The Auto Mechanics

Four Vineyarders tell us about modern-day mechanics and contemplate the end of the Island Car.

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Al and Fred Noyes. —Lynn Christoffers

Al Noyes, owner, Al Noyes Automotive, Edgartown

A father-son Vineyard business

I was born and raised in Oak Bluffs, my wife born and raised in Vineyard Haven; we settled in Edgartown. I’m 69 years old, and I wake up every day and I enjoy coming to work. It’s just my son and me — Fred, he’s actually Junior, he’s Alfred Jr. — full name Alfred. He found his niche in the business: He likes to do bodywork. It’s just the two of us.

I don’t do inspections; I do oil changes, brakes, tuneups, steering … I don’t do alignment, I send that out to other shops.

Where did you get your training?

I spent four years in the service as an Air Force mechanic. I had on-the-job training early, here on the Island. Then when I graduated from high school, I was sent to Rantoul, Ill., to be an aircraft mechanic, and they put me through school. My trade school was the Air Force.

Who are your clients?

I have great people. I’m friends with most of my clients, and I have a lot of repeat people.

Because my shop is so near town, a lot of schoolteachers and shop owners can walk to their businesses in town, then come back and pick up their cars at end of the day.

I’m losing some of my oldest clients because they are moving off the Island to be close to their families and their doctors. I pick up new people all the time. I don’t do a lot of advertising, since I’m pretty busy. (I’m not bragging.)

The people who come in the summer are more demanding, since they have only so much time here. You deal with a different personality. If I can help them I will, but a lot of times, it’s impossible. Some days I can’t get in my door for the number of cars parked out here in my drive.

How has business changed since you started in 1981?

I learn every day. I worked in this garage when I was in high school with on-the-job training under Clarence Barry. He said one thing to me that’s always stuck: “It’s a poor day when you don’t learn something.” In this business you learn something every day.

Now everything is disc brakes. We still have sparkplugs, we don’t have points and condensers, we have electronic ignition now. I’ll open up the hood, and I’ll say, “Oh my … everything has changed so much in this field.” We have a lot of scan tools that we have to use, then we have to go back into our computers. We have a code, what does it mean … how does it work. We still have the wrenches, but with all this added electronic stuff.

I’d like to see more of the younger crowd get into mechanics. I don’t think so many people want to work with their hands anymore, they want to work with their brains … not that I see anything wrong with that.

End of the old Island car

With the new inspection procedures, it’s going to be even tougher to pass, as they are trying to get rid of all the old cars. The state wants anything that’s rusted bad to be off the road — it’s unsafe. I used to inspect cars. It has to pass — that car should be able to be driven to Boston. My wife and children are out on that road. You should drive a safe car.

Is driving on the Vineyard hard on cars?

Absolutely. The most severe driving there is is on Martha’s Vineyard. Cars don’t get warmed up enough with the short-distance driving. The systems don’t dry out, since they don’t get driven to Boston. They rust from the inside out, not from the outside in. The best thing you can do to a car is give it a long drive — it’s like giving it a tuneup. It dries everything out, the car gets good and hot, all moisture evaporates. It’s better for the car.

What car do you drive?

I have a GMC Yukon, SUV; a Chevrolet Tahoe, and an Isuzu pickup; my wife drives the Yukon. My kids have had everything: Hondas, Subarus — they’re all mechanical.

 

David Pothier, owner, Cars Unlimited, Airport Business Park, Edgartown

What got you started in mechanics?

It was one of the things I was just good at, picked it up as a kid, tore apart lawnmowers … got a job in 1970 working with a buddy at Debettencourt’s, pumping gas. After about two months, they moved me into the repair shop, and I’ve been a mechanic ever since then. I was about 14.

David Pothier, in front, and his son DJ Pothier work together at Cars Unlimited in Edgartown. —Lynn Christoffers

How do you keep up with the technology?

Who would have told me 20 years ago I’d fix a car with a laptop computer — I would have laughed at them. Some cars you can’t even check the oil without a computer now. We’ve been from points and condenser to electronic ignition to computerized ignition to drive-by-wire.

If there’s a night class on computerized mechanics, my guys take it. Most of it is: Get it in, see what makes it tick. We take care of the Edgartown Police vehicles, so we work on a lot of new cars; we also do Hertz. So I get to see things sooner rather than later. Information is the the key, you gotta have information.

How do you get that information?

