Corvette owner Dick Ruzzin thinks that may be the case.
Two years ago a drunk driver forced Ruzzin's 2005 Vette off the road. A former chief designer for Cadillac, Ruzzin had his sports car repaired.
"My car was damaged and fixed very well at the dealer," he says from his design studio in Grosse Pointe, Mich. At the time, Ruzzin missed a noise in the brake pedal, but the car ran and braked normally for 20,000 miles.
On a subsequent visit to the dealership, Ruzzin mentioned the noise and was told he needed a new $545 power brake unit.
"The push rod that activates the brake from the pedal has a small plastic ball joint on the end of it that apparently was broken in the accident," Ruzzin says. "There were no repair parts available, and the entire power brake unit had to be scrapped and a new one put in."
Not selling parts to repair components may make the auto makers money. It doesn't do much for repair specialists or, ultimately, their customers.
Tom Kezhaya, whose family owns and operates Joe's Garage in Detroit, knows the stories well. The ASE master mechanic was irritated to discover he had to put in a $700 fuel pump component in a personal work truck when only the pump itself – a $150 piece – needed replacing.
"Now we have to buy and install a wheel bearing and hub assembly at $600 apiece when in the past we could just replace the worn wheel bearing for about $40," Kezhaya says.
Not all parts have become pieces of high-priced components, says Dean Witter, parts manager at Bill Stasek Chevrolet in Wheeling, Ill.
"GM is now in tune with the competition and has lowered prices on maintenance products like spark plugs and filters, wiper blades and brakes," Witter says.
And GM does offer dealers who buy GM body parts a kind of allowance, which can offset the difference in prices between its products and those from competing suppliers, he says.
But a simple wheel sensor for an antilock braking system used to cost $74; now it's integrated in a $350 hub component much of which likely is still good, Witter says.
Detroit-area auto analyst Laurie Harbour says using components "drives efficiency in the plant."
It reduces the number of workers needed to assemble the finished car or truck, says Harbour, who is president of Harbour Results Inc. in Royal Oak, Mich.
"The supplier can assemble the component," she says.
Wholesale prices mostly up
A recent study from CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., shows that lighting parts or components prices have jumped the most in the past decade. Their wholesale prices jumped 20.8 percent between 2000 and mid-year 2010, says CNW.
Engine parts prices are up 15.2 percent for the period; powerplants (engine minus transmission) are up 12.8 percent while body parts prices declined 2.4 percent.
Better cars, better parts
One of the key reasons repairs are expensive is that most of today's cars are heavily contented, says General Motors spokesman John M. McDonald, citing power-lift tailgates and heated seats and steering wheels.
"Even on lower-end cars, people looking for fuel economy also want convenience features," he says.
Multi-stage airbags and special hood latches that add to the crash-worthiness of vehicles affect prices, he says.
And in designing for global cars — an industry goal — features required in other countries may be included on vehicles built for the U.S. market. That adds to costs, McDonald says.
Copies of factory parts up the ante because they often are considerably less expensive. And good.
Ford Motor Co. recently reported that its study of aftermarket copy structural collision parts showed "major differences" between the copies and Ford original equipment replacement parts.
"Ford engineers are concerned that increased damage and different safety system performance may occur in subsequent accidents if aftermarket copies are used for repairs," says Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood.
"All components of the vehicle structure are designed and tested to work together in a real-world crash including helping to ensure proper deployment of airbags," adds Paul Massie, said Paul Massie, Ford's powertrain and collision product marketing manager.
But Chevrolet dealer Bill Stasek finds "knock-off parts" improving almost daily.
However, he adds, the dealership's body shop may be better off using OEM parts. "If it takes the technician four hours instead of three to get a fit with a non-factory piece, the body shop manager may figure it's wiser in the long run to pay more for a factory piece."