TLC for your import
By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Chris Emmons loves cars– particularly European imports– and knows their owners love them too.
Emmons opened the doors of Emmons Automotive Services fulltime on Nov. 1 in a brand new building just off of Highway 965 in North Liberty. While they gladly work on domestic vehicles, with affordable options for repairs, their focus is on European models. BMW and Mercedes are particularly special to Emmons, but he is also qualified to work on Audi, Volkswagen, Rover, Mini and Fiat.
“I don’t want to limit myself, but there are plenty of other domestic shops, and I love that domestic business because I own one myself, it’s what I grew up with, it’s what I cut my teeth on; but if I had my preference it would be to just take care of all these European cars that people think they have to take to the dealership,” Emmons shared.
Sometimes, he said, owners of imports are almost scared to drive them, or they keep them past their warranty period because they don’t know where to go for service or repairs. They fear the dealerships and being sold more than what they need, or being cornered into buying only the most expensive parts.
“Most people don’t need that,” said Emmons. “There are other options for parts … to get the same-quality part without going to the dealership and paying horrendous fees.”
Emmons keeps factory-specified oils and coolants in stock in his shop to ensure imports get the vital fluids they require for optimal performance.
“These cars need very specific care and very specific things.”
The BMW M5, for example, requires an oil change every 1,200 miles with a specific 10W60 oil, not likely to be found at your typical quick-change place.
“I always try to make sure to put in exactly what the factory specifies,” he said. “Or at least give the customer the option.”
Not all owners are as fussy about parts and servicing, he added.
“Some people really don’t care, they just want a fix and get it done, and something that’s going to be OK. It’s still (factory) approved, there’s lots of other stuff available that works. I don’t mind doing that.”
Emmons said his focus has been on keeping these finely engineered and crafted imports alive.
“I’ve got a Mini Cooper coming in that lost its transmission, and nobody wants to touch it. Nobody in town wants to touch it. Anywhere. And it’s not that big of a deal.”
At least not when you have the right gear, he noted.
“When you have the right equipment to hook up to it, and can see exactly what’s going on, then you can get in the factory service manual and take care of it.”
Having the correct tools, which are often highly specialized to a specific brand, is a necessary investment, he added, to ensure the job can be done and done right. And, not all repair shops are willing to make that investment.
“You’ve got to have the stuff. You’ve got to have the right stuff.”
Emmons, who has worked in a dealership’s service department, said he’s always preferred going to– and being– a small, local repair shop, where it’s often possible to catch a better deal than at a dealership.
“You often can’t get out of there (a dealership) for an oil change for less than $250,” Emmons said. “It’s ridiculous. A lot of my stuff comes up almost half of what the dealership estimates are.”
One reason for the mark-up is using manufacturer marked parts, he explained. Emmons offers Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts as well as comparable parts, or parts made for BMW by the same fabricator, but sold under their name and not BMW.
“You can get it, with a warranty, through a distributor,” Emmons said. “What’s the point of buying something that says, ‘BMW’ when you’re going to pay an extra $600-700, with a dealer mark-up on that too?”
Emmons said he hates to see people forced into a repair situation they may not be able to afford. While working for a dealership, he was often forced to sell $200-400 on every vehicle he serviced. He also noted that dealers sometimes try to press a shorter vehicle life onto the customer.
“And you know, if you just maintain them the right way and do those little things, they’ll last forever,” he added.
The catch though, is finding the most cost-effective way, and knowing where to go.
“Who’s going to try and take advantage of you because they see you have a fancy car, or who actually loves those cars? That’s what people really realize when I offer up one of my personal vehicles for them to drive home. They know that I’m in it too. It’s not like I’m just trying to make a quick buck on somebody’s high-end sports car. I actually love these cars.”
For Emmons, a native of Coralville, working at Williamson Nissan in Iowa City was his first shot at working around and on cars. He started out being hired to cook hotdogs during weekend events, but being around the cars and the shop fueled his passion. Seeing high-end performance cars, and taking a ride in one with the dealer’s son sealed the deal.
“I was pretty much ruined after that,” he said.
A quest for knowledge and opportunities to learn followed with formal education and his first dealership job as a technician. With experience came additional opportunities, including a 2004 move to Indiana. While a good career option, it had its drawbacks.
“We left our family here,” said Emmons. He and his wife Shelley have two daughters. “We thought it was no big deal, we could come back on the weekends, but we just had a really empty spot. Once we had the girls, they were Hawkeyes from the get-go. We never let our Iowa roots go. I don’t think at any time, they were ever Hoosiers, and they were born in Indiana.”
Another empty void occurred in 2009 when Emmons’ mother died, which led to re-examining things.
“At that point we just chugged through it. That was when I was starting my own business, and I thought, I can’t just abandon this start-up over here.”
The family “just lived through it,” for six years, building up the business and a loyal customer base. Then came more re-examination.
“We realized that all of our other relatives were getting to be elderly,” he said, listing off sets of grandparents in Cedar Rapids, Waukon, Des Moines and North Liberty, in addition to many aunts and uncles in the area.
It became clear the Corridor is where they needed to be. North Liberty became the destination because he’d really liked the area and loves being close to the lake.
“And, I knew this was the biggest-growth potential. North Liberty just exploded from when I grew up here. I knew this is where we had to be.” Emmons added he wanted his kids to go to school here too.
“This is home,” he said. “This feels so much like home.”
While closing his Indiana business, selling his house and looking for a suitable location for his shop in North Liberty, things literally all fell into place in a manner some would call miraculous.
“My dad thought I was crazy. In fact my whole family probably thought I was crazy,” he said. “If you want to talk about a leap of faith, and you want to go off your faith and what you know, and what you’ve been taught all these years, go with it and it will follow you. I’ll tell you what, here I am, and I haven’t failed yet and I’ve already got a nice little following of customers.”
He’s also building a network with other automotive businesses in the area who make referrals to each other for services they don’t provide themselves.
“We’re kind of one big community. Nobody can handle all the business, and to be able to fit a niche and not step on anybody’s toes, I felt good about that.”
Just a few doors down is Affordable Auto Care owned by Tim and Lisa McCall, and Emmons and the McCalls have a complimentary relationship with each one fulfilling customers’ needs the other can’t.
It boils down to establishing a personal connection with the customer, he said. “Whether they’ve got an old Ford Sable or a high-end M5 or a brand new Audi, they can come in and get a direct answer from the guy that’s going to do the work.”