You pay for it. There are a couple companies — we use All Data. It takes the place of all the service manuals. Now everything is on the Internet, you can look things up. Just trying to stay up with technology — that’s the hard part. And the car changes. Every year I have to buy new software: for Chrysler, Ford, GM, Isuzu trucks. I have the same tools that the dealers have. So my information is pretty up-to-date.

Do you specialize in one car type?

When I first opened my doors in ’86, I specialized in Subaru and Toyota. Then I decided to specialize in everything else! We try to work on everything. Subarus and Toyotas are our mainstay; we do a lot of work on them. Ford, Jeep, Chrysler … Isuzu trucks — we have so many landscapers up here with trucks.

Is driving on the Vineyard more rugged on vehicles?

The Island is severe driving. Most people drive three miles at a time at 30 to 35 miles per hour; it’s a lot of wear and tear on the engine and brakes. Off-Island you drive a half-hour, everything gets warmed up, it drives nice. With short driving and no speed, you do get a lot of different problems from off-Island. Taking a long trip on the highway blows the soot out. We have here a lot of dirt roads — we do a lot of front-end work, a lot of brake work.

Local versus summer clients?

We have our year-round customers, September to June. If there’s a problem, we try to fix things in the winter. My main goal here is maintenance and preventative maintenance. We pretty much check everything and look at everything. As far as summer clients, a lot of the caretakers now are in the habit of doing things our way: In the fall we do the oil change and inspection sticker, put the car away for the winter, then in the summer they don’t have to see us.

Return clients?

I’ve had customers since the day I opened. I started on Dukes County Avenue, then moved to School Street; then I built this building in 1995. Twenty-two years ago — it’s hard to believe.

Staff at Cars Unlimited

David Andrews is my service manager, he actually runs the whole shop. Randy Dull helps David on the front desk; he does my inspections all day long. Alonza Murphy has been with me for 18 years as an auto tech.

My son, DJ, works for me, and my wife Terry is the office manager. We do a lot here, and we still have time to fish.

Every year we close for a day, and the whole gang comes out fishing. Once a year we all go out on the boat. I bring food, beer, soda, water, and we just fish — for 10 hours, that’s it!

What car do you drive?

Toyota, we all do. Every employee drives a Toyota. I have a Toyota truck, my son has a Toyota truck. My employees all have Toyota trucks. My wife drives a Lexus.

cars-unlimited.com

 

Andrea Della Russo Campbell; Bruce McIntosh, owner,

McIntosh Motors, Edgartown

How long have you both been doing auto repairs?

Bruce: I’ve been doing auto repairs for 40 years here at McIntosh Motors. Andrea showed up eight years ago with a broken car, and asked if she could fix it here in the shop with some help. I knew she was very interested in auto repair, being a mechanics technician. Then she started working here. Now she runs things.

We are currently working on changing positions here. It’s not retirement, just a little bit of a slowdown for me after 40 years of running a business.

Andrea Della Russo Campbell reaches for a tool. —Lynn Christoffers

Andrea: It all started when they sent me to be an engineer in the Navy, based in Norfolk, Va. I went to a six-month training school where they taught me soup to nuts; then I got to my ship and was completely overwhelmed. My senior chief knew that I was interested in knowing more, so I would trade a bottle of Crown for a lesson. I was on the ship 2½ years. We were stationary in the shipyards for a portion of the time, where I got to know the systems. Then we did out-to-sea workups, testing equipment, traveling back and forth up and down the coast.

How are the mechanics of ships and cars similar or different?

Andrea: Same systems on a much smaller scale for automobiles. For the systems on a ship you could trace the lines: Point A to Point B, and find the problem … walk across midship, and down a few levels to see if the float in the tank is engaging. Walking around a car to follow the system takes much less time, but doesn’t make it easier to find.

Farming to re-ground

Andrea: I grew up on the Vineyard, moved away for college and the Navy, and moved back to take a job at Morning Glory Farm, where they needed a manager. I went through the ROTC program in the Navy, becoming in charge of 98 people. When I got out, I was looking to not be in charge of anything for awhile … I wanted to work in the fields at Morning Glory, pick vegetables, work at farming, and re-ground. I did that for 10 years: I managed the farm stand for six to seven years at Morning Glory; then worked in the fields at Whippoorwill, where I drove the tractor and learned how to do some maintenance on them. I got back into auto repair when I lived on Chappy for a time, and Jerry Jeffers took me into his shop and helped me work on my old Dodge truck. I was reminded of how much I really enjoyed that work. I think I still have a pair of coveralls hanging on the wall in there.

