Porsche has made iconic cars for nearly a century and, during that time, every driver of a 911, 944, Cayenne and every other model has been passionate about two things: performance and service. The cars, of course, provide the performance – for more than half that time, Ralph Simmers has provided the service.
Since 1971, Ralph, founder of Ralph’s Auto Service in Owings Mills, MD, has incorporated American craftsmanship into maintaining German automobiles for vehicles in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Ralph began working at a Porsche dealer called Stuttgart Import Corporation in Towson, MD when he was 21,” explains Chuck Goldsborough, co-owner and general manager of Ralph’s. “Ralph was fortunate to crew as mechanic for various race teams, including Bruce “King Carrera” Jennings and the fabled Toad Hall Racing during the 1969, 1970 and 1971 campaigns at Sebring and Daytona. He was a factory-trained Mercedes and factory-trained Porsche tech but decided in 1971, as many young wrenches do, that he didn’t want to work at a dealership any longer, so he opened his own shop in town.”
Goldsborough says the first shop was in a little shed behind the swimming pool of an apartment complex that literally had no heat. “He was there for years until the owner of another shop in town told him, ‘You outgrew this place years ago! Why don’t you get a shop?’ So, he made the move, took the gamble and opened an actual shop servicing Mercedes and Porsches in Owings Mills, MD in the mid 1980s. He did both nameplates until 1992.”
According to Goldsborough, when electronic diagnostic tools became critical in the ’90s Simmers decided to specialize.
“Nobody shared the proprietary diagnostic tools, so he was going to be forced with investing into equipment from Porsche as well as Mercedes. At that point, he decided he didn’t want that kind of investment in two brands, so he sold his Mercedes business to another local mechanic. Ralph focused on Porsche, which was his passion anyway.”
Goldsborough says there was a time early on when Ralph’s handled general service for domestic vehicles but Simmers recognized the importance specialization early on.
“His attitude was, ‘Look, I can be the jack of all trades or master of none.’ I think he made the right choice because it’s tough to be a general service shop now with all the complexity that’s out there! His business plan justified it, because he’s been servicing Porsches alone now for more than three decades.”
Over the years, Goldsborough says, the shop has maintained an audience of just under 1,000 customers. In fact, he says, he was one of them.
“I had been a customer of Ralph’s since the ’86 or ‘87. I always had vintage air-cooled Porsches, so of course I knew him. I loved what he was doing and we developed a relationship,” he says.
Goldsborough was a professional race car driver, with a 25-year career racing professionally for many of the manufacturers. From a Porsche factory team at the 24 Hours of Daytona to Porsche prototypes on the streets of Le Mans, to BMW, Toyota and Lexus teams, Goldsborough says his childhood dream was to be a professional open-wheel driver.
“Of course, the higher the level you go, the harder it is to reach your goals. In about 2007, Lexus had my contract, but they weren’t racing at the time. I sat on the sidelines for a year, rode my contract out and retired.”
It was then, Goldsborough said, he knew he wanted to work with Ralph. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual.
“When I retired, I said, ‘Ralph, why don’t we do something? We’ll make it really cool and sexy.’ Ralph is the mechanic; he’s not a marketing guy or an architect. I’m the one with all the craziness and imagination,” Goldsborough says. “He said, ‘Nope – had a partner once. Worst mistake of my life. I’ll never do it again.’”
Goldsborough says he backed away but stayed a customer. “I had invested in rental properties and real estate, so I went about my life. Every year I teased him, ‘Ralph, are you ready?’ Finally, he came to me in October 2014 and asked if I still wanted to buy his business. I told him no, I never wanted to buy the business. I said, ‘I want to buy YOU. I want to be your partner.’ He rolled his eyes like, ‘Oh, man. That’s not what I wanted – I just want to retire and go fishing!’”
However, Goldsborough says once he told Simmers his ideas he realized that they could create something special.
“We’re now in our second iteration after eight years,” Goldsborough says. “Now he’s right where he should be and always wanted to be. He comes in and builds vintage air-cooled motors and gearboxes, and coordinates with all the younger mechanics. He doesn’t have a worry in the world. He wanders in sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, sometimes stays until 4:00, sometimes until 6:30, but he no longer worries about keeping the lights on.
“His whole attitude has changed. Where he was frazzled, worn out and burnt, trying to wear too many hats, he now is loving it. He takes two weeks off every summer, which, if he ever took two weeks off before, he had to close the doors. Now it’s become his sanctuary.”
Goldsborough explains that in 2015, Ralph’s Auto Service moved to a 7,500 sq. ft. facility, with more than three times the previous shop space. Confident this would provide ample space for the growing client base, the team found itself moving again, just five years later.
“When I joined Ralph, first thing I was just going to clean up his old shop. It looked like an old mechanic shop out in post-war London on a side street. I had been with Lexus for the last decade, and I couldn’t stand a dirty shop. And I also came from a racing background. You don’t see a single NASCAR shop or Indy car shop that doesn’t look like operating rooms in a medical facility.”
To set his thriving business apart, Goldsborough enlisted a nationally recognized architect to create a two-level 18,000 sq. ft. shop with a real “wow” factor, including nine workstations, 3,000 feet of offices 7,500 square feet of additional indoor vehicle storage, and, most conspicuously, a huge customer viewing window that looks down into the shop area below.
“That’s the first thing a new customer sees when they walk in and, across the board, they’re blown away. It’s part of the experience,” he says.
What they see in the shop is unlike almost any other repair facility outside Race City USA, Goldsborough says.
