Saturday, 31 August 2002 10:00

Automotive repair on the isle of Crete

Written by Dick Strom

Ever seen a Fiat Panda or Punto, or a Nissan Sunny, or an Opel ECO? How about a Hyundai Atos, a Datsun Cherry... or Fiat, Citroen or Peugeot pickups? These and other fuel-efficient looks-challenged automotive anomalies at times jockey for street space with bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles in western Cretan cities in a crazy, somewhat synchronized slow street dance. Older, less fuel-efficient vehicles are scarce in this land where a liter of gas (from BP, Texaco, Shell, or EKO gas stations) presently hovers somewhere over .80 Euro (around $.73). The stubbiness in body design of this new genre of autos coursing European streets would cause one to believe their designers went to lunch when they got to the center of these vehicles, and never came back. 

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Vehicles have right of way
An American visitor would also notice a major role-reversal on Cretan streets; trucks and cars seem to have supreme right of way, followed by motorcycles, bicycles, and then pedestrians. Cars here are, of necessity, small: A driver on a two-lane highway might have to contend with others passing him while a motorcycle or two zips between them all. That space to the right of what we call the "fog-line" is, to them, yet another driving lane: When motorists approach from the rear or flash their lights or tap their horn, the driver ahead moves to the right of the fog-line until passed. Stop signs don't exactly mean "stop," and J-walking is often a better bet than crosswalks, which have seemingly little significance. Brief double-parking is an accepted practice as long as done in front of the business of a shop owner you regularly patronize. Ukrainian gypsies jabbering unintelligibly from roof-mounted loudspeakers hawk shrubs and plastic and wooden furniture from slow-moving pickups, as the paths of others, like the threads of some intricate tapestry, dip and plunge around them. Ongoing road construction is a constant obstacle, as every stratum of life - kids, little old rough-shaven men and "ya-yas" [grandmas/widows] clothed head to foot in black - weave through the hubbub.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls"

Our impression of the inhabitants of this 30 by 150-mile island under the thumb of other powers for thousands of years is that generally they have developed into tolerant, generally outgoing lovers of life. Travels to many countryside villages caused us to believe these folks would do anything for a stranger, materialism having not bit them the same as it has Americans. They are industrious, and yet time and money seem to mean little or nothing to them. Among Crete's older citizens, the British, Australians, and Americans are still highly respected for the role they played in liberating them and re-establishing their government from German occupation during WW2. Cretan forbearance is evidenced in the reply of an elderly caretaker of a cemetery for German soldiers killed there during WW2. When asked why he took such meticulous care of the final resting place of German soldiers who had so ruthlessly murdered many thousands of innocent Cretan men, women and children, this man summed up the matter, in so many words, "Every German soldier who died on Crete is the precious son of a mother who loved her son just as dearly as the mother of every Cretan soldier."

Fixing a VW Pollo

In the two weeks my wife and I vacationed in and around Crete's third largest city, Chania (pronounced "Hania"), in the miraculous orderliness of this seeming automotive chaos we saw only two minor fender-benders. When horns are honked it's seldom in anger, and accidents are typically caused by unenlightened tourists.

So where do you have your VW Pollo or Opel Astra repaired on Crete? When I asked this of Andoni Pavlaki, owner of Pavlakis Beach Resort where we stayed, he drove me to "the premier repair shops on Crete" as he called them, the ones he trusts, and interpreted as best he could with his limited grasp of English (that old axiom, "It's all Greek to me," is not without basis - the language barrier is immense). The two shops we visited took great pride in showing off their workmanship, also expressing a great curiosity to know how their work compared to that done in the U.S., as if our standards were their benchmark.

Small business a way of life

Our first stop, Skamonga Brothers Body, Paint and Upholstery, is owned and solely operated by two middle-aged brothers, (most Cretan collision shops are three or less employees). Their approximately 3000 foot shop located in an industrial area was clean and tidy, and they turned out quality repairs. From the small size of their office almost hidden in the rear of the shop and the lack of piles of open files and multiple filing cabinets, it appears automotive-related bookwork is minimal in Crete, allowing them more time to concentrate on actually repairing vehicles. When asked, they explained that the usual procedure following an accident is that the insurer writes the estimate and issues a check for that amount to the vehicle owner in his name. He is then free to employ the shop of his choice, and spend his reimbursement as he desires. Since most business in Cretan life revolves around pre-established relationships, a person takes his collision-damaged auto to the shop with which he has established a trusted business relationship. It's expected that the insurance check will be minimal, but the car owner is free to spend it as he sees fit, which these shop owners pointed out too often leads to butt-matching, minimal R&I (if any at all), and many other shortcuts commonly taken in U.S. collision shops, encouraged by insufficient insurer reimbursements.


