What to Know
- California licenses auto repair shops, but not individual mechanics
- Auto garages and dealerships are responsible for the actions of the mechanics they hire
- Vehicle owners can file complaints with the California Bureau of Automotive Repair
The state tag says it all: JOYRIDR.
"It's definitely not a low-profile license plate," said owner Geoff Chatterton. "The car is meant to be a fun car. There's nothing really about this car that's practical."
It's no daily commuter vehicle, with only 15,000 miles after three years, but Chatterton gets plenty of joy out of his 2015 Dodge Challenger R/T. You're much more likely to see and hear him cruising for the pleasure of being behind the wheel of a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and its 370 horsepower.
"My three teenage boys -- they are definitely not going to be driving that for a little while," Chatterton said.
When he brought the Challenger to a dealership to investigate minor issues with the rear differential and radio, Chatterton expected professional mechanics would fix his beloved car. What he didn't expect was someone viewing the license plate as an invitation.
"The car was taken for a joy-ride," Chatterton said.
After he picked up the car from Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge, Chatterton tells NBC Bay Area he noticed it had been driven 20 miles since the time it was first dropped off.
"I thought that seemed pretty excessive for something that I described as something you could reproduce in a parking lot," Chatterton said.
He checked the Challenger's sophisticated on-board computer, and it showed at least two test drives — and a disturbing new top speed.
"114 miles an hour," Chatterton said. "And the G-force meters pegged out in pretty much every direction."
Chatterton told us it's not the first time this has happened. After a different mechanic apparently took a joy-ride, Chatterton learned to always reset his car's performance data before dropping it off for service. That way, he could track exactly how fast and how far mechanics were driving the car. Wanting to service the Challenger somewhere trustworthy, he took it back this time to the dealership that sold it to him, Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge.
Faced with data that showed the car had been driven well over the legal limit, Chatterton turned to his dashboard video camera, which automatically starts recording every time the engine is started. It showed one video, which included the Challenger briefly being driven the wrong way on Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose. Video of the 114 mph test drive was missing.
"Before they pulled out of the parking lot, they made sure to disconnect the dashcam," Chatterton said.
He confronted Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge, but Chatterton said he wasn't satisfied that they were taking him seriously. The dispute went on for weeks.
"I never got an apology," Chatterton said.
Wanting accountability, Chatterton contacted NBC Bay Area Responds. We noticed his repair invoice includes an entry for the mechanic's license number, so we contacted the California Bureau of Automotive Repair, or BAR, to look it up. That's when we learned mechanics themselves are not licensed.
"We license and register the repair dealer," said Bill Thomas, an enforcement and oversight official with BAR. "[Auto repair shops are] responsible for the actions of their employees."
NBC Bay Area contacted Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge. It acknowledged the test drive, but declined to discuss it on camera. The dealer said it suspended the mechanic without pay for three days. It also reimbursed Chatterton for fuel, and what he'd paid to have the car repaired.
If Chatterton is unhappy with that outcome, he can file a complaint with the California Bureau of Automotive Repair, joining about 15,000 others who speak up each year about auto repairs gone wrong.
"We use consumer complaints to help monitor a shop's business practices," Thomas said.
Chatterton is sure of one thing: he'll decline a loaner car the next time his JOYRIDR is in the shop.
"I think I'll sit in the garage from now on and watch the car while they do the service," Chatterton said. "This didn't happen with my mini-van."