Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2004   by

Shop of Dreams

"If I had a million dollars"

The Bare Naked Ladies turned those words into a song and sang it all the way to the bank.

Unfortunately, most mechanics can’t carry a tune in a socket tray, so they often find themselves in heavily mortgaged shops full of equipment that’s owned more by the lease company than themselves.

But then again, what if…

What would be the first thing you’d buy for the shop if your numbers came up in the lottery tonight? (And if you’re one of those smart-guys who says you’d sell the shop tomorrow and find something else to do with your time, just work with me, all right?)

Equipping a shop is probably the biggest financial hurdle any shop owner will ever face. But if money were no object, what pieces of equipment would you put into your shop to improve service and productivity, or just make life a lot more fun?

Our informal survey put that question to technicians and shop owners alike. Here’s what they had to say:

Ray Marshall, assistant service manager at Bob Brown Pontiac Buick GMC in Penticton, BC, would like to see a mandrel pipe bender at his GM dealership. Claiming it would be for low-restriction exhaust systems on the Duramax Diesels, you can bet it wouldn’t be long before every tech in the shop had custom exhaust on his own car. However, with a $90,000 price tag, Ray admits the prospect is somewhat remote.

What’s more likely to appear is the road force wheel balancer that one of his bosses wants. Made by Hunter Engineering, the GSP9700 simulates a "road test" using a unique "load roller," which applies up to 1400 lbs. of force against the rotating assembly to locate any stiff or weak belts. It will also measure the lateral force of each tire, labeling it for the best mounting position on the vehicle to minimize tire pull. The big advantage of this $20,000 piece of hardware? Less time spent re-balancing and re-rotating tires, plus fewer customer complaints.

On the other hand, Mark Purdey, owner/technincian at The AutoPro Alignment Shop in Kamloops, BC, covets the Hunter DSP600 Digital Imaging Alignment system to help bring joy to his daily diet of wheel alignments. Featuring four high-resolution digital video cameras mounted to the wall or a pole, they continuously monitor targets at each wheel. No cables or wiring to attach, so there’s no electronics in the pit. Best of all, there’s no jacking up (except for inspection, of course). Mark says you just roll the car 18 inches forward and back and your runout is done; within two minutes you’ve got all your readings. A nice deal, for just under $40,000.

Mark also wants a hoist in every bay and two bays for every tech to achieve maximum production. Apprentice Chris McPhedran at Summerland AutoTech in Summerland, BC, disagrees, citing an improved coffee room with leather couches and a DVD player as the higher priority.

But getting back to hoists, we all know they’re meant to lift cars in the air and keep them there. But the basics can be boring, so let’s bring on the extras. Rotary Lift has been coming up with new innovations ever since their founder Peter Lunati built the world’s first automotive hydraulic lift in 1925 (after being inspired by watching a barber chair go up and down).

Rotary’s "inbay" technology means operation from either side via dual controls on both posts, mounting the motor away from the operator for reduced noise, and adding integrated air and GFI-protected electric connections at the control panel. There’s a telephone/data port connection on the console to hook up your laptop and access repair manuals, and no doubt wireless technology is not far away.

The company claims the hoist of the future will be the centre of your repair area, so the less time you spend away from it, the more productive you’ll be. Of course, all work and no play makes "Jack" a dull lift, so I think more thought should be given to Chris’s coffee room plans.

One last thought here for those of you who just spent part of your million buying new toys to drive, there are specially designed two-tier hoists for storing your stable until you get around to building a bigger garage.

Joe Cornett-Ching, owner/tech at A.N.J. Automotive Ltd. in Penticton, BC, says a Snap-on MODIS system (Modular Diagnostic Information System), with its built in scanner, lab/ignition scope, and digital graphing multi-meter would be nice. Imagine going on a road test and taking your ignition scope with you. The on-board Fast-Track Trouble-shooter software gives you advice on engine, transmission, body, airbag and ABS systems, plus being a modular design you add extras like the portable five-gas analyser. Starting at around $10,000, it’s not cheap. Much better, says Joe, to build a high-rise condominium and put your shop on the bottom floor. If the shop doesn’t make money, at least the condos will.

