It’s a bittersweet moment, Rick and Dan Saunders have to admit, looking over the White Rock Mufflers site at Marine Drive and Oxford Street that’s been a landmark – and home to a thriving city business – since 1973.
The brothers, who sold their property in August for a reported $4.5 million, are still on the search for a new location for Rick’s repair shop and Dan’s car dealership – preferably somewhere on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.
But in the meantime, with the repair side shut down, they’re overseeing the dismantling of shop equipment and clean-up of the site, a job which is expected to last into the early months of next year.
A one-of-a-kind operation with a scenic waterfront outlook, the likes of the muffler shop will not be seen again, Rick said – certainly not within city limits. Indeed, it’s always been something of an anomaly in a town that closed the zoning door on any new auto repair shops years ago.
“We’ll never, ever get a nicer location for a shop than this,” Rick said. “To look outside and see the water, or get the sea air when the doors are open. This is the Garden of Eden of muffler shops. We’ve been blessed – we had 39 years of it.”
Over that time they’ve had a lot of repeat trade from loyal customers who’ve enjoyed the brothers’ straight from the shoulder, neighbourly approach. They not only know locals by face and first name, but also by their cars, past and present.
“We’ve always tried to treat people as if they were our own mom and dad, or family and friends,” Rick said.
The brothers’ impending departure heralds a lot of changes for the site. The new owners are planning a combined residential and commercial development on a rezoned 1.14 acre consolidated property that includes the 29,800 sq. ft. (0.68 acre) White Rock Mufflers site.
The proposed development will eradicate some local history, including the main White Rock Mufflers building – originally Walton’s service station, established in the 1940s. The Saunders’ leased the property from Shell Oil for five years before buying the site from the company in 1978.
“The building should have been bulldozed about 40 years ago – we mothballed it for 32 years,” younger brother Dan said, briefly joining Rick as he surveyed the quaint and antiquated wooden construction techniques visible on the inside of the building, including firewalls made of closely buttressed two-by-fours.
Also slated for demolition is the old BCER bus station building on Oxford Street – also at one time the home of the Semiahmoo House Society. The brothers added to their property in 1986, rescuing it from vandalism, and the very real risk it would be torched by arsonists, jeopardizing their operation.
“It was a good building and the city was going to demolish it. We ended up paying $100,000 for it and putting another $50,000 into it in roofing, wiring and plumbing.”
Ironically, he said, their civic-mindedness ended up costing them dearly.
“We got too big when we bought the bus depot and the taxes ended up being way too high,” Rick said.
The bus depot, at least, was built on pilings – unlike the main building, Rick said, which shifted measurably off true each time major work was done along that section of Marine Drive (the shop floor actually had to be raised at one point).
Although they originally used the bus station building for storing parts, latterly it has seen more use as venue for artists’ studios.
Rents could never recoup what the land was worth, Rick said, but the trade-off for having steady tenants was a virtual absence of vandalism on the property.
“When there’s a high turnover, that’s where you have trouble with vandalism, for some reason,” he said.
Although the brothers have never begrudged contributing a fair share to the costs of running a city, the annual tax bill was ultimately a big factor in the decision to sell, Rick said.
“I’ve always loved working on cars and all that stuff, but there comes a point that it’s no longer feasible. We could have had an extra employee for what we were paying in taxes.”
Other factors that also contributed to moving from the costly waterfront location, he added, among them changes in car manufacturing over the last two decades that took a cumulative bite out of the traditional bread-and-butter of repair shops.
“Nowadays automobile makers don’t make equipment easy to work with,” he said, adding that sealed components have made small fixes and adjustments a thing of the past.
“With some of these Mercedes and Volkswagen vehicles, you have to pull the front end off to fix something. It’s an eight-hour job for something that used to be 20 minutes, and, of course, people see the bill and say ‘what?!’
“If we stayed here another five years, I think we’d be shoe-ing horses,” Rick added, with a laugh. But at the same time he’s been contemplating winding down the Marine Drive operation, Dan’s dealership has taken off and is enjoying great success, he noted.
And while he acknowledges the prospect of retirement and spending more time with “a couple of wonderful grandchildren” is definitely appealing, working with cars is in his blood.
If the right location becomes available, some version of the Saunders’ combined business will likely pop up again on the Peninsula or nearby.
“This (the sale) has been about 2½-three years in the making,” Rick said. “If this would have happened a year and a half ago, we would have been up on King George Boulevard, because a location was available then. But we’ve been looking for eight months now and there’s not a thing out there.
“We’ll take some time to look and see where we go from there. There could be somebody who is going through the ebbs and tides of every business and decides to sell.
“It would be nice to keep the repair shop and dealership together, but trying to find the right place with the right zoning is going to be hard.”