Why back to mechanics? What drew you back?

Andrea: Just something that I wanted to push myself to learn, and I knew that I could do it … I wanted to know the ins and outs. And I always have a well-loved Island car that usually needs three or four things done to it.

How has the industry changed since you started?

Andrea: So much has changed; the newer generations know the computer world — that’s where the focus is changing the most. The computer system in cars is getting so advanced that you can’t not get continued education on it … There are plenty of old cars on this Island that people love to keep up, getting rebuilt and put back on the road — those systems are simpler. For the newer cars you have to get new training, and new tools to diagnose new systems. It’s a constant learning experience.

Bruce: We go to our NAPA database, look up the Ford truck model for the part needed — the days of calling the store are long gone; it makes it quick and easy. Definitely it makes things go much smoother. We probably get 70 percent of our parts coming through the computer, ordering them right here. Very convenient.

Andrea: It’s great that Ken Ward, who is the auto teacher at the high school, has worked here for many years. The CTE program at the high school has taken off — they have great equipment there, and he can train kids and develop interest. We have a great working relationship, and hopefully he can source us some new mechanics. I still teach auto mechanics at ACE; we have a class whenever interest is there.

How about the staff at McIntosh — who does what?

Bruce: Doug Batten may be the longest-tenured auto technician on the Island, starting doing repairs in 1959 and working here in semi-retirement for the past four years. Michael Brady has been working here with me since day one as a helper, jack of all trades, a do-anything kind of person, part-time for 40 years.

Andrea: I do a little bit of everything here: I work on the cars, I do the garden, the phones, billing, the ordering … back to the garden! Yes, I am a Libra and need to be balanced. It’s most important to keep it all balanced.

What cars do you drive?

Andrea:  I’m currently driving a Jeep Cherokee, the Island standard.

Bruce: I have a Chevy Silverado pickup truck.

mcintoshmotors519@gmail.com

Larry Conroy, owner; Jesse Conroy, Courtesy Motors, Vineyard Haven

How did you get started in auto mechanics?

Larry: My dad died when I was 12, and I was a handful to my mother, so she asked this guy at a nearby garage if I could hang out there in the shop after school. I started sweeping the floors, washing parts — that was in Albany, N.Y. Then when I was 15 or 16, I got a job one summer at a Volkswagen dealership in Oak Bluffs working in the parts department. I was there for one week and became the parts manager. We also did service work — Volkswagens required a lot of service. I went to college (my training was for punch cards for computers; later DVDs) while I learned more about cars. I liked cars, stayed doing it, I got married, and got a chance to get my own shop. It was an awesome deal: For $400 a month I could have everything — a truck, all clientele, the shop. I named it Courtesy Motors — that was Oct. 1, 1980.

What are the biggest changes between then and now?

Jesse, left, and Larry Conroy of Courtesy Motors. —Lynn Christoffers

Larry: The old-time mechanics like me — I’m 65 — are a dying breed. I started working on cars when they had points and coils, and distributor caps and drum brakes with no power assist. Now we have cars with antilock brakes. I can’t remember a car that has a carburetor, as now they are all fuel-injected. Cars have gotten a lot more complicated — you used to be able to adjust things, now everything is a component that has to be replaced.

When I was a kid, you would drive a car 50,000 miles and then put a rebuilt engine in it. Now you drive 100,000 miles and it’s just broken in — cars go a lot longer because they are made a lot better. That shows by the oils: There used to be a winter oil and a summer oil. Now it’s one year-round oil. So many people have gone from regular oil to synthetic. It’s cheaper and better for the car; it’s slippier — you get more mileage out of oil changes, and it makes an engine last longer.

Are the requirements for a mechanic different now?

Larry: My guys are in their 30s: they can diagnose a fuel-injection problem with a sensor. I get different mechanics coming to work that know these things … they pass it on to me. NAPA here on the Vineyard offers classes each year: for antilock brakes, or an electronics class, or some type of new system coming out. The guys will go and learn something new. They have to be computer-savvy — most mechanics today are. Good mechanics are hard to find … I’m missing one right now, I’m down to just two.

What car do you drive?

Larry: Jeep Cherokee ’97; Corvette 2005 convertible; and Suzuki Bandit motorcycle.

Jesse: Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo.