In Canada, auto repair is rarely affected by political changes. But imagine if a new political system was put in place which brought with it a completely new vehicle mix, new highly-technical repair information, an entirely new parts distribution model, and access to tools and equipment that you didn’t even know existed before.
That’s what repair shops are dealing with in Poland, where, 15 years after the fall of communism, they’re preparing this month to enter the European Economic Union.
Until recently, repairs in Eastern Europe were a question of compromise and innovation. With no reliable source for parts, technicians had to make do with what they had on hand – often modifying parts to fit the vehicle in question.
But with the opening of world trade, the primitive cars of the Soviet era (mostly old Fiat designs with some original modifications) are a thing of the past, and sophisticated western cars have flooded into the country.
"The work of auto repair in Poland has changed completely in the last 15 years," says Andrzej Baranowski, owner of a small garage in Gdansk. "It’s all about computer diagnosis now. Without the proper set of instruments you cannot do any repairs. You can’t do much with just a hammer and a set of wrenches."
But it wasn’t so long ago that a Polish shop with a hammer, a set of wrenches, and perhaps a welding torch would have been considered a cutting-edge shop.
Ludomir Zakrzewski, the owner of Ludex Auto Service in west-end Toronto, arrived here from Poland in 1984. He says world politics and freer trade mean Polish shops now have to keep up with technology – the same as western shops.
"Car repair everywhere is the same. You have to diagnose the problem and you have to replace or repair the parts," Zakrzewski explains. He says Polish technicians became experts at repairing even badly damaged parts because they simply didn’t have access to replacements.
"Ten years ago you were not able to get spare parts at all," he says. "I had clients who had money to fix their cars but I could not get parts anywhere."
Technicians and car owners would frequently resort to the black market to find elusive parts. "You needed to have good connections everywhere to get parts. This was the only way. If this method failed, then you needed to rebuild the part or jury-rig a system that would keep the car going. Now you don’t fix parts anymore. You just replace them," he says.
Another big development has been the availability of repair information, something which revolutionized the repair business in the matter of a few years.
"Everything is moving forward. The service centers are no longer rough-looking places but proper and professional looking businesses. The clients are demanding better service," says Jarek Franceson, manager of SET-Service in Gdasnsk. "Equipment has also improved, with modern tools and diagnostic equipment. I’m sure the diagnostic systems we use here in Poland are identical to those used in the West and in fact the rest of the world."
Along with Western-style tools and vehicles comes western-style competition. And in a bid to build their businesses, independent garage owners now face the mammoth struggle of equipping their shops to properly diagnose and repair all cars. It’s an expensive and challenging task.
Although there have been many changes over the past 15 years, more upheavals are on the horizon, as the country prepares for its official entry into the European Economic Union.
"Then the market place will truly open up," Franceson predicts. "Now the distributors of autos have a tight hold on their dealer network. When we enter the European Union, these networks will be opened up and the distributor will not be able to exercise the same level of control they have now."
And, as in Western countries, Poland’s independent shops that want to thrive will have to brush up on the latest technologies, equipment, and repair information. No doubt, the day of the "seat of the pants" repair is over.