By William Smith
After 13 years of servicing local vehicles and pointing his customers to God, Terry Schnack will retire at the end of the year and shutter his West Burlington automotive business C.A.R.S. (Christian Automotive Repair Service).
“I’ve been working on cars as a profession for 48 years plus,” he said, “My mind is telling me I can do the things I used to do, but my body disagrees with it.”
Schnack gained local attention with a unique discount — anyone who wants 10 percent off their repair bill simply has to attend a local church, just once, and bring back proof, such as a church bulletin. If the customer has the financial means, Schnack encourages them to put that 10 percent into a church collection basket. But if they need the money, Schnack encourages them to keep it. Either way, Schnack has put more than $300,000 into the community through the discount program – and changed a few lives along the way.
“I believe through that program, we have brought some people to the church. They may have gone to get a 10 percent discount, but I know people where the church took them in and they continued to go to church,” Schnack said.
Schnack, who makes his home in Burlington, won’t be going anywhere after retirement. Instead, he plans on getting more involved in the community.
“I think everyone should be doing something to better their community,” Schnack said.
For Schnack, that includes another run at Burlington City Council. He ran unsuccessfully for one of three open council seats last year, and would still like to make a difference at the city level. He and his wife Angela will be volunteering more as well.
“I would love to help out with the Salvation Army and their outreach program,” Schnack said. “I’m not done giving back to the community.”
The crooked road to a new home
Schnack grew up on his family’s farm near Stockton, and it was the machinery on that farm that interested him most.
“I was always fascinated with machinery and how things work,” he said. “My dad was never a mechanic by any means. It seemed like I had a natural ability to take things apart and put them back together.”
Schnack’s path to auto mechanic and business owner certainly wasn’t a straight line. After graduating high school in Durant, he attended Iowa State University to pursue a career as an architect while working at a Firestone tire store.
After deciding architecture wasn’t for him, Schnack left Iowa state and attended Muscatine Community College on a full-ride music scholarship. Turns out Schnack can play a pretty mean trombone, baritone, and trumpet.
“I’m a singer too,” he said.
But it wasn’t music he was pursuing. Schnack, who worked at another Firestone in Muscatine at the time, took business courses and graduated top of his class in automotive technology.
“I realized that was the direction in my life I needed to take,” he said.
Finding his niche
Schnack’s life became a whirlwind of automotive jobs for a variety of dealerships, just as the inner workings of automobiles were beginning to change. He adapted to the new technology, embracing it on his way up the corporate ladder. One of his earlier jobs was at Ford Motor company.
“That was about the time electronic ignition was starting to come in, and ignitions were a big deal,” he said.
“I went to a lot of Ford Motor company schools, and training.”
Schnack went on to become a service dispatcher, which he called a “coat and tie” job, and then a warranty administrator at General Motors — an even bigger “coat and tie” job. Schnack acted as a mediator between the dealership, the manufacturer, and the customer.
“You have to find the middle ground where everyone is happy,” Schnack said.
After a few years, Schnack had enough of the stress. So he left and got a job as a lubrication technician at Lindquist Ford in Bettendorf, for which he was grossly overqualified. A week later, he was promoted to line technician. Schnack found the niche he was looking for, spending his days on engine repair and engine overhauls. He was also the upholstery guy.
“Some days you changed clothes a lot,” he said.
Schnack was still working at Lindquist Ford when his 22-year-old stepbrother died in an auto accident in 1985.
“He had a massive heart attack behind the wheel of a car and crossed the center line and went head-on into a semi,” Schnack said.
His stepbrother was getting ready to take over the family farm at the time, leaving sizable shoes to fill. So Terry did what he had to do — he quit his automotive job and went back to the family farm to sharecrop with his father. He did more than work on a farm, though. Everyone in town knew he was a mechanic, so Schnack’s father cemented part of the machine shed so he could use it as a garage.
“I was continuing to turn wrenches,” he said with a grin.
His own business
After five-and-a-half years, Schnack had to leave the family farm. His allergies had gotten to the point where he could no longer do the job. He became the transmission guy at M and M Ford Mercury in Macomb, Ill., and enjoyed the work. But Schnack wanted something more.
