June 20, 2010 12:54:00 AM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
The other day I got to wondering if there are any shade tree mechanics still around. You know, a fellow in an oil-stained T-shirt who works on neighbors'' cars in a makeshift backyard shop or even in the shadows of a broad-limbed shade tree. He might have a jacked-up car or two in the yard and a motor hanging by a chain from a rusting swing set.
I figured if anyone would know, it would be Carol Littlejohn at Dixie Auto Parts. Carol was out, but her son, Judson, reeled off two or three names in a blink. He wasn''t able to come up with anyone to match my romanticized idea, but he thought Corey Herring on Phillips Hill Road might be the next best thing.
"We may not be a shade tree mechanic, but we''re at the lowest end of the food chain," Herring said when I described what I was looking for. "Chances are you go to anyone with less than what we have, it''s going to cost you money. Some of these cars today have 10 computers on them."
Herring is a neat, compact man in his early 40s. On the blistering afternoon we visited, he was wearing shorts, a dark knit shirt and what looked to be mail carrier shoes. While we talked in his small air conditioned office, four other mechanics were busy on vehicles ranging from a 40-foot-long motor home to a Jeep. The men work in a cluttered, open-air shop devoid of decor other than a large, dusty American flag hanging from the back wall.
As we talked, mechanics would occasionally interrupt, asking Herring to come look at something.
"I try to drive every car after we work on it," he said.
Herring is one of those lucky people who discovered their life''s work early on. He credits New Hope vo-tec teacher Billy Welch for his love of auto mechanics. After college Herring went to work at Heritage Lincoln Mercury and then for 16 to 17 years at Premier Ford for Bill Russell. At the urging of a friend, he opened his own shop in 2003.
Herring has nothing but praise for his former employer.
"Bill taught me the importance of taking care of your customers. I never thought much about service until I was made to give it. When I go into a restaurant now, I expect good service. Bill Russell made me that way."
Unlike a dealership that typically works on one make of car, Herring works on "everything that comes in the door."
He does that with the help of a computer database he pays more than $300 a month to be part of, $10,000 worth of diagnostic equipment and for pricing information, half a dozen volumes the size of the old Sears catalogs.
Cars are made a lot better than they once were, Herring says.
"You can get 200,000 to 300,000 miles out of a car now. In the ''70s if you got to 100,000, you had to rebuild it. I''ve gotten trucks in here with 700,000 miles."
Herring is not optimistic car makers will dramatically boost fuel mileage any time soon.
"I think they are capable of doing it, but we''re more interested in amenities than we are in saving fuel."
He mentions a car Honda (CRX HF) made in the mid-''80s that got 50 miles per gallon.
"This thing in the Gulf might make ''em more serious," he says, though with not much conviction.
"Don''t you think we''re a spoiled nation?" he asks.
Herring has high praise for Toyota. He blames the company''s recent troubles as something fomented by the Big 3.
"I''ve talked to six (Toyota) dealerships, and none of them had problems."
He says managing people is his biggest challenge.
"Managing people is worse than fixing cars any day of the week. Cars don''t have cell phones.
"That''s my biggest problem, and I have a good crew."
After talking to Herring awhile, you begin to think he may have missed his calling, that of a motivational speaker.
"These boys laugh at me because I tell them you have to claw and dig. I tell ''em, ''All you''ve got is your name and eight hours a day.''"
"Being stagnant is the same as failing; it just takes longer to get there," he adds.
Herring''s place on a country road somewhere between New Hope and Rural Hill is anything but stagnant. This is one situation that defies the old chestnut, "location, location, location."
"We''re a little off the beaten path, but we''ve got new cars every Monday morning," he said.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.