Ann Arborite Lou Caincross
The Mustang squeals as I downshift into the lot at Lou's Wolverine Transmission on Packard south of Stadium. It's louder than Led Zeppelin, and I fear it means the junkyard for the nine-year-old 'Stang with its 99,099 miles.
"Sounds like your throw-out bearing's shot, friend," a big, smiling man behind the counter calls out. "My name's Lou. Want me to take care of it for you?" I sign the papers, and when I get the car back the next day, it has a new clutch and the noise is gone. Caincross charges me $715.
The clutch shifts with an ease and smoothness I don't remember it having even when it was new. But then in a couple days the clutch pedal starts rattling. I call Caincross, and he tells me to bring it right in.
While he takes it for a test drive, I check out the waiting room. Just about every-thing is maize and blue, from the paint on the exterior to the giveaway pens on the counter, and the walls are covered with signed U-M sports memorabilia.
"Yep," explains the sleepy-eyed young man coming out of the stock room, "they all come through here: the football players, the women's basketball players, the soccer players. And when they come through, we get their autographs." He lights a cigarette. "Hi, I'm Brian Yates, and Lou's my uncle."
I've gone to Wolverine on the advice of John Mendler, longtime owner of Mallek's Service Station. A man of few words, Mendler tersely recommended Caincross as "good, honest, and fair."
Caincross returns with a diagnosis: when they reinstalled the clutch, they left a cable rubbing against the chassis. While Brian makes it right, I ask Caincross about his life and the transmission business.
"Let's see. I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1950," he cheerfully replies. "My father was a Baptist preacher, and we came up here on vacation when I was fourteen or fifteen, and he liked what he saw. Liked the weather, too,
and we stayed....I was one of twelve kids, you see, and two of my older brothers and a sister were already living up here and working in the [car] plants."
After a stint in the Army, he worked various jobs before becoming a salesman for Naylor Chrysler in the late 1970s. "I sold a used car to a couple of gentlemen who were Israeli and didn't speak English very well. They were the new franchisees at the AAMCO transmission shop across the street, and I said to them, 'You need a guy who speaks good English'--and they asked me to be him."
Caincross learned to fix transmissions at AAMCO, but "I always saw myself as an entrepreneur--so I bought this place when it came up for sale in 1986. My wife and I took out our life's savings and bought it for $15,000. It was a Continental [Transmissions] franchise then, and we had a ten-year agreement that I'd use the name and pay them seven and a half percent of the gross."
"The first year was tough. They closed Packard down to one lane, and that almost put me out of business. Then the second year, the state of Michigan ran Operation Shift, where they'd send cars into transmission shops with the vacuum hose pulled, and if you were honest like I am, you'd put it back on and didn't charge them anything--but if you weren't honest, you'd stick them with a new transmission. And they shut down Independent [Transmission] and AAMCO and a lot of others," barring them from doing business in the state for years.
Shocked car owners avoided independent transmission shops and turned to the dealerships. Luckily for him, "the next year, the state did the same thing to the dealerships, showed they were just as bad if not worse than the rest. And that helped my business a lot!"
For Caincross, the 1990s were the golden age. He had four people working for him, kept ninety transmissions in stock, and installed seven a week. "Transmissions were overheating, and the bands were breaking pretty regularly," Caincross recalls, especially in winter, when drivers got stuck in the snow and spun their wheels. GM and Ford models had their share of troubles, but Chrysler had more: "If there was a big snow, we'd have three, four, maybe even five Chryslers in the lot when we got here in the morning."
When his agreement with Continental was up, he struck out on his own. But as cars got better, the transmission business got worse. With today's computer--controlled drivetrains, he says, "it's harder to hurt the transmissions.
"My good weeks now are what my bad weeks were in the nineties," says Caincross, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in Dexter Township. (They have two grown daughters and one grandchild.) Yates is his only full-time employee. They keep just eight transmissions in stock and install a couple a week. To pay the rent, "we're doing general repairs--brakes, timing, chains, shocks--things I'd never have touched before."
But Caincross can't imagine doing anything else. "This business has its ups and its downs, its good and its bad, but it's got more good than bad." He's gradually selling the business to Yates on a land contract--"I've trained him pretty good, and he knows the ins and outs"--but expects to work at least a couple more years.
Yates finishes with my car--no charge. I thank Caincross and wish him the best. As I go out the front door, I see a gorgeous '77 Corvette bearing the vanity plate "-TOY4LOU." A sign in the window announces, "For Sale $10,500."
"If you've got the money, you can drive it away today," Caincross calls out cheerfully. I thank him again and drive off in my Mustang. The rattle's gone.
[Originally published in April, 2010.]