Where the Rubber Hits the Road

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A conversation with an old friend — retired from a lifetime in the automotive business as owner and manager of a family-owned garage — got me thinking about older cars and how we maintain them. When he got started in the business, it was 1950, he was 16 and his family-owned garage had been around since 1924. Needless to say, he has accumulated a large collection of automobilia over the years and loves showing it off. The thing, or should I say the sign, that started us down the path of a memorable conversation was central in his collection. It elicited a comment from me that resulted in a much more expansive observation from him.

The phrase from him that instigated the conversation was, “When the rubber meets the road.” To which I replied, “It should be where the rubber meets the road, not when.” “When the rubber meets the road,” is implying that the rest of the car’s components are less relevant to going down the road than the tires. He thought about it for a minute and said, “My father would have agreed with you; let me show you something.” He proceeded to dig through a stack of signs and pulled out an old hand-painted sign from the 1940s. The sign was to show customers they had a rubber service available for tires and suspension components. This involved applying a rubber lubricant/restorer/preservative (a black, sticky paste by his recollection) to all bushings, mounts and tires (anything made from rubber). He went on to relay how one of his first jobs was to perform this service on the trucks and tractors from local farms and ranches. It seems one of the biggest issues they had was keeping the rubber alive on work vehicles in South Texas. He went on to explain as long as he was in the business, he made sure his operation was equipped with what he called the latest in rubber maintenance products and replacement rubber parts like suspension components, belts, hoses and tires for those old trucks and tractors.

We moved on to view his small collection of pre-1960 cars. By this time, he was zeroed in on the subject of old cars, rubber and the problems associated with keeping them alive when vehicles are seldom driven. Small puddles of oil on white mats under a few of the cars seemed to make his point and animate his conversation. I finally asked him how he managed to keep up with it these days. I found out he had found a local mechanic with a small, private, appointment-only shop that spends most of its time performing on-site preventive maintenance on collector cars doing seal and rubber service, along with cleaning fuel systems that sat too long with modern fuel. He performs tune-ups and mechanical repairs, but most of his work relates to maintaining suspension components, cleaning fuel systems and keeping the trim and interior in good condition. It seems to be a major problem for the owners of collector cars, and it certainly was for my friend — but he could afford a mechanic who makes house calls. Not all of us can do that. So the question that confronts most antique or collectable car owners is, where can they reliably get all the important service items like lubricants, filters, seals, suspension components, belts and hoses maintained and replaced if needed.

My first thought was owners of automotive service centers should view this niche market as an attractive way to build a repeat clientele. Nothing makes a car enthusiast happier than a place that understands their needs, knows the vehicle and can provide the full range of service they need to make their beloved collectible live forever. Now fascinated with the concept, I started looking around for local shops and service centers that attract collector car people. What I found was very interesting, and it verified some of my conclusions about what enthusiast car owners are looking for and what successful service centers do to draw them in.

One of the busiest service centers I looked at has a robust weekend business with the lot full of classic hot rods because they sponsor a monthly car show on their site. They have a trophy for the Best of Show and hand out discount vouchers and service incentives to all who show and attend. On the off weekends, they service a healthy number of vintage cars because they offer service incentives to clubs and members of their Classic Club, which draws in many interested car and truck owners who like to look at the old cars while their vehicle is serviced. These guys had a full line of lubricants, additives, detailing supplies, filters, belts, hoses and tires for the types of custom and classic vehicles they were seeing.

Many of the newer sports cars and performance vehicles are owned by enthusiasts who join a club of like-minded owners. Many owners are into racing or drifting and seek out businesses that specialize in the repair and maintenance of their automotive passion. There is a local service center that has become the go-to place for the younger “Fast and Furious” crowd — specifically those who drive newer, Asian OEM vehicles. They specialize in all the high-performance aspects of service, like additives, lubricants and car care items these vehicle owners like to use. It seems that pride of owning and driving a clean, detailed, high-performance vehicle is the ultimate goal. They also like to show off their automotive passion to like-minded owners and tend to gather at the same places when they can. Because detailing is a big thing for these owners, the shops with wash and detailing centers can really drive business. It certainly works well for one local center.

The shop that impressed me the most has evolved a simple but effective method of using specialty cars to drive their business. This shop — they called it a garage back in the day — has been in the same neighborhood since the 1930s. The neighborhood and business were once well known and respected, until the neighborhood declined and the business was sold to less-capable owners. It closed for a few years but was revived along with the neighborhood. The new owners had a vision for a neat old garage. Around the outside of their parking lot they built a covered parking area reminiscent of the drive-in hamburger joints of the 1950s — open but covered. They have a standing policy of free incentives if your vehicle meets certain criteria to establish its uniqueness — age, rarity, custom, weird, you name it — if it passes, you get a free complete detail if you leave the car parked all day in their covered parking. Bring it in early, leave it until closing and get your oil changed and car cleaned and detailed. Since these parking spaces were facing two busy streets, it wasn’t long before they were always busy with a full range of exotic cars parked out front and a rear lot full of the vehicles of the people there for service and the show. It is actually to the point where you have to schedule your service on a weekend or you will not get in. They turned it into a car lover’s destination!

“Where the rubber hits the road,” may be best interpreted as where you service your vehicle before it hits the road. Remember, one of the most important things customers look for when they seek a place to take their most treasured automobiles is a shop that’s skilled in their trade, knowledgeable about vehicles and able to make smart decisions.

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