I walk in and it seems like chaos.
The workshop is large by some standards and small by others, compared to the colossal 60 bay beasts of ‘dealer land’ it’s a speck but for the world of the smaller retailer this shop can compete with the best of them.
There are ten hoists plus a wheel aligner and every one of them has a car on it. Each mechanic moves from one job to another, inspecting and quoting first, then leaving that car off the ground to start another in a free bay. It’s like watching an ants nest, first the eyes only spot the hurried motion but as they adjust, patterns become obvious. Once you recognise these patterns the entire workshop seems to move to it’s own rhythm.
I’m here to take photos.
I decided a while ago that I wanted to try and tell stories, a few of them at least. Someone once told me that you could walk past a thousand people in a day and not know a single thing about any of them, not their past or their present, their secrets. You would have no idea what story they’re living.
Mechanics are a part of everyone’s lives, directly or indirectly. Even those of us who take the train or the bus are riding a vehicle that runs because a mechanic has serviced it or diagnosed it or repaired it. Even the brand new cars we drive out of a dealership have been inspected by a mechanic and tested by one, a mechanic has fitted the extras like the bull bar or the mud flaps or the seat covers.
We drop our cars off to them and get them back fixed or serviced but we have no idea what they’ve done. We trust them to carry out repairs that we don’t understand on parts that we’ve never heard of. We also have no idea who they are. We rarely meet the people that we trust with our transport, we depend upon them to keep us on the move and yet we never know their names or their faces.
So, if nothing else, let this article be an introduction to the people that keep you moving, in one way or another, from A to B.
This workshop does a lot of tyres. 44 yesterday alone and that doesn’t include puncture repairs and wheel alignments. Today is quieter but still busy enough to keep two occupied.
Jono is on tyres today. He’s a fourth-year apprentice that only started at the workshop a few weeks ago. He’s young, talkative and inherently likeable. According to the bosses sometimes he talks too much but I find it to be the perfect amount. For a while he tells me about his plan to buy a 2013 Nissan Patrol.
“I’ve saved up about $30,000 for it.” My surprise is met with an easy smile and no small amount of pride “Yeah, I’ve never had a car loan in my life.” Is his answer to the question that I can’t find the words for.
He wants to do the Old Telegraph Track, one of Australia’s most notoriously challenging off road drives that terminates at the northernmost tip of Queensland and Australia. I’ve heard of it and seen some footage. I know enough to appreciate that it’s no mean feat.
“I’ll get there.” He tells me, and I find myself having no doubt whatsoever that he will.
At the moment though Jono is fitting tyres. He’s one half of the duo that fitted 44 tyres, carried out 15 wheel alignments and repaired 8 punctures yesterday.
He doesn’t like tyres.
“It’s just fucking boring you know? Just doing the same shit every job, tyres on that car, this car.”
Jono prefers to work on a challenge. He pushes himself to take on jobs he hasn’t done before and asks all the time for tougher and tougher work. He’s confident in his abilities but I don’t know enough about him to say whether or not he’s overly confident. His toolbox is covered in a skin of stickers that almost glow in the otherwise dull workshop. I get a strong sense of his personality every time I walk past it. He seems genuinely surprised when I ask if I can take pictures of it.
“Because it looks interesting.” I tell him when he asks why. It doesn’t seem to clarify anything for him but he doesn’t have a problem with it.
The rest of the workshop bustles around the tyre area, no-one is ever standing idle. Oil is draining out of one car while another is having a control arm replaced. A van is perched precariously on the jacks of a four post hoist while the mechanic is inspecting the brakes. Someone is up stairs in the tyre racks and someone else is driving a finished job out for a road test. There’s always the noise of a grinder or an impact gun in the background and the speakers blaring music throughout the workshop constantly switch from one person’s phone to another.
