lowell’s history – part 1

As part of our 40th anniversary in October, we thought it would be nice to take a look back at part of our history. Lowell wrote the following retrospective in 2008 – mere months before I bought lowell’s from him. Lowell relates how we got started, how we ended up on Mechanic Street, and how we came to specialize in Toyotas.

Next month, I’ll the story of how I came to lowell’s. Enjoy! – Rob

Lowell’s Story

In 1979, I was a contented service manager at Muncie Buick in Winchester. I was paid well, had a new Buick to drive, a 40 hour work week, paid vacation, paid holidays and a good boss, Tommie Muncie. We lived in Madison county.

I have always been interested in business and while working at Muncie I started to buy old cars, fix them up and resell them. This had been going pretty well and was bringing in a little extra income. Our children were one- and five-years-old and we had just purchased our first home, incurring a sizeable mortgage payment.

One Sunday morning Betty, my wife, was reading the Lexington Herald-Leader when she noticed a garage for rent on Mechanic Street in Lexington. We had two or three cars we were working on and thought this would help solve the storage problem we were having. We jumped in the car and drove to Lexington to check it out.

The garage was 4000 square feet, about five times the size we needed to store cars. We walked around the building and peeked in the windows. Bluegrass Automotive, Towing, and Repair was the current renter. Our business name was created by adding “Lowell’s” to the top of the Bluegrass Automotive sign. Voila!  Lowell’s Bluegrass Automotive.

The next week I met with Louden Byrd, known as “Red” Byrd, the owner of Bluegrass Towing.  I bought most of the equipment he had in the shop.  Red assured me that with the repair customers he had and the towing business he owned, he would be able to supply me with all the “broken” cars I would need to make a fortune.

Now came the hard part.  I had to tell Tommie Muncie I was leaving to start my own business.  I can still remember standing in his office. He pointed out the rate of failure for new businesses and made me a couple of offers that were hard to refuse, but I had made up my mind. I was going to make the leap.

While at Muncie I had hired a 16-year-old, Danny King. Danny came with me as a mechanic to open Lowell’s. Note: Danny has stopped in over the years to say “Hello”.  He is now a grandfather.

Lowell’s was scheduled to open on (I believe) the first Monday in October in 1979. In a panic my mother called me from Cleveland telling me I couldn’t open that day as it was Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday. I wasn’t very observant at that time and didn’t know about it.  So before we had a chance to open… we closed. The following day we opened.

The string of cars promised by Red Byrd didn’t quite appear. Our current two-day sales are higher than our sales were for our first three months in business. We struggled in the early years.  Danny would work on cars, and I would also work on cars and run the business. It would be over a year before I started drawing a paycheck. In 1980, my pay was $3500 for the year, and was $7800 in 1981. This was half what I was being paid at Muncie, and with no benefits. Danny worked six days, and I worked six days and came in on Sundays to do the books.  I didn’t take a vacation until we had been in business for three years.

Gradually our sales increased, as well as the number of our employees. In the early 80’s I thought it would be a good idea to specialize. I decided on Toyota, Datsun, Nissan and Honda. At that time general repair garages, such as ours, were sending their “foreign” car customers to the dealers. I thought this was a good opportunity. We quickly dropped Datsuns and Hondas and would only take new customers if they owned a Toyota. It was hard to turn away sales, but in the end it paid off.

My family moved to Lexington in 1989, cutting our commuting time from 40 minutes one way to five minutes. We loved country living but Lexington has more to offer.

We are a true family business. Betty started helping part-time and her hours increased as our children grew up.  Amy, our daughter, has helped us in the past, assuming many different duties. Brian, our son, has been working here officially for 12 years. Before that he would spend a lot of his free time here helping and tinkering with junk cars and parts we had lying around. He is now our service advisor, technical advisor, and computer guy. He spends the bulk of his time dealing with customers and technicians. Undoubtedly he has the most challenging job in the shop. Brian also has a great knack for diagnosing cars when technicians run into a difficult problem.  My father (paid in coffee) helps with our letter and postcard mailings.

