A new focus on their old cars

Auto mechanics thrive as anxious motorists opt for fixing rather than replacing

March 18, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Guy calls up a mechanic, says he has a '91 Volvo with torn-up brakes. No way he wants to buy another car, new or used. Not in this mess of an economy. Can it be fixed?

Veteran mechanic Richard Linder has been hearing this a lot lately. This particular call comes into Linder Automotive's grime-tinged Waverly garage early Monday morning.

"I hear you - cheaper than a new one," Linder tells the caller, who was referred by a friend. They agree that Linder will take a look.

The recession has been kind to Linder and car doctors around the region. Yes, some people no doubt are putting off repairs, hoping their car won't croak on the JFX. But many are deciding it's better to spend $1,000 to keep that old Civic rolling another year or two than to commit to a car payment - if they could even qualify.

"I have a lot of customers in here, a lot, who are afraid of losing their jobs," Linder, 56, says in his smoky eight-cylinder baritone.

"They won't take vacation because they don't want their job eliminated by the time they get back. Everybody's cautious. They're just not doing anything rash right now."

Imagine that: buying a car as an example of rash behavior. How times change. A couple of years ago, Linder and his fellow mechanic, Nick Cotsaris, sometimes had nothing better to do than twiddle their thumbs. This was back when credit was loose, jobs were plentiful and home equity overflowed, making it fairly easy to buy a shiny new car.

"I would call them up and say, 'You need a $1,500 repair,' " Linder recalls. "And they'd say, 'Forget that, I'm just going to go trade it in.' "

The Tassones of Baltimore County are longtime customers of Linder's shop, which was founded 50 years ago by Richard's father, Buck, now 90. The Tassones did not get caught up in the new-car craze. They own three vehicles that together have logged enough miles to travel to the moon and back - some 480,000 miles.

Still, had Dorothy Tassone not lost her job as a librarian 18 months ago, they probably would have gotten rid of the 12-year-old Ford Taurus wagon by now and bought a new Toyota Prius, says her husband, Joe, an environmental and land-use planner.

"But we can't do that now," he says. So he is counting on Linder to keep the Taurus humming. And he has trust that the shop isn't gouging him. "If it doesn't have to be done," Tassone says, "he makes it very clear that it can be done without."

Linder says he's always blunt if a car is a lost cause. "If a car is billowing smoke down the road, it needs to be off the road. If, in order for you to go Ocean City and back, you need to put three quarts of oil in it, the car should be off the road."

Linder mostly works on Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus, although his mileage king is a product of Detroit - a Chrysler minivan with 245,000 miles.

On this day, three aged Toyota Camrys sit in the shop, hoods agape in the cool morning air. Cotsaris holds a beaker of blue fluid over the radiator of a '97 Camry. If it turns yellow, that'll indicate carbon monoxide, which could mean a nasty problem: blown head gasket.

"This has a little bit of a yellow tinge," Cotsaris says, raising it to the light. "It's turning."

Linder stands nearby. If it is a head gasket problem, "that's a big job" - maybe $1,500. But it might be worth it: "This car is in relatively good shape." And it'd be cheaper than buying a new one.

about this series

First in a series of occasional articles about how the recession is affecting Maryland's people and companies, illustrating how some learn to survive and others thrive.

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