Pumping money into the old jalopy isn’t just for the thrifty anymore. As the economy worsens, and with new car sales down by more than 50 percent nationally, some Springfield automobile repair shops are noticing increased business, while others say business has been down.

Pumping money into the old jalopy isn’t just for the thrifty anymore.

As the economy worsens, and with new car sales down by more than 50 percent nationally, some Springfield automobile repair shops are noticing increased business.

Others, though, say business is down because cash-strapped motorists simply aren’t doing the maintenance they used to, or they’re replacing a vehicle rather than take on a big repair bill.

Data provided by the Illinois secretary of state’s office shows that new registrations for cars and trucks from the beginning of the year through February were down substantially, both statewide and in Sangamon County, compared to the first two months of last year.

Mike Healey, director of dealer services for the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association, said 25,117 new cars and 30,464 new trucks were registered in Illinois in the first two months of 2009.
There were 45,208 new car and 49,296 new truck registrations in the same period last year.

In Sangamon County, there were 376 new car and 546 new truck registrations through February this year; the first two months of 2008 saw 692 cars and 851 trucks registered in the county.

In light of those numbers, Tom Hollinshead Jr., owner of 1 Stop Auto Shop, with locations in Chatham and Sherman, said he’s seen a tremendous increase in the amount of people pumping money into their current vehicles.

“People are keeping their cars a lot longer than what they had in the past,” he said. “Older vehicles that would only be valued at $2,000 or $3,000 … people are going ahead and putting a motor in that car, because they’d rather keep it than go out and buy a new one.

“People can’t get the same quality of a vehicle if they spend $2,000 or $3,000 on a used vehicle, so they’re putting more money into the vehicles they already have.”

Scott Lewis, owner of Lewis Automotive, said he’s seen a similar trend.

“A lot of people are fixing the cars they have in their back yard,” he said. “I’d say our business is a little better than it was last year.”

Not so for some other local automotive repair outlets.

“Everybody keeps saying that people are repairing cars, but that’s not the case,” said Gary Williamson, owner of Tuffy Auto Service Centers at 1764 Wabash Ave. “Percentage-wise, I’m seeing more people replacing their cars rather than repairing them. I’m so astonished by the amount of people who are not repairing (older vehicles).”

People do bring in their cars and trucks for standard repairs such brakes and fluid and oil changes, he said. But when it comes to big repairs, Williamson said, people are more apt to replace their vehicles rather than spend a lot on upkeep.

“We should be increasing in business, but we’re flat-lined,” he said. “We’re running exactly where we were last year and the year before.”

Pat O’Dell, owner of O’Dell’s Garage, expressed a similar view.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is slow,” he said. “It’s been like a roller coaster. I don’t think people have the money.

“I don’t know if people are just nervous, but my business hasn’t picked up, it’s fell off.”

Hollinshead said his customers also are waiting a little longer to get oil changes and take care of basic maintenance. When the vehicles need major repairs, often just to function, owners are more likely to replace a motor than they are to buy the most recent model from the dealership lot, he said.

“It seems like when it’s an emergency and cars are broken down, people are spending the money to fix those,” he said. “I replaced an engine in an ’03 (Chevrolet) Trailblazer about two weeks ago. A lady went 18,000 miles between oil changes, and guess what? She blew up her motor.”

Hollinshead said he started noticing people putting money into their older cars toward the end of last summer. That’s about when O’Dell noticed his business taking a hit.

O’Dell said he’s surprised at the lack of customers for the same reason Williamson believes local residents are replacing cars: Springfield’s job market.

“I would say our economy is tougher than others because of the types of jobs we have,” O’Dell said. “It’s not like when you’re working for the state that these people are losing their jobs.”
Williamson agreed.

“I’ve got some friends in Michigan, and I can tell you they are not purchasing new cars, they’re repairing,” he said. “But you’ve got more people laid off there, and we don’t have nearly as many people in Springfield, Illinois, getting laid off as they do in Detroit.”

Rhys Saunders can be reached at (217) 788-1521 or rhys.saunders@sj-r.com.

New registrations for cars and trucks

From the beginning of the year through February:
Illinois    25,117 cars; 30,464 trucks

Sangamon County    376 cars, 546 trucks

For the first two months of 2008:
Illinois    45,208 cars; 49,296 trucks

Sangamon County    692 cars; 851 trucks

Keep on runnin’

The following are tips to help owners keep their vehicles longer:

Check the owner’s manual for scheduled maintenance

Schedule tune-ups

Change the oil

Change fluids

Have tires rotated