Klaus Kahl, owner/tech at Valley West Automotive in Summerland, BC (a Volkswagen and Import Specialists), would love a larger shop, with wash and detail bays, waxed heated floors, and central air conditioning. Not a bad idea for those hot summer days and even hotter engines.

Gerry Pieters, owner/tech at Thunder Alley Transmissions in Penticton, BC, would like a few goodies for his transmission shop, like a machinist’s lathe to resurface used parts. Next would be a solenoid tester, like the 3-in-1 Modulated Solenoid Test Kit made by Schaffer Test Products. Being able to test solenoids under working pressure reduces comebacks.

But top of the list for Gerry is a transmission dyno. What tranny rebuilder wouldn’t love to be able to pre-test a unit before going through all the hassle of reinstallation! Hey, at only US$20,000 for a used unit that does both front and rear wheel drive, why not buy two? With a million dollars, you can afford to knock out the walls for more room.

With vehicles like Chevy Colorado and the GMC Canyon using a "captured rotor" design, an Auto-Compensating On-Vehicle Brake Lathe like the Pro-Cut PFM 9.2 would be slick (starting around US$9000). And don’t forget the Snap-on D-TAC battery tester and charger, that will diagnose your battery, starter, and alternator in three minutes, and recharge even deep-discharged batteries in 45 minutes or less. It’s got a 300-amp crank-assist feature, a trouble-shooter menu, a digital multi-meter, battery impedance meter, programmable battery loading, and amp probe testing. At nearly $5,000, it’s a steal.

Some of the locals in the B.C. Interior figure that Fifth Ave. Auto near Kelowna comes pretty close to being a "dream shop." Partners Don Robertson, Wilf McFadzen and Kevan and Jenny Springford have always made a point of keeping their six-bay shop up to date on the latest equipment. Jenny does the books, and Wilf works in the bays, but Kevan and Don handle the front counter. They say the best money they’ve ever spent was on business management courses from David Meunier, of Total Automotive Consulting & Training (TACT Inc). A year and a half ago, they totally changed their focus. “We’re no longer a breakdown shop; we’re a maintenance shop," says Kevan, and they’re now booking appointments six months in advance.

A computer program of Kevan’s own design creates a vehicle profile for each customer’s car. Then a service and maintenance schedule helps the customer plan ahead for future vehicle repairs. Every invoice shows not only the service history, but what will be needed by the next service interval, and the boys spend as much time with their customers as necessary to answer questions. A firm estimate is given, even if the job is still six months away, and they stick to it.

"We don’t sell the job," says Don. "We sell the value." Maintaining the vehicle is far better for the customer in the long run, and they run their shop on that belief. So for them, the dream shop is not so much the tools, it’s the way you do business. A couple of years ago they were stressed out and were ready to sell, but that’s all changed. "Now it’s fun!"

Ah yes, but what about the tools?

"I’d like a smoke machine," admits Don, for diagnosing EVAP systems and intake manifold leaks. And for Kevan? "A 4-wheel dynamometer," he says with a gleam in his eye.

"Dream tools often come with a nightmare price," adds Don, noting that some inexpensive tools have really proven their worth. The Cooling System Airlift by UView sells for around $135, and finds coolant leaks and does a drain and refill in less than two minutes, with no air pockets. Their on-line subscription to iATN is also worth its weight in gold.

In their hit song, the Bare Naked Ladies say they’d spend some of their million dollars on a K-Car – which goes to show you pop stars don’t know everything.

George Bernard Shaw once said, "Some men see things as they are and say, "Why?" I dream of things that never were and say, "Why not?" So dream on.

With a little planning, it’s possible to put some fun back into this trade, and maybe even boost your productivity.
Happy dreams.

Print this page


1 Comment » for Shop of Dreams
  1. Bill McLennan says:

    I hope it was either left behind by customer for you to dispose of or you called OPP and turned it in as an unsafe vehicle.

Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *