Part fluff piece drenched in motor oil, part homage to true customer service and a sense of community that is often lost, this article serves as an offering—a treatise of sincere gratitude to the automotive experts who inspire us, not only to take better care of our cars but to take better care in general.
Growing up, I was taught that there are three types of folks you can’t trust: strangers with candy, flood-insurance salespeople, and car repairmen. Let’s talk cars. Now, living in Litchfield for the past few years, my perception of the auto-repair profession has changed. I have grown to trust the input of a few, sage mechanics in our area who impart not only auto advice but life wisdom. It sounds corny, but these are people who talk me out of bad decisions, teach me how to live with the decisions I’ve made, and always make me laugh.
Walking into Jim’s Garage in Canaan, I am greeted by a team of gregarious, outgoing, and eccentric automobile techs, who don’t just come to work for a paycheck. The team led by Deb Keller and Bill Hower is a strong, enthusiastic group whose workmanship and pride is self-evident. On a recent visit, Laura, one of the techs, firmly scolds me for not changing my oil at 5,000 miles (oops). Surprisingly, her remonstrations are uplifting and leave me with a newfound sense of personal responsibility. Jim’s has a comfy waiting room with Wi-Fi, coffee and tea, a thriving fish tank, and an eccentric mini-Doberman named Elvis, who barks at the paper shredder as if it’s a feral cat.
Hower incorporates what he feels are important aspects of life into his business—community, leadership, sustainability, and humor. His affable style includes playing good music in the office; training his team to be current on the latest, best practices in the field; and recycling and repurposing everything he can. “There are solid channels in the auto industry that are pretty standardized to minimize waste, but we try to go further. We don’t use paper towels. We buy old pajamas to reuse as rags. I think the biggest thing we do, though, is reusing the engine oil. One-hundred percent of the heat in the shop is engine oil. We have been heating the shop this way since 1972.”
Down the road in Salisbury, the Auto Shop, run by Steve Ohlinger, upholds a sense of environmental stewardship and mindfulness. Ohlinger also utilizes leftover engine oil for shop heat and is thrifty with parts. Since he sells vintage Volvos and VWs, reuse is standard practice at his shop. Ohlinger advises customers to steer clear of vehicles that are known for their electrical issues, expensive parts, and generally unreliable mechanics—he’s a proponent of sustainability. He and his team have worked on diesel, greasecar (which uses vegetable oil), electric, and bio-diesel engines and are always willing to experiment. “What I do is a therapy, of sorts,” says Ohlinger. “The attentiveness to something, instead of just disposing of it, drives a sense of personal responsibility. In this disposable culture, we have to use what we can and avoid unnecessary waste.”
No story about Zen mechanics in Litchfield Hills would be complete without mentioning Peter Brittingham. Peter was a legend in the world of vintage Porsches—specifically, for racing and rebuilding them. On any given day in the last 25 years, Brittingham had spent his time racing at Lime Rock. Crotchety, stubborn, and brilliant, he was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. A couple of years ago, when my husband and I were obsessing over VW Weekenders, Peter offered to lend us one. We ate our meals in the cabin with our twin four-year-olds, napped in the pop-top, and cruised around town. We thought seriously about buying the Eurovan, but it was beyond our means. Peter was bug-eyed: “What the hell is the matter with you? You only live once.” He still became a dear friend, and we often visited on Sundays. Peter passed away this past spring, and he will be sorely missed.