Tearing out and rebuilding a transmission is complicated and is never going to be cheap.
But the News4 I-Team shows why so many customers in our area are unhappy with the nationwide auto repair chain AAMCO.
The company’s commercials tell you, “For over 50 years, AAMCO has been known as the transmission experts."
"I was like AAMCO is the professionals of transmissions," Mike Mills told the News4 I-Team.
He said he paid a Virginia AAMCO almost $4,000 to rebuild his transmission.
But as soon as he drove away from the shop, Mills said, "The truck shifts from second to third, it like decelerated, then jumped right into third gear. Enough to make me turn around and go back."
Mills said AAMCO's corporate office told him to take his car to a different AAMCO location, where he heard a familiar tale when the shop told him, “’I need to rebuild your transmission.’ I said, ‘Well, how much is it going to cost?’ He said, ‘I can probably get it all done for maybe like $4,000.’ I said, ‘Hold on a second.’ I go out to the truck, bring back the paperwork from the other AAMCO. He laughs at it. ‘Ha ha.’"
Mills said AAMCO agreed to rebuild the second transmission at no cost, but his SUV still isn’t fixed. “I think they got me for four grand."
The News4 I-Team discovered there are more complaints filed against AAMCO in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia than any other auto repair company in our region.
Dozens of complaints about transmissions never getting fixed, even though customers spent three, four, five thousand dollars.
One complaint to the DC Attorney General’s Office stated, "My car has been to this AAMCO 12 times for the same issue, and now my transmission is completely gone."
Another at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office explained, "On the way home” from picking the car up from the shop, “the car sounded like a 747 and the whole car started shaking."
“They sell hope where a lot of times there is none,” said Mike Johnson, who worked for AAMCO headquarters from 2010 until last year.
A Master Technician with 35 years’ experience, he spoke to us because he said AAMCO takes advantage of its customers.
"Unfortunately, to be profitable, I think a lot of them cut corners to save money, and the end result is the complaints,” Johnson said. "Sometimes there may be haste to condemn the transmission."
Johnson and other AAMCO franchise owners say the main goal is to get that transmission out.
Johnson told us, "The big thing that makes me uncomfortable is the removal, disassembly and inspection. I think that's unethical.”
He's talking about how AAMCO charges between $450 and $700 to pull your transmission out, knowing it can't fix it for that price.
"I didn't feel that was right,” Johnson said. “We know what it's going to cost."
He and other franchise owners tell the I-Team AAMCO knows you're more likely to agree to spend thousands of dollars once the transmission has been taken apart.
And if you decide the money's not worth it, some shops will charge you hundreds of dollars to put it back together.
That’s what Sheila Wilson said happened to her. “They told me I had to give them $795 to put the transmission back in."
Wilson told us a Maryland AAMCO wanted more than $6,000 to repair her transmission after it had been pulled out of her Mitsubishi.
AAMCO told the News4 I-Team Wilson authorized them to pull the transmission out for the $795, something she denied.
"I said, you know what, just give me the vehicle, you don't need to put the transmission back in,” Wilson said. “They wouldn't do that."
Instead, she said, AAMCO started charging her "storage fees."
That’s until Wilson served the shop's owner with court papers. Suddenly, she got her car back at no charge.
In a statement to the News4 I-Team, AAMCO said out of the “750,000 customers each year” who visit AAMCO centers, “less than one percent contact AAMCO to express a complaint regarding how they were treated.”
In another letter to the I-Team, AAMCO explained, “Transmission problems are the most complicated and costly to repair. It is often impossible to diagnose the extent of a transmission problem until the transmission is removed from the vehicle and inspected. Our operational procedure is for the center to tell the customer upfront what their cost will be to diagnose the transmission. After diagnosis, the customer is given an estimate of the necessary repair. If the customer does not authorize the repair, the faulty transmission must be reassembled and re-installed ... at the quoted inspection price, which is not the repair price."
But Veronique Anglade says that’s not what happened to her.
“The car was hijacked,” she told the News4 I-Team.
Nearly two years after she dropped off her black Mazda minivan at the AAMCO in Randallstown, Md., we found it still sitting in the parking lot.
Anglade said when she thinks back on what happened, "I was so mad. I said, 'No, it doesn't work like that.'"
Anglade told us she initially agreed to pay $800 to pull the transmission out but said the price to fix the transmission jumped to $1,600 and then $3,400 after the transmission was in pieces.
"You can't do nothing with a car in parts!" she said.
Anglade explained the shop wanted a thousand dollars to put the transmission back in. She refused.
In a statement, the owner of the shop told us a different story:
"The labor charge to remove and evaluate her transmission was $1250 ... We have tried to contact Ms. Anglade to remove her vehicle from our shop. We have no use for her vehicle, but since we have not heard from Ms. Anglade, we find ourselves with a broken vehicle sitting in our parking lot."
Not true, Anglade said. "I want my car back fixed.”
When we told AAMCO's corporate headquarters about Anglade's minivan, the company decided to give it back to her. Our cameras were rolling when they hooked up the van and towed it back to her house.
At no charge.