After 50 years, Smalley is optimistic
SCHUYLER COUNTY--An interest in engines and a natural talent for engineering led a young Frank Smalley to take apart his father's lawnmower engine before he was old enough to read. Probably his father helped him reconstruct it. "He was a great mechanic," Smalley remembers. And despite having a severe disability, the residue of childhood polio, his father served the village of Montour as supervisor for 25 years as well as working as a mechanic--and teaching his skills to his son. After 50 years in the business, Frank's Automotive Specialist, Frank Smalley, is almost ready to retire.
Frank grew up enjoying soap-box racing, then went on to go-carts and drag-racing. "We built go-carts before they were even called that," he says. He still loves hot, fast cars and will race whenever the opportunity presents.
In the early 1970s, Smalley leased the station across Franklin Street from Captain Bill's. He was there when a young college student named Mary needed a summer job so he hired her to pump gas, check oil levels and wash windows. About a year later, the two were married and are now the proud parents of four children and grandparents of five--going on seven--grandchildren.
But Mary couldn't get into traffic-clogged Watkins Glen to help hold the fort during the infamous "Summer Jam" of 1973. "We ran out of gas, then we ran out of ice," Smalley recalls. "Steve Gillette had an icemaker in his NAPA store, but we couldn't keep up with the demand." Cars were parked along the roadsides for miles in every direction; when the event finished and concert-goers intended to leave, many of those cars wouldn't start. The repair work kept him busy for a while.
Soon after, wanting his own place, he opened his business in Montour Falls. One of the inspirational signs hung in the office area says, "Instead of giving myself reasons why I can't, I give myself reasons why I can." And that motto sums up much of Smalley's attitude toward his business. He'll take on fixing just about any problem on any car. "It's just stuff I enjoy doing--I love the challenge," he says.
The extended Smalley family has always been involved in racing. So it was natural for him to offer work space to the owners and pit crews of visiting racers, and sometimes help with repairs. He recently took a call from a car collector in California who'd found Frank's name in the vintage race car he'd bought. The California owner was writing a book documenting the history of the car. Did Smalley recall working on it in 1971? He did--and he's mentioned in the book.
He forged enduring friendships with some of the mechanics and owners and shared a few secrets he'd learned from working on his own race cars. This led to his being offered a fulltime job with Team Penske, a set of adventures he turned down in order to not travel away from his family.
Still, adventures found him. The spiritual experience of becoming saved in 1982 had an impact on his personal life as well as his attitude toward his business. For several years in the 1980s, he sang bass in the Dick Cole Gospel Group, racking up 154 concerts in a three and a half year period. Seeing his work as an opportunity to help others as well as a way of making a living, he signed on with AAA, adding roadside assistance to the mix of services he offers. Once he received a call for help so odd he called the sheriff to tell him about the car, for some reason teetering at the edge of a gravel pit at Padua. The sheriff recognized the driver's name as that of a notorious bank robber, suspected of a recent hit on a bank in Rochester. Smalley was advised to go armed, try to look inside the car's trunk and stall a bit on the rescue to give the sheriff time to arrest the man. Unable to talk the man into opening the car's trunk--and because the sheriff could find no reason to arrest him--the client left when the car was pronounced safe to drive, only to be apprehended a short time later in the process of robbing a bank in Ohio.
Other rescues were harder and more life-threatening for all concerned. The time he was called out at 2 a.m. to pull a family car from a watery ditch on a below-freezing day, he found the car's occupants suffering from hypothermia and in rough shape; another time his son had to get a driver out of a car that had flown off the road and landed in a tree, where the driver was hanging upside down, suspended only by his seat belt. In both instances, the occupants would have perished without quick action. "The pay isn't good but the rewards of helping someone are great," he says. "We look at each one as an opportunity to help."
Another aspect of his work he's truly loved has been the opportunity to work on innovations and inventions. His extensive training--he's taken perhaps 500 in-service courses, qualifying as a master technician several times over--and his love for engineering has led to being called upon to work on vapor carburetors for several inventors, innovations that would allow a car to get 75-90 miles per gallon. Unfortunately, the development of these carburetors was quashed before they could be used, perhaps for the threat they represented to the petroleum industry.
But the backbone of his work has always been the steady need to fix cars belonging to the people in the community. "People become attached to their cars, just like their animals," he says. "Our challenge is to take on something someone else doesn't want to do and make the right repair." Diagnostic time is important. "What you're driving today is not the car mom and dad had," he says. "We have up to date equipment and we continue to train. My philosophy is, we don't guess, we test."
It's a set of principles he shared with longtime employee Walter Clinch--"The secret to a good business is good help," he notes --and passed along to his son Trevor, who studied automotive science at the college level and has worked with Frank as long as he can remember. When Frank steps down from the helm, Trevor will take over, though Frank hopes to continue working with his son. "He'll probably be better than I am," he says proudly.
"Dad instilled that honesty and trust are key things people need," Trevor Smalley says. "We'll show them what's wrong with their car and what it needs. And we'll educate the customer on what they have."
And if you need a Bible or a spiritual pick-me-up before you leave, he can help you with that, too. "I give God all the glory," Smalley says.