'Bittersweet' Career Shift for Longtime Lowell Auto-Repair Shop Proprietor

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As Betty and Paul Millin entered Lowell Car Care Center recently, they saw on the wall behind the counter: "Come & go with confidence."

After being customers at Joe Ouellette's shop for more than a year, they certainly have plenty of trust in the master technician.

"You know he'll do a good job," said Paul, standing in the spotless main entrance. "He's personable and really explains everything.

"We wish we had found him sooner," he added.

Now the Lowell couple and customers across the area have less than 10 days to get their car serviced by Ouellette, 60, who is retiring from the auto-repair shop at 219 E. Merrimack St., right off downtown.

After 40 years at the shop -- which takes in about 7,000 repairs per year -- his final day will be Dec. 30.

"Going to miss the people the most," said Ouellette, who lives in Atkinson, N.H. "I'm grateful that they were a part of my life."

Back in high school in Salem, N.H., he picked the automotive track instead of construction. Ouellette said he's always been intrigued with how people invented the engine, and with how different systems worked.

"I liked the design of vehicles," he said. "The muscle cars back then. The hot rods."

Then after high school in 1976, he and his brother bought the Lowell property from Mobil. They sold gas as an end dealer, while the majority of the business was the auto-repair shop.

They realized there wasn't much value in selling gas, so they became solely a repair shop.

The shop does all general repairs -- including computer and electrical diagnostics, exhaust systems, mufflers, shocks, tune ups, brakes, oil, filters and more.

"Consistency was key," Ouellette reflected at the shop on Tuesday. "It wasn't like we were here today and gone tomorrow. Folks trusted us.

"A majority of clients started in their 40s, so then we got second and third generations," he added.

Ouellette also pointed out that the business receives constant traffic flow from downtown. It's also convenient for clients at Lowell General Hospital with the Saints campus around the corner.

The biggest difference from 1976 to 2016 is the increase in electronics and computers in vehicles, he said.

"It morphed from a single computer to several," Ouellette said. "You constantly need to educate yourself with night clinics and webcasts.

"It's definitely more complex today," he added. "It's more difficult for a novice getting into the trade."

Over the years, the most technicians at Lowell Car Care Center has been five at one time. However, it's just been Ouellette at the shop for the last couple of years.

"I thrive on chaos," he said.

Many of his customers are women who have always commented on how clean it is inside, Ouellette said.

"There's no junk on the floors, no one's tripping on anything," he said.

But he'll no longer be sweeping those floors as he sets to retire next Friday.

He called it "bittersweet" to be leaving.

"I've always tried to be proactive instead of reactive," Ouellette said. "I feel healthy now, and feel like it's time for something else."

The shop has been purchased by a brother and sister out of Waltham.

It will be a used-car facility, and there will still be a technician inside for repairs.

However, it won't be the same for many regulars, who have been heading to Ouellette's place for decades. Jack D., who declined to give his last name, said he has been bringing his car into Lowell Car Care Center for 28 years.

"It's going to be a good man and a good mechanic missed," Jack said. "He does excellent work and is reliable."

When a customer enters the shop, they become a friend, according to Ouellette.

"It was my biggest reservation about retiring," he added. "I've met so many people who have become friends."

This article originally appeared on lowellsun.com

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