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Inflation affecting Kentucky auto repair customers, shop owners

Isaiah Winkfield has been a mechanic at Woodford Automotive, in Versailles, for two years.
John McGary
Isaiah Winkfield has been a mechanic at Woodford Automotive, in Versailles, for two years.

“Tapping it back lower down here, like tapping the plate back with a screwdriver.”

On a warm early fall day, Quenton Hilton and Isaiah Winkfield are inspecting a noisy rear passenger brake on a Toyota Camry at Woodford Automotive, in Versailles.

By modern standards, it’s not an especially complex repair job – but in October 2023, it could be an expensive one. Summer numbers from the Consumer Price Index showed auto repair costs jumped nearly 20 percent in the previous year alone.

Kyle Whalen is the co-owner of Woodford Automotive, which celebrated its seventh anniversary on October 2nd. He says most parts prices have risen considerably over the last three or so years.

“Seemed like it wasn't immediate after COVID started. But you know, kind of as the summer and fall progressed is when we started to see and really hasn't slowed down until recently. It's kind of leveled off.”

Industry experts cite several reasons for the jump in vehicle maintenance costs, among them supply chain issues and chip shortages during the pandemic, and better – or at least more expensive – technology. 

“We had trouble getting OEM stuff for a long time. You know, like from dealer parts and stuff like that, I think that kind of drove the parts prices up in the aftermarket world, the parts store stuff, though, just the lack of availability with the OEM parts.” 

OEM stands for original equipment manufacturer. Whalen says he’s had to charge more for repairs – especially to fix or recharge air conditioning systems. 

“The AC refrigerant is probably three times as high as it was two years ago. I don't know. I wish I knew the answer that I don't know, just just what the way it is, for whatever reason, you know, we used to buy big cylinders for, you know, a third of what we're paying now.”

On this day, two customers decline interview requests, one of them saying, “If you want to talk about grocery prices, it might be different.” Whalen says some folks frown when they get the bill – and he mentions groceries, too. 

“What do you tell customers, when they say, ‘Gee whiz, this cost a bit more than it used to?”

“I've had customers have had brake work done, you know, a couple of years ago, and they've noticed the increase and, you know, we just go back and, you know, like, I'm being dishonest or something, I'm going to show him, you know, the parts cost, what they were on their previous invoices compared to now and, you know, just present the facts as I listen to it. It's, it's no different than going to the grocery store or going anywhere else, you got to everything's more than it was 4, 3 or 4 years ago.”

Despite the occasional difference of opinion over the bottom line, Whalen says Woodford Automotive is doing well – as busy or busier than before the pandemic began. Ironically, another brand of inflation seems to be helping. 

“I think with the increase of the cost of living everything, you know, people are keeping their older cars longer and they're repairing them versus turning them off and buying new stuff. So, we're seeing a lot of, you know, the same cars that may have been traded in a couple of years ago that are still getting repairs, bigger repairs, whatever putting off the now they've decided to do.”

In the garage, the Camry’s still on the lift, but Hilton and Winkfield are nearly finished – with good news, or relatively good news, for the owner. 

“Quentin, did y'all figure out what was wrong with the break?”

“Yeah, it was just a little bit unlevel there. So, we got it leveled out and the noise went went away.”

“Got what leveled out?”

“The dust – it’s the backing plate. Behind the rotor.” 

Behind the counter, Whalen, who’s leaving the next day for a car show, says he’s fortunate that Woodford Automotive remains busy. 

“So, you know, other than the cost of the repairs is, you know, a bit higher, and that's just really comes from the parts prices, you know, for the most part, I mean, nothing, nothing's changed. We've got the same group of guys and employees that we've had through the last several years.”

And he says, the same group of customers – and new ones, besides.

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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