Yesterday, I had my car into our local car repair shop for some minor repairs (minor means it only cost $130). I’m fortunate to have a shop in walking distance of our home that we’ve dealt with for 25 years, with mechanics who have been there ten years or longer who we trust to do what needs to be done, and fix it right the first time.
That got me thinking about how we repaired cars growing up in working class Youngstown. For starters, many were do-it-your-selfers. The repair garage was your own garage or driveway. People did their own oil and filter changes, tune ups, complete with a gap tool. Often parts stores would re-surface brake drums so you paid a few bucks for that and installed your own brakes. In Youngstown’s winter climate, auto bodies got eaten alive by road salt. Bondo was your friend–you filled holes, sanded, buffed, primed and painted, and hoped you could match the rest of the car.
Some of us left the major jobs to the professionals–valve jobs and engine work, dropping a transmission or a differential. But there were those intrepid souls who weren’t daunted by tearing anything apart. You’d spot an old engine block in the back of the garage and see them swapping out another engine. The hot rod enthusiasts were known for this stuff.
Many of us just took our cars to a local shop with a good mechanic. This was before the big chains and dealerships came to dominate the car repair market. Dad used to take his car to the mechanic at the corner of Portland and Mahoning Avenue. There was an older fellow who I think was named Harry Milliken who worked on his cars for years. One time, I hit a patch of ice, banged into a curb and knocked our front end badly out of line. Total repair bill: $32. In later years Harry turned the business over to one of his other mechanics, Mike, who I believe still runs a repair shop at that location and maintained my dad’s car until he stopped driving. When it came time to sell dad’s last car, a 1994 Buick, in 2010, the car ran like a Swiss watch. We sold it to a friend, and from what I understand, it is still going!
There were a number of garages like that in the neighborhood. Just down the street from Mike’s was Paul Golec’s shop (also still in business, I believe). There used to be a Sohio on Steel Street that we would hang out at as paperboys while we waited for our papers to be delivered. A block down on Steel Street was a transmission shop. What was great about these places was that there was a guy who knew your car, had worked on it for years (and chances are, a number of others like it). You could walk home while your car was being worked on. It wasn’t like going to one of these national chains where you have a different person servicing your car each time and you don’t know how much he actually knows. Nor was it a dealership that would charge you an arm and a leg.
While most cars still have internal combustion engines, spark plugs, and brakes, they have a lot of other equipment our old mechanics never had to deal with. These days, a mechanic needs to be part computer scientist, part auto mechanic to service a car. For many problems, expensive diagnostic equipment is needed, pricing some of the small shops out of business. Some problems can only be fixed by dealers with equipment for a particular make and model.
Cars are more fuel-efficient, and run much more cleanly. Safety features like airbags make them much safer but also require recalls that can only be repaired at a dealer. It used to be that people traded in vehicles every few years. Our last car lasted 17 years and our current one is 10 years old. Cars we bought in the 1970’s didn’t last 10 years. But most of us no longer do anything but the most basic repairs. Some of the newest cars have headlights that take special tools and cost a fortune. I used to go to the auto parts store and buy a headlight for under $10 and replace it myself.
The neighborhood garage, like the doctor who makes house calls, is becoming a thing of the past. The Tuffy I go to is a franchise but still has some of that feel–good mechanics, reliable service at a decent price, and a short walk away. I count myself fortunate. No doubt part of the attraction is it reminds me of the neighborhood garages I hung around as a kid when dad took the car to be worked on. In Youngstown.