Golden Wrench Award
Car Talk Talks with Peter Palumbo,
owner of Palumbo's Automotive Unlimited
in Guilford, Connecticut.
How did you get interested in repairing cars?
I had a wonderful shop teacher in high school, Frank Gamache. He told great stories. He told us he had a son in the CIA and another who was a brain surgeon. Of course, we thought it was all BS. But, I got to know him years later before he passed away. Sure enough, it was all true. He taught me great lessons about people, and about the trade.
Golden Wrench Award winner
How long have you been in the business?
April 20, 1987 was the first day my shop was open. My brothers and I started it together.
You were nominated for the Order of the Golden Wrench by Sally Campbell. Do you remember her?
I remember the day she came in quite well. I saw a lady in distress. The guys at the shop tell me to slow down, but sometimes you just have to stop what you're doing and help someone get on her way.
Read Sally's story
Palumbo Automotive Unlimited
Without naming names, who's the worst customer you've ever had?
I had a guy who lied to me, right from the moment he walked in the door. He kept coming in for more and more repairs and he just wouldn't pay. I'd call him at home, and he'd say, "Oh yeah! I'll be right down with the money! First thing, Monday!"
We had to go to small claims court. We got paid immediately. It was very gratifying.
I have a problem. I've never fired a customer. I've taken several management courses, all of which tell you need to do that from time to time. Well, I can't do it. I'm too nice a guy.
How about the best customer you've ever had?
I have incredibly nice clientele. I can't even begin to tell you. You can't imagine. I bet I have 50 credit card numbers on file. They trust me to fix their cars and charge them fairly. They just tell me, "Charge it."
I'm even friends with my competitors. They tell me I'm nuts to clean people's cars, and drop customers off and pick them up.
One competitor, who owns eight wreckers, called me up once and said, "Pete, I sent my best driver out to get a car, and the customer ordered him to tow it to your shop. I just can't get anyone away from you! What are you doing over there?"
Peter's tools of the trade
What was the dirtiest car that ever the came into your shop?
Well, we do have one customer who owns a four-door Saab 900. I swear to you, the back seat is filled from the floor to the roof with mail, newspapers, and old food. If that guy was in an accident, they'd never find him.
We have a woman with a Caprice Classic Wagon, who has 10 kids. The cloth on the seats is literally matted with grease, snot, and French fries. We initiate the new guys at the shop by having them lay in the garbage under the dash and check the fuses.
What's the most expensive repair you've ever done?
$18,000! We rebuilt a Nash Healy engine with a supercharger. The entire project was custom parts. Pistons made in California, crankshaft somewhere else, custom rings, custom gaskets, custom paint. It took a year. It's a gorgeous car.
I remember when the customer first looked at the car. She was in love with it. I told her, "The engine is making a lot of noise." A year later, she was in for the rebuild.
Did she have to sell her house?
No. She's the President of Mad Magazine and DC Comics. In fact, we're rebuilding her Metropolitan Nash right now.
The Metropolitan Nash
What car would you recommend if you wanted a lot of business?
Anything American made, and a Ford or GM in particular. Or a Peugeot, of course.
If I had my choice, everyone would own a Ford Taurus, with a 3.8 liter engine. AC in the summer, head gaskets in the winter!
What car do you drive?
A 1999 Saab 9-5.
How big is your boat?
The boat that Peter's customers bought.
Do you remember the moment you decided to become a nice, sweet mechanic, instead of a sleazeball?
My dad came into the shop right after we had opened, and told my brothers and me, "All you have to do is be honest and they'll come back."
He was right. Before we owned a lot of diagnostic equipment, there were times when we wouldn't be able to complete some jobs. We'd do what we could, then send the customer to the dealer. And, they'd still come back again. We were honest, and they really appreciated that honesty.
I did work for some sleazeballs, though, after high school. I saw all kinds of things. Guys "pouring" oil into engines at gas stations, using empty containers. Unnecessary transmission rebuilds. Another boss used to draw a line across customers' alternators, as if the parts had been lined up, to make it appear that the alternator had been apart and repaired.
Do you think mechanics' lousy reputations, in general, are well deserved?
No. The public really had no idea how involved and how technical it is to diagnose and repair a car properly. And so many people know nothing about their cars. And, you're scared of something you don't understand.
Some of the best mechanics in the biz: Dane, Matt, Michael ("Boop Boop"), Steve, and Don
How many mechanics in your shop?
Five guys, plus two in the office, and my mom does the payroll.
What do you do to ensure quality and honesty?
That's my job. I dress in a uniform every day. I make sure I'm familiar with every car, even if I'm not working on it. So, I know about every repair.
Do you use a flat rate book?
We do. But even though we use it, it doesn't mean that we charge the rate. Some jobs take longer, some take less time.
What's the funniest thing that's ever happened at your garage?
We had a car come in with a bad head gasket problem. We turned on the exhaust fan in the shop, which vents out the back of the building. There's an office building next door. They thought the building was on fire, so they called the fire department. Every volunteer firefighter in town showed up!
Do you have any advice for folks who have to get their cars repaired?
Take the time to get educated about every repair. Refuse to buy a car if you can't take it to your mechanic. And get a second opinion for an expensive repair.
Matt using the "Shut Up" pipe on Dane.
How long do you plan to stay in the business? And ... why?
Until I'm 50. You get burnt out in this business. It's very draining. There's a lot to keep up with technically. You're got to be a social worker with your employees.
I love my customers, though. I love it when little kids come in and look at all the tools and look under the cars. We've even had nursery schools bring the kids in. Hey, those are my future customers!
How will the Golden Wrench Award change your life?
Well, if any of my friends or family see it on your Web site, I'm sure I'll get harassed!