Working in the Retail Automotive Business, Part 1: Autosport

In August of 1978, bored silly after 11 months in my office job, I answered an ad in a local newspaper. A car dealership was looking for apprentice mechanics – “willing to train”, it said.

My one and only interview was with the dealer’s service manager. Jerry Miller told me that he was an engineer, but preferred working around automobiles. He seemed impressed that I had a Bachelor’s degree, and inferred that he and I would be the only college-educated people there. Assuring me that my pay would be “x” dollars per hour, he hired me. I gave two weeks’ notice to the Department of Labor, and, shocking my family and friends, announced that I was entering the car business to work as a mechanic (the term “technician” was not yet in vogue).

The dealership was Autosport, in Somerville, NJ. The store sold and serviced Volvos, Hondas, Alfa Romeos, and Holiday Rambler motor homes.

I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number, is Bridgewater Volvo.
I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number (different area code), is Bridgewater Volvo. “Autosport” continues as a stand-alone Honda store across the street.

My first day on the job, Jerry said that there were ten mechanics, in two teams of five. One team primarily worked on Volvos, the other on Hondas, with the Alfa and motor home work shared between the two. He looked at me and said “I will put you on the….Volvo team”. Funny how one seemingly simple decision, made by another, can cast your fate.

I walked over to the Volvo side of the shop, and waited for the Volvo shop foreman to arrive. About 30 minutes later, a clapped-out Mercedes-Benz sedan with faded blue paint bounded into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was a dark-haired man, about 10 years older than I was, somehow holding both a cigarette and a cup of coffee while driving. He meandered into the building, and being the amicable Irish chap he was, stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Andy Finnegan. Welcome”.

 

Misunderstanding #1: I’d be supplied tools and a toolbox by the dealership.

As I recall, I asked few questions during the interview, and made many assumptions, some of which turned out to be false. For example, this naïve 24-year-old thought that dealerships supplied tools.

Andy: “Where’s your tool box?” Me: “You guys give me one, right?” Andy: “Nope”.

After work, I drove to the local Ace hardware store and bought their house-brand tool box. Just an upper chest, I likely paid around $75 for it. My dad, none too happy about this career change as it was, gave me a small supply of tools to augment the only ones I did own, which was a set of Craftsman ½” drive metric sockets. (Thinking I was set with the metric stuff, I soon found out that most Volvos used SAE-size hardware.) Andy kindly let me use a rolling cart to serve as a place to put my tool chest.

I was ribbed about the "Master Mechanic" label. This box resides today in my garage, 38 years after buying it.
The “Master Mechanic” label forced me to endure much ribbing. The missing red paint was caused by bench-bleeding a master cylinder and shooting a spray of brake fluid against it.

 

Misunderstanding #2: I’d be working only on cars.

About two weeks into the job, I was handed a Repair Order (RO): “Customer states that shower leaks”.

Huh?

Oh, right, this must be one of those Holiday Ramblers. At least it would be easy to find in the lot. Entering the motor home, I was greeted with piles of dirty dishes and dirty laundry. The shower looked like it had not been cleaned in several months. I got Andy, who said “I’ll take care of this”. He complained to the Service Manager that “car mechanics” were not going to service someone’s unkempt mobile residence. I was never again given an RO for a Holiday Rambler.

Other unexpected jobs included spraying undercoating onto the underside of new Hondas (without a mask), and painting the service shop floor.

 

Misunderstanding #3: I’d be making my hourly pay rate times 40 hours per week. 

Two months into the job, I considered quitting. The work was much more difficult than I had imagined. Under the flat-rate system, I was supposed to find the car, diagnose the problem, procure the parts, complete the repair, and perform a road test, all within a published book time. That rarely happened for me. My preferred approach was to grab the Volvo service literature and page through it, looking for possible solutions. This was not how to make money.

My hourly rate, had I been able to earn 40 hours’ worth of it, would have been roughly equivalent to my previous job’s pay. In reality, I was earning about 25-30 hours a week. Without Andy there, I would have earned even less. Then, six months into my employment, Andy quit.

He told me he had gotten a job as a “Field Technical Specialist”, or FTS, at Volvo Cars of North America. I was devastated, and had no choice but to latch on to the new Volvo team leader, who, while also helpful, was no Andy. However, Andy’s career change gave me the idea that down the road, such a move could be possible for me.

At least the dealership gave me formal training. Six times in 1979, I attended Volvo service training at the Rockleigh headquarters. Many of my service training instructors later became colleagues.

The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.
The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.

As time went on, my skills did improve. I got a loan from the Snap-On tool guy, bought a roller cabinet, and soon had just about all the tools I needed. I even started to enjoy the work, although I was no Class A mechanic. Some of my mishaps were quite humorous.

My favorite story concerns the Alfa Romeo Alfetta I brought in for recall work. Alfa had announced a recall on its catalytic converters, which at that time were filled with coated pellets. The recall was necessary because the converters had not been completely filled at the factory. The repair was simple enough: unbolt the converter, remove the plug at one end, get the box of pellets from the parts counter, fill up the converter, and put everything back together.

My job complete, I let the car idle in my stall while I wrote up the repair on the back of the RO. Suddenly, the guys across the aisle started to yell. “Hey, Reina, your car is shooting at us!” What? I walked around and saw small white objects leaving the car’s tailpipe. Back at the workbench, I found the plug which I had forgotten to reinstall – the car was shooting its catalytic pellets like a BB gun. I needed to do the job all over again, and, bear the wrath of the Parts Manager (“this box of pellets costs us $1,000!”). Talk about not making flat-rate….

A year into the job, the Sales Department was abuzz because Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal, was going to add a nameplate to the showroom: Autosport had signed up to become a DeLorean dealer. In anticipation, the Sales Manager printed business cards with his name. Alas, it never happened, and whether that was due to Jerry L. or John Z., I wasn’t there long enough to find out.

Two years after starting at Autosport, it was time to find the next opportunity. Andy had told me about a Volvo dealer where, he had heard, service was run more smoothly. Walking in cold off the street, I applied for a job as a B tech at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, and was hired. When I left Autosport, my take home pay was not much more than when I started. As a tech at Smythe, I would be paid hourly; their technicians did not work flat rate. That was fine by me.

A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.
A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.

My first two years wrenching on cars were like a college education all over again. I learned as much on this job as I had learned in four years at the university. Best of all, the skills I acquired have stayed with me and have been put to good use working on my personal and hobby cars.

Thank God for my time with Andy Finnegan. He was late every day, smoked like a chimney, and regularly mouthed off to the boss. But he patiently helped me every day he was there, and taught me everything he knew about Volvos and car repair in general.

Years later at Volvo corporate, Andy and I became colleagues, and although we did not work directly together, we kept in touch. About ten years ago, he became quite ill and passed away. Before he left us, I visited him and told him how much I appreciated what he did for me. To this day, when working on any of my cars, he’ll cross my mind. I feel that I owe my career to him.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

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