Over the 29 years we have employed four husband-and-wife teams, children of employees, and various brothers and sisters.  We have attended weddings, births and funerals. I have been the best man at weddings (twice for one tech who was married twice) and Betty was the Lamaze coach for an employee.

Our years of owning our own business have and continue to be a challenge, a challenge on which Betty and I thrive.

Thank you all for being a part of our first 29 years.

Sincerely,

Lowell and Betty

lowell’s wins 2019 Readers’ Choice award

For the ninth time, Lexington Herald-Leader readers have voted Lowell’s their “Favorite Auto Repair” in the 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards.

This Readers’ Choice Award is our 18th first-place award (9 from Herald-Leader readers, and 9 more Best of Lex Awards from Ace Weekly readers (even though Ace hasn’t run the awards since 2011).

We are humbled and honored to have the support of our wonderful, wonderful customers. We are also very grateful to have such thoughtful and skilled employees. We promise to keep improving our service to keep deserving your appreciation.

Thank you so much,
Rob, Suzanne, and your Friends at Lowell’s

honest pricing

When you have your car serviced, you deserve absolute clarity on what will be done to your vehicle and what it will cost.

At lowell’s, we give you all-in, honest prices for our services. We know that getting your car fixed can be intimidating, so we do all we can to give you control over your vehicle’s service.

no games

“Shop Supplies.” “Recycling Fee.” “Document Retention Fee.” “Environmental Disposal Charge.” “Fuel Surcharge.”

A lot of places find ‘creative’ ways to make you pay more. They often include special fees and charges like those above. Other places hide costs in fine print. Some places underquote by leaving out commonly-used parts.

We don’t do any of that.

We never use fine print, and we quote a fair price for the entire job. If we end up not needing parts that we initially quoted, you won’t pay for them.

lowell’s charges for just three things: 1) the parts we use, 2) the work our employees do, and 3) the Kentucky sales tax we are required to collect and pass along to the state. That’s it.

no pressure

What we do with your car is your decision.

We’ll tell you what your Toyota or Lexus really needs.

We’ll identify what needs your attention now, and what can wait for later. And we’ll never try to scare you or trick you into making a service decision.

If you choose not to approve a service item, that’s fine with us. If you don’t have enough time for service right now, that’s fine, too.

It’s your car; we let you decide.

no surprises

We get your permission first.

We always ask you before doing additional work on your vehicle. That way, we can prevent any unpleasant surprises when you pick up your car.

 

No games. No pressure. No surprises. We think this is the right way – the only honorable way – to do business.

making it easier to get on with your life

We know that getting your car serviced isn’t always convenient – you’ve got plenty to do, and waiting for a repair or arranging a ride can be a hassle.

A lot of customers don’t know that lowell’s can help you get on with your life while your car is being serviced. Consider any of these options to make your life easier for your next appointment with us.

Shuttle Van

Let lowell’s give you a ride to work or back home in our Sienna courtesy shuttle. A lot of customers who live or work close to downtown like this option, but we provide rides all over town!

Loaner Vehicles

Or, drive yourself wherever you need to go with one of our loaner vehicles. lowell’s has a fleet of six loaner vehicles which are free to use while your car is being serviced. When you make your appointment, just let us know that you are interested in a loaner, and we’ll reserve one for you!

Loaner Bikes

Finally, if you are feeling particularly energetic, lowell’s offers loaner bicycles so that you can pedal where you need to go.

You are always welcome to wait in our lobby or our great neighborhood. But if you’ve got places to be, we hope that one of these options will make your next visit with us a little (or a lot) more convenient!

extreme weather and your battery

Most car batteries last for approximately 3 to 5 years under normal conditions. As the temperature drops or rises, however, you may experience extra strains on your battery.

Extreme Cold

The near-zero temperatures this week can take quite a toll on your vehicle’s battery.

Not only is your engine harder to turn over when it is extremely cold, but these temperatures can mean that your lead-acid battery is only operating with about half of its normal power output.

A weaker cold-weather battery, coupled with a stubborn cold-weather engine, can make it a lot harder to get your car started. So a battery that starts a car fairly well at normal temperatures suddenly stops operating as the temperature plummets.

