FORT WAYNE – So the ’97 Ford Contour you bought used eight years ago is still alive?
Sure, it’s burning a little more oil than it once did as the spot in the driveway darkens. And the power steering fluid needs to be topped off more often. And coming from beneath the hood, there’s a funny sound that goes away only when the radio is turned up. But even as the odometer (which never breaks, by the way) nears 210,000 miles, it still runs fine.
Yet judging from the number of auto parts stores around town, the old beater will never, ever, ever run out of replacement parts. It has a greater chance of being stepped on by Godzilla than needing a part that cannot be bought.
Just as nearby Warsaw professes to be the world capital for orthopedic replacement parts, what with Zimmer and DePuy in the vicinity, Fort Wayne and Allen County have a rich surplus of auto parts stores. For every artificial knee or hip Warsaw provides, our neck of the woods can counter with a radiator or brake drum.
Take a stretch along U.S. 930, near New Haven, for example.
Traveling west, there’s an AutoZone on the left. Less than half a mile away is O’Reilly Auto Parts on the right. A little farther down is a NAPA Auto Parts, and half a mile from that is Hires Automotive Center.
I thought it was oversaturated when it was Hires and Nationwide, says Tom Hire, local owner of Hires Automotive Center.
Hire has been in the auto parts and repair business since 1980. At one time, he had eight locations. Now there are four.
I don’t know if it’s a Walgreens or CVS thing of where there’s one, there’s the other, but it’s just crazy, though, Hire says. Even out here on Lima Road (where there is a Hires location), it’s that way.
Near the Lima Road Hires, there’s an AutoZone, NAPA and Advance Auto Parts, with the latter two separated only by a narrow side street.
A 2012 survey from AutoMD.com reported that 80 million people in the United States research on the Internet for automotive-related advice.
The survey indicated that the five most-performed do-it-yourself repairs included replacing a battery, wiper blades, headlamp bulbs and air filters and adding anti-freeze.
But two-thirds of people questioned said they were more likely to attempt a difficult repair at the time of the survey than they were a year earlier. The reasons for the increase included the economy, more experience in do-it-yourself repairs, and the increased availability of online repair information.
In addition to Hires and the national auto parts stores, there is a relatively new player on the local block.
Take A Part, a 20-acre facility on the corner of Moeller and Meyer roads that opened in 2010, goes one step further in the do-it-yourself repair business.
For $2, a customer can enter the premises, search a database for a specific part, then, with their own tools, remove that part from a vehicle at a reduced rate.
Let’s say you’re driving an ’85 Chevy, or whatever, says Scott Minnich, manager at Take A Part. We can pull it up on the computer and, let’s say you need a starter for it – it will tell you all the vehicles that that starter fits.
A GM starter will fit probably 95 percent of the GM vehicles for those years. Just because you don’t see your particular car doesn’t mean your part’s not on that car; it might be.
A starter is a good example. It’s $20 for a starter. If you go to a parts store to buy a new or remanufactured starter, you’re looking most of the time at over $100. If you go to a full-service yard, you’re looking at $40 or $50. The reason we can do that is ’cause we do not keep an inventory of actual parts on the cars. You do it all yourself.
Minnich said there are 1,200 vehicles on-site from which to choose. And from what Minnich says, many are choosing.
Last year we had over 77,000 people who signed in to our yard, he said. And our yard is constantly changing. Right now I’m putting 30 cars a day out in the yard. I put 30 in and take 30 out. The yard might have the same number of vehicles out there, but they might not be the same vehicles you saw yesterday.
While the Internet can provide a wealth of information for possible do-it-yourself mechanics, the technology of the newer cars is decreasing the things that can be easily fixed.
Mike Gaines can’t do the things he used to do.
I’ve been working on my own cars all my life, says Gaines, 58. My first car was a ’67 (Pontiac) GTO that really belonged to my brother, who was in the Army. I kept it up for him.
Back then, you could be what we called a shade tree’ mechanic. But anymore, with all the computer systems and stuff, it’s tough to do a lot of things yourself. I still change the oil and filters and hoses and all that, but as far as the technical stuff, that passed me by. But because I do what I can, I still get the parts. I guess it’s still a hobby and I enjoy it.
Hire says the auto parts stores that mostly catered to individuals now supply repair shops – an 85 percent to 15 percent ratio.
It used to be the other way around, Hire says. We were 80 percent retail and 20 percent service. It has slowly switched.
People are keeping their cars longer. They’re keeping their cars 11 years now. That’s the average age. Usually the retail parts business is inversely related to the economy, so people do try to fix it themselves to save money.
New cars are expensive, but they’re lasting longer. They’re built better. I have 226,000 miles on my (2003 GMC Yukon). I plan on driving it another 100,000. I don’t want a car payment.
One thing is for certain around here: He can easily find a part.