Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Dave Smith: Transition — Clothes and Cars That Last Forever…

In Dave Smith, Mendo Island Transition on March 5, 2012 at 5:00 am

From DAVE SMITH
Ukiah

Old Levi didn’t last forever but his old blue jeans do. I still have a pair of Levi’s 501 denims I wore in high school 50 years ago… and they still fit! The style then was to roll up the leg hems once. The blue suede shoes from Junior High are long gone but those Levi’s still sit in storage in a foot locker and if we ever have a Sock Hop in Ukiah I’m gonna to put them on…

Pity old Levi. Walmart screws up his pants along with everything else they touch

Used to be there were cars that would last forever. In the 60s it was the Plymouth Valiant getting 500,000+ miles before collapsing… and only then because they had hung around so long people started pointing and hooting at the silly fin design and they slunk off to the junkyard on their own and died there of embarrassment …

In the 70s it was the Datsun 510. I know, I had one just like this….

It went to the junkyard after I put 350,000 miles on it, and only because someone ran into the back at a stop light and pushed the trunk into the back seat. I only changed the oil every 20,000 or 30,000 miles… if I remembered…

In Cuba they’re keeping ancient cars alive for daily needed transportation…

Here’s the current hit parade but we’re only talking 150,000 miles, and only if you change the oil frequently… 10 Used Cars That Seem to Last Forever

Most cars that last forever are cared for by a thoughtful owner who is a good mechanic, or knows a good mechanic… or are owned by the proverbial little old lady who drives it a couple of blocks a week to the grocery store. Back in the sixties and seventies around Menlo Park/Palo Alto where I hung out, there was a great mechanic who had his shop in the middle of an apple orchard and made house calls. They don’t make them like they used to…

But our greatest contribution from the past, for the future, was our cooperative garage where you could work on your own car with help, or leave it for the trained mechanics to fix it. We all owned the garage and hired the managers and therefore could trust it…

From KRISTIN ANUNDSEN
The Briarpatch Book (1975)
The Briarpatch Network

THE Briarpatch Cooperative Auto Shop in Palo Alto never was designed to make a big profit. On the other hand, it wasn’t intended to lose money either. Nevertheless for some time after its incorporation in April 1973, it was operating in the red and although its membership was increasing rapidly, its fiscal future loooked a little wobbly.

Then, about a year ago, Keith Williams took over as manager and the Auto Shop’s prospects took an upturn. “We had to clean up our act,” Keith explains. “We needed to become more businesslike in our dealings with our membership and our suppliers. Our original goal was to operate ‘without profit,’ but when we got a CPA in here he enlightened us to the fact that you have to have contingency funds. You have to start putting money away ahead of time for things like moves, sick pay, vacations, and so forth. We were operating so close to the wire—our checkbook balance was always minus, and the bookkeeper was just counting on certain funds to come in on time.”

Another problem was record-keeping, or awareness of cash flow. “Our member/customers were writing up their own bills, and even though the board of directors had decided that there would be no accounts receivable, credit was being extended. The previous manager sometimes gave things away. Also, expenditures were not always accounted for and too much money was tied up in inventory,” says Keith.

Today, the Auto Shop operates in the black, transactions are systematically recorded, and parts and supplies that weren’t necessary have been sold. The working account usually has a balance of at least $1,000, according to Keith. (There is, in addition, a capital account, a tax account, and an immediate-parts account.) The shop is also operating more smoothly as a service to its customers.

One of the oldest Briarpatch businesses, the Cooperative Auto Shop was started by Bill Duncan (who is now in Appalachia setting up a land-based community). At that time Keith Williams was running his own business: “on-the-street auto repair.” Bill “took my partner away from me,” recalls Keith, “and I came down to find out what was going on.” The three of them, plus another mechanic and an office assistant, set up the business with the aid of an Agape Foundation Grant. “We determined our own salaries,” says Keith. “We’d get together at Bill’s house to decide who should make what. We never did really clear it up. The primary criterion was need. I’m the highest paid because I have the largest family.” As in most other Briarpatch businesses, everyone’s jobs are considered equally valuable.

In order to use the shop’s facilities, each customer must become a member by buying a $15 share for each vehicle to be serviced; this share money is used for capital investments. The co-op owns everything but the building, which is leased. There are now close to 1,400 shares outstanding, of which about 50 have been refunded. Staff includes general manager Williams, three full-time mechanics, a full-time parts person, a part-time apprentice, and a CPA.

Major policy decisions are made by the board of directors, who are elected by the membership. Every Monday morning one board member, the manager, and one other staff member meet to review operational problems. Other decisions are made on the spot by the staff members themselves. “Our overriding objective is high-quality, honest auto repair and maintenance,” says Keith. “When I have to decide something, I just think of that concept and the decision is usually made.”

He adds, “I couldn’t see myself going to work in anything other than a collective business or my own business. If you have the traditional employee-employer orientation, you’re not going to get what people are really capable of doing.”

Finding people of Briarpatch values to join the staff is difficult, Keith admits. “We recently lost two mechanics, and so far we’ve only been able to replace one. We interviewed one person who was so into money that he couldn’t have been happy working here. He couldn’t see it as anything but just a job.” Mechanics who are hired are put on a trial basis for two weeks or more on half commission on their labor. To work permanently, a staff member must feel, and show, that he or she truly likes dealing with people on a personal basis.

The shop’s labor charge is $16.50 an hour, which covers basic expenses, pays the mechanics $700 a month, and leaves a small surplus for emergencies and expansion. Charges for most jobs are determined at a “flat rate”—based on the time a competent mechanic should take to do the job well—even if the job takes a little longer or not quite so long. Mechanics try to give the maximum realistic estimate of the price of a job. Parts cost between 10 and 20 percent less than list price.

In addition to having their cars repaired by staff mechanics, members have the option of renting space at $2 an hour, which includes using the shop’s equipment and periodic advice from staff mechanics, or $5 a day for use of the bench only. Mechanics will also service the car and rap with the owner about it during the process; the cost is the regular repair rate of $16.50 an hour. The shop stocks a healthy collection of manuals to aid the do-it-yourselfers. All members of the co-op are asked to give two hours of work to the shop a year.

The idea of providing auto repair that isn’t a rip-off—and, in fact, educating customers to the point where they can actually take over many repairs themselves—is a major catalyst in maintaining the enthusiasm of both staff and member/customers. Member Dick Daniels finds the shop constructive in the sense that “Even if I end up with a big bill, I can learn something. I don’t feel manipulated.” Keith Williams, who once quit a job with a large organization when it got into defense work, says, “To every one of us, this is more than just a job. Most auto shops don’t relate so closely to the car owners. The work load is extremely demanding, but everyone likes taking responsibility for what they’re doing. We feel we are the Briarpatch and we’re willing to do a lot. One time we all came in on a Saturday and painted the building.”

Lee Swensen, who has been a member from the beginning, says that the Briarpatch Cooperative Auto Shop’s evolution “has really been a struggle. First of all, running this kind of business with cars is difficult in itself; if there’s anything people are neurotic about, it’s cars and money. Also, at first there were problems with quality control, since the staff had to service so many different kinds of cars. Most people’s patience is short, mine included—we expect everything to run smoothly from the first and are judgmental when it doesn’t. The Briarpatch Shop needed a growing period. Now, with more practice, better machinery, and better pacing, it’s going very well. To me, the most important thing it’s done is stay honest.”
~~

  1. Let us add the 43 mpg 1975 Honda Civic to the mix as well. Though a tin can health hazard, it ran and ran and ran and you could work on it yourself.

    Today the our ‘leaders’ boast of EPA estimates in the high 20′s and low 30′s as a target for the future.(less 3 mpg for fudge factor)…and you need a computer engineer and hundreds of dollars each time it needs work done.

    Why has technology not given us cars that get over 100 mpg.? Why are we still using technology developed in the early 1900′s as the best we can do?

    Just another conspiracy that Big Oil companies are reporting record profits each and every year by not giving us cars that save us money? or is this just another big ‘Coincidence Theory’?

  2. Jamie, your question should be easy to answer. Maybe knowing the answer is a death knell.

  3. Feet last a life-time, and bikes possibly more than that. For a whole host of reasons, we might need to leave cars behind altogether.

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