Buyer beware - No DRPs here

But in Crete the quality of repair, or lack thereof, becomes solely the problem of the vehicle owner. Once the insurer issues its check to the vehicle owner, the insurer is for all intents and purposes out of the picture, and the shop performs repairs according to the dictates of the consumer. The good side of this arrangement (that insurers are less inclined to direct work to their "darling shops") is offset by the fact that insufficient insurer checks often lead to deficient and/or shoddy workmanship, often at the request of the vehicle owner driven by the knowledge that whatever money he saves he pockets.

Bring your own parts

Another interesting fact of Cretan collision life is that many consumers supply their own crash parts when they drop off their vehicles for repair. Most Cretans know someone who has an established relationship with someone who works in a parts department and will sell to them at a discount: Customer-supplied TYC imitation parts were stacked near the heavily damaged front of a sedan about to go on their frame rack. When I speculated the damage on this car would have rendered it "totaled" by U.S. standards, they assured me it was very repairable by theirs, their labor rate being much less than ours.

When I mentioned the controversy surrounding airbag replacement in the U.S., they assured me the deployed airbags on this sedan would be replaced. They stated they personally would never consider not replacing spent units, though that wasn't the conviction of many other Cretan shops and some of their consumers, when money can be pocketed. Asked what they would do if the vehicle owner insisted they not replace a spent airbag system, with a thumb pointed toward the shop door they responded they'd refuse the job. I was impressed with their workmanship, especially considering the consumer payment constraints they were constantly under.

Printed books still used, not Internet

At this shop at least, vehicle information is still pretty much in book form; one told me when they needed information from the Internet, he downloaded it at home from his kids' computer. But though their bookwork is much lighter than ours, I got the idea that computerized repair information is available, though very costly, and I'd imagine theirs will soon be a computerized shop. Frame books similar to the old KLMs provide frame and unibody specifications, supplemented by books from auto manufacturers that specify where and how best to weld and section panels.

Cars are double-parked in this shop, behind a modern above-ground downdraft paint booth and a drive-on frame bench. There didn't appear to be a designated parts room (not a problem in this two man shop), the paint storage and mixing area is well maintained and stocked with Spies Hecker urethanes, and a paint gun washer was in use.

Insurers are still a pain

In no uncertain terms they explained that working with insurer allowances is as much a pain there as it is here, and that insurers withhold even more payment on older cars. The age and condition of the vehicle affects whether blending is paid for and performed. Setting a door they'd just panel painted next to its car to see what I thought of the color match, it appeared to be pretty close under shop lights. They R&I as needed, including rear and side windows, but to eliminate the chance of breakage, generally leave windshields in place. Another car in their shop had just had the left rear quarter replaced, and while the interior panels were still removed, they encouraged me to check out their welding and seam sealing procedures, which were impressively done. The panel was prepped to be panel painted per owner request. As we parted company with a handshake, one brother laughingly quipped, "Don't forget to wear your seatbelt... our police are already way overpaid."

Eat-off-the-floor clean shops

Later Andoni drove me to his mechanical shop of choice, the father and son owned business of John and Lefteris (Steve) Sarris. The father had turned wrenches at a Toyota dealership before becoming his own boss in 1974. Theirs is a Toyota-only shop specializing in general mechanical repairs for their many lifetime customers, plus buying, rebuilding and selling used Toyotas from their spotless showroom. One of the cleanest mechanical shops I've ever seen, specializing in Toyotas only has allowed their mechanics to maintain smaller toolboxes than needed by those repairing a wide variety of vehicles. Shop-supplied specialty tools were clean, well maintained, and enclosed in clear, eye-level Plexiglas cases surrounding the shop walls, saving search time.

Labor rate $21.50

Their shop mechanical labor rate is only 24 Euro/hour (about $21.50/hour), half of that going to the mechanic, the other half to the shop owner (who nearly fell out of his chair when I told him our rate). But things are generally less expensive in Crete and, again, their paperwork seems to be minimal compared to ours.

Both shops visited showed an intense interest - almost an obsession - in knowing how U.S. shops conducted business, and what a U.S. shop looked like. So we produced and sent them a short CD of our shop collision and mechanical operations.

On a tree-shaded curb of one of Chania's downtown side streets, engrossed in repairing the engine on an ancient roto-tiller, a small-engine mechanic sat on an antiquated chair with sawed-off legs. Half-glasses perched on his nose, surrounded by an assortment of experienced tools and 50 or so motorcycles, mopeds, and the like waiting his attention, he smiled and hummed a tune as he worked. When he looked up at me and I pointed to my watch questioningly, his smile broadened as he proudly held up three fingers, indicating this was his third repair of the day and it wasn't yet noon. Just finishing this one, he gave me the OK to take his picture before giving its starter cord a yank. The antique sod-turner sputtered to life on the first pull and soon was purring like a kitten. His smile turned to a broad toothy grin as we gave each other the "thumbs-up"... another job well done! True craftsmen aren't hard to spot the world over.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, Moderncol@aol.com.