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Small Town Automotive

by Jeffrey Nichols

A friend wrote this essay as a college assignment. I liked it on many levels and, with permission, republish it here. By the way, the dilapidated pickup he mentions is mine. The high-G ‘rat-rod’ CRX Nick custom-built an exhaust system for is also mine. Planning to show my high-G rat-rod next to Jeff’s similar one was the reason I went to the Memorial Day car show.

But on to the pleasant guest essay…

I took the drive down from Missoula and walked in the back door the other day. Under a dilapidated blue S10 pickup Ben Roland, my father’s current grease-monkey-in-training, gave me the most sincere ear to ear grin a guy could ask for. His arms were extended upward into the trucks undercarriage to the point only his grease smudged elbows were visible. I took the corner to see a maroon Toyota Avalon on the lift in the next bay, and my heart dropped for just a second. This clean sedan occupied my efforts for a few days at the end of last summer; a hurried head gasket replacement had the engine compartment in pieces just days before its owner needed to be in Salt Lake City for college. A difficult job like that puts a mechanics pride on the line. If something went wrong in the engine, it was probably my fault.

I made a mental note to ask about the car and kept walking. When I arrived at the office door I looked in the window and could see my father was smiling and talking to a customer. Knowing that these conversations can be taken over by a half hour of catching up and small town gossip, I turned back around to engage in the same with Ben. He stood upright, allowed to do so by the missing bumper valence of the worn out truck. “I was trying to get all two-thousand dollar’s work done on this truck in two days but she’s been a real bugger” he said. This extensive repair bill is amazing considering the shape of the truck. When I was talking to Cliff (another mechanic) he joked “Ted’s only fixing it because he doesn’t want to unload all the brass plumbing pipes from the truck-bed.” The huge brass elbow fittings are being used to weight the bed in place of sandbags; never mind that April rains have already replaced the icy winter roads. The truck is barely worth the money the customer is putting into it, but he trusts our diagnosis and isn’t the type to just throw away a good vehicle and replace it with something shiny and new. Neither are we for that matter.

When my father finally walked the customer out of the office I was organizing my cluttered toolbox and cleaning garbage off the top. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville was playing in the background. I hugged him and pointed toward the Maroon Toyota “What’s this thing back in here for?” He replied “Cat converter codes.” These are caused by typical wear on a car’s emission devices. My work was holding up great, and I was silently relieved. Even though I just stopped in to catch up, he started casually mentioning things I need to do before leaving. This is relatively standard, I can’t walk in the door without being given at least a few tasks to complete.

My father, Grundy “Nick” Nichols, sat again in his office chair behind the desk and I pulled one of the customer chairs up to face him. The two wrinkles occasionally visiting his forehead and the lines around his smiling lips match mine, although he has bright blue eyes and he doesn’t wear glasses. His blue collared coat has “Nick” on the nametag. It’s a shortened version of our last name. He sits with a slight hunch, as if he has to be just a little closer to whatever he’s doing. After reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle I sometimes picture him as a regular old Dr. Felix Hoenikker: he can’t help but tinker and figure things out, and he seems to wander endlessly from one task to another just enjoying the process. I hardly think him the creator of the fictional end of the world but both characters do have desks littered with cheap toys. His being toy cars, all of which I recognize from some point in my childhood. He, like America and the shop he’s built around him, has no clear philosophy. Instead he searches for pragmatic answers to whatever questions or problems come his way.

Last summer an old pickup coughed and sputtered its way into our shop. The guy didn’t have much money and the truck wasn’t going to last much longer running the way it was. Its problem was in the Thermo-quad, a common carburetor for Dodge pickups, and it needed some new parts. Most shops would just quote a new carburetor and send the customer down the road with a bill of half-a-grand. Our mantra, however, is to fix cars not just replace parts. My father went through his vintage collection in the shop behind his house, and found all the pieces needed. The customer was happy to be on the road at a fraction of the cost. Dad was happy too. Any time he can dive into the huge storage space (the 7 bays of shop behind his house) and find something useful he feels justified in owning it all. Never mind the sheer amount of work area sitting idle; space is still abundant in rural America.

When I asked what makes Hamilton Automotive Repair different than other shops; my dad paused and the wrinkles on his forehead visited. “I believe part of what makes Hamilton Automotive Repair do a better job than other shops is the fact that we spend the extra time to diagnose and fix a problem properly and if part of the diagnostic means puttin’ twenty-thirty miles on a car we’ll do it…”

My father has equipped the business with some of the best diagnostic equipment available because cars and diesel trucks have become so computerized and complicated. When I inquired about his first opening the shop he smirked playfully at me and asked “When I first opened up back in the eighties?” Knowing that I meant the current location he chuckled at his own cunning. It is important to Dad that people know his business has a long history in our town. He started small with the buyout of a shop specializing in carburetors and electronics in 1988 (two years prior to my birth). At his biggest he managed six employees, but felt it better to pursue quality over quantity “unlike other shops.” He has always kept the business operating under the name “Certified Automotive Repair” but spent the better part of a decade working out of town: first on UPS trucks then on big equipment. Meanwhile customers would leave cars at our house waiting for him to repair during down time. When his employer Thomson Creek Mine was closing down he had job offers in Nevada and Arizona but wanted to come back to Hamilton. He doesn’t speak of it often but I added, “Your great grandfather lived here, what is that five (including myself) generations now?” Our long history was acknowledged with a simple “We’ve been here.”