At lowell’s, we see a lot of no-start or slow-to-start issues when cold weather strikes. If you notice that your car is struggling to get started, it may be a signal that you need to replace your battery.

Extreme Heat

Your battery actually gets a lot stronger in extremely warm weather, but that extra energy comes at a price: The accelerated chemistry inside your battery in hot weather can shorten your battery’s life.

The evaporation of the fluids (acids) inside of your battery under extreme heat can corrode many parts of your starting and charging system. If you see a lot of bluish-white gunk on or around your battery, that’s a sign of excessive evaporation.

What you can do

As your battery ages, it is a good idea to have it checked a few times a year to ensure that it is putting out the appropriate level of power. Have the battery terminals cleaned and battery cable ends replaced if you see excessive corrosion around the battery.

If you typically drive a lot of quick trips, consider mixing in a few longer drives. Very short trips often don’t recharge the large amount of energy used to start your vehicle. Over time, this quick-trip deficit can place ever-greater strains on your battery, and can shorten its life considerably.

Also, consider unplugging accessory cables (like phone chargers) when the vehicle is not in use. Faulty or low-quality chargers can drain your battery when not in use.

cars and lights and codes

Suddenly finding a dash warning light can create a lot of anxiety while driving. What does that light mean? Can I still drive? And how much is this going to cost me?

We know that those lights can be scary, and we’re ready to help you figure out what your particular warning light means.

maintenance required

The good news is that the light which comes on most frequently – the ‘maintenance required’ or ‘MAINT REQD’ light – is relatively mild.

The maintenance required light simply indicates that you are overdue for an oil change. On most Toyota or Lexus vehicles, it comes on automatically 5,000 miles after your last oil change.

And while oil changes are your most important regular service, a maintenance required light isn’t usually something which you need to address right now.  Simply schedule your next oil change at your earliest convenience. When we change your oil, we’ll reset your maintenance required light, and you should be ready for the road.

more serious lights

While the ‘maintenance required’ light may not be that serious, other dash warning lights should be addressed as soon as possible. Depending on your vehicle, these may include your ‘check engine’, ‘ABS’, ‘VSC’, and / or ‘TRAC’ lights. If any one or combination of these lights comes on for your vehicle, get your vehicle checked out right away.

Unfortunately, these aren’t lights which can be diagnosed over the phone.  The underlying problem might cause permanent damage to your vehicle, or it might not be serious at all.

The safest policy is to have us check out your vehicle’s computer to determine the condition that is triggering the light to come on.

checking codes

Using a laptop computer and Toyota’s TechStream software, we will check your vehicle computer for any recorded or pending conditions which could trigger your warning light. The vehicle computer will often store special codes which point us toward the vehicle subsystem which is reporting a problem.

These codes are relatively easy to obtain: we can pull the codes here at lowell’s, or there are a variety of aftermarket devices which can also get them. (If you ever use one of these devices, make sure to preserve all of the details; many devices will clear out the traces of trouble codes and make them difficult to properly diagnose.)

By themselves, these codes don’t tell us very much. They are akin to telling your doctor about a pain in your throat. The pain gives a doctor an idea of where to look next, and what kinds of tests (pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, throat cultures, etc.) might be needed to determine the specific problem behind the symptom. In this example, further testing might reveal that a strep infection is behind the throat pain.

In a similar fashion, the codes stored by your vehicle’s computer provide symptoms which require further testing in order to pinpoint your car’s specific malady. For example, a P0304 code can tell us there is a misfire on cylinder #4, but it doesn’t tell us the specific source of that misfire (further testing might show that the ignition coil for that cylinder is bad).

Our technicians will test the various subsystem components which could trigger a particular code, and we’ll identify the specific problem.

getting back with you

Once we’ve determined the problem, we’ll get with you to discuss its severity and the cost of fixing it. Sometimes, we’ll tell you that the problem doesn’t really affect the proper functioning of your car, and you can continue to drive with the warning light. (Note, however, that driving with a constant warning light can cover up any new trouble codes which occur.)

