Decades ago, when I was just starting out in the newspaper industry, one of my first editorial jobs was to write obits. It’s a job usually saved for newbies, the cub reporters…you know, new kid on the block. Basically, it was the newsroom’s way of “welcoming” you into the family. Just like the Reader’s Digest condensed books, the obit was someone’s history in a couple of pica-inches of copy.

History can be personal, history can be a world-changing event. Like the automotive industry. And, let me tell you, growing up on the east side of Detroit I was immersed in everything auto. My history switched gears when I morphed from reporter/editor to my first love: cars. As an ASE certified technician and shop owner for 20 years, I saw a lot.

There were a handful of outstanding techs that I had the pleasure to work side-by-side. Of course, there were dozens of individuals who had the desire to turn wrenches, but not the aptitude. Then there were customers who wouldn’t tell the “whole story” about a vehicle’s issue – even after playing 20 questions. I guess they thought less symptoms discussed equaled money saved. (Wrong.) Most of all, there were the customers-turned-friends that just made your day by saying thanks after a repair.

That piece of Americana-automotive history is fading fast. The numbers of local repair facilities are dwindling. Hence, this pending obit: The death of the family-owned and operated auto center.

Over several years, the independent mom-and-pop shop has been watching their loyal clientele commit to dealership maintenance programs. Most of these repair packages are “built-in” to the sticker price of a new, or a newer used vehicle. There is big money for dealerships to service what they sell.

Manufacturers have seen a +/- 15 percent jump (from +/- 60 to 75 percent) when it comes to consumers purchasing another vehicle from said servicing dealership.

IMG_4920Who’s withering in this manufacturers’ loyalty-brand game? The independent auto shop. Even with the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (a national, consumer law since 1975), the dealerships have been avoiding to inform their customer base about section 102c of the law – that they have repair choices. The text basically tells consumers that they can have their vehicle properly repaired at a family-owned auto center without fear of voiding the manufacturer warranty. The Federal Trade Commission* (FTC) backs up this warranty law.

According to the FTC’s publication on auto warranties education: “An independent mechanic, a retail chain shop, or even you yourself can do routine maintenance and repairs on your vehicle. In fact, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which is enforced by the FTC, makes it illegal for manufacturers or dealers to claim that your warranty is void or to deny coverage under your warranty simply because someone other than the dealer did the work.”

And, I’m not even going to discuss the “Right to Repair Act.” That piece of legislation never got off the alignment rack, in Washington. This article had been sitting around Congress for 10-plus years — road blocked by auto manufacturers.

So, what is an automotive family to do? The fate of the remaining independent repair centers rests upon how well they teach the automotive consumer.

Having mom-and-pop shops educate their customer base, local community about the auto repair choice law is a must! The consumer has options before signing on that dealership dotted line to who’s going to maintain their car or truck. Remember: there’s no such thing as a “free lunch.” Everything has a price tag, including the “free” oil, lube and filter. Those parts – and labor – costs the dealership monies. They may make up the difference by raising the price of body shop work or tires. Then, again, they may include the cost of the freebie in the dealership shop or disposal fee. But, let me tell you, they are not giving anything away. They are there for profit, not charity. Independent shops need to emphasize this fact to the consumer. Mom-and-pop shops don’t have to do it on their own.

There are several sources – including FTC – to help support their stance in the community. The local auto repair center needs to continuously educated their technicians and make sure that they are ASE certified, showing proficiency in all automotive elements. These two factors combined are key to saving the family-owned repair shop. It can be done. But, the passion needs to be there. The comradery between shops is a must. A united front must be established to help the everyday driver make the proper repair choices. Parts houses need to participate and support these automotive entrepreneurs, as well. Give the mom-and-pop shop fair pricing and part sourcing support. It’s got to be an aftermarket, automotive group effort. If the industry chooses the other route, then all is lost. And, there’s no road map back to the independent repair highway.

*The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357)

About The Author

Pam Oakes is a shop owner, ASE-certified technician, automotive author, automotive speaker, and syndicated radio host of “Car Care for the Clueless” on CBS Radio, CoachMeRadio, and AOL Radio -- LIVE@5 p.m. every Friday. And, yes, she still “turns wrenches.”

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