Lament for a beloved repair shop

In Hanover, NH, the local repair shop is the service center at the COOP - ostensibly a series of upscale grocery stores. This service station has an outstanding reputation with many of the locals. In fact, it was even a subject of a call-in to CarTalk where the caller was asking what was the best kind of gift to give to the mechanics. That is the level of local support. Only this week has the COOP decided to close the shop under the auspices that the investment required to keep servicing the newer and more complicated cars is prohibitive and they want to focus on their core business as a grocery store. My guess is that as time progresses, this will be a similar problem for a lot of shops. Taking this to an extreme, it means that everyone will be getting their car serviced at the dealerships. I swore off dealerships long ago and shiver at the thought of having to go back.

My question is this - is there a model for the local garage that works in the new economy? I’ve vaguely heard about somewhat open-ended shops that basically provide a place and tools for people to come and do their own work. I don’t want to go that far. But I suspect that there’s plenty of work on the order of minor repairs that still needs doing without paying exorbitant prices at dealerships. Do you have any suggestions or should we just let Adam Smith’s invisible hand do its handiwork and someone will fill this void once the need is recognized?



There are a few “Bring your own Parts” places, that will install them for you, but honestly, I don’t remember what they’re called. Those shops would still require you do some investigative work to determine which parts they would be to install, though.

I know they’re getting harder, but there should still be regular mechanics around for quite some time. Perhaps the COOP was taking business from other mechanics in the area. Have a look around, I’m sure there’s at least one other, and he will be glad for the increased business.

Follow those mechanics.
As the technicians are faced with losing their employment at that establishment,
where will they go for their next job ?
Ask them…walk right up the the tech and ask him/her where they are looking for future employment .

That’s where you’ll take your vehicles.

Great Question!! And the answer is YOU ARE CORRECT! The car makers are working to make repairing their vehicles a “proprietary” operation…Critical parts will become “Dealership Only” items. Specialized diagnostic equipment needed to properly diagnose and repair different makes will not be available to independent mechanics…The only way to survive in this environment is to specialize in one brand or type of vehicle and OWN the shop you work out of, be self-employed…This is very difficult to do…The best mechanics, what few of them there are, will gravitate to the big dealerships where they can earn a decent living…

Dealerships and shops that narrow their repairs to a few makes or specialty shops, i.e., transmission, suspension and brakes, electric/electronics, etc. seem the direction that we are headed.

This is definitely a growing issue for both indy mechanics and DIYers. I further lament that cars in general are becoming rolling computers. While the fundamentals of a car’s operation (internal combustion engine) are pretty unchanged from 100 years ago, those fundamentals are hidden in a shroud of computers that have changed basic mechanics. Now we’re into a whole new generation of hybrids and the like, which IMO the minor efficiency gains you see aren’t worth the complexities (and cost) of the vehicle. Those of us who have the knowledge (and more importantly, the interest) to repair or tinker with cars are going away fast too, as the younger generations are more interested in computer games than a project in the garage. I feel like cars are becoming consumables–use em until they break, then throw them away. BTW, I’m somewhere between Gen X and Y. I know I’ve gotten a little off topic, but it’s something I think about every time I go for a drive or lay down on a creeper to slide under my car.

Going along with Caddyman’s theory, I’ve thought for decades that the end game is to eliminate anyone other than a dealer from raising the hood or even touching the car.

If the Feds could legislate something like that and put it into place tomorrow I think they would do it in a heartbeat. The only reason they don’t is because it would be an economy crusher with independent shop, parts houses, and parts manufacturers dropping like flies and cars littering the highways on both sides.
They’re workin’ on it though. :frowning:

A friend of mine in a neighboring state had told me one time about 15 or so years back about a GM service school he had to attend. They were touting a vehicle in which the hood never needed to come up and the oil never needed changing. The deal was that these cars were supposed to be good for 100k miles without touching them but the problem was that during testing they all failed, generally due to engine oil related problems, or lack of oil.
The cars had special locks on their hoods that could only be opened by a franchised GM dealer and the end game for that was to, more than likely, make it a Federal crime to tamper with the hood lock.

Anywhere the feds are involved usually ends up going sour. A good place to check on goings on in the automotive repair area for independents and DIYS-ers is SEMA, Specialty Equipment Market Association. The keep tabs on what goes on in DC to make sure we can take care of our own cars and such. Just another iron thrown in the fire from here. Enjoy

The feds have actually passed laws to force manufacturers to open their propitiatory designs to the free market. It’s been going on in the computer industry for over 40 years. Companies like IBM would build a computer and make it extremely difficult for other companies to design disk drives or other devices that connect to the computer. IBM wanted complete control. They were FORCED by the Feds to allow other manufacturers to design equipment so they didn’t have a monopoly. This was also extended to allowing third party companies to be allowed to service them.

I find it odd that the discussion of what very large private corporations are trying to do to capture the entirety of auto servicing turns to a thing about the federal government. Thus we are left with it being the “government’s” fault and once again the corporate actors that steer it are somehow left off the hook. The odd thing is that a lot those “regulations” that people complain about are ones that are trying to protect everyday folks from the huge power gulps of these private corporations. (Edit ~ see MikeinNH’s note about this re: cars above). I’m not saying the direction of the discussion is no good - its just that if one wants to confront the devil one should make sure to know what it looks like. Why people so often shoot the henchmen rather than the “boss?”

I was also wondering as I read comments about this, how much of this conversation has really changed over the last 30 years. It seems to me that this isn’t a new story, yet that many people continue to figure out new systems despite their complexity. I have a family full of DIY’ers most of whom stop short of auto work. One of the most common lines is that these rolling computers are too complicated & need special dealer-only equipment, etc. Once I actually got past that line & started dealing with cars on my own I realized that these kinds of thoughts were overblown. There are more things to worry about, true, but one can still get an awful lot of things sorted out.

This is all about money–nothing else. There is no conspiracy to keep independent shops or weekend mechanics away from car maintenance. There is less regulatory inteference in car repair than any other aspect of DIY-ness. You may need a permit or a license to replace a water heater, a roof, or an electrical panel, but anyone can fix his own brakes or engine.

There are certain systems on cars–like those having to do with security and anti-theft that are only available to licensed, registered, and trained locksmiths–that have limited availabilty to service centers other than dealers. And some high-end European makes make it difficult to obtain factory-level service info and equipment.

Having said that, there is nothing–NOTHING-- that is keeping your corner garage or the DIY’er from servicing and repairing every aspect of the most modern cars on the road. Factory level, proprietary scan tools like Tech II, Star-Scan, DRBIII, GDS, Consult, VAG Com, are all available for purchase to any one who wants them. Technical training is available to anyone willing to pay. Aftermarket companies like Snap-on, OTC, and a host of others also sell scan tools and software, although complete coverage is generally 3-4 years behind current model years. In fact, many carmakers are switching from hand-held scan tools to PC based platforms, negating the need to buy their hardware. Only a capable computer, software and some cables are requred. One carmaker has it’s entire service information system available free to everyone online. Most carmakers offer information/tech support from year-long subscriptions for several thousand dollars to 3-day access for a hundred bucks.

Some shops/people will choose to take on the expense of proper tooling, others will sublet certain operations, others will make a big stink of how unfair it is. For example, 40 years ago you could take one thick book and have all the service info you needed to maintain and repair your car, but Ford/Buick/Toyota didn’t give it to you–you had to buy it. Now instead of books there are scan tools and software. 40 years ago a shop could invest in a brake lathe or sublet rotor/drum resurfacing. And I’m sure some complained about the cost of the added equipment to turn rotors. A place that did 10 brake jobs a year would certainly not buy a brake lathe, but a shop that did 10 a week would, and would quickly find it profitable. Bottom line, this is a business decision for every shop to make.

The “Government” and the “Corporation” are becoming one and the same…

If the Republicans manage to take complete control of the Government as a result of the next election, God help us all…

What I see coming, new cars will be offered with a 10 year, 100K mile bumper to bumper warranty…The catch will be in order to keep this warranty in force, ALL scheduled maintenance and service MUST be carried out by an authorized dealer or “service center”…Are they forcing the independents out of business? No…They are just making it impossible for them to compete…

The “Government” and the “Corporation” are becoming one and the same…

According to Mitt Romney…they ARE one in the same.

It’s easy to sit around right now and think that big business and/or big government will not mandate this or that or that things can start to swing towards a dealer only scenario but in 20 years, 30 years, or whatever it’s anybody’s guess as to what will be required.

Like most things it’s incremental; a step at a time. Look at how many things right now that have been legislated into law and require a licensed, if not competent, hand. Back up 25 years and tell someone that they won’t be able to go down to the parts house to buy a can of R-12 to chill their A/C a bit. Same for the home with R-22.

Cars right now are buried in a storm of special tools, many of them which are actually pointless. Get into a VW manual transmission and try to find your way around a series of cone-head machine screws that are countersunk (deeply) and require a 5.5 MM triple square socket or specialized dealer-only tools that are a must for setting up a Subaru ring and pinion gear in a transaxle.

