Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Garages Became Convenience Stores

Most gas stations find it more profitable to run a convenience store than a repair shop.  Why is this?

People like to pine for the "good old days" and will tell you that cars back then were "better" than "all that computerized garbage" today.


If you drive through any town, you will see the remains of a number of old gas stations, now closed.  And you will also see a lot of old gas stations whose repair bays have been converted to convenience stores.   The old days of "Mechanic on Duty" are gone forever.

Why is this?  Cars are far more reliable than they were 50 years ago.

Those fabulous cars of the 1960's rarely went over 100,000 miles before they were junked.  Most were burning oil by 50,000 miles, and had engine, transmission, and rust problems.   Exhaust systems lasted 18 to 36 months.  Batteries maybe two years.  A set of bias-ply tires lasted 30,000 miles, if that, and handled poorly.  Shocks wore out after two or three years.   All of these items broke and needed to be repaired regularly.

And of course, carburetors needed to be rebuilt, engines constantly tuned up (about once a year), timing chains would snap, and valve jobs would need to be done.  And flat tires were a way of life.   The "good old days" sucked, frankly.

Today, cars easily last 100,000 miles or more, most going 200,000 miles without too much effort.  The reasons for this are multifold.  We have better oils today, better gas, and fuel injection - which means a cleaner, better controlled burn, and no gasoline in the crankcase.   High energy ignition means spark plugs can last 100,000 miles (instead of 15,000) and computer controls mean that tuneups simply don't exist.  You cannot adjust the timing or replace points anymore.   The former is controlled by a computer that does a far better job than a distributor ever could.  The latter simply doesn't exist.

So all those repair shops became obsolete.   Why run an auto repair shop when cars need less repair?   Granted, some still soldiered on - the ones that did good work and learned how to repair modern cars, instead of whining about how they hated "these fancy new computers".   And yea, I have seen mechanics says this to me.  If one says it to you, run away - you don't want him working on your car.

So here's the irony.  There are fewer repair shops today.  Fewer mechanics needed to repair cars.  And yet, jobs for auto mechanics remain unfilled.  Why?  Because few folks want to go to school and actually learn how to repair a modern car.  And it really isn't harder than repairing those cars from "the good old days" either - just different skills.  In fact, it is easier, as diagnostic tools can pinpoint problems in a real hurry, and most repairs amount to replacing sensors or actuators.  Valve jobs and major engine overhauls are almost a thing of the past - with most cars being junked rather than having such work done.

So, is this such a bad thing?  We get better, more reliable cars out of the deal.  There are fewer places to get your car repaired, but then again, less of a need for repairs.   There are fewer jobs for mechanics, but there are still opportunities for quality trained mechanics (and maybe more of the shady ones are out of business).

But regardless of whether you "like" it or not, we are not going to "go back" to unreliable, poorly built, rusty, polluting cars, just to "create jobs".   It makes no sense, and it ain't gonna happen.

Reality is value-neutral.  How you perceive it to be is your decision.