Sunday, January 10, 2010

The mechanic who fixed car owners

Harold Dick, car mechanic extraordinaire, was an original, or as they say in the car business, "a one off." I suppose that you could say that about anyone, but the truism elbows its way into dozens of memories about Harold.

He died of an apparent heart attack last month. He had been working alone in his shop early in the morning before his employees and customers arrived.

Friday's Melody Ballroom memorial for Harold was packed with more than 500 of his customer/friends.

An excellent profile-obituary for Harold appears in today’s Oregonian.

The on-line guest book has 73 entries — and counting.

When it came to MGs (or Volvos or Jaguars or, well, just about anything on wheels) Harold was the go-to guy.

As Joan Harvey explains in the obit/feature story, you didn’t take your car to Harold; you took yourself and your relationship with your car to Harold. He checked you out to see whether you were worthy of your car — and of him. If you didn’t hold up your end of car maintenance, he told you up-front that he wasn’t going to spare you from the consequences of your neglect.

Going to Harold’s, a bustling obscure garage in inner Southeast, was a bit like going to a straight-talking dentist. The pain in his shop took the form of a rightfully bruised ego.

My particular vulnerability was the SU carburetors on my MGB. Anyone afflicted with these British gas and air suckers needs to keep them in adjustment — constantly.

With Harold looking on, I’d get out the screw drivers. Harold was patient the first time he lead me through the routine. It was like showing me how to floss.

But our relationship approached the breaking point when I returned a few weeks later with the engine sputtering. The problem wasn’t the car’s fault, it wasn’t the carburetor's fault, it was my fault, Harold pronounced. I remember he turned and walked away to serve another customer, just to let the message sink in. Eventually he relented, not so much for my sake as for the car’s.

I wasn’t at the packed memorial for Harold, but I’m told that it was full of similar stories. One woman recounted how she had just purchased an automotive gem and was visiting Harold for the first time. Harold told her that the first thing she needed to do was learn how to pump her own gas. Of course, that’s not legal in Oregon, so Harold dispatched her across the river to Washington to get the feel of holding a gas nozzle and squeezing its handle.

Once she had done that, he said, they’d talk about her car.

As the obituary notes, Harold’s Auto Service was a secret society. Harold never advertised. For years his business card had no phone number and bore the motto “We don’t work on foreign or domestic cars.”

What he worked on were car owners. They were, he believed, the first line of defense in keeping their cars running. If he got you to change your oil every 3,000 miles, pump your own gas and adjust your carburetors, you just might — might — be worthy of his services when serious issues arose.

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Anonymous Barbara Hansen said...

I too was a longtime customer of Harold Dick. One time I managed to leave my Rabbit running with the doors locked. In a panic I phoned Harold, and he drove over with an extra door key from his shop. Who ever heard of a mechanic that makes house calls?

2:29 AM  
Blogger Ollie W said...

I just took my new to me 1963 Volvo PV544 to Harold's. he was the only place in town that even wanted to look at it. Chris, the guy behind the counter was very nice and knowledgeable. I wanted to find out about his shop as I'd just stumbled upon it by a friends suggestion. It's great to read about Harold and his shop, I wish I would have had the chance to meet him.

10:51 AM  

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