Boyz Under the Hood
A good auto mechanic, they say, is hard to find. Well, we’ve found 10 that really go the extra mile.
Baltimore magazine, November 1994
If it seems like good mechanics are as rare a good doctors, that’s because today’s mechanics have to possess many of the same qualities. Auto repair, like the field of medicine, has grown immeasurably more complex, and the title “auto technician” is no euphemism. The best mechanics have to be plumbers, electricians, engineers, researchers, computer scientists, and air-conditioning and heating specialists, not to mention first-class logicians.
Many specialize. Dealership technicians, for instance, possess vast knowledge on specific makes, while others hone in on one aspect of car repair, such as transmissions or engine work. Others stick to primary-care service of all vehicles, stressing preventive maintenance and careful listening and analysis.
Where are these mechanical- minded renaissance men? It takes a bit of legwork to find them. To help you get started, we found 10 likely candidates.
It was quite a task. There are very few indicators of excellence to differentiate the just-OK from the above-par. The American Automobile Assocation (AAA) takes a hard look at service shops, and those it endorses are generally first-rate. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) lets you know of the lemons, but little else. As for judging the mechanics, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence awards ASE certificates in eight aspects of auto repair; competency is based on written exams.
The BBB, AAA, and ASE are all voluntary, however, and many quality shops and mechanics succeed without their blessings. So, in addition to looking at those indicators, we surveyed friends and co-workers, car companies, repair-shop managers, and even mechanics themselves, assuming that word of mouth is the best endorsement.
We may not have found the best mechanics in Baltimore (though we feel they’re pretty darn good). Rather we picked our 10 for the particular qualities they exhibited, qualities you would want to look for in your own auto technician.
Brian England, British & American Auto Care (Honda, Toyota, Nissan-Datsun, MGB, Austin Healy, MGM, Triumph, Mitsubishi, Jaguar, Rover, Chrysler, GM, Ford, AMC, Subaru, Mazda, Volvo, Saab, Hyundai, BMW, Volkswagen, Isuzu). Not only does B&AAC employ the same filing system for its cars that doctors’ offices have for patients, but Brian England himself has a cure for the car-care crisis. Preventive maintenance.
He sees it all the time: Two identical Hondas come into his shop, each with 120,000 miles. “One customer has got a vehicle that’s worth nothing, and the other has one that will last two or three more years,” he says. The difference, as he sees it, is how the owner keeps up on maintenance. He dictates that his shop have long-term commitment to the well-being of the autos coming through. What he likes is to be given responsibility for a customer’s car. Not a service stop for the faint-hearted penny-pincher, B&AAC’s thorough inspection of each vehicle provides detailed records of potential problems. Then come the strong recommendations of $50 worth of work that may stave off a $1,000 bill later on. 9235 Berger Rd., Columbia Car Care Center, Columbia. 410-381-2700.
Geoffrey Griffiths, Treasured Motorcar Services (Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Lamborghini, MG, Lotus, Triumph, Range Rover, Morgan). Geoffrey Griffiths understands. He doesn’t ask why you bring in a 20-year-old sports car that will cost 10 times more to repair than It would ever sell for. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you don’t care about your car,” he says, “this would not be the shop for you.”
Griffiths serves a very exclusive—and intimate--clientele. He has keys to many garages so he can pick up and deliver autos. And he’ll call weeks after a repair to see if everything is all right. Griffiths will also do pre-purchasing consultation for unique used cars; he recently flew to Nashville, for example, to examine a rare black Rolls for a customer.
When not restoring rarities, Griffiths spends about 60 percent of his time with Jaguars, particularly those over five years old. “Many of our clients have series III XJ6’s, and they stopped making those in 1987.” Owners love these older models, many times past the point of usefulness, and Griffiths knows the pull of sentimental attachment and keeps them an the road. 12340 Glyn Owings Dr., Reisterstown. 410-833-2329.
Jeff Shank, Mobile Auto Service (Honda, Acura). If you’re too busy to bring your Honda to the shop, why not have the shop come to you?
