Here's some comments on buying auto parts, parts stores, and service
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
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.
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
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
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
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.