Saying my father taught me to work on cars would simplify both our history and my experience. I remember twisting wrenches in my greasy hands at the ends of outstretched arms lanky and soft from recent growth. My dad is standing over my shoulder telling me what to do. I don’t understand, or I’m not fast enough. Either way he takes over. I remember trying to make plans for fixing up the weather cracked and rusted classic car he found for me in high school. My dad is across the table listening intently. I can’t afford it or the ideas aren’t right for the car. Either way it barely changed over those four years.

My father always held me to a high standard, and I never felt good enough. When it came to parenting, he applied the same values he put into his work: do it right. A kid needs a little more breathing room to grow up. I was convinced I couldn’t learn from him when I headed off for technical school to learn to be a mechanic on my own. After the first few months it became clear the knowledge I gained from him put me far beyond my classmates. My confidence built as I achieved top scores in phase after phase, and I was heavily recruited upon graduation. It would be disingenuous not to give him some credit for my success, but I had to go out and learn on my own as well. When he opened up the new location in 2015, I was wrenching in Missoula and working on my bachelor’s degree. It took a year of convincing before I decided to join the business.

Hamilton Automotive Repair is located in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, less than a mile south of its namesake: Hamilton, Montana. My father chose the title so people who search online for repair shops in town see our business first. I have googled “auto repair in Hamilton”, and actually our business came sixth. To be fair Google’s independent reps call all the time, and they can put us at the top “for a small fee.” We are more than busy enough, despite always hanging up to work on more pressing matters. Out front a sign bears our name, L.L.C. and phone number. The lettering and boarder are standard-auto-shop blue, and the white background suggests we spend more time fixing vehicles than coming up with creative signs.

There is a collection of things-that-should-be-discarded littering the shelves and cubbies around the shop, all tucked away in a minimally organized fashion. Bolts, brackets, pulleys, pumps, seals, clips, specialty carburetor parts, drivelines, bushings and links, transfer cases. Some of it is thrown away when we get tired of moving it around, or transported back to my father’s house shop for deep storage. Either way he can somehow find whatever part was saved from a project, even if it was twenty years ago. My economic and accounting mind has difficulty not rejecting the layout and setup as I look around. Streamline and minimalist are hardly words you would use to describe a shop like this. Somehow the theme still finds a way. Everything here is about finding a way.

Mark Johnson started bringing his vehicles into our shop two years ago. When I asked Mark why he chose to work with us he replied “I’m gonna be candid with ya. I was new in town and your shop was closest to my house, and had a clean appearance.” He related to my father immediately, both being similar in age and having an old school car or two. He first brought in his ’69 Chevy Nova with a 396 cubic inch engine and a four speed transmission. The car is downright savage: with black paint, black vinyl interior, black rims and pistons around the size of your boss’s comical coffee cup. Mark is comparably more civilized, and after we did good work on the muscle car he started bringing in his other vehicles as well.
“The bottom line with any business is giving people reasons to do business with you or not to do business with you.” Mark Johnson chose us and that’s his logic.

I think what people expect of an automotive repair shop in small town Montana is different than in a bigger city. I was baffled by the way the business was conducted at first but I’ve come to impatiently accept the realities of small town work. I spent the seven years before moving out here at large dealerships where the work is a science, the tasks are specialized and the goal is time management. I remember shortly after I started with my dad the used oil barrel was full. I asked him who handles it, and this prompted a two day search for someone to take our waste oil. Other buckets were filling around the shop. Is there any planning here? I remember questioning. I laugh about it now. It’s a small town thing: you put the “feelers out” and whoever can use the oil takes it. A corporation would rather pay not to deal with this type of problem.

The lot around the building is filled with an exceptionally diverse mixture of waiting jobs. A tractor lawn mower deck with a stripped gearbox, a Volvo with an emissions leak, a Ford and a Dodge occupying different stages of restoration, six economy cars (some abandoned by customers), two UPS trucks trying not to take over half the lot space. Rejecting work is not a consideration in a small town environment, there is always a lingering fear that any hardship could be just around the corner. There are cows in the field across the highway, a farm and gas station to the north, a creek passes through the lot to the south. Wet spring dirt emits a subtle smell of manure from horses, likely this lots previous tenants. The Bitterroot Mountain Range towers over us to the west, making the Sapphire Mountains look like hills to the east. This property and location epitomize my Western Montana experience. The feeling might be what brings us all here, why this small town exists and why we’re trying to figure out how to work a living, but the full lot makes me uneasy concerning this time spent on reverence.

Less than a mile south of the street named Grundy Lane after my great-grandfather, my dad’s pension from Thompson Creek Mine helped to open Hamilton Automotive Repair in 2015. The business cards have the names Nick Nichols and Cliff Scott. Cliff is a family friend who has been away from business attending to medical issues for about a year. Ben Roland and I aren’t mentioned but we don’t care. The cards have our business’s address, email and phone number. Anyone who gets one has likely walked into the shop, and engaged us in a classical small town catch up session. We keep them on the road, even if it takes a little extra effort and ingenuity. After all, good business is all about giving your customers reasons to work with you.

editor’s note:
Hamilton Automotive Repair 406-375-7500 is my favorite auto shop. From bottom-end practical and pragmatic advice on beaters to custom-fabricated high-performance exhaust systems they treat their customers and cars right. I know this because I brought both ends of the spectrum to them and came away happy.
– Ted