Jeff Shank, a five-year veteran technician at Brown’s Honda City, experienced this epiphany after passing through the service waiting room one day. He noticed all the customers were scowling or had long faces. And who could blame them? They probably had to take off from work, or press loved ones and friends to pick them up and drop them off. Anyway you looked at it, car repair was a hassle.
So why not just load a few portable jacks and the necessary diagnostic and repair tools onto a van and go to them? While customers could work or do anything more productive than hang around a dealership, Jeff would repair and service the autos in their office parking lots or home driveways. The idea worked better than he had hoped. Not only was it more convenient for customers, but lacking any major overhead for garage rental, he found it was cheaper as well. Today, while a major tune-up may run $350 at a dealership, Jeff’s runs $189.
There are drawbacks for him, however. Two or three days a year will be too cold to work on cars, and summer’s no picnic either. But how many other mechanics can claim that customers will buy a Honda specifically because they know Jeff will work on it?
There is a two- or three-day turn-around for routine services, but he leaves some open time each day for emergency repairs. He can do all services, minor repairs, and even a good number of major ones as well. Mobile covers Silver Spring to Catonsville, concentrating on Columbia, 301 -854-2254; a second “shop” has been opened to cover Baltimore, 301-744-1419.
Paul Keith, Scandinavian Motor Works (Saab, Volvo). “With Saabs, if you check the oil wrong you can have a problem. Not seating the dipstick creates a vacuum leak, and that vacuum leak prevents the engine from idling,” says Paul Keith, who does a good business undoing the mistakes of shops that don’t understand the nuances of Saab engineering.
Strangely enough, Paul came to Saab by way of Maryland Institute; College of Art, where he was studying fine art and, like many other students of the ‘70s, driving the utilitarian Swedish vehicle. As repair shops were scarce, he took to fixing his own and others.
For him, the jump between fine art and the fine art of fixing Saabs is not that great. “There’s a real similarity between mechanical and artistic abilities. It’s your ability to look at something that’s together and see a blown-up picture of it.” 1117 Berrymans Lane, Reisterstown. 410-833-9393.
Pat Brice, T & T Automotive (most foreign and domestic). It’s pretty hard to run across T & T if you’re not looking for it. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find it even if you are. It sits along a back alley next to a garage that services dump trucks. Yet, with no drive-by business (and no advertising), T & T boasts a parking lot crammed with cars. Like most neighborhood shops, it lives by its reputation: Find a shop that’s been in the same location for years and, in all likelihood, you have found a shop that deals with its customers honestly.
Bill Brice’s thorough service is one reason patrons return. Like most mechanics, Brice had a youthful penchant for taking things apart and then (hopefully) putting them back together, starting with bikes and skateboards and then developing a fascination with cars. Still seeking challenges, Brice often finds that the problems most difficult for others to diagnose have the simplest solutions. “We’ve had cars that come in that were running bad and someone’s done everything they could, and it turns out the car needs spark plugs,” Brice says. “Everybody is jumping the gun and going for the moneymakers. They forget the basics.” 10823-C Veneer Lane, Cockeysville. 410-771-1185.
Craig Whitcraft, Whitcraft Transmissions (all automatic transmissions). As political jockeying goes, mechanics are a pretty insular lot. They usually aren’t aware of reputations for work good or not-so-good of their peers (or aren’t willing to admit as much to nosey reporters). The one shop in town everybody will talk about is Whitcraft Transmission, a business many in the field admire and trust.
About 75 percent of the work here is referred by such demanding customers as service stations, used-car, and even new-car dealerships. State police cars and Baltimore County ambulances are repaired here also.
Whitcraft opened his doors in 1975 as a one-man shop; today, he has 21 mechanics working in 14 bays. Naturally, Whitcraft’s hands don’t get as dirty as they used to. Still, he road tests all cars that come in. The guy’s got a divining-rod sense of what needs to be done. By test driving, he can usually tell not only what’s wrong, but approximately how much it will cost to repair, unlike many shops that insist on taking the transmission apart before making an estimate. “It’s a big con game that you got to take it apart and then make an estimate. The fact is, the same thing happens to most all of them, and soon as you drive it you know what’s wrong.” Then again, most mechanics don’t have Whitcraft’s 34 years of experience. 536 Main St., Reisterstown. 410-833-5752.
