Running smooth

Bill Palmer looks for a suspension problem under this SUV on his lift inside his shop Palmer's Garage in Strasburg. Palmer, 71, is retiring and selling his shop after being in business in Strasburg for 35 years. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG — Bill Palmer has been working on cars for as long as he can remember.

First it started in his father’s driveway, when he ripped the transmission out of his old man’s 1953 Chevy pickup truck.

“He told me you tore it out, now you put it back,” Palmer said. “When he saw it, he said, ‘Holy crap Bill, what did you do?’ He showed me what to do and I learned right then how to do it next time because I ripped the transmission about four times.”

Like a lit match dropped on a puddle of 93 octane, a passion ignited in Palmer. He installed a four-speed transmission and a 350 Chevy small block engine he ripped from a station wagon into the truck and took it drag racing with his friends.

“I worked on hot rods growing up,” Palmer said. “On a Saturday and Sunday, you couldn’t get into my driveway down at my dad’s and mom’s house because we had 15 guys down there working on our cars.”

Bill and Freda Palmer work in their auto repair shop in Strasburg recently. Palmer's Garage, which opened 35 years ago, will close on March 31 and will be opened the next day under new ownership. Rich Cooley/Daily

After working at a rayon factory and a brake pad factory, Palmer found himself pumping gas and repairing cars at four Shell stations in Winchester. In 1980, he decided to go into business.

“I was scared to open up because I was the biggest hell-raiser in town when I was young,” Palmer said. “I was afraid the old people would say, ‘I ain’t giving that thieving punk no money.'”

But his wife Freda Palmer had a different take.

“I told him, you can always go back to doing what you were doing, which was working for somebody else,” she said. “If you don’t try it, you don’t know.”

In the 35 years since, Bill Palmer has fixed cars for the residents of Strasburg at his garage off East North Street, while Freda Palmer has kept track of the paperwork. While cars have changed, people have moved or died, the Palmers have remained, thanks to an emphasis on customer service, Freda Palmer said.

Wayne Bock, a mechanic at Palmer's Garage, replaces a brake line on this car inside the Strasburg auto repair shop. Palmer's Garage is closing at the end of March, but Bock plans to open his car repair business at the same location. Rich Cooley/Daily

“The customers are always right,” she said. “You need to be courteous to your customers … that’s what he’s been saying for years.”

Bill Palmer added, “I’ve always told my guys in the shop to remember you’re wrong, that guy walking through that door is right. As long as you keep that attitude, you’ll do alright.”

But after 35 years of turning ratchets, Bill Palmer is tired. He’s had both his knees replaced, his back operated on and both his rotator cuffs mended. A few months from 70, he is ready to retire.

“Winter time, I’ll definitely go south, but summer time I got so much to do,” he said. “I’m hell on my Ski-dos, I got my big old pontoon boat, I got my motorcycle, that’s the main thing and I like going to the drag strip.”

But just because he is getting out of the business doesn’t mean Palmer’s Garage will go the way of the Virginia Restaurant or Brill’s Grocery. Wayne Bock, a mechanic at the shop, has worked 15 years off and on there and will be taking over the business April 1.

Bock said while he’s got some big shoes to fill, he feels like the transition will be seamless.

“It’s going to be different because I’m not really a people person, but I’ve gotten better with dealing with the public because of this shop,” Bock said. “Bill’s got a good reputation and a good customer base … it’s going to be a challenge, but I think I can do it.”

Bock added, “For 35 years, he’s set up the business and for the last 10 years, I contributed to that … everybody knows me, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Originally from Dale City, Bock moved to the area in 1996. After working five years for Palmer, he went to Woodstock Garage, where he received extensive training and experience for about eight years. Bock said the best tool in a mechanic’s set isn’t made by Craftsman, Stanley or Snap-On.

“I’m up for the cars of the future, because there’s all kinds of schooling … the last schooling I’ve went to I learned how to work on some hybrids,” Bock said. “The best tool is school, it’s knowledge.”

After taking a few months to settle, Bock will be hiring an administrative assistant and a mechanic technician to help with routine maintenance issues, such as oil changes and tune-ups. He said he looks forward to carrying on what the Palmers started 35 years ago.

“To be honest, I hope to be able to do what Bill and Freda did, being able to hand over the business to somebody they can trust,” Bock said. “I’d like to be where he’s at in 20, 30 years.”

Freda Palmer said while she thinks her husband will will miss going to the shop, they don’t ever regret going into business.

“Strasburg’s been good to us,” Freda said. “I think the shop’s in good hands, because Wayne’s a good guy and the customers like Wayne.”

Bill Palmer added, “We’ve had a hell of a good life here … and I told Wayne if he ever needs help to give me a holler.”

Palmer’s Garage is located at 279 E. North St. in Strasburg. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com