After 50 years looking under hood, mechanic looks back

When the idea of the Cadillac brand across the decades comes up, the images that flash across the mind are probably big cars representing the changing eras of modern Americana.

There’s also the big guy who worked on those cars, and Lee Randall did that for just under 50 years.

Randall, 68, retired this year after spending the last 33 working for one employer, Don Gooley Cadillac Inc.

He first picked up a wrench when he was 14 and got his first job in 1964 at the Dalgleish dealership in Detroit.

“At that time we did everything on a car. If you couldn’t do everything on the customer’s repair order, you didn’t get the job,” Randall said.

He soon moved to Coffey Cadillac in Detroit, which later became Seymour Cadillac. With the exception of an ill-fated six-month attempt at running his own gas station in the 1970s, Randall spent the rest of his career working in Cadillac dealerships, be it in the parts department, handling warranty claims, fixing cars or doing the new car prep work that occupied his last 30 years on the job.

In 1980, he joined Don Gooley Cadillac when Gooley opened his first store, in Port Huron.

“He was my first employee,” said Don Gooley, who, at 72, also has been in the business 50 years. Gooley said Lee was dedicated and “a fanatic about everything he did,” keeping careful records and knowing everything that was going on, and that he’s been fortunate to have many longtime employees. “You can replace them in body but not in soul.”

Randall followed the business as it changed locations from Port Huron eventually to where it’s at now, in St. Clair Shores. For the past eight years, Randall worked under Ken Failla, the new car manager.

Failla said Randall took pride in his work, making sure that when a car went out the door, it didn’t come back, even for little things like low air pressure in the tires.

“He didn’t get all ticked off and throw things around. To him, it was the job,” Failla said.

If there was one thing that ticked Randall off, it was when a car came in from another dealer whose techs hadn’t done their initial prep work — a task for which the factory pays.

“They’re getting paid to do a job and doing nothing,” Failla said.

That didn’t slow him down, though. Randall was lifting 22-inch chrome wheels right up till his last day, a task many younger guys used hoists for, Failla said.

“Finding someone with the same owner for so many years, that’s incredible. It shows the relationship between Mr. Gooley and Lee,” he said.

Tony Molla is vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, the organization behind the “ASE certified” tags for automotive service technicians. Molla looked Randall up and saw that he was first certified in 1976, four years after the organization was founded.

That speaks to Randall’s long track record, he said. It’s unusual for a technician to go that long because most of them can’t physically keep up with the job. Sometime in their 50s they usually move into management or do something else.

“Think about that. In the space of one career, he went from working on vehicles with points, plugs and condensers to vehicles with electronic control systems,” Molla said, referring to automotive ignition systems.

“The oldest tech I remember seeing was in his 90s,” he said.

Like other skilled trades, guys like Randall are becoming scarce as they retire and fewer young people enter the field, Molla said. The shortage in mechanics mirrors that of welders, machinists and truckers.


The mechanic’s view

People don’t realize that mechanics are like doctors in that they get a very personal view into people’s lives, or least they don’t until they’re pulling their car into the garage.

“Some cars were absolutely perfect. Some look like they lived in their car, with fast food containers, pop bottles,” Randall said. Other customers would bring in cars and “everything in the world they owned was in the trunk and sometimes you have to get in there” to get at a fuse box or battery, forcing the technicians to remove everything first.

“The worst one I saw going back quite a few years, the customer must have had some kind of personal problem because he urinated in the car all the time,” Randall said. “He was a nice guy, he always tipped when he brought the car in. But most of the guys refused to work on it once they learned. I would do it, though. You gotta take care of the customer.”

Anything under the back seat was fair game if the techs had to remove it. Mostly that meant loose change. One time in the late 60s, it turned out to be what looked like tire gauge. When one of the techs twisted it, a bullet shot into his hand. The customer, who Randall believes was later convicted for this, had stashed (or lost) a zip gun, or homemade gun, in there.

And there were countless instances of comical mistakes, such as the customer who got stuck on the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron presumably because the newly installed computer failed. After another week in the shop, someone finally noticed the gas gauge was on empty.

Cadillac being Cadillac, Randall saw celebrities come in like boxer Joe Frazier, Detroit Tigers players Willie Horton and Tony Taylor, and Detroit Pistons player Bob Lanier.