Amongst it all, mess is being made. Fluids spill on the ground and dust from brakes and tyres coats everything. It amazes me how much filth can exist under a car that looks so clean as it drives into the workshop. It’s a part of our vehicles we never see and few of us ever think about.
The mess never hangs around though. Any spilled fluids are taken care of almost immediately and the dirt seems to be washed off every surface but the uniforms of the men doing the cleaning.
Clouds of heavy duty cleaners that are used hang in the air. Degreaser sprayed over oil leaks stings painfully in my eyes when I walk through a haze of it and the acidic burning sits at the base of my throat for a few more moments. The smell of cooking rubber spreads out from a tyre being drilled out for a puncture repair. The whole workshop smells busy, each bay has a different chemical scent and I get the full spectrum as I walk back and forth.
As the sunlight coming in the workshop doors gradually changes its angle I watch the spotless uniforms become dirtier. It’s not carelessness on the part of the mechanics, it’s simply unavoidable.
Jakob is the other half of the dynamic duo on tyres and he shows me how dirty his hands have gotten despite wearing gloves on every job.
Neither of us are quite sure how it got there but Jakob dutifully washes them before he gets into the next customer’s car.
Jakob is much quieter than Jono. He’s just as easy to get along with but carries himself differently. Where Jono seems perfectly comfortable in his surroundings, Jakob seems less at ease.
“Get qualified as a backup.” He says when I ask him why he took up the trade. Jakob is a first year and has been signed up for less than 9 months. It takes a little bit of persuasion but he eventually tells me what the trade is a backup for.
“Uni, teaching. I want to be a teacher.”
Jakob is a New Zealander and when I ask if he’d like to return there for university he’s unsure.
“I’ve been tossing and turning with that, whether to go home.” The rest of his immediate family are all in Australia too, something that will likely affect his eventual decision. He lives at home with his mother, step-father and two younger brothers. They all moved over from New Zealand and I get a sense that dropping everything here to go back there would be far easier said than done. I think it’s something Jakob has been thinking about too.
The work that’s being done in the shop is physical. I watch a two foot breaker bar bend to the point that I think it will snap before the seized bolt gives. The mechanic stumbles but recovers his balance and moves on. Above me dozens of tyres are being racked and two mechanics work together to push a motor forward so that a mount bolt can slide into place.
Wear and tear of the body is commonplace in the industry. One of the mechanics had the end of his finger torn off when it was caught in a drive belt, another was pinned under a motor that fell off the stands supporting it. Everyone has a story.
“I wake up in the morning and my body’s still sore from the day before. I’ve got the back of an 80 year old and the beginnings of carpal tunnel.” Jakob doesn’t complain when he speaks, he’s just explaining why he doesn’t want to stay in the industry long term.
People do stay in the industry though. Jakob is only in the first year of his apprenticeship but others in the workshop have been around for decades.
Keryn has been working on cars professionally for twelve years. Four years in an apprenticeship and eight years as a qualified tradesman. His experience shows. Keryn works quickly and makes few mistakes.
“You’ve gotta be willing to take on other people’s information.” Is his answer when I ask him what the most important quality for a mechanic is.
“Ask questions all the time, I’m qualified and I still ask questions all the time.”
After he tells me this I start to see Keryn’s work differently.
I watch his hands move in a blur and I watch a car be pulled apart and put back together with no pause for thought necessary. Where before I saw this as the natural intuition of someone who is good with their hands, now I begin to see it as layers of information that he’s taken on over the course of a decade. The information is something that he puts together for each individual job.
It’s natural to see the work of a mechanic as solely related to their ability to use their hands. There is little doubt that manual dexterity is crucial, but Keryn makes something unexpected clear.
The hands are secondary to the learning.
A mechanic’s ability take in new information, seek out new ways to do things, store and apply that information is the core of their job. Their hands are just a medium for them to use the knowledge that their profession both instils and requires.
