The signs provided a road map of James’ nearly 35 years of experience in the business, since he first started doing auto mechanic work in 1978 for Minnick Motors as a teenager.
James, 50, specializes in exhaust systems — both stock and custom built — at James Automotive, 107 W. First St., Ottawa.
But he and his son, Jeff James, perform a range of other automotive repair and maintenance work at the shop, too, as well as tire sales and service.
“Jeff has been around the business, basically since he was old enough to walk,” James said of his now-23-year-old son. “He’s always been mechanically inclined and knew he wanted to get into the business.”
In addition to working a few years for the former Minnick Motors, Second and Hickory streets in Ottawa, Kevin James said he worked for his now-deceased father-in-law, Dewey Cook Sr., for more than 23 years — first at the Cook’s former Skelly Station on North Main Street and then for his auto shop when it moved into the former Minnick Motors building from 1991 to 2005.
“I ended up working in that building twice — for Minnick Motors and then my father-in-law,” James said.
James, who attended Flint Hills Technical College after he graduated from high school, said he purchased the exhaust portion of Cook’s business when his father-in-law retired.
Jeff James became part of his father’s operation after graduating from Beloit Technical College in 2010.
“We added the tire business — sales, service and repair — to our shop after Jeff joined the business,” Kevin James said.
James said his son specializes in exhausts, too. He said his son has a real ear for making a car’s exhaust sound the way the customer wants it. The father-son duo has worked on many custom exhaust projects for customers with classic, show and custom-built cars in several states, James said.
“I’ve belonged to the Over the Road Gang [car club] for 25 years, so I’ve developed a lot of contacts and a lot of friends through the years,” James said. “It’s fun to see a car in a magazine or walk past one at a national car show and be able to say, ‘I did the exhaust work on that car.’”
About a month or so before the club’s annual Ol’ Marais River Run car show in Ottawa, James said, he and his son typically are busy working on customers’ classic cars, getting them ready for the big event.
“I’ve had customers drive by when we’re working on the classic cars before the show, and they’ll say, ‘It looks like the 1950s,’” Kevin James said.
James said he would like to have a mural that pays tribute to the car industry through the decades painted on the east wall of his business, which faces Main Street. But he hasn’t established a time frame for the mural.
James said he has taken on some creative exhaust projects through the years.
“A farmer came to me and wanted me to build a spray rig,” James said. “I built [part of the rig] out of exhaust pipe. It saved him about $100,000 from having to buy it [from a manufacturer].”
James also has made hand rails for people out of exhaust pipe.
“Jeff and I like a challenge,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of customized work.”
James Automotive also does a variety of service work, including oil changes, tune-ups, replacing shocks and struts, as well as servicing vehicles for several companies and the local U.S. Postal Services’ fleet of 10 vehicles.
“We don’t do major overhauls,” James said, adding that the shop can handle just about any regular maintenance-related repairs and service work.
“We even worked on a few tractors this past winter,” James said. “With the tough economy, you have to be versatile.”
James said he works hard to dispel the negative image some people have that mechanics would try to sell them parts or service work they don’t need.
“I never try to sell anyone something they don’t need,” James said. “I’ve always believed that if you are honest with your customers, they will treat you right. That’s the way I was raised, and that’s been the philosophy wherever I’ve worked.”
High school students have been some of James’ regular exhaust customers through the years, he said.
“When Jeff was in high school, he was my best salesman,” James said. “Kids were always wanting whatever exhaust system he had.”
James said his wife, Dee, works in food service at the high school, and kids are always asking her questions about cars that she refers to him.
“She likes to say [about the students who do business with James Automotive], ‘I feed them during the day, and they can feed me at night,’” James said.
Dee James keeps the books at James Automotive, and James said his daughter, Margo Hughes, answered the phones and did other office work when the shop first opened.
The Jameses have another daughter, Jessica Stinson, who is in charge of Greek life at Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Mo.
“This has truly been a family business,” James said.
And a dream come true, judging by the collage of photos of the shop that Margo had mounted and framed to hang in her dad’s office. The wording that accompanies the photos says it all about the James family’s business: “Dreams Do Come True.”
Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org