Don Worthington

Veteran Rock Hill auto repairman offers a spark, a start and a smile

Lamar Cochrell and Randy Brooks check out an alternator at Cochrell’s shop on Latham Court in Rock Hill.
Lamar Cochrell and Randy Brooks check out an alternator at Cochrell’s shop on Latham Court in Rock Hill.

Walk into Lamar Cochrell’s repair shop near Cherry Park and you are overwhelmed with parts. They fill every nook and cranny, floor to ceiling.

But they are not just any car parts. There are thousands of alternators and starters and associated parts such as battery cables and connectors and pulleys – for cars, trucks, tractors, fork lifts and even boats.

He has inventory so old that people restoring cars seek him out to get a part that has numbers that match what they are restoring. Matching numbers is the holy grail of car restoration.

About the only thing missing is Cochrell’s beloved 1964 Ford Galaxie, and he may even have that hidden in one of the three tractor-trailers behind the shop that house even more parts. In all, Cochrell estimates his inventory tops 3,000 items.

The Ford Galaxie is special to Cochrell. That’s where he started his starter and alternator service more than 30 years ago – from the car’s cavernous trunk. During his lunch hour on his regular job at the time, Cochrell would go to junk yards, looking for parts he could repair.

After repairs, he had about 25 different alternators and starters – covering just about everything the Big Three automakers – Chevy, Ford and Chrysler – offered. He then went door to door, traveling to gas stations and small dealerships offering to meet their needs.

His promise came with a smile, but gas station and dealership owners soon learned his work was as good or better than his sales pitch.

Thirty-three years later, Cochrell’s customer base – as well as his list of suppliers – is worldwide. Among his customers are CORE Autosport of Rock Hill and several NASCAR teams. About half his business is new units, the other half, rebuilds.

“Years ago anyone could build alternators and starters,” Cochrell says. “There were about 10 to 15 models, and it was simple, familiar.”

Cochrell learned the basics from his father, a mechanic, and a friend’s father, also a mechanic. He started working for his friend’s father, rebuilding starters and alternators one at a time. His first starter earned him $8.50.

It had to work. If it didn’t, Cochrell not only had to take and install a good unit for the unsatisfied customer, but the cost of the repair also came out of his pocket.

“You learned to buckle down,” he says.

His salesmanship, he says, came from God and his mother, Allie.

She “could sell icicles to an Eskimo,” Cochrell says.

His mother sold bedspreads in rural Aiken County. She had a set route, and her customers “were glad to see her come,” Cochrell said. To make some money, Cochrell started riding the route with her, hoping her customers needed some firewood too.

The basics of his job have not changed over the years. You have hot wire from a battery, a ground wire, a switch and the starter. The alternator keeps the car’s electric accessories running and helps charge the battery. When the battery icon lights up on the dashboard, it’s a signal the alternator, not the battery, isn’t doing its job.

Two factors, however, have affected his job – foreign cars and computerized ignition systems.

With the arrival of foreign cars, the standardization of the Big Three automakers departed. With computerized ignition systems, the work requires even more attention to detail. The computer chip automakers use can change several times over the course of a model year so that a unit that fit a car built in January may not fit a car made in December.

Changes in auto manufacturing also have changed the way Cochrell and his staff do business. Cars once had so much room under the hood that you could sit in the engine well and reach all the parts. Now everything is so compact that getting a new starter can require removing the front end, dropping an axle or “learning how to stand on your head,” Cochrell says.

Computer resources often help Cochrell and his crew reach those inaccessible parts. They are also known to draw diagrams, take cellphone pictures and to proceed with caution. This is one job where you don’t want to have extra bolts or washers left over when you’re done.

But you won’t find a computer at the front desk, as Cochrell prides himself on knowing what is put on the counter. And that’s not all that’s important. Cochrell can rattle off the trucks, tractors and other electrical systems that have a hot-wire ground instead of the usual cold ground.

“We provide services others can’t provide,” says the 73-year-old Cochrell.

Often, the service can be as simple as “checking the connections,” he says. Cochrell has lost count of the number of times he checked a system, yanking the battery cables and have them come off in his hands because they were not tight.

His advice is to first check the connections, make sure they are tight, then check the battery with a hydrometer. The hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the battery’s electrolyte solution. A lead acid battery cell is fully charged with a specific gravity of 1.265 at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •