LYNN — There’s a place in Lynn where the clang of metal on metal and whine of hydraulic tools competes with laughter and shouted instructions.
Bennett Street’s gritty length running from Commercial to Oakville streets behind the Lynnway features shops that sell tires, service cars, and repair damaged vehicles.
Until two years ago, Carlos Estrada fixed cars in driveways. Customers who needed a tune-up, brakes or a new transmission called the 38-year-old Guatemalan native, who brought parts and a tool kit to complete the job.
But that all changed a few years ago when he was asked to replace a clutch on a BMW.
“A job that should have taken me six hours, took three days because I was working without a car lift,” he said. “I vowed never to do that again.”
So two years ago he invested $100,000 to buy tools and leased a garage on Bennett Street and named it Estrada Auto Repair.
Estrada, who said he has been working on cars since he was a teenager, has spent most of the last 20 years working in restaurants. Most recently, he was a chef at Rossetti Restaurant.
“But cars are my passion,” he said.
On the day we visited, Estrada was installing new brakes on a late model Honda. While he likes the work, there are challenges being an entrepreneur, he said.
“We do good work and customers tell their friends, so we stay busy,” he said. “But the hardest part is keeping prices low. We use quality parts and they’re expensive because we don’t want someone coming back in a month saying it needs to be repaired again.”
Across the street at Veo Auto Body Solutions & Repair Inc., Alfredo Camacho Chavez said he’s made thousands of smashed cars look new since he launched the business in 2010.
But one car stands out. A few years back, the owner of a 1956 Lincoln Continental convertible with suicide doors, slang for a door that’s hinged at its rear rather than the front, came to the shop.
“It was a beautiful car, but it was in terrible shape,” he said. “We restored and painted it and the customer was so happy.”
Born in Mexico, Chavez, 55, immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 in search for a better life for his family.
By the time he opened the shop on Bennett Street, he had been in the car business for 30 years. His first job in an auto body shop was as a sander. He graduated to painting and learned body work along the way.
There’s lots of competition, he said, but any business is judged on the quality of the work.
“If you do a good job, and we do, you get more business through word of mouth,” he said.
Like Estrada, Chavez said prices must be competitive. Car owners who are paying for repairs out of pocket or don’t want to report an accident to an insurance company because their rate will rise, shop for the lowest price.
“Lynn is not a wealthy city,” he said. “So we have to be flexible on price and keep it affordable.”
Asked if he would choose the same career if he were 20 years old, Chavez has no doubt.
“I would do it again,” he said. “It’s a good feeling when the car comes in smashed, but when it leaves it’s perfect and the customer smiles. It’s very satisfying.”
Gary Janice, the 62-year-old co-owner of Bennett Street Tire & Glass, has operated one of the oldest garages on the street.
In 1974, he joined the U.S. Marines where he was trained as an automotive mechanic and served as a shop chief. Discharged in 1979, his father suggested he go to school and study finance.
“My father told me to consider banking because that’s where the money is,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be trapped in an office.”
Instead, he went to work for his dad at West Lynn Auto Service, which had been on Bennett Street since the 1950s and is now operated by his brothers. But a few months later, he started the tire store.
“I wanted to do something that would complement his business and not compete with him,” he said. “My father had customers and we figured they would eventually need tires or a new windshield, so that’s how I started.”
Today, the shop has a dozen employees, including his wife Susan, and they sell more than 17,000 tires a year. Some of his workers have been on staff for more than two decades, he said.
“I like working for myself,” Janice said. “I think about retiring, but what would I do?”
Down the street at Saugus Auto-Craft Inc., Leonard “Lenny” Spallone is writing up an estimate on a Ford Focus with a damaged passenger door.
His father, Leonard, launched the business in Saugus 1979 doing body work. As the business expanded to include work for rental companies and dealerships, the family bought 79 Bennett St. in 1992.
“I always knew I wanted to follow the family business, but I never thought it would be full time,” said Spallone, 26. “I thought I could come and go as I please, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s a full time commitment.”
While there are eight body shops on the street, Spallone said there is surprisingly very little competition among them.
“We all stay in business and are very friendly because we all have our own niche,” he said. “We do insurance work, someone else does custom work, or rust work, so there’s enough work for everyone.”