Indiana man is still repairing foreign cars after half a century
KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) – Dick Bougher recalls when the local Chrysler plant put large signs in their parking lots prohibiting foreign cars from entering. He remembers how people sometimes turned a Volkswagen over when they saw it parked downtown.
And that at the time when he decided to open a foreign auto repair shop in Kokomo.
Bougher opened the store on June 2, 1970 with his partner Walter Balg, a native German who was held in a POW camp in the United States during World War II.
Fast forward to today, and the 83-year-old Greentown native is still repairing vehicles at Dick and Walt’s Foreign Car Repair, which is located in a former gas station at 1301 Home Ave. And after 51 years in the business, he has no plans to quit anytime soon.
“The ambulance has to pull up here and pick me up,” said Bougher.
Nowadays Kokomo is more likely to drive a Toyota or Honda than a Chrysler, and attitudes towards overseas auto companies have changed dramatically since Bougher opened the store.
But the workshop hasn’t changed at all.
In the small garage with two bays, the old tire racks are still attached to the wall when it was still a gas station. Bougher still uses one of the same lifts he installed 51 years ago along with the machine he uses to clean and test spark plugs.
An old vending machine in the waiting area sells coke in a glass bottle for 50 cents, but its long-term customers know where to hide the key and can always get one for free.
“Most people aren’t just customers now,” said Bougher. “They are friends. I know their children and their background and when a daughter-in-law has had a baby.”
Over the past half century, Bougher has grown into a staple of the local auto repair community, known for his world-class work, laid-back philosophy, and never-before-met personality.
But when he opened the store in 1970, repairing foreign cars was still in its infancy and a potentially risky endeavor. Bougher thought that if anyone could make it, it would be him and Belg.
After all, Belg was German and had experience with Volkswagen, and Bougher learned how to fix the engines while stationed at an air force base in Germany that used Volkswagen trucks.
Afterwards, both worked at Kokomotors, the Volkswagen dealer in town, which at the time was the only foreign car company in Kokomo. There the two met and became friends.
When the workers there went on strike for weeks to organize themselves, Bougher and Balg decided to leave the store and start their own business. After all, they knew almost everyone in town who owned a Volkswagen.
The two saw that the Home Avenue gas station was for sale, so they moved in and opened the store.
Bougher said that in the early days of the business, they almost exclusively serviced Volkswagens as these were the only foreign cars in town. He said they fixed a lot of bugs and the iconic vans that became a symbol of the hippie movement.
“I’ve never cheated myself out of money with a hippie,” he said. “Some of them were shabby looking people, but they always paid you.”
It didn’t take long for Hondas and Toyotas to hit the streets, and soon they were fixing those too. Then came Nissans, BMWs, Mercedes, and all the other major overseas car brands. It wasn’t long before the shop was booming.
In 1990, Belg pulled out of the business, but Bougher wasn’t ready to quit. He bought his partner’s stake and kept the business going.
“I never changed the name,” he says. “It only confuses people when you do something like that.”
In all this time, Bougher never had any aspirations to expand or grow the business. It made enough money to pay the bills, support his family, and he liked it the way it was.
“When you have twice as many bays, you have twice as many headaches,” he said. “It’s about KISS: keep it simple, stupid. The bigger you are, the more money you will make. But how much money do you need? I gave up being a millionaire years ago. “
Bougher has the same philosophy at the age of 83. After working on cars for more than 60 years, he decided to be more selective about which vehicles to work on. He said he’s staying away from new BMWs and Mercedes because the technology has gotten so complex. He also closes the shop on Fridays.
“I’m at the age I’ve been doing this for over 60 years, so why not close on Fridays?” Bühler said.
He says he still enjoys fixing cars, but these days the best thing to do is get to work and just chat with customers and talk to people about politics, their families, or any other topic under the sun.
“That’s why you come back every day,” said Bougher.
And getting to work every day is something he plans to do as long as it keeps his health up. Bougher said after servicing foreign cars in his business for more than five decades, keeping the business going is simply in his DNA.
“After so many years, it’s just part of you,” he said. “It defines who you are. That’s what I do, and I’m sure when people see me they’ll think I’m the auto repair guy. “