Exotic Import Doesn't Have to Drive You Crazy

Times Staff Writer

When people describe Southern California as the car capital of the world, they mean not only the sheer number of cars, but also the variety. Ubiquitous Chevrolets and Hondas share the roadway with less common Triumphs from Britain, Porsches from West Germany and Alfa Romeos from Italy.

Yet common or rare, they all eventually need new parts--the average new car has 15,000 of them. If you drive a Chevy, buying parts is often as simple as going to a nearby Chief or Pep Boys store, or perhaps the nearest Chevrolet dealer.

But what if you drive an MG--which is no longer manufactured--and need a water pump? Or a 1960 Porsche 356 blows out its clutch? Or a 20-year-old Alfa Romeo Spider needs a U-joint? You could try a big chain like Chief, but there's no guarantee it carries the part. A Porsche or Alfa dealership might have it, but you'll pay top dollar, and you might have to wait for the dealer to order it.

Undercut Dealers

So owners of such cars often go to see Marty Osborne, Mel Kay or John Shankle. All run firms in the San Fernando Valley that specialize in selling parts for exotic European imports, and at prices that often undercut the dealers.

The three firms do much of their business by mail order, and in that market alone they must vie against dozens of other independent parts suppliers nationwide. Each of the three advertises in Road & Track, Car and Driver and other car-buff magazines, and each has a toll-free telephone number to take orders. Kay and Shankle send parts catalogues to thousands of potential customers around the world.

But for Osborne, Kay and Shankle, that's where the similarity ends.

Marty Osborne's Import Motor Parts in Sherman Oaks, which sells parts for British cars only, is no Pep Boys. His one-room store looks a bit tattered and grimy, and his two telephones are covered with his greasy fingerprints. Pictures of old British roadsters hang on the walls.

There's no computer here to track Osborne's inventory of hundreds of parts. But Osborne doesn't need one. The inventory is stored in Osborne's head. And if he doesn't have the exact part, Osborne knows how to get it either from another supplier or by improvising.

"No book said that an MGB U-joint is the same as a Lotus, and it is," said the broad, 6-foot-4 Osborne, who runs his shop in T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. "No one knows that, but I do."

Osborne, 38, buys his parts from a handful of major suppliers from Britain, but he also buys wrecks of British cars for salable parts. For instance, Osborne sells the metal panel that surrounds the radio--and includes the radio's speakers--for a 1969 Jaguar XKE. Price: $200. "I rebuild water pumps, clutches, transmission, I do a lot of engines," he said.

One reason Import Motor Parts is able to survive is because some British cars are no longer made, and thus are considered collectibles, he said. "The last new MG and Triumph you could buy in this country was in 1980," he said. "I've seen MGBs go from being a $100 car to a $5,000 and $6,000 car now. So people come in, and they want all these little pieces."

Osborne's father moved his family from Britain to Southern California in 1954 because Marty suffered from asthma. His father went to work for a Rolls Royce-Jaguar dealership in Pasadena, then bought into Import Motor Parts and eventually took over the business. But after the elder Osborne had a stroke in 1984, Marty Osborne abandoned his goal of going to veterinary school and began selling parts full-time.

In past years, Import Motor Parts had sold parts for a variety of foreign cars, had sales of about $720,000 a year and seven employees, Osborne said. But when Osborne took over, parts chains, such as Chief, were mushrooming, and Osborne said he concluded, "There's no way I can compete with these people." So he focused only on British models, kept just one employee to deliver parts, and now does about $250,000 in sales, he said.

Osborne is trying to build his mail-order business, which accounts for 30% of his sales. He has a facsimile machine and a toll-free telephone number, and gets orders from as far away as New Zealand.

He claimed he'd keep working even if he won the lottery because "I really love what I do." Besides, he said, "I don't have a business to sell really. If I'm not here, no one could really do it. It's all in my memory."

John Shankle only tacitly acknowledges it, but his Shankle Engineering in Chatsworth, which sells replacement parts for Alfa Romeos, thrives in large part because the Alfa is not the most reliable car on earth.

Shankle, 55, diplomatically calls the Italian sports car "more temperamental" than most others. "They are really great cars, basically, but they have these little idiosyncrasies that crop up," he says.

For instance, the workings of their electrical parts "are just totally puzzling," Shankle said. "I've often wondered how Marconi invented the radio. I think he was trying to design a meat grinder and somehow made a mistake."

Alfa engines in older models also are notorious for being unable to keep the crankcase oil from mixing with the cooling system's water, which causes the engine to overheat. So Shankle sells a $46 "sure seal" kit he designed that re-routes the oil to reduce the engine pressure that causes the leakage.

Despite these problems, Alfa owners are considered loyal, and many tinker with their cars enough to keep Shankle Engineering's 10 workers busy, even though the market for Alfas is relatively small. His firm figures there are only about 25,000 to 40,000 Alfas on the road nationwide; by contrast, Honda sold 11,800 cars in late-June alone.

Shankle bought his first Alfa in 1958, then raced the cars for the next decade. An engineer, he started his parts business in 1967 mainly to sell racing-type parts to jazz up Alfas. He eventually began selling replacement parts as well, and now also sells add-on parts for Hondas.

Ninety percent of Shankle's parts are shipped to mail-order customers, and he estimated the firm's sales this year would reach $850,000. He doesn't have to look far for competition. To the east in Glendale is Alfa Ricambi, an Alfa parts dealer with more than 20,000 replacement parts.

But Shankle sees his own market remaining stable. "My hunch is that 20 years from now, you won't see many people fussing around with Honda CRXs, but they still will be playing with their Alfas," he said.

If Import Motor Parts is a corner drugstore of parts, Performance Products in Van Nuys is a department store. Performance, which sells only parts for Porsches, has a cramped but clean front entrance chock-full of neatly displayed parts and accessories to tempt walk-in buyers.

Like Shankle Engineering, Performance sells 90% of its parts by mail order, and the heart of Performance is in back, where it keeps rows of parts stacked 10 feet high. The firm does not sell used or rebuilt items, only new ones.

Twice a year, Performance sends its slick, 170-page catalogue to more than 200,000 Porsche owners nationwide. Owner Mel Kay's mailing list is compiled from names of previous customers and lists of drivers from state department of motor vehicle offices nationwide.

Kay says, "We're the Nordstrom of the auto-parts business." But he's referring more to Nordstrom's renowned attention to service than to the department store's size.

Performance Products prospers mainly because Porsche dealers provide only grudging help for customers needing parts, said Kay. "The dealers' attitude is really what helps us in this business; they don't treat people properly," said Kay, who ran a surgical supplies firm before he and a partner bought Performance five years ago. The partner has since died, leaving Kay as sole owner. The firm was started 25 years ago.

Kay, 51, contends he outperforms the dealers by giving refunds, referring customers to other dealers if Performance doesn't have the part, talking with customers to ensure they are ordering the part they need and undercutting the dealers on price.

Kay won't reveal Performance's exact sales, except to say they're less than $10 million and that the firm is 2 1/2 times bigger than when he took over. Regardless, it's clear the firm is a multimillion-dollar business. Performance uses computers to monitor its inventory of 5,000 parts, help its 30 employees answer questions from callers and help design its semi-annual catalogue.

At Performance, you can buy a starter for a 1955 Porsche 356 for $89.50, or a windshield-wiper motor for a 1965 Porsche 911 for $325. How about a plastic cover to protect the rear of your Porsche 944's side-view mirrors from flying pebbles? Kay sells them for $14.95.

Performance, like many other parts houses, can sell parts for less than car dealers because the parts houses usually buy directly from suppliers, Kay said. Dealers, by contrast, often buy parts at the end of a long distribution line that includes the German supplier, North American distributors and other middlemen.

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