How car care is tuning in to specialization

The jagged yellow, orange, and blue ''lightning bolt'' logo of the Sparks Tuneup Center, set up in a recycled Mobil station on Warren Avenue, stands out in the grayness of morning in downtown Brockton.

Inside the center John Marshall, the owner, is on the phone with another potential customer. ''Sure, just bring it in, ma'am.'' Over in the service bays, technicians are running the rear wheels of cars over the ''Dynamometer'' as part of the tuneup process.

The center does tuneups and oil changes and lube jobs. Period. Well, almost period.

By specializing in just a few services, Sparks avoids the high overhead costs typical of a dealership service department or a full-service garage, which must invest in equipment that stands idle much of the time. And with parts from the franchiser, who buys in bulk, Mr. Marshall can offer a flat-rate tuneup for $39. 90 and an oil change for $12.90, guaranteed.

Mr. Marshall says he is able to service ''100 percent of all domestic cars and 85 percent of all foreign cars,'' and when his costs run over on a particular car, he can make it up on volume - and goodwill.

''I did a tuneup on a '68 Buick,'' he says. ''It probably cost me $175 to do, but the woman is so happy with it she'll probably send in 10 other people.''

Says Daniel I. Rhode, president of the franchiser, Sparks Tuneup Company, in King Of Prussia, Pa., ''Service stations are closing - about 100,000 in the last 10 years. And during the '70s, service stations did about 60 percent of all oil changes and 40 percent of all tuneups. And people are holding onto their cars longer - so the market is there for maintenance. We're filling a hole in the market. When you specialize, you can do it better, faster, and cheaper.''

Marshall's operation is one of many specialized tuneup and lubrication shops that have sprung up across the country. The rise of such centers, devoted to a particular specialty - is an important development in the auto maintenance business. And car care is a business that illustrates, probably as well as any, the way basic services are changing.

New technologies mean less frequent but more ''skill intensive'' maintenance for today's cars. They also make it harder for any one mechanic or ''technician'' to be really knowledgeable on all cars.

Escalating real estate prices and other costs are pushing garage operators into market segmentation and higher value-added lines of business. The old-fashioned service station that did a little bit of everything, but mostly pumped gas and cleaned windshields, is giving way to the high-volume specialty shop with the expensive equipment and the ''limited menu of services.''

And with high mobility and the increase in both dual-career couples and one-member households, people are finding it harder to find quality in car care via the traditional word-of-mouth channels. Advertising is becoming more important, and people are coming to recognize aggressively marketed brand names on bright-colored signs.

Motorists peel off Main Street into the shop for a MufflerBurger or a McTuneup just as they zip off an Interstate highway at the sight of a ''McDonald's this exit'' sign, instead of wandering the back roads in quest of ''Mom's Home Cooking.''

Edward L. Kaufman, an automotive consultant with the Lindsey-Kaufman Company in Tenafly, N.J., says the fast-food analogy may be more apt than people realize: ''A number of the people going into these businesses have backgrounds in fast food, rather than the automotive industry; there's a similar emphasis on advertising and high-traffic locations.''

But perhaps the most important development the car-care business illustrates is that a need for services is not being met.

The service sector, we read almost daily, is where the growth of the economy lies. But a motorist looking for reasonably priced car-care quality is not likely to feel overwhelmed by the abundance of options.

''There's the neighborhood garage, where the man is unbusinesslike but seems to be honest. Then there's the specialty center with the advertised best price - but you don't really know the guy. . . .

''A minority of oil companies - Texaco, Shell, Amoco, and Union Oil, in California - have said they intend to compete in service,'' Mr. Kaufman adds. And with the proliferation of radial tires, more expensive but much longer lasting, tire companies have seen sales fall and have begun to scramble to turn long-dormant service departments from loss centers to profit centers.

''Then there are the dealerships. They're in a funny position in the market. They have well-trained mechanics. But they don't have a proper attitude.''

This last remark, for some aggrieved motorists, qualifies as serious understatement. Dealers, he explains, are basically in the new-car sales business; service is ''nuisance business,'' the service department chief is typically not ''an entrepreneur,'' and his prices are not competitive.

Although many dealerships rediscovered their service departments during the recession, when car sales were off so seriously, Kaufman remains ''less than sanguine'' about the abilities of dealerships to market their service departments aggressively.

''We know why they don't come,'' says Lee R. Miskowski, national service manager for Ford, of all those motorists who avoid dealerships' service departments. ''And we're working on those problems.'' He identifies four areas in which Ford is trying to improve: prices, technical competence of mechanics, customer treatment, and convenience. ''We've got a training program on interpersonal skills - it's not technical, it's designed to help people handle customers better.''

Kaufman describes himself as ''bullish'' on specialty tuneup centers, but notes that there is ''a void in the marketplace, a need for a sort of 'general practitioner.' Logically the void ought to be filled by the idealistic young guys - who would take a holistic approach. But it's a low-status business. It needs to be professionalized.''

He laments the lack of a more formal guild system, on the German model, with apprentices, journeymen, and masters. ''There isn't that respect for craft here.''

Dan Inman, vice-president for training at Autotech Inc., a school for practicing mechanics in Roseville, Minn., concurs. ''We need to romance the young people into entering the field.''

Since the days of the tinkerers on ''horseless carriages,'' good mechanics have been hard to find. It's not getting better as automotive technology gets more complex. Asked how Sparks is staffing its tuneup centers, Mr. Rhode says, ''Well, let's say there has not been a high experience factor.''

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a private organization, tests and certifies mechanics; some 170,000 people have current ASE credentials. But some critics suggest that theirs are but minimum standards.

Don Randall, Washington representative of the Automotive Service Councils, a trade association, says, ''While there may be a technical need for specialty services, traditional outlets are still a first choice when there's a little hesitation in the car, or a stumble, or a funny start-up or something like that.''

Not everyone agrees with Mr. Kaufman on the need for generalists.

''The generalist is obsolete; the day of the backyard mechanic is over,'' bellows Andy Granatelli, former president of STP Corporation, from his offices in Woodland Hills, Calif. His Tuneup Masters Inc. claims to be No. 1 in the specialty tuneup and lube business; he has stores throughout California, Arizona , New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

Autotech's Mr. Inman comments on specialty tuneups thus: ''You get what you pay for.''

But Mr. Granatelli says that for a flat $54.95 - or $49.95 in California - his customers get a tuneup that's guaranteed for six months or 6,000 miles.

If a customer at one Tuneup Masters outlet is dissatisfied, he can take his car to another one for adjustment or a second opinion.

''Under our warranty, you could take your car to a different one of our shops every single day and have it worked on.

''Our people are specialists - they don't do anything but tuneups - they live , breathe, eat tuneups.''

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