue and always try to minimize downtime.” For example, an extended service plan such as Kenworth’s PremierCare program, Drollinger notes, can minimize downtime by setting up a preventive maintenance schedule and by helping truckers find the nearest service facility quickly.

    Invoking the warranty or otherwise dealing with the company bureaucracy is not always the most efficient remedy, Green says. “Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy the parts and pay for the labor yourself, as far as downtime is concerned.”

    When you do invoke your warranty, keeping all paperwork – not just titles and warranties, but also detailed service and repair receipts – is critical.

    “It’s very important to prove that you did have that engine serviced and you did run that truck properly,” Green says. Make sure, too, you can prove you used the manufacturer-specified oil, air filters and antifreeze.

    “If the service folks say, ‘We didn’t write it up because it’s under warranty’ or ‘We didn’t write it up because we paid for it,’ that’s just not so,” Lehto says. “Someone wrote it up, and you need to get a copy of it.”

    Some owner-operators who cry lemon are overreacting to minor problems, Green says. “All sorts of things can go wrong that can erode your confidence in a truck without really impairing its performance,” Green says. “You’ve got to step back and judge it as a businessperson and try to build your confidence back up.”

    That’s just what Ward had to do. “I absolutely lost all confidence in the truck,” he says, but he and his wife decided to run it as hard and as long as they could. “The past 125,000 miles have been pretty good,” Ward concedes, “but it’s a shame I had to go through the first 375,000.”

    Lehto says grumpy truckers who denounce entire runs of certain models as lemons aren’t thinking clearly. “Seriously defective trucks are a lot rarer than seriously defective automobiles and SUVs,” Lehto says. “Trucks are built better and more durable.” Truck manufacturers are a lot more likely to keep their customers happy, Lehto says.

    When an owner-operator loses all confidence in the truck on which his livelihood depends, solutions are hard to come by. That’s why the experts urge caution in selecting, buying and servicing a truck, so that – with luck – you never suck a lemon in the first place.

    “A guy is pretty much on his own when he buys a truck,” Green says. “It’s pretty tough.”

    Just ask Larry Ward. Or, better yet, don’t ask him. He has a stock answer now when quizzed at truck stops about his repair problems: “Don’t get me started!”

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