Voices

Breakdown: You don’t have to get a tow truck

Stuck in the middle of nowhere and with a car that won’t start a tow truck seems the only way out, but there’s another option.

IT WAS A hot Friday afternoon and I’d spent the day in an old but (up to that point) reliable runabout crossing Melbourne’s snaking freeways when suddenly the battery light came on for the first time ever.

It was a regularly serviced car and the battery was new so it might be an issue with the alternator, I thought. I decided to pull over at the next exit and have a look, but the situation rapidly deteriorated.

The steering soon felt heavy, and then the temperature gauge climbed to the ceiling. This might be expensive was my next thought. I was lucky enough to be close to an exit and found a quiet carpark to pull over and inspect the damage.

If you do pull over on a freeway, mobile mechanics aren’t legally allowed to help. If safe and not in danger of harming the car, try to exit the freeway.

Some coolant had hit the engine and created a billow of steam, so I left the bonnet open to vent for a few minutes before having a look. Near the engine the remnants of the serpentine belt could be seen.

The serpentine belt is common in newer cars and requires less space than traditional multi-belt systems, but as it runs all peripheries such as the alternator, water and steering pump and air-conditioner, its failure can feel catastrophic.

This car didn’t have any roadside assistance (around $200 per year), so it seemed a tow truck was in order to get it home or to a workshop and assess whether its was something to tackle on the weekend or leave with the mechanic. Aside from needing to replace the broken belt it’s prudent to also inspect the idler pulleys, belt tensioner and seals on the pumps as these can fail too. Not a fun job and not for the average punter.

Calling around the most competitive tow truck price was $220. Add to that the cost of a mechanic to repair and the total cost was soon approaching $500 or more, so I thought I’d give a mobile mechanic a shot.

I called around and got onto Bill from Nation Mobile Mechanics who was able to come in an hour – pretty good considering it was 3pm on a Friday afternoon.

As promised Bill was there within the hour and inspecting the damage. After removing the serpentine belt, which was relatively new and shouldn’t have failed, it appeared the pulleys were to blame. The pump seals and other parts were checked too, and all seemed okay.

Bill left for half an hour to get the parts and after 1 hour and 45 minutes of breaking down was back on site repairing the engine.

An hour and a half later and the job was complete. A few other items on the car were looked at and fluids were topped up.

The total cost was around $400. That’s for a call out fee, parts and labour. To do the job myself would have been at least $350 after a tow, parts, some bruised knuckles and the loss of a weekend. The quote from a few mechanics was around $180 for parts and $150-$180 for labour.

If the required repair was bigger, it would probably pay to get the car to a mechanic. But for basic breakdowns or if you can assess the problem yourself, a mobile mechanic might be quicker and just as cost effective as towing.

  • Hilldene

    I have used mobile mechanics. They give a quick response time, you do not need to book days ahead. Both times the car was stuck in my garage and was repaired quickly . I had a gearbox problem one time and the dealer was about 35kms away so I answered an add in the local newspaper and he took my car on his old traybed truck for a very reasonable fee.

Alex Rae

Alex Rae

Alex Rae grew up among some of the great stages of Targa Tasmania, an event that sparked his passion for all things mechanical. Currently living across Bass Strait in Melbourne, Alex has worked for the last decade in the automotive world as both a photographer and journalist, and is now a freelancer for various publications. When not driving for work Alex can be found tinkering in the shed on of one his project Zeds or planning his next gravel rally car.