Vehicles

Shade Tree Mechanics Can Cool Expenses

Posted on June 1, 2010 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

Big companies running big fleets usually hire their own mechanics and buy parts wholesale either from dealerships or parts houses. With shrinking sales and profit margins, many operators save thousands of dollars by doing it themselves or hiring part-time mechanics. This saves more money than paying labor rates at a dealership or auto repair shop.

Mechanic Johnny Wofford comes in on nights and weekends to help Prime Time Limousine and Sedan of Sanford, N.C. get its vehicles into shape during down times.
Mechanic Johnny Wofford comes in on nights and weekends to help Prime  Time Limousine and Sedan of Sanford, N.C. get its vehicles into shape  during down times.

The savings

The auto repair business is known for its high mark-ups on parts and labor. For example, a repair shop might charge a labor rate of $55 to $75 per hour while paying the actual mechanic an amount closer to $25 to $30 per hour. Likewise, parts are typically marked up a minimum of 25% while some items such as windshield wiper blades can be boosted up to 50%, says Sonny Sanchez, the manager of an auto repair facility in Bakersfield, Calif.

Many auto parts supply houses will welcome your fleet business. Companies such as Carquest offer direct billing and free delivery as a convenience. Dealerships also offer the same wholesale prices and free delivery to fleet owners as they do to local repair shops. Whether you do the work or hire a part-time mechanic for a nominal hourly wage, the savings to be realized can be a lot.

Operator Mike Denning and his wife, Marlo, own Elegant Limousines of Palm Coast in Florida. Denning points out a Lincoln Town Car, for example, that needs an air-conditioner compressor replaced can easily cost $500 to $600 retail and involve a lot of downtime. If done correctly on his own, Denning’s cost runs about $150 and “it is on the road again before lunch time.”

What can YOU do?

This depends on your knowledge of autos and your comfort level with doing the work. In the case of Chris “Digger” Curtis, owner of Premier Limousine of Dayton, Ohio, he does everything himself except for major engine work, transmissions, A/C, and oil changes. He pays for oil changes simply because he doesn’t have a convenient way to dispose of used oil. Curtis maintains brakes and some things specific to limousines, such as sound systems, fog machines, and lasers lights. Jon Hook of Stars Luxury Limousine Services based in Northern Ontario, Canada recently repaired a leaky power steering hose.

This repair could easily be $75 in a repair shop, but a repair kit costs only about $6. Hook also does his own body work, saving a lot of money on the cost of an auto body repair facility. Working in his shop, Hook has done exhaust repairs and replaced pipes. He also has replaced rear suspension airbags. Airbags can be bought online from companies such as Strutmaster.com for less than $100 while your local dealership might sell one for double the price. Hook estimates that by doing his own work, he saves at least several thousand dollars a year on his fleet of three vehicles. Like Curtis, Hook knows enough to send major engine work to a pro. Denning inspects his vehicles two to three times a month and uses a checklist to look for potential problems.

Professional skills

Denning has a distinct advantage in maintaining his fleet; he works as a full-time mechanic at Mason’s Automotive in Port Orange, Fla. “I have a very understanding boss who allows me to work on the limos at the shop and buy parts at wholesale cost,” he says.

“The thought of paying a mechanic makes me wonder how other shops do it,” Denning says, Because Denning has access to a full shop, he does all oil changes, maintenance, fluid changes, tires, brakes, suspension, computer diagnostics, A/C repairs, electrical and vehicle upgrades, lighting, electronics, and about anything else. “The only work we send out is body and paint,” he says.

Hiring a mechanic

Jerry Thomas, president of Prime Time Limousine and Sedan of Sanford, N.C., operates in multiple locations. Thomas hired a mechanic who does everything in-house except warranty work. He also directs mechanical work to a nearby tire store and a front-end alignment store behind their office.

Also working from a checklist, Thomas makes sure all vehicles are inspected inside and out each week. Brakes are checked at each oil change, and tire rotations are done every other oil change. Prime Time’s mechanic, Johnny Wofford, comes in at night and on weekends, since he works as a full-time mechanic elsewhere. Wofford has replaced everything from axles to rear ends as well as intakes and transmissions. He is skilled with wiring and engine diagnostics. Thomas believes reparing vehicles in-house leads to a better understanding of how they work, whereas dealerships fix only immediate problems.

“By doing all the maintenance ourselves, we are always looking for any problems that may arise, and if we see something out of the ordinary, we can fix it before it becomes an issue,” Thomas says.

Other benefits

Anytime you take a vehicle to the shop, two people are needed to deliver it and pick it up. That costs fuel and payroll time. You are at the mercy of the repair shop as to when they can get the work done.

By having your own in-house mechanic or doing it yourself, repairs can be done late at night, early in the morning, or between scheduled runs. That eliminates taking the car out of service because it has to wait in line at a repair shop during business hours.

SIDEBAR: Garage Equipment, Parts and Supplies

Having a garage with basic tools for routine maintenance work will help complete repair jobs in a safe and timely manner. Depending upon your skills and goals, the following equipment and supplies would be considered basic:

EQUIPMENT

  • Floor jack
  • (4) Jack stands
  • Air compressor and tools 
  • Floor creeper
  • Socket set /screwdriver set
  • Open-ended wrenches
  • Drop light
  • Funnels
  • Handheld OBD II Diagnostic Computer
  • Towels
  • Oil pan
  • Jumper cables
  • Battery charger
  • Ohmmeter
  • Grease gun

PARTS

  • Suspension air bags
  • Alternator
  • Brake pads
  • Rotors
  • Spark plugs
  • Coachlights
  • Interior light bulbs
  • Headlight bulbs
  • Taillight bulbs
  • Windshield wiper blades
  • Upper and lower radiator hose
  • Spare battery
  • Oil filters
  • Air filters
  • Fuel filter

SUPPLIES

  • Oil
  • Coolant
  • Washer fluid
  • WD-40
  • Grease gun cartridges
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