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Would You Leave Your Car With These Men? You Bet Your Hubcaps

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Whompeta-whompeta-WHOMP!

Uh-oh. What’s that noise? Coming from somewhere under the hood, or is it back by the right rear wheel?

You may not have any idea what it is, but you know exactly what it means.

Another trip to the mechanic. Another day--at least--of bumming rides, borrowing cars or fumbling with coins and bus schedules. And the inconvenience is just the beginning of what that whomping is going to cost you.

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Besides, where are you going to take the car? That place you went last time, where the guy didn’t even seem to be listening to what you were telling him? Or that other shop, where they didn’t seem to care that you were leaving on vacation in 2 days?

Having a sick car isn’t fun for any of us; in car-centered Orange County it’s as bad as being sick yourself.

But a fortunate few Life on Wheels readers are so pleased with their regular mechanics that while they don’t exactly look forward to their next visit to the garage, the specter of another repair job doesn’t leave them trembling or cursing, as some of us do.

They wrote testimonials to mechanics who saved them money, even if it meant sending them to the competition; mechanics who worked into the night without charging overtime rates, just because a customer desperately needed the car the next day, mechanics who recognized their names, who explained what the problem was without being too technical or insulting their customers’ intelligence.

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For their part, these miracle mechanics just shrug and say it all comes naturally, as long as you keep in mind that you’re dealing not just with machines but with people as well.

Volkswagen mechanics got the most compliments in our completely unscientific survey, followed by those who work on other German cars.

“We do take a lot of pride in our work,” says Dieter Schnirch, owner of Dieter’s VW Repair in Fullerton and the only mechanic recommended by two readers.

A strange noise brought Marvon and Gloria Levine of Fullerton to Schnirch 17 years ago. Another mechanic had told them that he would have to get into their van’s engine before he could tell them what it would cost. It sounded ominous.

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“Desperate for reliable, cheap transportation, we tried to trade our dangerous car in,” Marvon Levine says. But the dealer they contacted said the van’s trade-in value would be considerably reduced because of the noise.

“You can imagine our desperation,” Levine says.

But after giving the car a $9 tuneup, Schnirch said there were no other problems. That was nearly 300,000 miles ago, and the Levines say Schnirch is the only reason they’ve kept the van all these years. “Dieter’s name is written all over it,” Levine says.

When the Levines drove the van to Mexico and Canada, they took along a kit of spare parts from Schnirch. When their transmission started going out, “he made a small adjustment, and it ran for over a year on that. Then when he finally felt we should have it fixed, he told us about a man in Brea who could do the job cheaper than he could,” Levine says.

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If a repair is minor enough, Schnirch sometimes surprises his customers by telling them, “That’s not something you have to leave the car for. We’ll fix it right now.”

John Cermenaro of Anaheim, another of Schnirch’s customers, almost became an auto mechanic himself. His grandfather and then his father owned a small auto repair shop in a small western Massachusetts town. Cermenaro worked in the family garage as a teen-ager before studying engineering in college.

When he moved to Anaheim 8 years ago, Cermenaro began searching for a regular mechanic for his 1977 VW bus. He no longer works on his cars himself because their fuel-injected engines are too complex.

He tried a dealership but didn’t like it: “You tell your problems to some guy with a tie on and never see the mechanic.”

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At other garages, the employees seemed “too busy or just indifferent.”

Schnirch worked in a Volkswagen factory in Munich before coming to the United States 30 years ago. That, Cermenaro says, “makes you want to trust him with your Volkswagen right off.”

But what Cermenaro likes best is that “after a couple of visits, he remembers you. Imagine that. In this fast-paced, overpopulated urban sprawl, a mechanic who recognizes your name when you call!”

“Sure, I know their names,” Schnirch says. “You build up a relationship,” one based on mutual needs.

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He points out that however dependent drivers are on their cars and their garages, mechanics “must remember we have to depend on our customers for a living.”

“As a woman, it’s hard enough to go to a mechanic without being patronized or talked down to, or worse, being ignored and having a mechanic talk to your husband because women can’t possibly understand cars,” says Karen Linzy of Tustin, who drives a 1974 VW Super Beetle.

