Auto Parts Stores Evaluations and Repair Manuals

Here's some comments on buying auto parts, parts stores, and service manuals:
First of all, I should say that buying OEM parts from a local car
dealer generally is not my first choice. Depending on the dealer, the prices are often ridiculous compared to high-quality, brand-name parts from a parts store (which are just as good, if not better). Some of the parts guys at the dealers are also jerks, like some of the salesmen. Many car dealers still have unethical car sales practices and this is reflected in their parts departments. Some dealers charge less than list, but many just sell at the manufacturer's list price, which has a huge mark-up over dealer cost. For example, in my area there is a Chevrolet "Performance Parts" dealer that has a great reputation for quality car sales and service. They discount many parts 20% off list, while the other Chevy dealers sell at list, and the parts guys generally are not very helpful. If you want to check out a dealer's parts department, try buying an inexpensive part first and ask some technical questions to see what kind of response you get. There are also a few online stores where you can order OEM parts at reasonable prices, but remember that shipping and handling charges can add to the cost.
If you have an older American car, I've had good online mail-order service from Northern Auto Parts (www.northernautoparts.com), Jegs (www.jegs.com), and Summit (www.summitracing.com). Jegs and Summit carry more performance-type parts for muscle-cars. A lot of people have told me they have had problems with Performance Automotive Warehouse (PAW). JC Whitney (www.jcwhitney.com) is also worth checking for low prices, but they generally don't list the brands of parts they sell, so you don't really know what you are getting until the box arrives. For example, I bought some rear springs from Whitney because the price was low. They turned out to be American-made and worked fine, but I had never heard of the manufacturer - something like "Bob's Spring Company." On the other hand, I bought a trailer hitch from them that didn't fit the car it was supposed to, so I had to UPS a 40 lb. package back to them and wait for a refund. I prefer to shop at the local stores unless there is a huge difference in price. You can usually save money buying brand-name spark plugs, oil, lube, trans fluid and filters at discount stores like Walmart. The parts stores generally will be about 10% to 40% more on these items. Walmart carries OEM-quality filters like Fram, AC, etc. Some filter brands like Wix advertise that they are better (i.e. trap finer particles), but I have never had a problem with Fram or AC when I followed the recommended change intervals. Some Walmarts now sell Fram's reusable air filters, which have a lower pressure drop than disposable paper filters, but they cost about $40.
If you need to buy automotive tools, Autozone has the lowest prices on decent quality tools. Sears also has good quality tools at low prices. For mail order, Harbor Freight (www.harborfreight.com) and JC Whitney have low prices and carry some tools that you can't get at Auto Zone or Sears, like bearing splittes and hydraulic presses. Beware that some of the very low-priced Chinese-made auto tools are not very good quality and can break on you under load; this can obviously be dangerous. Tools made in the US, Japan and Taiwan generally are decent quality. Carquest and Checker have higher tool prices, but they carry some tools that Auto Zone doesn't have. Napa is very expensive, but has a very large selection of tools. You can also obviously buy expensive professional-quality auto tools from the local reps (Matco, Snap-On, Proto, etc.) that sell to professional mechanics (check the yellow pages or auto shops), but if you only work on your car a few times a year, the tools you can buy in stores or by mail-order generally work fine. Most of the stores listed below also rent specialty tools. Local businesses that rent equipment may also have some automotive tools for rent, though this is less common than it used to be. Also, check out the local flea markets; you can sometimes find auto tools there very cheap.
PARTS STORES:
1. AUTO ZONE (website www.autozone.com). Fairly good selection of parts, but quality varies depending on the type of part. Prices are the lowest I have found at any chain store. Forbes magazine had an article saying they have some very agressive price arrangements with vendors to keep prices low. Prices are the same in stores as on their website. If you bring in an ad, catalog, or a printout of an online part price, they will usually match the price on normal-stock items (though you may have to get approval from the store manager, so go in the daytime.)
In the past, Auto Zone stocked a lot of low-quality parts in the stores, and you had to special order brand names. Now the stores are stocking a lot of brand-name parts like Fel-Pro, Timken, Melling, etc. Stay away from their suspension parts (McQuay-Norris, Perfect Circle). Even though they have a lifetime warranty, you will have to use that warranty in a few years (or less) when the parts wear out. (Instead use Carquest "blue" suspension parts, made by Moog). Auto Zone has low prices on parts like rebuilt alternators, water pumps, power-steering pumps, etc., along with 1 or 2 year or lifetime warranties. These parts are better in quality than the rebuids they carried a few years ago. I haven't had to return any of these types of parts for warranty. However, if you don't want to risk having to replace the part again in a few years, Autozone has new parts for about 20% more. If you lose your receipt, they will often honor parts warranties if you give them your name and phone number when you buy the part. But you should save all your receipts if you can.
Auto Zone has a great tool loan program. You leave a cash deposit, and you can use the tool as long as you want (though you should try to return it in a week or so). You get the full deposit back when you return the tool. They consider the deposit just like purchasing the tool, so if you want to keep the tool you can.
Autozone employees are usually quite friendly and fairly knowledgeable (I think they must have some sort of training or screening program). Sometimes you will find a young kid with an attitude working at Auto Zone, but this is rare. They can sometimes give decent repair advice, but don't expect someone at Auto Zone to tell you how to shim a differential carrier bearing.
2. CHECKER AUTO (website www.partsamerica.com). Prices at Checker are generally about 10-15% higher than at Autozone, but sometimes you will find parts that are less. Part prices in the stores are often higher than that listed on the website. They will beat other local stores prices on normal-stock items by 5% if you bring an an ad or printout from the store's website, but they sometimes won't do this with catalog or online prices.
Brands, quality, and prices are similar to Auto Zone. They are now carrying more brand-names and better quality rebuilt parts. But like Auto Zone, their standard suspension parts are generally poor quality. They can special order TRW suspension parts, but these are still not as good as Moog/Carquest parts.
Like Auto Zone, they have various warranties on parts up to lifetime. Keep your receipt for warranty. Even though they save your name and phone number like Auto Zone for warranties, I've heard people have had problems without a receipt.
Checker has a free tool loan program like Auto Zone (with deposit), but if you don't return the tool within 48 hours, they assume that you bought the tool and won't refund your deposit.
Stangely, most Checker employees are generally not very friendly or knowledgeable. I don't think they screen their employees very well. A few examples: Guy wasn't able to look up and order special-order parts in his computer even though he had the paper catalogs. Guy didn't know what a bearing splitter/separator was; told him I wanted one to remove pinion bearing; he said you didn't need one for "wheel bearings." Guy forgot to tell me their policy is to require advance payment for parts from the local warehouse, so he just didn't order it; it was a $10 part. So if you know what part you need and bring them a printout from their website or they can look it up on their computer, you are probably safe at Checker. If you need more help, you probably won't get it.
3. CARQUEST (www.carquest.com - no parts prices on website). Carquest is a "serious", no-BS parts store that mostly sells to auto shops but they also welcome weekend mechanics. All their products come in Carquest boxes, but you can check their website to see who actually makes them. Their suppliers are all top-quality like Wix, Federal-Mogul, Moog, etc. If you are going to do suspension work, I'd advise buying Moog "blue-quality" parts from Carquest. They also carry a lower quality line, but generally don't stock them because the local auto shops don't want come-backs when ball joints, idlers, etc. crap out on their customers. If you want to save money on parts, I'd check with Autozone and Checker first before going to Carquest. Prices at Auto Zone can be 30-40% less on comparable-quality parts. But Carquest has some parts that Auto Zone and Checker don't carry, and unlike these stores, they will know what you are talking about when you ask for a pinion crush sleeve. However, you can't go wrong at Carquest, even though you will pay a little more. Carquest will also usually get parts from you from their local warehouse without paying up front, so long as you don't abuse this (i.e. don't order something and then not buy it).
You need to keep your recipts at Carquest for their warranties, because they don't record your name on their computer.
They don't loan tools at Carquest, but they do sell hand tools and specialty tools. Tool prices are higher than at Auto Zone.
Carquest employees are usually friendly and knowledgeable. Often they are former mechanics. If they are not busy, they usually don't mind talking about repairs and giving advice. They also can usually recommend the best local repair shops or machine shops. If they make a mistake on an order or screw something up, they've sometimes sold me the part at their cost.
4. NAPA (www.napaonline.com). Napa used to be like Carquest, but many newer stores now cater to the weekend mechanic. Napa probably has the largest stock of parts, tools, and accessories in my area, but you often have to order the parts out of their catalogs and they get them in a day or too. The problem with Napa is that their prices are VERY high compared to the other stores. For example, a Napa-brand OEM-quality full gasket set for a Chevy 350 (made by Victor, I think) runs around $70, while you can get the same quality Fel-Pro set from Autozone for around $40. My local Napa store sells those little plastic caps you put on grease fittings for $1 each. You will find this nonsense across their full line, even their Dana-made chassis parts are more expensive than Moog parts from Carquest, and they aren't as good. For most parts Napa will have an expensive Napa brand OEM or better part and a "discount" part. The discount parts generally are not high quality, though they may claim that they are also OEM quality. I've found that prices in the Napa stores are always higher than on the website. Also prices for the same parts can vary a lot from store to store, as much as 20%. Parts that are not in-stock usually have to be paid for up front, and they have a 15% restocking fee if you return the part. This sucks because some of "universal" parts Napa sells (like Balkamp brand) are often not exact matches for original equipment, and Napa may insist on the restocking fee even if the parts don't match. Because of their expensive and weird pricing policies, my advice is to stay away from Napa. The only reason to go there is because they sometimes will have a part that none of the other stores will have.
Like Carquest, you need to keep your receipts at Napa for warranties.
Napa has a tool loan program like Auto Zone and Checker, but you have to buy parts from them to be able to use the tool for free, otherwise there is a daily charge of around $10 or so. However, the refundable deposits that you have to put down on their tools is HUGE. One store wanted a $300 deposit on a ball joint press. The AZ deposit for the same tool was $100. Stangely, they also don't have a very wide selection of loaner tools.
Napa employees are generally knowlegeable, but often not particularly friendly. Because of their large inventory of parts, they often have a hard time locating the correct part on their computer or in their catalog, and they sometimes screw up ordering parts and get in the wrong items.
AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR MANUALS:
I only work on old GM cars, and the old GM manuals generally suck, since they want you to use expensive, special GM tools on everything. They also are incomplete in a lot of repair procedures. Newer manuals, especially from Honda, Toyota, and Nissan are much better. I don't know about the new GM manuals. However, if I bought a car and wanted to do my own work after warranty, I would still buy every service manual the dealer has available, since they often have specifications and other info that is not in other manuals.
I've found that the Haynes car-specific manuals along with the "Techbook" series (carbs, transmissions, suspensions, differentials, etc.) are quite good, though I've found some errors and omissions. For example, in one manual, they don't say you should use a new crush sleeve and pinion nut when replacing a pinion seal. This can be a disasterous mistake on some cars, causing the pinion bearings to wear quickly. The Haynes manuals often show you how to use inexpensive or improvised tools to complete a procedure. They have a lot of clear photographs.
If you get a Haynes manual for a specific car, you should also get a Chilton's for that car. Though the Chilton's is generally not nearly as good, requiring the use of specific manufactur's tools and other BS, they sometimes have other info that is not in the Haynes manual, like exploded diagrams. The other Chilton's manuals on transmissions and other systems (like the Haynes Techbooks) generally suck. They usually have line drawings rather than photographs, and gernerally don't describe the repair procedures in enough detail.
HP books, Motorbooks, KLK Productions (cartapes.com) and other publishers have manuals and videos that are very good on how to rebuild American transmissions and engines. JC Whitney has some of these or you can order them online or from a bookstore. If I were going to do an engine, transmission or differential rebuild, I'd get a Haynes Techbook for that model, a rebuid video, and one of the books from HP or Motorbooks.
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PV ( snipped-for-privacy@hotmail.com) writes:

