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Parts of a Whole — Getting the stuff you need for your old cars, locally — Part 1

By Luke Chennell

We've all been in that situation — you need a part for your old car, and the mail-order vendor is 3000 miles away. Next-day shipping costs ten times more than the part you need, and you're not sure if you'll get it in time, even if you spend the extra to make the UPS jets fly. What to do?

The obvious answer is to look at your local parts store. Automotive parts stores have available an unbelievable line of supplies and components, but many people are unaware and unable to tap these resources because they just don't know — or the parts people themselves don't know.

In this series, I'll give you the keys to finding knowledgeable people in the parts business. In future installments, I'll discuss how to be a good customer and how to make the most of your good parts people — and maintain relationships that will save your old cars, again and again.

Your average auto parts store can be one of many types. Let's start off with the most common types and work towards the least:

1. A big-box retailer. These stores typically expect customers to find their own items in a large, open, supermarket-type space. They typically sell an extensive line of accessories for modern cars and draw the volume of their business from accessories, tire sales, and quite often an oil-change facility attached. (Example: Sears Auto, Pep Boys)

2. A company store. Major auto parts chains often operate a number of stores that do not offer any mechanical services — no tires and oil changes — but still offer expansive floor plans where customers are expected to find their own accessories and common items (filters, etc.) using either books or, more commonly today, computer interfaces. Parts counter people are available for help, but usually are working at a checkout station. (Example: Advanced Auto, AutoZone)

3. A hybrid company-independent store: These stores carry a major parts brand name, but are independently owned. The owner(s) are considered "jobbers," and as such are required to maintain a certain amount of company inventory, but the rest is up to them — they can organize their store however they please and staff it with as many counter people as they please. (Example: Carquest, Napa)

4. An independent. These parts stores are completely free to buy whatever they want from whoever they want, whenever they want. The same applies to their sales — they can sell in any manner they wish. They may deal with manufacturers directly, or sometimes through specialized distributing companies that cater to them. Their stores can be very large or very small, and can have many or few counter people.

Of course, each of these formats carries advantages and disadvantages. Let's look at it in a more specialized way, for the restorer:

1. Big box stores: These are the least useful to the restorer. While their prices on general supplies — fluids, chemicals, common filters, etc., may be the lowest, they typically have little customer service. Some maintain a counter specifically dedicated to commercial sales (for shops), but while these countermen may be available to walk-in customers, they typically are dedicated to commercial sales, typically transacted via telephone. Special orders for odd/rare parts may take weeks and are seldom reliable.

2. Company stores: These stores have an advantage over any other type of store in that they have direct access to company warehousing and pricing. Most large auto parts companies have a trucking service that delivers between warehouses and stores on a daily basis. As such, these stores typically have a wide variety of parts available on short order (usually a day or two), and very competitive pricing since they eliminate the middlemen. However, the counter help are often underpaid and/or part time, and many times have little experience in the field. This may not always be true, but is a general observation of mine. I must say that I have experienced many "company men" that have a significant knowledge of the parts business, but they seem to be in the minority.

3. Company-independents: These stores are by far my favorites. Since they are typically run by a small crew of intimately familiar employees, they tend to have the most experienced personnel. They also have access to a company warehousing system, which means that they can access parts very quickly. However, their pricing is usually not up to par with a company store, simply because they are middlemen and must make a profit to stay in business. They also have an advantage over company stores in that they can access outside suppliers — if they know of someone locally who has your part who isn't in the company chain, they'll be happy to supply your part, albeit at a markup, but the convenience is often well worth it.

4. Independents: Because these stores are completely independent in who they buy from, who they hire from and whom they deal with, they are best rated individually. Because they are typically exempt from "company" pricing, they tend to be more expensive — but they may make up for that price difference in both service and in the depth of their lines. However, many independents manage to negotiate excellent pricing from manufacturers, and may be particularly attractive if they deal with a central warehouse that serves a number of independent stores. I've often found that a local independent can meet or beat a "company store" on oddball items because they're used to dealing in small volumes — perfect for the restorer. But it all varies — one independent may be great, and the next may not be. This is perhaps the biggest disadvantage of dealing with the independent — there is no consistent return.

Now, let's talk about how to find your parts store that will be "home base" for all of your car projects, and how you can build a healthy relationship with them that will reap rewards for years to come.

First, selection. Finding a good parts store is all about finding the right people. For this reason, I usually prefer to shop around at company-independent stores or at true independent stores. Since these stores typically only have a few employees, they will usually tend to employ people for longer periods of time and will have more knowledgeable, experienced help.

Being a good parts counterperson is more than just about experience and knowledge, though. It's a job that requires one to love the thrill of the hunt and to be able to collate a great deal of information — after all, there have been thousands of makes and models of cars built over the years, and every one of them has a different set of pieces that make it a whole.

Here's what you should look for in a counterperson, ranked by number:

Reliability. Restorers often find themselves having to special order parts, and are dependent on parts coming in at the right time. Thus, if a counterperson says they're going to order something, and then don't follow through, they aren't worth dealing with. Forgetful parts people are the bane of every restorer's existence, often delaying projects a great deal. Also, if a parts person tells you a part is going to cost X price, that price shouldn't go up. If the part comes in at a higher price and they refuse to make any attempt to rectify the situation, they're probably not worth dealing with.

Here's the quick and easy test of reliability of a parts person. Find a part for your modern car — something like a K+N air filter, an accessory that you've been wanting for a long time, or something fairly routine and mundane that you know is easy to find. Test your prospective counterperson with this item. If they pass that test, you know that they merit further investigation. If it's late, or costs more than they initially said (and you can cheat a little and check internet prices), forget them and move on to the next candidate.

Thoroughness. A parts person has to be able to keep track of multiple orders for many vehicles, and must have a good knowledge of how cars work. Sometime, in a busy parts store, stand back and watch the parts people behind the counter. It's been my experience that the best parts people have a paper pad and pen as an extension of one of their hands. They write down every customer's request and order so that they won't forget. A few are able to work effectively from memory, but most good ones are fully willing to admit that they can't. The person you want is the one who's writing the most.

Doggedness. Tracking down strange parts for old cars requires a lot of in-depth searching. Your prospective counterperson should know what resources are available, and should never ever tell you that they can't find something instantly. Every good parts person should tell you that, while they may not have the part in stock, they'll be willing to do some checking around and see what they can find. If they can't find it, they'll usually apologize and recommend another source. If your prospective person doesn't do this, they're usually not worth your business.

Interest. The field of auto parts isn't a particularly glamorous or high-paying field. Therefore, most people get into it because they're interested in cars, but this isn't always the case. Like most people, most parts people will work harder if they think something is fun or interesting. They'll be more likely to spend extra time working on finding parts for your projects if they think that they are neat. If they're not a car person, it's not likely that you're going to get the stuff you want. To test this, take one of your finished projects (or maybe not so finished) to the parts store and see what their reaction is. Don't be pushy about it — usually just driving the car there and mentioning it is enough to pique any car person's interest. If they don't seem to care (and they're not busy), they're probably not going to go the extra mile for you.

If you find a parts person with all of those, you should rejoice — they are rare. However, I should add that there are a few common misconceptions about "good" parts people that often lead to disaster.

First, don't have any preconceived notions about what your parts person should look like. While every restorer dreams of finding the grizzled old man who doesn't have a computer and has six of those master cylinders for your 1942 Gee-Whizmobile, (and it's only $3.95, just like the box says!), the reality of the matter is that those people don't exist anymore.

Often, people will pass over a good parts person just because they are young. At a parts store that I worked at for many years, the proprietor had been in the business for over forty years. Most customers, on looking for parts for their antique cars, were surprised when he pointed them to me — at the time, I was 18. But I had been working on antique cars for a long time, and knew of a lot more sources for specialized components than my veteran boss did. It wasn't so much a matter of age as experience that won the bet.

More, one of the best parts professionals I know is a woman. Women are typically, of course, very rare in the automotive field in general, and so men tend to be unnaturally distrustful of them. In this case, though, I deal exclusively with her and no one else at that store — no one else there reliably gets me the parts I need. She has a good reputation among all the "car guys" around, and all of them tell me they follow the same practice.

Wherever, and whomever, you find to be your "parts person," deserves your full attention, respect, and business.

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