True Stories From A Former Car Dealer #19: Lifts

Hydraulic lifts are a critical part of any dealership’s service department. How to properly put a vehicle on a lift is one of the most critical things a technician can learn. To be perfectly honest, I was always afraid of them. When I had a customer with a concern, I would often get under a car six feet off the ground so a technician could show me what the issue was, but I was never comfortable under there.

Hydraulic lifts must be kept in top-notch condition for obvious reasons. Air can get in the hydraulic system and must be bled off otherwise a vehicle in the air can slowly drop. A technician raising a car must also approximate the center of gravity of a vehicle.

At the dealership I ran in Dallas when I was young (the one that I wrote about in The Sign), we had a technician let a diesel pickup fall forward off a lift. The front bumper was on the ground with the rest of the truck sticking way in the air. This is a hard thing to explain to a customer. The technician underestimated the weight of the diesel engine and had the truck too far forward. Thankfully he was able to get out of the way before it fell.

You would certainly think that scare would have been enough to frighten the tech into being more careful, but less than a month later, the same technician lost another diesel truck the exact same way. This time he was terminated.

Years later when I moved to the dealership I eventually purchased in Garland, TX I quickly realized the dealership was not viewed favorably with the locals. I decided I would do my best to change that. We made a huge deal out of it when someone came into the dealership that lived in our city. I dubbed them “home zone” customers and we really rolled out the red carpet.

I bought a home in Garland to better entrench myself in the area, became involved with the Chamber of Commerce, and supported everything that was going on in the schools. In fact, I set aside $25 for every car we sold into my “community support fund” and I made sure every penny was spent in my town.

I supported the police department and paid for the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty. Another officer was badly injured and I had lunch delivered to the hospital for a month to feed the officers holding vigil. I supported the fire department and was made Honorary Fire Chief for a day, and was presented a fire chief’s helmet in a display case that is one of my most cherished possessions today. We quickly became known as a benevolent dealership and the locals supported us because we supported them.

I also got to know the Mayor and City Staff very well. I got word that the City Manager had a bad experience with the previous dealership owners. He went out of the area to purchase his almost new current Ford, and he had never been in our service department.

I finally got the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one and invited him to come in and see the changes we had made. I could sense a little hesitancy, but he said he needed his first oil change. I didn’t risk insulting him by offering to pay for it but did ask him to let me know when he was bringing his car in. He called a week or so later and said he’d be in the next morning.

I put my service people on alert to give him a warm welcome, have a loaner car ready, and to ask if he needed anything else. They were instructed to do a good wash and vacuum job after the oil was changed. He came in on schedule and I was told everything went great. Although sort of a stoic kind of guy, he even smiled. I told them to let me know when he arrived to pick it up.

I went about my business of the day, and an hour or two later, the service manager called me and said I really needed to come to the shop. As soon as I went out the door by the vending machines, I saw it: The city manager’s car lying on its side. Yes, it had fallen off the lube rack hydraulic lift. I was sick to my stomach.

As it turned out, it was not human error, it was that the lift broke off an ear on the right rear claw-like piece of metal and it was just enough to tip the car to the right and slip off. Thankfully nobody was hurt and no other cars were damaged.

We had a similar brand new Ford Taurus in inventory and I got it prepped and called the city manager, and just simply said: “your car is ready. Come to the showroom and ask for me.” He came after lunch and I walked him outside and as I handed him new keys and pointed at the shiny new Ford, I said “you’re ready to go. You can pay for your oil change at the cashier window.” He immediately knew it was not his car, as I recall it had upgraded wheels. He said: “that’s not my car” to which I sheepishly replied, “it is now.”

I explained what happened and I explained his car was totaled, that I had insurance to cover it, and he could take the brand new Taurus with nothing out of his pocket. He was pleased and I think a little in shock, but drove off toward city hall.

There were probably cheaper ways to do it, but I had a customer until years later when he took a job up north, and the City Manager of my town was proudly driving a car with my logo on the trunk and my dealership’s name on the license plate frame.
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Greg G.
When I was about 17, I worked in my dad?s tire shop. We had about 8 bays and the first bay right by the service desk developed a problem. It was hard to stop at the top and slow to start coming down. No matter how hard I tried, it would slam at the top and drop the suddenly the first few inches coming down. I hated that lift and still occasionally have a nightmare about a car falling off. Thankfully It never happened, but even now (35 years later) I still have the occasional nightmare of a car falling. As a matter of fact, I?ll probably have one tonight.
Greg .
I look forward every week to the stories from a car dealer. Great newsletter even if you're not in the market for a car, I always try to catch you on the radio when I can.
Bill P.
I was in an old garage one time and they had no lifts, just pits in the floor with a set of stairs the mechanic walked down to get under the car. I guess that would be safer than messing around with lifts, unless somebody fell in one of those pits. Some of the new quick change oil places use the same system but those pits today look a lot safer.
Earl F.

I really enjoy your newsletters and especially the "true stories" section.
Keep it up.
Dave D.
As a retired mechanic, I can identify with your discomfort with hydraulic lifts. When I first started as a mechanic in a little foreign car shop back in the early 70s we used jacks and jack stands. When I moved on from there, and until my last job as a mechanic, it was always a lift, and perhaps that's why I almost had a perfect record. I'll get to that.