But Linzy says she doesn’t have that problem with her mechanic, Richard Muller of RPM German Automotive in Santa Ana.

For 3 months, Muller worked on Linzy’s car off and on. “I must have been in three or four times before we finally replaced the fuel pump,” Linzy says. “What is extra special is that I was never charged for labor or any parts during this whole time.”

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The new pump took care of the problem, and the total bill was $20--the cost of the fuel pump.

“I felt bad for her, because the car kept stopping on her,” Muller says. “She’s spent a lot of money with me on other things, and I wasn’t going to charge her again.”

Muller, who has operated his own small garage since 1972, says although he ate labor costs on that repair, it will work out in the long run because customers such as Linzy will come back to him for subsequent repairs.

Muller says he doesn’t treat women customers differently from men: “Most women that I work with are intelligent women. They know what they want. Some of them know more than their husbands do.”

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But Dave Mathes, owner of Precision Diesel in Huntington Beach, disagrees. “You have to take a whole different approach when it’s a woman who’s complaining about her car,” he says.

“They’re apt to get upset over small things sometimes. Not that men don’t. With most women, you have to act like you’re very concerned with everything they’re telling you, even if it doesn’t pertain to the vehicle.”

Still, Mathes says, women are easier to deal with than men: “A man’s ego is at stake. He’s supposed to know something about how the car works, even though he doesn’t. You have to be careful not to squish his ego in front of his wife.”

Mathes, who also teaches auto mechanics at Golden West College, says he tells students a mechanic has to be “part psychologist, part mechanic.”

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And part detective. Mathes, who was recommended by Laurence Korn of Huntington Beach, says he sometimes feels like Joe Friday. “You have to listen to them and weed out all the unnecessary stuff,” he says. “I keep wanting to say, just the facts, please.”

One thing Mathes hates is when a customer comes in with his own diagnosis.

“A guy came in and said his starter was out, and I asked why he thought so, and he said, ‘It won’t start.’ It’s like, if you went to the doctor and said, ‘I need some antibiotics because I have a streptococcus infection in my throat.’ Just tell us the symptoms.”

Originally a diesel truck mechanic, Mathes says he decided to switch to cars because “I got tired of getting ripped off. The day I broke down on the way home from the dealer after spending $500, I decided I’d do better fixing them myself.”

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He works on all diesels and all Mercedes-Benzes, gas or diesel.

Christine Smithana of Buena Park has perhaps the best deal going with her mechanic. He doesn’t charge at all for labor, he guarantees his work and whenever her 1968 VW Beetle breaks down, he provides her with free transportation. But don’t ask for his number. He’s her father, William Smithana.

The senior Smithana is a self-taught mechanic, with the help of his now-greasy copy of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Compleat Idiot.”

“I read the book first and then went out and got a VW,” Smithana says. “I wanted a car I could fix. The VW is the last car you can fix yourself.”

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He maintains his own three VWs besides his daughter’s.

Smithana says he is not otherwise mechanically inclined. “I couldn’t even put a nut in a bolt before that book,” he says.

Other readers recommend:

* John Wickstrom, Hansa Motors in Midway City (BMWs). “I have changed doctors, hairdressers, attorneys and Realtors, but I will not change mechanics,” says Valerie Pinamonti of Orange.

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* Marc Vasquez, Tork’s Garage in Stanton (Volvos). “He even puts air in the spare tire,” says Kathleen Bailey of Anaheim.

* Datsun (Nissan) Alternatives, Fullerton. “One of the reasons we bought a third Datsun recently is because we knew we have a good mechanic,” says Jack Patrona of Yorba Linda.

* Camino Import Auto Service, San Juan Capistrano (Volvo and Mercedes-Benz). “On two or three occasions, I have had to use out-of-town repairers and have always been shocked by the repair bill, much higher inevitably than Camino Auto,” says John G. Watkins of Long Beach. “It’s like a signal that a Mercedes means money is no object.”

* Tom Stephenson of San Juan Capistrano, who drives a 1974 Chevrolet Impala, wrote to say: “I have an excellent mechanic who has been looking after my car for quite a few years. I have come to trust him implicitly. And no, I will not tell you who he is!”

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Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents’ last names when the subject is sensitive.


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