Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk Talks with Larry Wagner...About His Dad, Gus Wagner.

Golden Wrench Award
 

Car Talk: How did your dad get interested in repairing cars?

Larry: Dad says he found some wrenches one day, when he was a kid on the family farm. He carried the tools around, looking for something to fix.

In those days -- this would be around 1925 -- there was no electricity on the farm. So, for his first project, he hooked the tractor up to a hand-cranked washing machine using a belt and pulley. That was the family's first automatic washing machine.

 

Car Talk: How long was he in the business?

Larry: In 1938 Dad started work for George "Gramp" Cook in Hadar. Gramp retired in the 60's and was in his mid 80's at that time.

 

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During World War II, Dad worked as an aircraft mechanic at Chanute Field in Illinois. He started his shop around 1948 or so, and stopped repairing other folks cars around 2000. What's that? 52 years!

 

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Wagner Garage then and now

 

Car Talk: Without naming names, who's the worst customer your dad ever had?

Larry: There really weren't any bad customers -- but there were folk who didn't pay on time. For those guys, dad would just say he was too busy to take their cars. Those folks would ask around town, "How do you get your car repaired at Gus's? He's always too busy!"

 

Car Talk: How about the best customer your dad ever had?

Larry: That would be Shorty and Dallas -- because they help dad around the shop. They're friends. Dad burns firewood at the shop and house, and getting the wood cut, loaded, split and stacked is a lot of work. Dallas supplies good wood from his farm and climbs the steep roof on the house to clean the chimney. The people in Hadar are great and really help each other out.

 

Car Talk: What was the dirtiest car that ever the came into dad's shop?

Larry: I saw a lot of dirty cars! When I was a kid, I had a side business to the garage -- I'd offer to wash customer's cars for two bucks.

We had one customer who had literally not washed his car for years. Now, you have to understand, Hadar is a town of dirt and gravel roads. There's also a lot of clay around. This guy has several inches of clay covering his car. It was amazing. It was like glue.

Dad had another customer who owned a mink farm. Now, I don't know if it was the feed or the minks themselves...but his panel truck smelled so bad, it made your eyes water. I couldn't stand to be in the garage with that truck with the doors closed. Imagine skunk spray...only a little nastier.

I'm just glad I never got into cleaning the insides of people's cars.

 

Car Talk: What's the most expensive repair your dad has ever done?

Larry: Nothing spectacular, really. But, dad has worked on some very expensive pieces of machinery, including road graders and combines, which run to about $300,000, new. During World War II, he worked on airplanes.

 

Car Talk: What car do you think your dad recommend if he wanted a lot of business?

Larry: That would have to be some of the V8 Chrysler engines from the 1970's. Those cars were real oil burners!

 

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Car Talk: Does your dad still drive?

Larry: He still does. He's trying to quit. He drives a 1993 Oldsmobile 88.

 

Car Talk: How big is his boat?

Larry: You know, we never had a boat. Gus's only real hobby is bowling. We've got plenty of lawnmowers and snow blowers, but that's about it.

 

Car Talk: Does Gus think mechanics' lousy reputations, in general, are well deserved?

Larry: No, at least not here in the Midwest. There are plenty of great mechanics here. For example, a year ago my daughter's car broke down on the Interstate near Hershey, Nebraska. And, of course, the Interstates are supposed to be notorious places to get ripped off on repairs.

In her case, a truck repair shop helped her out. We managed to find the right alternator for her car, and they put it in on a Saturday night.

 

Car Talk: How many mechanics worked in his shop?

Larry: It was just dad, with mom doing the books. Fifteen years ago Shorty's 17-year-old son, Gary, took up an interest in mechanics. "Uncle Gus" gave Gary a couple of tips as he overhauled his first engine. Today Gary has two mechanics working for him in his own shop.

 

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Car Talk: What did he do to ensure quality and honesty?

Larry: As he says, "It's built in." It was a one-man shop, and dad liked it that way.

 

Car Talk: Did your dad use a flat rate book?

Larry: He's got all those books, but he hardly ever used them. He'd just charge for his actual labor. A lot of time he'd do the repair in half the book time.

 

Car Talk: What's the funniest thing that's ever happened at your garage?

Larry: One time, Dad got zapped with a cattle prod by a customer who I think had had too many beers. It was the only time I ever saw Dad get excited.

You have to understand, those are designed for 800-pound cattle. That's too much juice for a person. I think if he had caught the guy, he would have put a world of hurt on him.

That was mostly funny for the other guy.

 

Car Talk: Does your dad have any advice for folks who have to get their cars repaired?

Larry: Look for someone who has been in business for a while. Of course, that comes from a guy who was in business for 52 years!

 

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Car Talk: What's your dad up to now, since he has closed the shop?

Larry: He still goes out to the shop every day. He spends most of his time out here. My theory is it might have something to do with my mom. They will be married 60 years in June.

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