There are over 40 car brands in Australia alone, each one can have more than a dozen models and a mechanic in a shop like this needs to be able to work on every car that comes in the door. It’s a staggering amount of information and as I watch more and more different cars from different eras be driven into the workshop I begin to wonder if a doctor or a lawyer would need to remember so much and apply it on a daily basis. No two cars come apart the same way, the same applies for going back together.
As midday turns to afternoon the work in the shop picks up pace. The work that was quoted in the morning begins and it becomes a race to the finish. The parts deliveries become more frequent and more and more cars are put back together and rushed out the door to make space for the next.
It’s at this stage that the pressure of the environment shows. Customers come first and even though they rarely understand what’s being done to their cars, they always need them sooner rather than later.
Mothers need their cars to pick up their children and workers finishing their shifts want to head home. A car that was dropped off in the morning and promised in the afternoon still needs to be done by the same time, even though five extra hours of work may have been added to the job in the mean time. It’s not a case of customers being unreasonable, they just expect promises to be kept.
Amongst the quickening of the pace, cooler heads steady the flow and ensure that everything is done right first time, on time.
Jed is one of those cooler heads.
Nothing ever fazes Jed.
It doesn’t matter how hard the job or how frustrating, Jed approaches everything in front of him with a smile, usually singing along to whatever is playing on the radio.
“We’re all just here to live our lives, make a bit of coin along the way.” He says while we’re talking about some unimportant story that’s come over the radio.
I have the utmost respect for Jed, I admire him. He has four young children and while his wife is studying aged care he uses his entire lunch hour to pick them up from school and bring them back to work. He never complains about the frequent late finishes or the lunch breaks that there isn’t time for. He spends his weekends helping others with their cars, often asking for nothing in return. Even other mechanics in the workshop have gotten him to help them on weekends.
Jed always does.
He is the mechanic friend that we all dream of having.
He never complains, about anything. Jed’s years of experience and the quality of his work often mean that he’s trusted with the most challenging jobs that require the most patience.
I never see Jed lose his patience and as I watch him work I become convinced that I truly never will.
He tells me about how he used to DJ when he was younger and I spend a great deal of the day imagining what sort of music he would have produced. Jed was born in Samoa and spent years living in New Zealand before moving to Australia. His story is one that I always catch myself wishing I had more time to hear. He’s seen a great deal more of the world than anyone would ever truly appreciate and it’s a story that would rarely ever be heard.
Jed continues on with his work, singing along to the radio with an attitude that I envy.
One thing that resonates with me today is how much we trust mechanics. If they don’t do their job correctly there is a very real chance that our lives could be in danger. This trust is something that is taken very seriously in this workshop. Every wheel that has come off a car is tightened, checked and then rechecked by someone else. Brakes are also checked, rechecked and then cross-checked. No-one wants accidents and the responsibility these men have to the people trusting them with their vehicles is felt keenly.
As the afternoon becomes the end of the day the work rate slows and I get a chance to take a quick portrait of some of the mechanics.
No-one really knows what I’m doing here today. I was deliberately vague when responding to any questions. The mechanics joke about where the photos will end up, porn being the most common speculation.
The truth though, is that I believe their stories deserve to be heard. We spend so much of our lives wrapped up in our own heads that we forget each and every person we interact with is living their own story. These are more important than what we see on a screen because our past and our present are what define us as individuals and allow us to connect with one another as humans.
The story of a mechanic is an important one because we rely on them.
When our car is broken we give it them to fix, when it needs a service to keep it going, they’re the ones that change the oil. Sometimes we thank them but more often we don’t. It’s just another part of our lives that we have to rush through in order to get everything done. It’s not rude, it’s just more and more the way that we have to do things in a world saturated in content.
I’m not asking anyone go out and find a mechanic to thank or think that their mechanic makes the world turn. I’m just asking you to hear a little bit of their stories and see their faces.
I’m asking that the next time you get in your car, you think about the story of the person that keeps you moving from A to B.