Dear Tom and Ray:
About a year ago, I had the timing belt replaced on my 2003 Subaru Outback. Then, last week, I had the head gasket replaced at a different shop. When they replaced the head gasket, they looked at my timing belt and said I needed a new one! The reason was because they could not see any writing on the belt, and they said if it was replaced last year, there would still be writing visible, as it takes 40,000-50,000 miles to wear the writing off a belt, even an aftermarket one. So, now I am wondering, Did they really replace my timing belt last year, or did they rip me off?
RAY: I've heard of "seeing the writing on the wall," but seeing the writing on the timing belt is not as well-known a phrase -- for good reason, Jim. It's not a reliable indicator.
TOM: We've seen belts with different amounts of writing on them. The factory belts often have white marks that line up with the timing marks on the cylinder heads and cam sprockets. But not all aftermarket belts do. Some have just the part number written on the belt, and that's it.
RAY: So, it's possible that the first mechanic used an aftermarket timing belt that had very little writing on it. And it may have worn off after just a year.
TOM: We've never studied the wear patterns in the writing on timing belts and how they correspond with mileage in an '03 Subaru. But we'll put the next graduate-student intern at the garage right on it.
RAY: So, now there are three possibilities: One, the original guys didn't change your timing belt and ripped you off. Two, the original guys changed the timing belt, and the second guys made an honest mistake because they think all timing belts have long-lasting writing on them. Or three, the second guys ripped you off, which you hadn't considered yet.
TOM: Let's say the second guys tried to pad their bill by selling you a timing belt, and you surprised them by saying: "Whadda ya mean? I just had it replaced!" Then maybe they did a song and dance with this whole writing thing, even though they knew better.
RAY: Here's one clue: When the second guys replaced your timing belt, did they charge you just for the part, or did they charge you for labor, too?
TOM: Here's why we ask. When you replace a head gasket, you have to remove and replace the timing belt anyway. So there's no additional labor required to change it. If they're honest guys, they would have told you that you needed a new timing belt and it would just cost you $75 for the part.
RAY: On the other hand, if they tried to charge you an additional $300 in labor -- which is what it would cost if the timing belt were not ALREADY off -- then that would suggest that they're ripoff artists, and it would lead us to question their credibility about everything.
TOM: And it would lead us to study their methods to see if we could learn anything useful! Good luck, Jim.