Photo: Paul Sableman

Hot rodding is full of traditions and connecting with a good parts house is one of the most important of them.  But finding a place that feels like part neighborhood garage and part corner hook-up for the drug that is racing and modding is getting harder every day. Developing the friendships and shared interests at a big-box auto parts store that lead to that 10-minutes to closing time phone call about a part you need is tough. The character is missing.  But if you’ve never developed that relationship with your local supplier, how do you start? Well, I’m here put you on the right track. I’ve bought parts from the same auto parts house for years.

Cody’s Auto Parts is a place where change happens slowly, but that’s part of the charm.

The place is a 5000 square foot metal building with plain concrete floors across the street from the fire department, next to the train tracks. There’s a huge row of catalogs behind the counter. The owner is a second generation parts man and his employees measure their time in decades, not years. It’s a solid American business and they still do their accounting on paper balance sheets.

When you find a great parts house,  stick with them. Here’s why.

A while back Gene Cody, the owner, told me a little story.

He said he remembers that I was in high school and putting a V8 in my old Willy’s Jeep. I didn’t know much about cars and started hanging around Cody’s a lot.

Over time the visits became a challenge for Mac, the senior parts guy. He was an old-school hot rodder from the ’60′s. “Drive a Ford and race a Chevy” is what Mac used to say. He had a thick southern drawl, was thin and wiry and wore jeans with a white t-shirt. Pointy cowboy boots rounded out the image. As you might have guessed Mac was a bit opinionated.

Gene told me that Mac used to get irritated because I’d come in and just give him a description of the part and its function. Mac would bark, “Year and model?” Naturally, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes he’d argue with me about a particular application. I’d say I’d make it work. I’d pay in cash or put it on my tab and head back to my project. I always paid my bill.

One day, Mac finally said something to Gene.

Gene took him aside and said, “Rob spends good money on parts. He doesn’t always know what he wants. Just try to figure it out and sell him a part.”

After that, Mac still grumbled a bit while I talked about my crazy ideas and part descriptions. If he was busy, he’d just point to the back. I’d go poke around in the boxes until I found what I needed. Mac would ring it up and everybody ended up happy.

After Gene finished the story we had a good laugh together.

Building hot rods or race cars requires a lot of experimentation, plus a good dose of “educated” trial and error. You need good parts people who will genuinely help you with your project. There’s a lot of tradition and relationship building in hot rodding.

Mac is gone now and I sadly miss that old familiar “Year and model?”

So how do you build a relationship? First, learn from my mistake.  Try and figure out the make and model, and even the parts number before you go in.  Second, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and learn names and what vehicles folks in the local parts houses have, have had, or are working on.  There’s no better conversation starter than a reminiscence about a much loved hot rod or race car.

Third, make sure to express your gratitude to the folks who help you go through the catalog, order the parts, and provide install advice.  A hearty and sincere thank you will always be appreciated, even if they don’t have what you need, or have to order it.  And finally, loyalty to your parts house is always a good thing.  If you think they’re ripping you off, you shouldn’t be going there, so support your local folks as they work with you. Ultimately, even if you spend a few dollars more, the relationships you’re building and the traditions you’re upholding will be priceless.

And while it often makes sense to buy parts online, don’t forget your local shop for parts big and little that you need to see in person.  And try not to be the person who goes to look, and then buys from the big discount retailer if you can help it. The local shop depends on your business and your recommendation. Don’t let them down.