Don Smith, Woodbrook Exxon (all foreign and domestic). Somewhat noted around town as a trouble-shooter of elusive front-end suspension problems, Don Smith has earned ASE certificates in all eight categories. Yet, given his 27 years of experience, he sticks with general service station work Why?
“I like dealing with the people,” he says. “Ate the dealer, a service manager works with the people. Here we deal with them. It’s a lot easier to find problems when you’re talking to the customer if you know exactly what he’s saying. It makes for better communication.” 6201 N. Charles St. Rogers Forge. 410-377-2760.
DEALER SERVICE SHOPS
Michael Vant, Frankel Cadillac-Sterling-Range Rover (Cadillac, Sterling, Range Rover). Michael Vant has this habit of taking his work home with him. He’ll drive home a customer’s car, looking for that intermittent problem that never happens at the repair center, and at night, he studies engineering manuals. As far as he’s concerned, the days are long gone when a young mechanic could learn everything he needs to know just by working at the shop.
Don’t let his age fool you (he’s 29) the guy’s a hotshot. He might very well be one of the youngest dealer shop foremen in the area, and has worked through Cadillac’s exacting program of recognition, becoming one of a handful in the country certified with Master Craftsman status.
Still, Vant realizes there are times when even the best book training can’t beat a particularly stubborn problem. An occasional drip from a failing water pump that shorts out an air conditioner circuit is not the kind of problem pinpointed in a schematic. It takes the old-fashioned patience, intuition, and razor-sharp analytical thinking that Vant has in abundance. 201 Reisterstown Rd., Pikesville, 410-484-8800.
Ed Geiwitz, Valley Motors (Porsche). Ed Gerwitz fondly remembers the exact night he decided to become a Porsche technician. He was taken by a friend for his first ride in a Porsche, an old beat-up 356. Naturally, his friend gave him the white-knuckle ride of his life, speeding along the winding roads around Loch Raven Reservoir. Gerwitz was floored. He had owned Mustangs and GTOs, but they handled like over-muscled go-carts compared to this. “Just the feel of it was pretty neat,” he fondly recalls, “just the way it stuck to the road.”
So that year, 1973, he quit his highs paying job as a draftsman detailer, and convinced the service manager at 40 West Porsche Audi to take him on as an apprentice. He’s worked on Porsches ever since. There is still awe in his voice as he talks about both the lightness and intricacy of a 200 HP Porsche engine.
Unfortunately, that amazing engineering makes for some hairy repairs. He recalls a small oil leak on a new 911 turbo that no one could locate. Eventually, he and his team spent 40 hours disassembling the whole engine to find a microscopic pore doing the dirty work. There was no other way to fix the leak short of completely tearing down the engine. Still, that's OK with him. “I don’t think I’d be happy working on any other car. It’s my niche.” 9800 York Rd., Cockeysville. 410-666-7777.
Tom Gryctz, R & H Motor Cars (Mercedes Benz, Toyota). Like an attending surgeon making rounds, Tom Gryctz supervises 22 technicians, saving the most difficult cases for himself. He’s doing something right. Mercedes Benz ranked his shop as the ninth best of the 378 American dealers.
Gryctz himself is a Master Technician, a title obtained by successfully answering 50 mind-bogglingly difficult technical questions without using any reference material. Gryctz is a magnificent test-taker: He scored a 98 . When he was promoted to technical service manager earlier this year, he had to know Toyota as well, and so he was required to take all eight ASE exams in engine repair, suspension, transmission, drivetrain, brakes, electrical systems, heating and air conditioning, and engine performances The ASEs, mind you, are the mechanic’s grueling equivalent of the doctor’s medical boards. He breezed through them in two days
A long-time mechanic, Gryctz had grown bored working on Volvos and gravitated towards Mercedes Benz. “I would say Mercedes is one of the best-built cars in the world,” Grycti proudly claims. “Where a I 0th of a millimeter for some car companies is OK, Mercedes demands 100th of a millimeter. We want to be exact.” 9727 Reisterstown Rd., Owings Mills. 410-361-7793.
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