In any case, whenever you have a warning light, be sure to have us check it out, so that you can know whether the problem is severe or not. We’ll be glad to give you that peace of mind!

the single most important thing you can do for your car

When I first started driving, my dad asked me the same question over and over about my car.

“When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?”

‘That thing’ was my first car, an avocado-green 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass. My dad wanted me to change its oil and oil filter every couple of thousand miles. I have to admit that I wasn’t the most diligent oil-changer, which was why Dad stayed on me about changing it.

As a typical teenager, I dismissed the question as an annoying intrusion on my newfound car-centric ‘freedom’. But even into adulthood, I was never all that concerned about how often I changed my oil.

It really wasn’t until I bought lowell’s that I understood the true importance of Dad’s question.

A regular oil and filter change is the single most important thing you can do to help keep your car’s engine running longer.

Why your oil matters

Fresh oil keeps internal engine parts clean and lubricated, which prolongs the life of your engine.

Oil breaks down with exposure to the high temperatures of your engine. As it breaks down, your oil stops absorbing dust, moisture, and other contaminants. That means the oil won’t lubricate as well, causing engine parts to wear out faster.

What can go wrong

Because old oil stops lubricating as well, your engine parts rub together. This increased friction causes the parts to wear out faster and makes your engine hotter – which causes your oil to degrade even faster, triggering a downward spiral of deteriorating oil, heat, and engine wear.

Eventually, the oil can break down into sludge – a sticky, tar-like substance which clogs narrow passageways inside your engine – and oil can’t get where it is needed inside your clogged engine.

The increased heat and friction in your engine can also cause your engine to seize and need to be replaced.

What we do

We drain the old oil from your engine and replace it and the oil filter. We use only genuine Toyota oil filters with a double-stage filtering element and an anti-drainback valve.

We also perform a free Courtesy Check – a visual inspection of your belts, fluids, hoses, lights, tire pressures, and tire wear – with each service, which allows us to identify small problems before they become big problems.

What we do with the old stuff

We’ve contracted with a recycling service to pick up your old oil and oil filters. Once the dirt and other contaminants are removed, most of your old oil can be re-refined into high-grade motor oil.

When we recommend it

Our oil change recommendations depend on the type of engine your car has.

For engines using conventional motor oil (5W-20 or 5W-30 grade oil), we recommend changing your oil every 3,500 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2009 and earlier Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

For engines using full synthetic motor oil (0W-20 grade), we recommend changing your oil every 5,000 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2014 and later Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

So… When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?

new public art at lowell’s

In early October, local art group PRHBTN sponsored six new street art murals around Lexington.

One of the biggest new murals is right next to Lowell’s! We can see this huge, beautiful art from our front door, and we chronicled artists Yu-baba and Key Detail as they painted.

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We think that this new mural is part of what makes Lexington and our North Lime neighborhood such a great and unique place to live and work. Come down to lowell’s to see it!

 

north lime

This month, we’re updating our logo, our colors, and our design.

You’ll see these new colors, logo, and design first on our emails, website, and buildings (which are freshly painted), and we’ll continue to roll out the new design throughout all of our materials in the coming weeks.

One new element of the design is the ‘north lime’ designation which goes along with our logo. We are proud to be part of Lexington’s resurgent North Limestone neighborhood, and we wanted to celebrate that in our logo.

North Lime is where we work every day. It’s where we get to see you. We’ve been here for 37 years, and this neighborhood is in our blood.

We’re still here at 111 Mechanic Street, in the heart of North Lime. And we can’t wait to see you here soon!

don’t mind our mess

For the past few months, Mechanic Street and North Limestone have been under seemingly-endless construction as the water lines along our streets have been replaced. Initially only slated for a few weeks, the construction has dragged on – often with no apparent activity for days at a time.

At the same time, we’ve been repainting the outsides of our buildings at Lowell’s. This has included scraping nearly 70 years of paint off of our buildings (and making some interesting discoveries along the way), replacing much of the mortar along some walls, priming, and painting.

So, we’ve got holes, above-ground pipes, and piles of gravel in our street. And our building looks completely different on the outside.

But don’t let the mess put you off – we’re still ready to help with whatever your vehicle needs!