Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk Interviews Pete DeBevers, Head Mechanic and Instructor at Edison Technical High School

Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk: How did you get interested in repairing cars?

Pete: Growing up I had an older brother who was a hot rodder. This was in the 1950s. He swapped a new engine into his hot rod and gave me the one that came out. I was 13. I took it apart, and managed to get it running. That was all I needed.

Car Talk: How long have you been in the business?

Pete: I've been here at Edison Technical High School for nine years. Before that, I worked at a number of dealerships in Los Angeles -- first in the service area, and eventually became sales manager.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, the defense industry collapsed, and we lost our customers. So I decided to go into teaching.

Car Talk: How do you go about training a new mechanic?

Pete: We have an automotive repair program that actually runs a for-profit, operating garage. We have three bays and a gas station.

Students work at one of three levels. They start at the gas station, collecting money -- once I trust them, that is. By their third year, they're doing everything in the shop.

We do everything except for heavy work like engine rebuilds. By the end of three years, the students can get certified with their state inspector's licenses and an ASE certifications.

This is a transitional program. Some kids go on to excellent, technical mechanics classes at the local community college. For those who don't, at least they know enough not to get ripped off when they have to get their cars repaired.

Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk: So, what's it like trying to teach auto repair to 30 kids while trying to fix people's cars at the same time?

Pete: It's really fun working with the students. They're ethnically very mixed, which makes it interesting. Our school district has a program for refugees -- we've even trained political refugees from Somalia. It's really gratifying to see the changes in each of them and the progress they make from the time they start to when they're ready to leave.

Car Talk: That must make for some funny misunderstandings.

Pete: Definitely. English is not their first language. But they all know how to say, "Yes!" I once showed a refugee how to perform a complicated rear brake job that involved lots of little springs. I kept asking, "Do you understand?" and he kept answering, "Yes!" I let him do the job, and he installed everything backwards.

Car Talk: Is it frustrating?

Pete: At times it is. We have problems with students who advanced through the grades, but don't know basic math, and have problems with decimals and fractions. There's a percentage of students who are really quite illiterate, and that's a challenge.

Overall, though, it's fun.

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Car Talk: You were nominated for the Order of the Golden Wrench by Susie Collier. Do you remember her?

Pete: Of course -- how could I forget her? She's got three cars, and two of them are Fords! A Miata, a Ford E Van and a Ford Aerostar. I have no idea why she has so many cars. After all, it's just her and her Saint Bernard.

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

Pete: A retired gentleman in his seventies. Nice guy, but very cheap. He came in with a big Oldsmobile that was about 9 years old.

Now, here in Rochester, we have a big road salt problem. Salt rusts out everything in sight. And he had a rusted rear brake line that was leaking.

We fixed it. Over the weekend, though, the front brake lines went. At the end of the week, he came back into the garage, madder than a pistol. It seems that Firestone had fixed the front brake lines -- for $750 -- and claimed we hadn't fixed the problem. Of course, we hadn't touched the front brake lines.

He was ready to call the cops. Instead, the principal refunded him his money, for the sake of community relations, and we sent him on his way. Haven't seen him since.

Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk: How about the best customer you've ever had?

Pete: I have one family that owns four Ford Tauruses, which are notorious for suspension and steering problems. Their springs are constantly breaking. That family sure does their part to keep the dollars in circulation, so to speak.

What I like, though, is when a customer brings his car in and says, "Do whatever needs to be done and call us when it's done."

Car Talk: What was the dirtiest car that ever the came into your shop?

Pete: An '87 Caravan. I know it well. The guy is a total pig. You can't even see the seats. It always reeks of rotting food. Dirty clothes are everywhere. Papers are askew all over the front seats. The guy has no pride. He's also rather portly.

Once I was looking for some wiring in the back, when I located a bag of apples that was buried under other debris. It had been there a long, long time. He had a good science project going on there. You could have extracted some penicillin from those apples!

Car Talk: What's the most expensive repair you've ever done?

Pete: I once did a brake job on a GM car that cost 800 bucks! Of course, the dealer had quoted the guy $1,200 for the job.

It was amazing. We had to replace everything from the calipers through to the frozen, rusted parking brake.

There has since been a class action suit on those brakes. At least a few people got some money back.

Car Talk: What car would you recommend if you wanted a lot of business?

Pete: A Ford. There are lots of them out there with faulty head gaskets, steering and suspension problems. They're wonderful.

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Car Talk: What car do you drive?

Pete: I've got two -- a Dodge Caravan and a Chevy Celebrity wagon.

Car Talk: How big is your boat?

Pete: I don't have a boat, but I did see a boat on TV, in a Lloyd Bridges movie called "Sea Hunt." It was a 30-foot, twin-screw model. I'd like to buy one of those, retire to Lake Ontario and rebuild it. Maybe I'm having a midlife crisis?

Car Talk: Do you remember the moment you decided to become a nice, sweet mechanic, instead of a sleaze ball?

Pete: Well, actually, I'm kind of a "golden rule" guy. If you treat people fairly, they're going to come back. And I'll go an extra mile for the people who do a lot of business with me.

Once, on an airplane flight, I talked with the CEO of Bumble Bee Tuna. I asked him what the key was to his business. He said it was simple: Be nice to everyone.

If you get into a business and you have some talent, a reasonable desire to make money, and you keep the golden rule in mind, you'll do fine.

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Car Talk: Do you think mechanics' lousy reputations, in general, are well deserved?

Pete: Sometimes. I try to refer people to other shops that are reputable. I also get reports from them about their experience at various shops and try to remember what they say.

Dealerships have a lot of expenses to cover. They do a wonderful job of getting the car washed and vacuumed, but they charge serious money and sometimes customers feel ripped off. As a result, they don't want to take their car to the dealer. A lot of my customers have cars that are only worth $1,000. They just want to get their heap running again.

Car Talk: How many mechanics at Edison Tech?

Pete: There are two instructors, and another 20 students who we supervise.

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Car Talk: What do you do to ensure quality and honesty?

Pete: To start, we look up the repair on our computer to see what it will take to get the job done correctly.

Then, I stress the importance of doing the job right -- putting the tools back where you found them, washing your hands and doing the job neatly. There's something to be said for being a bit retentive about the job and being proud of what you do.

Car Talk: Do you use a flat rate book?

Pete: Yes -- but our flat rate at Edison Tech is $23 an hour -- compared to $73 an hour at some of the dealerships.

Car Talk: Do you have any advice for folks who have to get their cars repaired?

Pete: Listen to the little voice inside your head. If the mechanic isn't looking you in your eye, or if you don't feel comfortable with him, don't do

Most people are afraid of getting ripped off. I'm trying to start a night class called "Auto Repair for Dummies." If a mechanic suddenly wants to change your muffler belts, you'll at least know it's a bogus repair.

Car Talk: How long do you plan to stay in the business? And ... why?

Pete: I like the work, I like working with kids and I like working with the public. But, as soon as I get my last kid out of college, out of the nest and on her own, then I'll retire. That's three years away.

I want to head west somewhere, to where the skiing is great. Maybe the Rockies. And I have some cars I want to rebuild.

Car Talk: Will the Golden Wrench Award change your life?

Pete: Totally. I can just see all the customers coming in now.

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