“I borrowed the idea from Roger Penske’s NASCAR shops. Our walls are all gloss black, 52 inches up from the floor. Above that, they’re gloss white. Across the length of the back wall, 10 feet out from that, we have a black pit wall with wide openings every two bays. The toolboxes are all against that wall, while ladders, fluids, jacks and everything other than work is behind the wall. Each bay has a lift, a work table and two custom black toolboxes with Porsche emblems on them. Each tech’s bay has its own radiant heat so they can keep their workspace at different temperatures.”
Behind the wall, Goldsborough says, each technician also has his own desk with workstation so he doesn’t need to go to the service manager to update a ticket. They can simply go to their own kiosk at their own desk, and order the parts they need. This saves time and hassle for the techs, he says.
“On our second floor, when customers walk in, they can either sit in a waiting room and access our Wi-Fi or utilize our visiting office. They can sit at their own desk and still look down and watch us changing tires or doing an oil change while doing their work. We make it comfortable. We have clear glass refrigerators stocked with seven or eight different waters and high-end drinks, including handcrafted grape juice and orange juice, as well as a sparkling orange drink that we had when we were kids that I don’t see anymore, handcrafted root beers, and even the two oldest German beers available whenever they want them.”
This commitment to the customer experience is critical, Goldsborough says, due to the nature of the vehicles coming in for service.
“Ralph has been working on some of these cars since the day they went out of warranty. He saw them go from new cars to used cars, but never realized the meteoric value that some of these have reached. They’re now collector cars. Right now in our shop we have a 964 RSR that’s valued at $1.5 million as well as lots of others that have appreciated dramatically. Some of our customers realize that their 401k didn’t go up as much in 20 years.”
To accommodate these cars, Goldsborough says Ralph’s Auto Service incorporates an indoor holding area that will hold 20 cars. “I’m not leaving someone’s quarter-million dollar 30-year-old Porsche or $300,000 GT3RS out in the beating down sun and the rain. The owners don’t keep them like that, so we don’t.”
And since appearance may be almost as important as performance with these vehicles, Ralph’s Auto Service has an affiliation with a local collision repair shop.
“As part of our new building, we incorporated space for a 7,500 square-foot body shop. It’s a separate business called Top Coat Garage that we’re happy to work with,” Goldsborough says. “Guys will bring in their car, and say, ‘I didn’t see this stupid little curb when I backed in. My bumper’s all scratched up. Can you guys handle it?’ Absolutely – we’ll have it done when you pick it up next week. They love the convenience.”
Goldsborough says 70 percent of his shop’s business includes air cooled and vintage Porsches, with the other 30 being more modern gas and diesel versions. Regardless, he invites his customers to be involved in every stop of their vehicles’ service.
“We’ll invite them to come look at our technicians’ recommendations. They’re under that car looking with their little flashlight, asking questions. We love it and they love it. In many cases, they’ll just say,
‘Nah, I trust you guys, send me some pictures of the old one.’ They just love knowing that at least they’d been invited to come and look under and make their own decision.
Of course, such transparency is only possible with qualified techs, and Goldsborough says his are at the top of their game. The shop includes a Porsche Gold Master Technician on staff to supervise and oversee critical jobs.
“Including Ralph, we have four techs, who are all fully certified,” he says.
In addition to several national Porsche dealership parts suppliers, Ralph’s sources parts from leading aftermarket suppliers, particularly WorldPac, Goldsborough says. He recognizes the challenges his shop faces to keep those techs, so Ralph’s participates in regular training from WorldPac as well as other aftermarket providers.
“Ralph has been involved with WorldPac for a long, long time,” Goldsborough says. “He sometimes brags that he may have been their first customer, he goes back that far with them.”
In addition to providing the best aftermarket parts and diagnostic equipment, Goldsborough says the shop offers a generous vacation policy to employees.
“One thing I brought from Toyota is that we close the shop before Christmas and stay closed through New Year’s. Everyone can pack up and take their families away if they wish. We’ve tailored our business to stop taking any other jobs than oil changes after December 1. It allows us to clear a lot of jobs off the table. We’ll find three or four cars in our parking lot when we come back, that customers dropped off knowing they wouldn’t hear from us until January 2.”
By focusing solely on the Porsche nameplate, Goldsborough says it’s easy to maintain a friendly relationship with other local repair facilities of the same caliber.
“We do a lot of referrals for other brands, because many of our Porsche customers may also have a BMW or Mercedes station wagon or SUV. We get pleaded with to work on their other cars: ‘Please work on my wife’s Audi!’ We politely decline, but tell them where they should go for service.”
Regardless of what their other vehicles are, once they’ve been to Ralph’s they expect similar care from other shops, Goldsborough explains.
“I would say that we have a very good relationship with the five closest independent repair shops. They send us Porsche work if they can’t handle it. We speak highly of them because they are good shops. It’s because they focus on so many different lines that they’re not able to solvea problem that we might see two or three times. We are very careful to nurture and help the shops that we compete against.”
Goldsborough says he finds it ironic that after all the years of independents struggling to keep up with new car technology he finds the Porsche dealers in his area trying to take business back from him.
“Think about what dealerships are going to be facing. The electric Porsche Taycan has brakes that go to 100,000 miles. They have no coolant hoses, no tune-ups, no spark plugs, no oil changes, no coils that go bad, no camshaft problems, no overheating… What are they going to do when a lion’s share of their warranty work is gone? They’re going to try to return to working on classic vehicles and poach the customers that they once didn’t want to deal with because they need to keep their service base going.”
Goldsborough encourages other shops to address the future like he has and encourage customer satisfaction. “I think all independents need to raise their game. You’re going to have dealerships very aggressively going after work that they previously didn’t care about.”