Craig Gallagher is not a millionaire and he's not eccentric - no more than the tad we all are. He's certainly not a fool.
By ELIJAH GOSIER
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2001
Craig Gallagher is not a millionaire and he's not eccentric -- no more than the tad we all are. He's certainly not a fool.
And there's no way he could be mistaken for the Defense Department.
So, explain the $1,800 he shelled out for a tool he calls his 9/16th wrench.
He needed it. He's an auto mechanic.
That's a better explanation than the Armed Forces offered when they bought those hammers and toilet seats.
Gallagher owns C&S Auto Repair on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, a two-man operation where he expects the tool to pay for itself over the next few months.
"It's a tool," said Gallagher, 49, as he exchanged a check for his 9/16th wrench -- really a briefcaselike container. Inside was a device that resembled a VCR, a manual the size of St. Petersburg's phone book, a couple of smaller manuals, a handful of cables, one with a connector for plugging into a car's cigarette lighter, three videotapes and a handful of cartridges similar to the ones used by computer games.
"Like a 9/16th wrench."
But, not seeing anything that vaguely resembled a wrench -- of whatever denomination -- Gallagher's visitor read the lettering on the outside of the case.
They didn't have those 27 years ago when Gallagher came to Florida looking for work and wound up in Gulfport pumping gas at Red Reddy's service station. They didn't need them then. Red knew cars and could hear what was wrong with them, or pop the hood and spot the problem.
He was his own diagnostic scanner.
"Red was an old-time Army mechanic," Gallagher said with reverence. "A helluva guy."
Red took Gallagher under his wing, for reasons he still does not completely understand, and for a couple of hours every day after the shop closed taught him theory, the basics of what happens after the key is turned. He also showed him what to do when nothing happened after the key was turned.
Gallagher said that before Red's tutelage, he had only "tinkered with cars as a kid, trying to make them go faster."
Soon he was buying tools and going to schools, most of them clinics conducted by parts and tool suppliers. Just more than 5 years ago, Red's pupil opened his own shop at 3959 Central Ave.
Gallagher's small shop is basic compared to larger, more specialized garages, but comparing his shop to the one in which he cut his mechanic's teeth is like comparing moon shots to bottle rockets.
"It's not like it used to be when you could look under there and say, "Joe, you got bad plugs. Give me $20, and I'll put a new set in for you,"' Gallagher said. "Now every vehicle on the road is computerized fuel injection. The days of carburetors are over."
Gone with them, says Gallagher, are the days when a mechanic could get a few tools, a test light, a battery charger and a jack and open up shop.
Not gone, he is quick to add, is an antiquated but widely held public perception that the old term "grease monkey" still fits.
"They think all we do is roll around under the cars and clean the floors with our shirts," said Gallagher, for whom the misperception isn't a vanity issue.
"A guy brings a car in, and we find the problem is a $9 relay. He wants to know why he's paying $49. Because it took hours to diagnose. Most driveability problems take longer to diagnose than repair."
That same customer, Gallagher said, would have no qualms about paying the same amount or more to a doctor who only listens to his heart for a few seconds, or to a lawyer who may not even take the case.
Partly because of the grease monkey image, and partly because of a few rip-off artists that give mechanics a bad reputation, Gallagher said many car-repair customers think they should fairly pay only for the parts and the labor required to put them on. They don't value the diagnoses, or the schooling, time and equipment required to make those diagnoses, the way they do with other recognized professions, even electricians and plumbers.
Gallagher thinks the answer lies in licensing by the state, an idea with merit. Licensing would protect the credibility of Gallagher and other reputable auto mechanics and protect the public from unscrupulous fly-by-nighters whose prime skill is bilking money from trusting customers.
And it might erase some of the stigma still associated with auto repair that makes the profession unattractive to young people, a growing concern to service managers and garage owners, who have difficulty finding qualified workers.
"I've had people apply who couldn't tell me how a relay works," said Gallagher, who says there are three keys to success in auto repair: a thorough knowledge of the basics, common sense and experience with various models of cars.
Without those, no tool will be of any use to you. Even if it costs $1,800.
In a field that technology has altered with tremendous speed, Gallagher said, it is also hard for a young person to acquire knowledge in the basics, which a mentor passed on to him over many hours of one-on-one instruction, and at the same time keep up with new advances.
"If I was going to start today," Gallagher said, shaking his head slowly as if trying to keep the words from coming out, "I wouldn't choose this as a profession."
He didn't get any argument from the man who sold him the scanner. After 20 years as a truck mechanic, he became a tool salesman.
"The technology got to be too much for me," he said, as he wished Gallagher luck with his new wrench.