In Praise of the Humble Parts Guy

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Aug 11, 2016

A few weeks back, the post I wrote about painting my 1979 Chevrolet Blazer got resurrected thanks to an ad from Maaco suggesting it was dumb to paint a car yourself. While the results of painting my Blazer didn't look so dumb, the way I'd let it sit for the last seven months did. It had been in the garage since January, stalled after I tore the carburetor, intake and heads off of it in an attempt to build some more power out of the engine.

That post got me desperate to get it running again, and the last two weeks have been a constant flurry of activity, punctuated by approximately 27,391 runs to one of the six parts stores within a five mile radius of my house. It's given me a new appreciation for the qualities of a good parts counterman.

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Before you think I'm too critical of not-so-great countermen, know that I've got my own history doing just that.

Remember when Kmart had an automotive department?

Remember Kmart?

Back in 1985, when there was a Kmart, and when it had an automotive department, I worked there. Not only did it have a full-service garage with eight bays, the parts section was surprisingly well stocked for any kind of project that a mild DIY'er could take on. Air filters, fan belts, bulbs, battery cables were all available whenever the store was open.

It was then that I realized my own limitations as a parts guy. I read all the car magazines, of course, and thought I knew my way around, but at 16 years old, I had no idea what I was talking about. To my everlasting embarrassment, my question after searching the parts book to find a belt for a customer's 1977 Nova was "Does it have an alternator?" because there was a listing for both an alternator belt and a power steering belt. Yes, dummy, it has an alternator.

I had one guy ask me how one of those R12 Freon replacement kits work. Sir, if you're still alive and have the use of your eyes, please read this as my sincere apology for the high-pressure explosion you surely experienced.

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I'm slightly more advanced now. The project I had undertaken was to remedy some of the issues that had come with the Blazer when it rolled off the line in 1979. The truck has just over 60,000 miles since new, which is good news. The bad news is that in 1979 the Blazer was smogged to death using the crudest, most ineffective, performance-sapping pollution equipment known to man. The Quadrajet carburetor was in terrible condition and would've required a complete rebuild, and the heads on it were generally regarded as the worst Chevrolet ever produced. Not only were they low-compression with puny valves, but they were prone to crack and weren't worth rebuilding.

Brian Lohnes -- who runs BangShift.com, calls NHRA events on Fox Sports and now co-hosts Motorhead Garage on Velocity -- rescued me with the big stuff. He had a Holley 80555-1 carburetor and a Weiand Street Warrior intake on his shelf from other half-completed projects. A new MSD Street Fire distributor also found its way to my house.

The key, though, were the heads. They originally came off of his 1987 Chevrolet Caprice 9C1, the police package that patrolled the streets all over America. They're some of the better heads Chevy built in the 1980s, essentially a cast-iron version of the aluminum heads that went on the L98 motors in Camaros and Corvettes in that era.

RELATED: Find a 1977 to 1988 Chevrolet Caprice at BestRide.com

Brian had them ported and shaved, and they got a multi-angle valve job before he decided to swap them out for something else on his cop car. In all, it's about a grand worth of leftover stuff that he cleaned out of his basement for me, which made this whole project a lot easier to swallow.

It meant that I needed help to answer a lot of questions, though, and this is where a good counterman proves his mettle.

It's especially true when you're dealing with a vehicle that will immediately confound a parts book. No matter how convenient the hours or the location, you're going to drive right past the "Chrome Depot," the auto parts store that has six aisles worth of mudflaps, skull shift knobs and fuzzy dice, but has to place an order to the warehouse to get you a starter motor. The AutoZone closest to me is that kind of place.

We also just got a new O'Reilly store just across the street from AutoZone. It's a beautiful store: clean, well lit, and fairly well stocked, but they'd have trouble finding you an air freshener without you providing the year, make and model first. In my situation, I've got a 1979 Blazer with 1987 heads, an aftermarket intake and carb, and every bit of crude emissions equipment chucked in the trash. The catalytic converter came off circa 1980, and the air pump quickly followed it. It means that I need a parts counter guy who can listen and knows how to roll with the punches.

I was looking for things like a one-way check valve to use at the end of a line that once ran to a charcoal canister from the fuel tank. Blank stare. I also needed a pipe plug to cap of a threaded hole in one of the heads. "Is that two wheel drive or four wheel drive?"

Even getting a battery is a challenge with somebody behind the counter who's not experienced enough to do anything but go by the book. I brought the Blazer's dead battery in the store Saturday and the parts guy immediately asked for year, make and model. He got a part number, went behind the counter and lugged up what looked like a forklift battery.

The size didn't concern me. I had plenty of room in the battery tray. The problem was that it had side terminals. The dead battery I brought in had them on top. The fussy side terminal battery that came with the truck got replaced with top terminals as soon as the battery cables went south, probably around the time that Nancy Reagan was sitting on Mr. T's lap.

For the aftermarket stuff, I was pretty much out of luck locally. There used to be these places called "speed shops" in every sizeable town in America. Within sight of where I sit right now in Needham, Massachusetts, a guy named George Berejik used to run a speed shop that catered to nothing but Oldsmobile 442s, which his dad sold across the street at as an Oldsmobile dealer. George knew his stuff because on the weekends, he was bolting those parts on a race car.

Now everybody just orders stuff online. Summit Racing and Jegs are terrific, but when I'm trying to throw something together on a Saturday, it sure would be nice to have a speed shop nearby, with a counter manned by somebody who knew what the hell they were talking about. I ended up planning ahead a few times and placeing orders with Summit and directly with Holley, but most of the time, I'm not that good.

For seven years, I sat next to Jim O'Clair at Hemmings Motor News. He's the ultimate parts counter guy. At Hemmings, he provides parts location services to readers, and writes the Parts Locator column in the magazine every month. Not only can he tell you where to find a particular part, he can tell you what parts from other years you might be able to swap out. Want to know whether you can slip a TH 200-4R transmission in place of that ridiculous old Powerglide in your Malibu? Jim's the guy who can help you figure it out.

For years, Jim's also been a parts counter guy at NAPA in Albany, New York. If you live in that area and you wrench on your own car, you're lucky to have Jim and that store nearby.

Yes, it's 2016, and thanks to companies like Rock Auto, you can buy everything you need for just about any car ever produced online and have it shipped to your house for free in 24 hours. But the value of a great counterman is the advice they provide, honed by decades of twisting wrenches, making mistakes and absorbing knowledge from people who get their hands dirty every day.

They're a rare commodity. If you have one you've worked with, you know what I'm talking about.


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