On the surface, you might be excused for thinking you’re back in Mayberry. Visiting with John and Johnny Weber in their historic old Sunoco station, you might hear the faint plucking of a banjo string, maybe be interrupted by a little old lady stopping in to say hi and ask about a sound her car is making, and maybe be offered a frosty popsicle to soothe your parched throat.
You could imagine you’ve stepped back in time, but you’d be wrong.
Truth be told, Weber’s Automotive, a third-generation Federated Car Care Center in Dayton, OH, is perhaps one of the most neighborly shops you’ll ever come across. It’s also one of the most technically proficient and advanced shops in Southwest Ohio.
Opened more than 50 years ago, the shop has spent its existence serving the downtown Dayton area; much of its work is for second- and third- generation customers.
“My grandfather started the business in 1968 – he had been a mechanic for a local Pontiac dealer, and he ended up opening his own garage in the backyard of his house,” says Johnny Weber. “He left on good terms, because he continued to do jobs for the dealership for several years.”
John Jr. (Johnny’s dad and founder John Sr.’s son) explains that the birth of Weber’s Automotive was really by necessity.
“My dad was afflicted by cluster headaches and they were affecting his ability to do work at Rodgers Pontiac,” explains the elder Weber. “He was one of their top mechanics, and the owner told him ‘John, get that big garage behind your house ready to work in. I’ll send you one car right after the other for used car reconditioning. Then you can work when you feel good.’ That’s how we got started. I was 14 years old, in eighth grade. He did heavy engine work and I was cleaning parts in solvent.”
Following safety standards of the time, Weber says he would clean engine parts and valves and then learned how to help his dad take the engine out and put the engine back in. Eventually, he started doing brakes and other jobs and began to suspect that his skills were genetic. “I caught on quickly,” Weber says. “I mean, my dad was John senior and then I’m John junior, my son is John III. We’re all 23 years apart in age and we all got the same gifted mechanical aptitude.”
The Webers started building their network by literally being part of the community. “There were so many widows in the neighborhood who would let us park in front of their houses,” recalls John Jr. “I’d cut their grass for free and we were good to our neighbors. I was going to Chaminade High School, a Catholic boy’s school for college prep. My plans were to go to GM Institute in Detroit, then be an engineer with General Motors. However, in October of my sophomore year, I told my dad I knew our business was going to take off. I said, ‘I want to transfer to Belmont (public high school) and take their auto shop – it won’t cost you a dime.”
The plan worked out better than expected, Weber says, because he gained a career and a wife.
“I tell you things happen for a reason. This girl bumped into me in the hallway and spilled her books; we’ve been married now 50 years.”
Together, father and son built a reputation for quality service and commitment to the industry. “My dad had bought a two-bay Sunoco gas station on a corner on a main street in 1974. Neither of us wanted to pump gas, so we pulled the tanks from the ground and added two more bays right away before we moved in.”
They then added four additional bays over the next few years to develop the current eight-bay building footprint, though that doesn’t describe the extent of the shop’s operation. “We just kept growing,” says Weber. “We bought a few houses on the same block, tore them down for parking and added a fence for security. We had a pretty good location.”
Sadly, John Sr. passed away in 1987 when his son was 33. “He had a heart attack in his sleep – that was crushing,” says John Jr. Fortunately, there was another mechanically inclined Weber waiting in the wings, and, like his father, Johnny started early.
“I’d say I started here at birth, but I guess I’ve been on the payroll maybe since I was 12. I’ve been a full-time employee since I graduated high school in 1995, working all the way through and following graduation,” says Johnny. “Right after high school I went to Sinclair Community College. As I would take a class and have an opportunity to take an ASE certification test, I’d do it – so I’ve been ASE master certified now for 25 years.”
Weber says he’s maintained his certifications for his sake as well as that of his employees and his customers.
“I’ve just never let them lapse. I’ve always been one to keep up on my certifications, just because customers like to see that. And, we push our employees to at least be certified in what they excel in. And, we’ve always paid back reimbursement (to our techs) if you take a test and pass it. That all means something,” Weber says.
The team at Weber’s Automotive includes service advisor and technician Andy Stump; technicians Harold Stutz, Alan Kennedy and John McLennan; and the Webers themselves. Both agree that Dad is transitioning to a new role with the company.
“Following the Covid shutdown, Dad took a little bit of a backseat,” Johnny says. “He’s got an office in the back and he comes in every day and is always the last one to leave. He manages the business and definitely helps with our networking with other shops.”
As a semi-professional banjo player and self-described professional networker, John Weber sees part of his role as public relations specialist. “I know just about everybody in Dayton. We do work on all the service vehicles working in Montgomery County, including the sheriff’s department, the post office and the police department. We also handle the University of Dayton’s security department vehicles and those of the athletic department.”
“We don’t have a problem getting work and that’s probably a lot of why we don’t really have ‘competition,’ even with a lot of the shops around,” says Johnny. “We do a lot of work for other shops if they can’t do it. Likewise, if I’m too busy and somebody needs something done faster than what we can get to, I don’t have a problem giving out recommendations, as well.”
Johnny harkens back to the community aspect of the shop and says that every day he’s reminded again of the legacy his family has built. “I’d say the best thing about our story is that our business has been built on friends’ cars, and working on friends of friends’ cars. Some of our employees who don’t come from the area are floored by the fact that I work on my high school football coach’s cars. I work on my dad’s teachers’ cars from grade school; I work on my high school teachers’ cars.
Personal relationships and professional service are hallmarks at Weber’s Automotive
“One day during high school, I got a call to the principal’s office,” recalls Johnny. “The basketball coach was waiting for me. I didn’t know what I had done wrong but he just said, ‘Hey, I went to go to lunch and my van wouldn’t start. You think you can help me?’”
Father John says he too was usually the motor head in his auto shop classes in high school, so much so that he recalls one time his instructor reminded him, “Hey John, when the other students ask you a question about something in class, would you remember that I’m the teacher?”
But he praises his son’s skills even higher. “That boy of mine, I tell you; he is a wizard. He is so smart when it comes to technology.”
Dave Gamm from Fisher/KOI Auto Parts, the Weber’s local Federated Auto Parts store, agrees.
“They are one of, if not the most, technologically advanced shops in Dayton,” says Gamm. “They have all the updated scan technology to tackle any service needed. They are opening a new building across the street, featuring an additional four lifts, that is equipped to do ADAS service. Johnny has been an ASE Master-certified technician for over 25 years. Being that he is only in his mid-40s says a lot about his commitment to our industry and his family business.”
Johnny says it was a chance encounter with a Hyundai Genesis a few years ago that led him to his passion for ADAS.
“The car had a lane departure error that was new to me. It wasn’t even a customer concern; it was just something that I realized was new technology I didn’t understand. I started talking with our equipment suppliers about what we needed to have to do calibrations and I learned that we didn’t have a great location in our current shop. Our bays are tight – we’re rack to rack. Eight bays in a small square and not much fat in this shop at all. Yes, it’s very efficient, but not the atmosphere for ADAS in our shop.”
Johnny soon learned that the large automotive repair shop directly across the street was soon going to be available. “I told Dad that the building would be perfect for ADAS calibrations. He didn’t know anything about ADAS but he went home and talked to Mom about buying the shop – she said, ‘Well, if Johnny thinks it’s a good idea, you should do it.’”
Despite it being the perfect size with no windows to affect the calibration targets, the new shop was definitely a fixer-upper. “It was built in 1910, and the concrete was in bad shape. They had three racks in there and they were all unsafe and dangerous. So, it ended up being a complete tear out and re-floor on the floor.”
The original 3,900-sq.-ft. shop includes eight bays inside with one outside bay, each with a lift; the new shop meaures 4,000 sq. ft. and has three above ground lifts, a mid-rise lift and a Hunter alignment rack. Weber says the facility is unique to the area.
“We have lifts capable of working with low-clearance vehicles, as well as Sprinter vans.
“And in the center area of the shop, we have an area that’s 40 x 40 to do the alignment on these cars that have the cameras all the way around. We’re the only one in Dayton that has the new ADAS Hunter alignment equipment – the other closest shop is about 50 miles away in Cincinnati.”
Keeping up with training isn’t an option for the Webers – it’s a requirement. “You have to stay up with it or you’re going to be out of it,” says John. “You can’t ‘just figure things out’ anymore. Being a member of different associations like ASA and the Southwestern Ohio Garage and Gasoline Dealers Association (SOGGDA), we take part in that and will talk about the new things that are coming up in the industry.”
John credits the team at Federated for assisting in his shop’s training needs, and for providing other business services, as well. A Federated Car Care member since 2008, John Weber and John Michael Aveyard from KOI/Fisher have known each other over 30 years.
John Weber laughs, saying that it took some extra effort to bring his shop and KOI/Fisher together.
“John Michael sent us over some popsicles on a particularly hot summer day,” says John. “That was a nice thought, but I called him up and joked with him that they were fine for my grandkids – but I prefer other ice cream. Wouldn’t you know, he quickly had some really good banana splits sent over!”
In all honesty, though, John points to several reasons for such a long relationship. “Our partnership started with John Michael. When another parts supplier couldn’t meet our needs, he assured us, ‘I’ll take care of you.’”
It’s obvious that John Michael started the relationship, but he needs the talented team of parts professionals at the Dayton KOI/Fisher store to maintain and grow what he started 30 years ago.
“We’ve been so impressed with their delivery, Sean Gorby’s sales support and knowledgeable staff at the store, their parts selection, the nationwide warranty, the roadside assistance program, all the training that they offer through The Group Training Academy – frankly, I’m surprised that everybody’s not dealing with ‘em.”
The resources at their disposal have allowed the Webers to reach an ever-growing customer base.
“We get three, four new customers every day and they’re getting the recommendation from our Yelp and Google reviews,” says the elder Weber. “We do not pay for rankings but we’re always at the top of the page. And, here’s the thing – we never ask anybody to write a review. I figure if they want to write a review, they will.”
As with everything else, John Weber says it comes down to relationships and reputation. “I tell my new employees just exactly what my dad would say: when you work on my customer’s cars, I want you to be thorough and make the vehicle dependable and trustworthy and do a good job. I want you to work on it like it’s your car, your mother’s car or your daughter’s car. I don’t want you to sell them anything that they do not need.”
A nod to a simpler age? Perhaps, but nostalgia goes hand in hand with technology at Weber’s Automotive – and the combination is successful.