“One of the most memorable was (reputed mobster) Anthony Giacalone,” Randall said. “What an impressive figure he was. He had a $1,000 suit on, you just knew when you saw him he was somebody important.”

Cadillac pop culture lore of the 1970s isn’t filled with wise guys for nothing.  “I saw guys bring in papers bags filled with money buying cars,” Randall said.

Drug dealers were more common than mobsters back then. One repeat customer was a dealer who came in one day after dropping it off and said, ” ‘Where’s my car parked? I need to get something out of the trunk.’ … He goes over there and opens up the trunk and pulls back the mat on the bottom of the trunk. Filled with money from one end to the other,” Randall said.

Randall was working on the same guy’s car another time and while road-testing the car, an El Dorado, he noticed the driver-side window wouldn’t go down all the way. After pulling the door trim off, “I see he’s got a secret compartment built right into the bottom. Naturally, being curious, you gotta found out what’s in there, right?” Randall found the switch but couldn’t get it to activate. After some digging around, he realized he had to push the brake at the same time to make it open.

“Of course, it was empty when I did it, but it was pretty interesting,” he said.

He didn’t worry about danger working for these guys.

“In fact, for the most part they were real easy to work for, rarely complained about anything, and they were very generous with their money,” such as a $50 tip for changing a license plate and a $20 tip for being shown how to work a hood latch inside the car, which in about 1971, was a new thing.


Back at home

A classic dad who likes staining his deck and using the term “back in my day,” Randall has two sons and three stepchildren. One of his sons, Robert, described a father who was solid and responsible in both his work and family life. Just as he took pride in his work, he also took great care to make sure he left work at 5, spent the last $4 in his pocket on his kids, and never smoked or drank.

“You have to sacrifice a lot — lose money by leaving work early,” Robert said. “Whether in his personal life or work life, he was pretty dedicated to what he does.”

Randall coached Little League and was never in want of volunteers to help him out. He went to extreme lengths with lights and trees at Christmas time, even during the recession when money was scarce because of cutbacks at work.

Robert said his father’s diligence could be seen in his marriages. There were two of them, but the first one — to his high school sweetheart — lasted 20 years, and the second even longer.

Randall met his current wife of 25 years Kathy Randall because of Cadillacs. They were each going through a divorce, and her ex-husband suggested she call Randall when her Cadillac was giving her trouble.

“That’s how we met, working on her Cadillac,” he said.

His wife drives a 2001 Cadillac DTS, but Randall always has preferred Chevrolet or GMC vans and doesn’t drive a Cadillac himself.

“I’ve seen enough Cadillacs in my day believe me,” said Randall, who estimates he’s driven 25,000 Cadillacs in his lifetime.

He’s not nostalgic about classic Caddies of his early years. “Cars we thought were pretty then are looking ugly now,” Randall said.

That’s not a swipe at the brand, he said. He was pleased to see, during the last leg of his career, the brand regain the shiny image it held when Randall got his first job. He remembers the quality of Cadillacs falling noticeably from 1979 to 1980 and that trend deepening for the next several years, with the actual engines having serious problems. He had one mechanic whose only job was replacing the camshaft in the HT4100 Cadillac engine.

“One of my favorite Cadillacs was a ’79 Coupe DeVille. Excellent car. It was beautiful, it was big, good performance and everything, and then from 1980 on, it really went downhill, probably almost up to 2000. Now the quality is really excellent,” he said.

But as quality went up, the fun went down as electronics took over and diagnostic work meant tearing apart a dashboard, steering column or seats rather than getting under the hood. And he said that while he always had a good relationship with the owners of the dealerships, there has been a steady deterioration in pay, benefits and working conditions has hurt the profession.

“I don’t recommend this business to anybody. At one time, I would have,” he said.

(Randall’s former boss Failla disagreed, saying rookies out of school start at about $35,000, and master mechanics’ salary can range all the way up to $90,000.)

Apart from traveling in his van and riding some of the family’s many ATVs, Randall plans to spend his retirement, which began in May, enjoying the fact that for the first time in his life all his tools are in one place.

That place would be his garage, which is just as perfectly clean and organized as his home.

Contrary to some stereotypes of mechanics, the best of them are not the types to ever have carburetors and sway bar links sitting on the coffee table.

“The better ones have more stuff and take care of it,” Randall said. “Their houses look like the quality of their work.”

July 21, 2013 | Crain’s Detroit Business