When people describe Southern California as the car capital of the world, they mean not only the sheer number of cars, but also the variety. Ubiquitous Chevrolets and Hondas share the roadway with less common Triumphs from Britain, Porsches from West Germany and Alfa Romeos from Italy.
Yet common or rare, they all eventually need new parts--the average new car has 15,000 of them. If you drive a Chevy, buying parts is often as simple as going to a nearby Chief or Pep Boys store, or perhaps the nearest Chevrolet dealer.
But what if you drive an MG--which is no longer manufactured--and need a water pump? Or a 1960 Porsche 356 blows out its clutch? Or a 20-year-old Alfa Romeo Spider needs a U-joint? You could try a big chain like Chief, but there's no guarantee it carries the part. A Porsche or Alfa dealership might have it, but you'll pay top dollar, and you might have to wait for the dealer to order it.
So owners of such cars often go to see Marty Osborne, Mel Kay or John Shankle. All run firms in the San Fernando Valley that specialize in selling parts for exotic European imports, and at prices that often undercut the dealers.
The three firms do much of their business by mail order, and in that market alone they must vie against dozens of other independent parts suppliers nationwide. Each of the three advertises in Road & Track, Car and Driver and other car-buff magazines, and each has a toll-free telephone number to take orders. Kay and Shankle send parts catalogues to thousands of potential customers around the world.
But for Osborne, Kay and Shankle, that's where the similarity ends.
Marty Osborne's Import Motor Parts in Sherman Oaks, which sells parts for British cars only, is no Pep Boys. His one-room store looks a bit tattered and grimy, and his two telephones are covered with his greasy fingerprints. Pictures of old British roadsters hang on the walls.
There's no computer here to track Osborne's inventory of hundreds of parts. But Osborne doesn't need one. The inventory is stored in Osborne's head. And if he doesn't have the exact part, Osborne knows how to get it either from another supplier or by improvising.
"No book said that an MGB U-joint is the same as a Lotus, and it is," said the broad, 6-foot-4 Osborne, who runs his shop in T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. "No one knows that, but I do."
Osborne, 38, buys his parts from a handful of major suppliers from Britain, but he also buys wrecks of British cars for salable parts. For instance, Osborne sells the metal panel that surrounds the radio--and includes the radio's speakers--for a 1969 Jaguar XKE. Price: $200. "I rebuild water pumps, clutches, transmission, I do a lot of engines," he said.
One reason Import Motor Parts is able to survive is because some British cars are no longer made, and thus are considered collectibles, he said. "The last new MG and Triumph you could buy in this country was in 1980," he said. "I've seen MGBs go from being a $100 car to a $5,000 and $6,000 car now. So people come in, and they want all these little pieces."
Osborne's father moved his family from Britain to Southern California in 1954 because Marty suffered from asthma. His father went to work for a Rolls Royce-Jaguar dealership in Pasadena, then bought into Import Motor Parts and eventually took over the business. But after the elder Osborne had a stroke in 1984, Marty Osborne abandoned his goal of going to veterinary school and began selling parts full-time.
In past years, Import Motor Parts had sold parts for a variety of foreign cars, had sales of about $720,000 a year and seven employees, Osborne said. But when Osborne took over, parts chains, such as Chief, were mushrooming, and Osborne said he concluded, "There's no way I can compete with these people." So he focused only on British models, kept just one employee to deliver parts, and now does about $250,000 in sales, he said.
Osborne is trying to build his mail-order business, which accounts for 30% of his sales. He has a facsimile machine and a toll-free telephone number, and gets orders from as far away as New Zealand.
He claimed he'd keep working even if he won the lottery because "I really love what I do." Besides, he said, "I don't have a business to sell really. If I'm not here, no one could really do it. It's all in my memory."
John Shankle only tacitly acknowledges it, but his Shankle Engineering in Chatsworth, which sells replacement parts for Alfa Romeos, thrives in large part because the Alfa is not the most reliable car on earth.
Shankle, 55, diplomatically calls the Italian sports car "more temperamental" than most others. "They are really great cars, basically, but they have these little idiosyncrasies that crop up," he says.
For instance, the workings of their electrical parts "are just totally puzzling," Shankle said. "I've often wondered how Marconi invented the radio. I think he was trying to design a meat grinder and somehow made a mistake."