Van and John

History of Bishkoff’s A-1 All German Car Corp.

by Vivian Conan

A-1 All German began operating at its current in 1959. It was purchased by Van Bishkoff, its current owner in 1979. During his first 15 years at A-1, Van worked in the shop alongside his three mechanics. Sophia, his wife, was often in the office answering phones, writing bills, stamping them paid with a smiley-face. On days when Van had the flu and Sophia couldn’t come, their teenage daughter Nancy would be sitting at the desk in her miniskirt, calling home throughout the day, relaying Van’s instructions to the mechanics. For his annual two-week vacation in August, with no one to leave in charge, Van had to close the shop.

When son John graduated third in his class from Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford, Sophia wanted him to become a doctor. But John wanted “to do what my father does.” So Van and Sophia sent him to the “best school in the country” for automotive and diesel, in Denver. He completed the 15-month course, then worked for 9 years at Rallye Mercedes Benz in Roslyn, Long Island. In 1995, Van thought John was “ripe,” not only as a mechanic, “but ripe everywhere.” He brought John to A-1 and changed his business card to read “VAN and Son JOHN.”

“Now as you see me,” Van says, “I’m sitting here and not doing much. He does everything. I supervising now…. I work when we need hand power. Otherwise, no. I order the parts. I speak to the customers, as you see.”

They’re now open all year round and service 20-25 cars a day. The relationship between father and son is easy. “If I have something to ask him, I go ask him,” Van says. “And if he has something to ask me, we ask each other before we do the decision. On any car.” It’s also respectful. One hot summer day, I brought them two containers of ready-to-eat fruit—one honeydew, one watermelon. When I offered the choice to John, he said, “Let my father pick first.”

2000 brought another big change. Until then, Van had been renting the shop and yard from the owner of the next-door kosher chocolate factory. He would have preferred to buy them, but the owner wasn’t selling.

The space was small: two indoor lifts, three outdoor lifts, which they couldn’t use in bad weather, and half the current yard. As the business grew, they were spending more time than they liked moving cars back and forth so they wouldn’t tie up a lift while they waited a few hours for a part to be delivered.

When the owner died in 1999, the entire property—which included a kosher chocolate factory along with Van’s space—were up for sale as one lot. After a few scary months in which Van thought he would lose his bid to Time Warner—his customers all worried with him—he purchased the property. In the chocolate factory’s place, he built the big shop with its eight lifts, the customer waiting area, and, at Sophia’s urging, the small garden and the outdoor deck, where customers can sit in good weather (and where Van sometimes plays backgammon with his brothers). When the construction was complete, in 2001, Van instituted the barbecues and parties; until then, he didn’t have the space.

One of the things customers love about A-1 is that Van createsa sense of small-town community. He introduces customers to one another while they wait: a judge, a plumber, a retired schoolteacher, a stock broker. After that, you can either sit quietly or let yourself be drawn into whatever conversation is already in progress—about the high cost of coffins, the best place to buy a leg of lamb on Arthur Avenue, whether Turkey should help the United States in Iraq. “Politics, you can talk for hours, you cannot fill a hazelnut shell,” Van says. One customer comes to sit in the office even when nothing is wrong with his car; he just likes the ambiance.

The ambiance may be old-world, but the technology is modern. Van has seen the business change “hundred percent” since he took it over in 1980, mainly, he says, because carburetors have been replaced by fuel injection and everything is now computerized.

It had been “really easy” to adjust a carburetor. “You put your ear, you adjust the carburetor. You give ’em gas, let ’em go. You don’t like in your ear, you put a little bit more air.”

Now, “say the car comes with misfiring or running rough. You cannot go and change parts, because if you start changing the parts” by guesswork, you might change four parts when you need only one. You have to “hook the computer to find out what’s wrong. Computer shows you the code. I give you example. P1001. We have a book. We open the book. It says P1001 is fuel pressure regulator. We check another one—if is another one, the computer will show. P2003, example. We open the book. It says P2003 is cooling temperature sensor. We replace those. We hook up again. We clear up. The car runs good. We charge the customer. Everybody happy. Car is finished.”

When asked whether he likes the change to computers, Van answers, “As a business, yes. Brings you more revenue, because breaks quicker, is more expensive, needs more repairs. Otherwise, I don’t like it.”

Though the business is still called A-1 All German Car Corp , Van and John now service all cars. They have two hand-held computers: one compatible with Asian and American makes, the other with European. Into these, they insert any of their many diagnostic discs, depending on the car they’re servicing; there’s one disc, costing $5000, for each car make.

Van says it’s no accident that car repairs have gotten so expensive; the dealers “don’t make any big money” on car sales, so they have to make it on repairs. “Most small repair shops, they don’t have these tools [computer discs]. They don’t have the tools, they say ‘I can’t fix it.’ Next thing, you don’t have any other place, you go to dealer.”

When asked why he doesn’t become a dealer, Van answers, “First of all, I don’t have the money to buy a dealership.” He says it costs over $2,000,000. “And second, they will control you: the way you buy the parts, the way they want to fix the office, the way they want to fix the showroom. Means they are partners with you. Here, my son and me, if I like you, I buy [parts] from you. If I don’t like you, I go to somebody else.”

And indeed, Van spends much of his day on the phone buying parts. Those for newer cars are readily available from local dealers, with whom Van has good relationships. For older ones, he sometimes calls all around the country—a supplier in New York doesn’t have it but says one in Virginia does; the one in Virginia says to call Illinois. He loves negotiating for prices and quick delivery. “Has to be this morning,” I once heard him lie for me. “Customer has a doctor appointment.”

Though John now knows more about car mechanics than Van does, he’s still learning from Van: how to supervise the mechanics, how to negotiate with vendors, how to deal with customers.

When asked about difficult customers, Van says, “I don’t have difficult customers. I straighten them out very nicely. I don’t care how difficult they are. I’m very patient. I know the customer is always right. And I try to keep ’em cool as possible. That’s all. Because fighting doesn’t bring me no place. I gonna lose in the end. He understand later that he’s wrong. But it will take time, you know.”

The mechanics consider this a life-time job and usually don’t leave except to retire. Van gets them from the International Rescue Committee. He speaks Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Spanish, and “a little English,” and communicates easily with all of them. And he keeps their skills current by sending them to school: week-long workshops in wheel alignment, tools, electrical systems.

Van and John work from 7:00-4:30, Monday-Friday (the shop officially closes at 4:30). Evenings and weekends are for family and friends. But Van’s home and business orbits are not completely separate. For his family’s Greek Easter feasts, when he roasts a lamb in New Rochelle for 30 relatives and friends, Van buys cakes from a customer who has a baking business in her home. When one of his “old lady” neighbors in New Rochelle has a problem with her car, Van drives her car to work in the morning instead of his own, fixes it during the day, then drives it back to her in the evening. And when eight-year-old Jacqueline, Van’s oldest granddaughter, has a day off from school, she often comes to the shop to spend the day with him and answer the phones.