At the second foreign car shop I worked at in the late '70s there was a lift designed specifically for VW Beetles. It looked like a capitol "I", with the lower wider leg catching the rear suspension, and the upper part of the "I" catching the front of the car. The manager insisted that it could also pick up a Dodge Omni, which we had recently started working on. The lift had already done a few, but I felt it was too precarious. Our lube person brought an Omni in for a oil change and tire rotation and put it on that lift. First he removed the left front tire, then the left rear tire, and the car started to do a slow roll, and landed with the right side on the floor. I still find it remarkable how flat that side of the car was when it was righted! This shop had it's own bodyshop, which fixed the car.

At this same shop we had an in ground single post hydraulic lift that was constantly leaking oil. The boss's solution was used engine oil. It was supposed to plug the leak,(not) plus he got to get rid of of used oil. You had to be careful with it, when it hit a pocket of air, instead of going slowly up, it would jump up, usually just a little bump. On this day, it must've been unusually low on oil. On this day I was raising a late model Mercedes, and as it got close to the top, it shot up the last 6-12" like it was shot from a cannon! I had a perfect view of that Mercedes lifting completely off the lift and saw light under all four pads! Thankfully it came back down onto the pads. I can see that one to this day. No more using that lift.

The first dealership I worked at was a Ford dealership in a small town in the area. They had a couple hydraulic lifts that I suspect were similar to the one in your story. Two in ground posts, one on each side of the vehicle. They were great to work with, the doors were clear, and the bottom of the car was easily accessible. It was a Saturday morning and a customer wait oil change. Did I mention the customer could view their car from the lobby? I completed the oil change and started to drop the car. It started OK, but then it wouldn't drop evenly. I tried going back up, trying to let it down again, but it only got worse, plus the right side kept sinking. Eventually, the car was at a 45 degree angle on it's right side. A frantic mechanic, and a frantic customer. The General Manager had a friend at the local lumber yard who had a large all terrain forklift with 8 foot forks. He drove it over and used it to pick up the car and let it back down safely, and with no damage. It turned out that the lift had an axle with a gear on each end to keep the sides moving in synch, and one of the gears sheared off.

The one that was my fault? A Olds/Pontiac/Nissan dealership I worked at in the mid 80's had a ramp style alignment rack. I drove a Pontiac Sunbird on, and lifted to it's max of about 2 ˝ - 3 feet. Preparing to do the alignment, I pulled the pins on the front alignment pads so the front wheels would move freely. A little too freely this day, and the front of the car slid off the rack to the driver's side of the car! The "only" damage to the car was a dented rocker. I can't remember if I figured out why the car slid off the lift, but it was a bugger trying to get it back on!

In the late 80s I started working on military vehicles, the job I would retire from. The first shop I worked at had a two post, in the ground, hydraulic lift for the big trucks. The rear post was fixed, and had a saddle for one of the rear axles, the front post had a saddle and could be moved fore and aft to engage the front axle, whether it was a 2 ˝ ton, (Deuce and a half, M35A2) or 5 ton, the M800 series. I still wasn't enamored with in the air lifts, particularly hydraulic ones, but I thought I'd give it a shot, as doing an oil change and lube would be quicker and easier being able to walk underneath the truck. I put a M35A2 Cargo truck on and lifted it up 5 or 6 feet. 6+ tons of truck in the air, and if I pushed on a wheel I could see it sway. Hxxx No! I NEVER tried that again! Floor jacks, jack stands and a creeper will work just fine thank you!

I've been enjoying you "Stories from a former car dealer' series Jerry, perhaps because of my past working at dealerships both as a Tech and selling cars, until I realized that as an ASE certified Master Tech, I was a much better wrench than a salesman. More likely though, they're just plain great stories! As you can tell, this one brought up some personal memories. Thanks.
C M.
I worked at a Ford dealer in Houston in the 1980's. On a Saturday morning a manager parked his new T-Bird demo straddle of the left side of a lift while the service dept. was closed. Around 10am the make ready tech came in and turned the air compressors on. The usual lift user had wired the lift valve in the raised position since it was leaking. The lift had settled down over night and with the compressor now on, it slowly rose into the air. As the lift jerked to a stop at its up limit the T-Bird fell to the left upside down on the service drive floor; "totaled".
Kelly D.
I read your earlier post about changing around a dealership that had location and space problems and making it productive and after reading that I wondered to myself " what did he think of that no one else thought of to make the dealership productive. It was interesting to read of some of the things done to gain sales and trust.
Don W.
I saw an example of a car lift clasping the garage owner put a year old Caddy on his single cylinder lift. While raising the Caddy the lift cylinder buckled from the not balanced load, this sent the Caddy sliding off the life coming to a sudden stop on the bumper, knocking the dash assembly from it's supports, tearing the gas tank straps off, breaking the rear shocks letting the axle assembly fall. The garage owner came into our business which was a NAPA parts store wanting to know if we could help hold the dash in place while he attempted re-bolt to the cowl. My boss and we fellow workers looked at the mess, saying no thanks. When the owner came for his car later in the day my boss waved him over to tell him what had happened. The shop owner tried to deny anything happened......
Scott .
Really look forward to reading your true stories every week. Keep them coming!
G.R. .
I know this happens as I saw it once when working at a VW Dealership in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. That was in the mid to late 70's. I guess that why they went to two and four post lifts now.
Al W.
Accidents happen .
David L.
Jerry, I wish you could know how many of us out here truly enjoy your reflections of your years as a car dealer. I have to say, you've given me (even in this day and age) a much better appreciation of what an honest dealer can do, if properly motivated. Best wishes.