I’m not going to make a political statement but there is a reason large corporations are having record profits and paying little tax while Nissan is paying $12.50 and hour in its new Kentucky plant. Doin’t be lemings as our former governor used to say just because someone says their way is good for the country.

In my neck of the woods in Minnesota, the dealers really are not much more expensive than the independents and they also don’t just use OEM parts anymore either. I was in the parts department last week getting a part and the guy was checking all the local sources like NAPA for a part and checking price. I think some are trying real hard to be competitive.

At the same time, and independetn guy just opened a huge place specializing in Ford diagnostics. I think it all depends on whether you want to spend the $30-50K to stay in business to make it back in a few years or cash in and avoid the expense.

Bing–I think for many years the parts department at dealerships have gone to independent sources like NAPA for many items. The reason is simple: the dealer would rather go to an independent source than to maintain the parts in an inventory. Back in 1964, I was driving a 1954 Buick. It needed a crossover pipe in the exhaust system. The Buick dealer had the part sent from the local NAPA store. Out of curiosity, I called the NAPA store and inquired about the cost of the pipe after I had the repair done. The cost was exactly what was on the bill from the Buick dealer.
My brother has work done in an independent shop that only works on Cadillacs. I remember when I was in graduate school in the late 1960s and early 1970s that there was a shop in town the specialized in VWs. I had a 1961 Corvair. I was new in the area and went to a service station with a problem. I was advised to take the car to Freddie. A second service station also gave me the same advice. I asked how one located Freddie. It turned out the Freddie was the Corvair specialist at the Chevrolet dealer. Freddie loved Corvairs and could diagnose and repair any problem in the Corvair very quickly. I hope Freddie has since developed another specialty, because he would starve to death today waiting for a Corvair to come in to the Chevrolet service department.

One problem that I see is that if many systems on cars become proprietary and only dealers or authorized service centers can do the work, this may put the owner of an older car at a disadvantage. Many technicians would rather work on a newer vehicle where the nuts and bolts aren’t frozen. Older cars with parts that have rusted are much more difficult to work on than newer cars.

A couple of factors are making it difficult for local independent mechanics to do business.

For “bread and butter” services like oil changes, tune ups, and tires independents compete with increasing numbers of national chain tire shops and quickie lubes. This takes away potential customers, and some profit.

Newer cars when they do have a significant problem often require special equipment, tools, and training due to all the new technologies incorporated in new cars. Hybrids are a good example, and electric cars like the “Leaf” are not likely to ever be seen in an independent shop.

Lots of older cars on the road will keep independent shops busy. As shops close those remaining can be “overloaded” with work. But, over time more cars are likely to have more technology and when they need repairs they will have to go to the selling dealer brand the work.

Fortunately, there are a few small auto service stations close to my home. The one I normally take my truck to for general AAA inspections, oil/filter changes, front-end alignments, and other maintenance and repair work is located in Leesburg, FL., about 10 miles from my house; I even bring my own oil and filter when I need an oil change and lube service, and they’re O.K. with that. Another shop I’ve visited for more major work is a business that specializes in performance and off-road equipment installation, and my guess is that as long as there’s a market for that, there will be specialty shops like that one around for a long time. I would also think that there should be a few shops that specialize in working on classic and older cars, but those are probably few and far between, unless you happen to be lucky enough to live in a town that has one. And I hope that these shops will stay around, because we all know that whenever the feds intervene in most businesses, the end result is a stinking pile of you-know-what.

“Caddyman” you’re reading my mail.
I also feel that even the dealers do much less “repair” then replacement. So many things are modular in concept, fixing them has given way to factory rebuilts in everything from motor/trans to simple suspension components and alternators.

The hardest part it seems is determining what is is wrong and what to replace, not the actual replacement.mThen, a degree in psychology is needed to deal with the customer who has to float a home equity to pay off the job. Independents can’t compete unless they repair and not replace, often a more difficult task then the dealer money making scheme.

I could cry all day about the shop I lost. Martin L. Jones did good work. Dave Donovan died with a disassembled Fiesta in the shop and Martin figured he was buried with a smile on his face. Headlight alignment? $3.50 and they would all be working together to light up the road. He used to sell fully functioning used cars for about $100 more than everybody else were selling their junkers. Funny thing was that most people bought the junkers. I was a slow learner too. If I were ever forced to relive my life I would be a rich man by the time I got this old. Either that or I would have been a better golfer with all the spare time I would have had with a working car to go with it.