“I decided it was time to go out on my own,” he said.
Schnack spent 10 months doing repairs in a rented shop while a brand new building was erected that contained his first auto shop in Wilton. He called it The Wrench Works and operated it for 14-and-a-half years.
“I sold that business because of some personal things that were happening in my life. When I sold it, I kind of left without any idea what I was going to do or which direction I was going,” Schnack said. “At home, I still had a lot of friends and neighbors coming to my house, wanting cars fixed.”
A venture into the world of insurance
One of Schnack’s former customers at The Wrench Works offered him a job at his insurance agency in Muscatine. He wanted someone who understood classic cars, motorcycles, RVs, and the automotive trade. So Schnack did the prep work and became a licensed insurance agent.
He served over 800 clients — everything from Presbyterian churches to high-rise senior living apartments — and, of course, plenty of automotive clients. He enjoyed the work and values the knowledge he gained about the inner workings of insurance. But his hands ached for the familiarity of auto repair.
“I just couldn’t live a cubicle life,” he said.
Romance leads to work
While working the insurance job, Schnack had started dating a woman online in Danville who provided the inspiration he needed.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you go back to doing what you know how to do? Go back to doing what your real passion is,’ ” he said.
Schnack was already driving to Danville every weekend to see her and started singing in the town’s First Methodist Church. He even taught adult Sunday School classes and got work at an automotive job in Mount Pleasant. Schnack still had a home in Muscatine and rental property there, so he sold the rental property, leased out his house, and moved to New London.
“I packed everything into my fifth-wheel camper that I thought I needed to live on, and I moved to the New London Country Club, which I called home, lived in my camper, and went to work in Mount Pleasant,” he said.
That was in 2007. Schnack worked there for two years, and one of his closest friends kept telling him that he should open his own shop again. By then, his romance in Danville had soured.
“Him pushing me, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend who’s a Realtor, and she’s got a business that is listed. Why don’t we take a look at it?” Schnack said. “And it was this place.”
It took nearly a year, but Schnack was able to buy the West Burlington building (formerly Precision Bearing Warehouse) and set up shop. But he was having trouble deciding on a name for the new venture. He came close to not opening a shop in West Burlington at all.
“I had gone through a divorce, the gal I had moved down here to be closer to didn’t want to see me anymore. I thought, ‘Why am I living in my camper here where I really don’t know a lot of people when I have a really nice house in Muscatine that I could move back into?’ ” Schnack said.
Having trekked into another crossroads in his life, Schnack decided he should still himself and listen to what God wanted from him.
“God moved me. He used whatever he needed to move me in this direction,” he said.
By then, Schnack’s credit was in poor shape. He wasn’t sure he could even get a loan to start his new business. But God provided. And Schnack did the rest.
“It finally hit me. Why don’t we just call it C.A.R.S.? It will stand for Christian Automotive Repair Service,” he said.
Living in C.A.R.S.
Schnack put everything he had into C.A.R.S., so much that he could no longer afford a place to live. He ended up living in the shop, throwing down a mattress on the floor of his office. He slept there for the next 22 months.
“It got a little lonely here at night. It was just me and my dog Max, a German Shepherd,” he said.
Max was Schnack’s best friend since the inception of C.A.R.S. He was also the shop celebrity and mascot, soaking in every friendly petting hand he could.
Schnack still needed human companionship, though. He got online, signed up for Match.com, and started looking. It didn’t take long for him to meet his future and current wife, Angela.
“Next month will be our 11th wedding anniversary,” he said.
Angela lived in Keokuk at the time, and both she and Schnack sold their houses and bought a place in Burlington, where they live today. Max died last month, and with him, part of the spirit of C.A.R.S. Schnack is still emotional about it and said Max’s death cemented his decision to retire.
“He was a fantastic dog,” Schnack said.
Now, he’s looking forward to afternoon movie matinees and random midday picnics with Angela — the kind of things most small business owners miss.
He also has three classic cars to tinker with: a 1960 Ford Thunderbird, a 1963 Ford Galaxy 500, and a 1972 Ford Gran Turino. Schnack will always be a mechanic, even when C.A.R.S. is gone.
“Most of my customers, I consider them friends,” he said.