Kokomo mechanic, 80, still keeps cars running

(Kokomo Tribune Photo/ Kelly Lafferty)
(Kokomo Tribune Photo/ Kelly Lafferty)

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — Without so much as a sign advertising his business tucked behind U.S. 31, Dick Smith will soon celebrate his 80th birthday with a business that runs as smoothly as the cars he fixes every day.

Avoiding a conventional business strategy, and convention in general, has served Smith well in his 56 years as a mechanic in Kokomo, where he operates his own three-car garage, servicing the vehicles of customers who have been coming back to him for decades.

The methods have changed from the simplicity of fixing carburetors, distributors, points and plugs and condensers to diagnosing car problems over the Internet, but Smith’s business model has remained the same: Be honest, be fair and try not to take anything too seriously.

“Everything is word of mouth,” he told the Kokomo Tribune. “I’ve never had a sign in all of the years that I’ve been out here. That’s something I’m really proud of. I’ve got a clientele that I’m really proud of.

“I try to be fair with people,” he added. “I think that’s what it’s all about. Just try to be honest with them, that’s the name of the game.”

(Kokomo Tribune Photo/ Kelly Lafferty)
(Kokomo Tribune Photo/ Kelly Lafferty)

Adding a little humor never hurts, though.

Smith takes as much pride in his reputation as a prankster as he does in being a reliable mechanic, always quick to pull a fast one on friends and even customers when they least expect it.

From doctoring friends’ food when they’re not looking at a restaurant to slamming on the brakes of his car near an unsuspecting stranger on the sidewalk, it’s all in the name of good fun, Smith said.

“I just feel like you’ve got to instill a little bit of laughter into the day, or you’ve lost something,” he said. “With the friends I’ve got, it’s pretty easy to get involved in some of that. For the most part, it’s good, clean fun.

“Most of the time, everybody takes it in stride,” he added. “You want to be careful and not create a problem for anybody with some stupid prank.”

With practical jokes ranging from simple to elaborate, Smith has rarely missed an opportunity to get the best of his buddies.

Longtime friend and fellow mechanic Daryll Allen has been on the receiving end of plenty of those pranks. He remembers stopping at a car parts store on his lunch hour with Smith and some other friends with Smith at the wheel.

Smith planted another vehicle at the store ahead of time, claiming he was going to run inside to pick up some parts. He proceeded to take the keys with him and speed off in the other vehicle, leaving the other three stranded in the car wondering what had happened.

“That was a favorite of his,” Allen said with a hearty laugh.

Longtime friend Dick Miller recalls Smith’s antics fondly, adding that friends were happy to return the favor on Smith.

“Nothing he did ever harmed anyone or put them at risk,” he said. “It just inconvenienced the heck out of you, if at all possible.”

While it is seemingly all fun and games for Smith when hanging out with friends, his approach inside the garage is all business.

His garage remains spotless, with every tool in its proper place and without a drop of oil or grease on the ground.

“You could eat off the floor, literally,” Miller said of his friend’s garage.

Smith attacks each new project in a similarly tidy fashion, often wearing a polo shirt and a nice pair of pants while working under the hood.

In fact, it’s rare to see any grease on his fingers when he returns the keys to a customer, Smith said. It’s all just a part of his makeup, but also for the sake of the customer.

“I don’t think you need to be knee-deep in grease to work on cars,” he said. “I’m not saying that you can’t do it that way. But if you bring a nice new car in here, you don’t want somebody covered in grease inside working on it.

“You have to take pride in that,” he added. “I get a lot of razzing about that.”

After opening up a small service station on Markland Avenue and South Jay Street in 1958, Smith determined it would be more cost effective to work out of his home.

With his home connected to the garage, Smith balances his work and family life on a daily basis. It allows him convenience, but can be difficult to separate the two.

Smith has three sons — Dick, Dan and Dave — two of whom live on each side of him and another who lives in Cicero. It was a risk to move the business to his home, but it ended up paying off for Smith and his wife of 61 years, Mary.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he said. “I had three boys to feed. But people kept calling, so I thought, why not?

“After I left the service station, people followed me out here,” he said. “That was what really started it.”

Smith has been able to keep business steady as times, and vehicles, have changed. He’s made adjustments from the more simplified vehicles he worked on in the 1960s to the more electronic-based fuel injection systems he works on today.

It has required a lot of investment in new equipment and extra time, but his customers have been understanding every step of the way.

“Cars require a lot more time than they used to,” he said. “Back in the carburetor and condenser days, you could get five or six cars through in a day, no problem. Now you might spend a day on one.

“They’re very understanding,” he said of his customers. “They know that’s the program, and it works out that way.”

Miller, who has brought vehicles to Smith for years, said Smith’s tireless ability to make sure the cars not only get fixed, but that the customer is left satisfied, is what sets him apart as a mechanic.

“He’s a man of his word and if he fixed it, it would be fixed for good or he’d work on it until it was,” Miller said. “He’s always had plenty of folks that needed his attention on a vehicle and he’s done marvelous things for those that aren’t quite as fortunate. He’s been very generous for those that needed a hand up.”

Allen agreed, adding Smith is one of the most dedicated workers he’s ever met.

“Some of the dealers in town couldn’t even fix certain things, so people would take it to him,” Allen said. “He’d lay awake at night thinking about how to get it done. He’s self-conscious about his work, which is why his shop is so clean. That’s just the approach he takes.”

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