Radiator Hospital marks 100 years
The mom-n-pop repair shop specializes in automotive cooling systems.
Here’s a clue: “To work on old-time stuff, you need an old guy.”
The Radiator Hospital is a small building at 637 Ottawa Ave. NW that proudly states “Since 1914” on its sign and business cards. The shop has been owned and operated since 1980 by Terry Moore. His wife, Patty, is the bookkeeper, and their son Jason is the manager.
In view of the major technological changes in automotive radiators in the last 25 years, it’s a miracle the Radiator Hospital is still in business.
Moore, 62, started working there in 1972, hired by Russ Fyfe. Moore isn’t sure who actually started the business in 1914, but he believes it was originally located on Bond Street where the former Grand Rapids Press building is today.
Moore was hired because he was a welder, and his first job was to re-core leaking radiators “all day long.”
Michigan, he says, was always a good state for radiator repair because the salt and chloride used on winter roads “ate up the radiators.”
Radiators had always been made of copper and brass, “so you could fix them” if and when a leak developed, he said. Then, around the early 1990s, there was a huge change in the radiator industry when the manufacturers began making the coolant reservoir — the tank — out of plastic and the “core” out of aluminum. One of the first to do so, he said, was the Ford Escort.
The core is the actual radiator, where hot coolant circulates through a network of tubes with fins attached to disperse the heat. Many of the new radiators are almost non-repairable if leaking occurs, but the cheaper materials brought the prices down so low that it is more cost-effective to just replace the radiator rather than try to fix a leak.
Another major challenge to the Radiator Hospital has been the growth of the national chains of auto parts stores, which buy on large volume and are able to sell new radiators more cheaply than independent shops.
During the recent Great Recession, the Radiator Hospital was barely breaking even at times, according to Moore.
“I’ve seen an awful lot of them go down,” said Moore, referring to other small independent auto repair shops.
But unlike a general auto repair shop, the Radiator Hospital is a specialty service. Moore specializes in cooling systems, both radiators and air conditioning. He also does light mechanical, exhausts, heaters and gas tanks.
Another factor that has hurt the auto repair industry is the vast improvement in the quality of cars, which don’t break down as often as they did years ago. Forty years ago, most cars were considered just about worn out when they reached 100,000 miles; today, most cars aren’t considered at that stage until they hit 200,000 miles.
Cars are also much more high-tech now, with more schooling required for mechanics and higher investment by repair shops in high-tech diagnostic electronics.
“Another thing is leased cars,” said Moore. A leased car must be maintained and repaired at the auto dealership where it was purchased.
Another major change in business at the Radiator Hospital — as at many other small, independent businesses — has been the Internet. Moore said when he quotes prices, some customers complain they can buy the necessary part for less on the Internet.
Sometimes, however, buying parts on the Internet can turn out to be bad news for the customer. One individual bought an electronic part online, undercutting Moore’s quoted price, but Moore agreed to install it. Moore discovered a previous repair job had been incomplete, and the “defective” part wasn’t defective at all — just left disconnected. The customer was stuck with returning the part and trying to get his money back.
But Moore also has learned valuable things on the Internet, particularly on YouTube. Some of the newer cars have so much crammed under the hood, it can be daunting to learn how to get at a particular part on the engine. In one case, he was stumped until he checked on YouTube and found a video that showed him how to do the job efficiently — and it was a $1,200 repair.
What has kept his business alive is the large number of car buffs, as proven each year when the Metro Cruise brings thousands of classic car owners to Grand Rapids to parade their babies. The Radiator Hospital does a tremendous amount of antique and classic car repairs, Moore said. Recently, he had 10 cars to work on — “nothing newer than a 1965.”
That business comes directly from classic and antique car owners, as well as from repair shops in West Michigan that specialize in classic car repairs. Repairing a radiator in a 50-year-old collectible classic car, which typically requires someone who can weld and solder, can be tricky.
“In order to work on old-time stuff, you need an old guy,” he jokes.
One of his most memorable repair jobs was on a replica of a 1936 Auburn Boat-Tail Speedster. The Auburns, along with Cords and Duesenbergs, were hand-assembled in Auburn, Ind., in the 1920s and 1930s, but what makes this car so unusual is that it was the car wildly driven by Short Round — Indiana Jones’ young sidekick in the 1984 film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” It had taken a beating in the action scenes, according to Moore, but now it is restored and in a museum — and the radiator no longer leaks.
Moore has a classic car of his own: a red 1971 Corvette he found many years ago at a very low price because it was in such disrepair. Moore lovingly restored it and now a photo of it illustrates his business card.
Like many other small businesses that go way back, Moore hasn’t spent much on advertising over the years.
“Our best advertising is being honest and word-of-mouth” from satisfied customers, he said.