I just get out the Yellow Pages, turn to auto parts, and call 10 or so outlets for prices. The prices vary quite a bit. After a while you get to know who in your area has the best prices and tend to call 3-4 for a price. The parts chain franchise a couple blocks from my house has a big notice over the counter that if you locate a part at a lower price they will undercut the price 10% so you don't even have to drive across town to get a part at the best price, just call around and then go down to this place and buy it for 10% less than the best price you found. :)
-- ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ William R Watt National Capital FreeNet Ottawa's free community network homepage: www.ncf.ca/~ag384/top.htm warning: non-freenet email must have "notspam" in subject or it's returned
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On Fri, 24 Apr 2004, William R. Watt wrote:

The problem with your cheapskate method here is that it will get you not only the least expensive part, but the *cheapest* one, too.
I prefer to use quality parts and do the job once, rather than using shitty parts and doing it twice or more.
DS
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"Daniel J. Stern" (dastern@127.0.0.1) writes:

ask who makes the part when you get the price. you can also ask if they offer more than one, for example if you are buying a thermostat one manufacturer offers two lines, one basic, the other luxury. however for any part and manufactuer you care to choose you will get a range of prices by calling severl parts suppliers. I usually get the best price from a couple of guys with a computer with a hole in the wall retail operation who have a small markup and next day availability.
-- ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ William R Watt National Capital FreeNet Ottawa's free community network homepage: www.ncf.ca/~ag384/top.htm warning: non-freenet email must have "notspam" in subject or it's returned
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Daniel J. Stern wrote:

AMEN to that. My first pick for parts is an independent local parts jobber. If that fails, then NAPA (gotta admit to becoming a big fan of napaonline.com- its great to click off orders on the web and have parts show up on my doorstep the next day or day after). If everything else fails (including suicide) then Autozone, Pep Boys, and that ilk :-p
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