A retired journalist in Central Whidbey (me) is befuddled when he has no clue how to replace a burned-out turn signal bulb in his eight-year-old car. Who’s he gonna call? Marty!
A Coupeville real estate agent and noted woman-about-town (Janet Burchfield) is worried when her sweet-smell-of-success BMW keeps sputtering. Who’s she gonna call? Marty!
Marty, of course, is Marty Robinett, owner of Coupeville Auto Repair and known throughout the area as Central Whidbey’s last full-service mechanic. He has operated his shop since 1998 in a historic building on Coveland Street that originally opened in 1930 as Whidbey’s Pontiac dealership. (The Ford dealership, its fierce competitor, was a block away on Front Street.)
Pretty impressive for a guy who’s spent practically all his life right here. As a 6 year old, he moved to Whidbey in 1953 with his family from Yokohama, Japan, where he was born; his dad was in the Navy and had been transferred to NAS Whidbey Island.
Marty doesn’t claim to be the only auto mechanic in the area. “There are what we call the ‘shade tree’ guys who do it part time,” he says. “I sometimes get a call to ask how much I charge to do something; I always know it’s them.”
And of course there are a lot of mechanics a few miles north in Burger ‘n Friesville, aka Oak Harbor. But how many of their customers know them well enough to call them by their first name? And how many of them would bring a can of gas (more than once) to a longtime customer who forgot to fill up (more than once) and was stranded (more than once) beside the road? That’s Marty Robinett.
“I have always dabbled in auto mechanics and I learned a lot of it from my dad,” he says. “I also did some mechanics while I was in the Army over in Vietnam in 1967.”
When he came home to Whidbey in 1970, he worked for a while in an Oak Harbor garage “as a lube man and then I graduated up the bay to doing brakes, transmissions and tune-ups.”
That’s when he decided, if he was going to get ahead and make enough to support his new wife and children, he needed an education. So he enrolled at Skagit Valley College and got an associate’s degree in auto mechanics in 1975.
“I used my GI Bill benefits to pay for school,” he says. “I milked cows in the morning, went to school, did some odd jobs doing tune-ups or brake jobs in the afternoon, then I was a janitor in the evening in order to support us at that time.”
But then he didn’t race right back to a full-time auto shop job, although he always “dabbled” when asked. He spent years working for a steel fabricating business in Mount Vernon and then a few more years as manager at a dairy farm on Ebey’s Prairie. When the dairy went out of business in 1998, he went looking and discovered that Coupeville Auto Repair was for sale.
He quickly earned a reputation for great customer service, making house calls to jump-start dead batteries, fix flats or open locked doors with keys left inside. He still makes an occasional house call, although he says today’s new cars are so complicated, especially in electronics, that he encourages people to have them towed in to save him and his mechanics multiple trips.
These days, he has two full-time, trained mechanics working beside him. He strives to keep them happy because good mechanics “are very, very hard to find here. It takes a lot of hard physical work, you have to think on your feet and you constantly have to study to keep up to date. Not a lot of today’s young people seem to want to do it.”
And his work only gets more diverse and complicated. To handle it, he installed four hydraulic lifts after he bought the shop; before then, mechanics had to use hand jacks to look under the cars.
The day I visited Marty’s shop, he was working on three vehicles: a 1962 Porsche that had been in an 82-year-old man’s garage for years and no longer ran, a Triumph up on a rack to determine what was wrong with it and Janet Burchfield’s BMW, fixed and ready to roll.
“Marty is especially thoughtful to provide same-day service whenever possible to single moms who rely on their cars to shuttle kids, get groceries and get home safely,” Janet says. “I trust his judgment when it comes to repairs; he is unflaggingly cheerful, kind, polite and has the can-do spirit that inspires confidence.”
These days, Central Whidbey’s booming tourist business is also increasing Marty’s workload. RVs, campers and trailers break down while in nearby state parks, causing great anxiety for tourists far from home. “Most of the time, it’s something electrical, like an alternator, a starter, or something like that. Usually, they’ve taken care of the bigger problems before they leave home. So, when it happens in the park, they either drive here or get towed in, and we’re usually able to get them back on the road.”
Add to that growing business the contract Marty has to service and repair the area’s Postal Service delivery vehicles and Island County’s passenger vehicles.
There also are fuel pumps outside his shop owned and serviced by Corey Oil & Propane Co. in Oak Harbor and accessed with a “cardlock” members-only system. “I don’t have anything to do with that part of it, but I do go out pretty often to help folks who can’t figure out how to make it work.”
And he also gets more than a few calls from Central Whidbey’s increasing elderly population. When their cars won’t work, they’re often panicked about two big things – does it mean they won’t be able to drive their own car any more and can they afford to fix it?
“I try to help them as much as I can,” Marty says. “I’m not that far behind them.”
Then there are the oddball requests. “A lot of people think I can fix tractors,” he says. “I can but I try not to. I tell them to tow them to Mount Vernon (where the big farm equipment service shops are).”
Since today’s cars are so complicated and most people rarely raise the hood to check anything, what is the best advice to all of us from the last full-service mechanic in Central Whidbey?
“You need to check your car once a week. Raise the hood, check it out, find out what’s going on. Check all the fluid levels. Turn the radio off and listen to your car; it will warn you way ahead of time. It’s common sense. Do it once a week and you’re not going to get stranded along side the road.”
And don’t just depend on those warning lights inside on the dashboard. “They don’t call them idiot lights for nothing.”
So, at age 72 and with many of his customers now younger than himself, how long does Marty Robinett plan to keep on getting his hands greasy under the hood and fixing his neighbors’ cars?
“I am going to keep doing it as long as I like doing it,” he says. “Right now, I still really love the people and work.”
- Harry Anderson, a retired journalist, is a columnist and proofreader for the Whidbey News Group.