The Doc Project

As cars change, this rural garage faces an uncertain future

Swinn’s Service, a garage near Tillsonburg, Ontario, is a family-run business passed down from father to son. It's facing closure once its current owner retires because cars are increasingly computerized and few mechanics want to move to the country.

'It's getting harder and harder every year to maintain it,' says the founder of Swinn's Service

Doug Swinn, 80, opened Swinn’s Service in 1970, in the heyday of tobacco farming. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The sun isn't even up yet, but my Uncle Doug Swinn is opening up Swinn's Service. 

He brews a cup of coffee, changes the calendar, turns on the radio and waits for his friend, Randy, to arrive. It's a routine ingrained in him since 1970.

"I want to keep that up as long as I can," he said. 

Swinn's Service opened its doors 50 years ago in the Tillsonburg area of southern Ontario, in the heart of tobacco country. 

For the next few decades, it was Doug who kept the business running when times weren't so good — through a recession, the downturn in tobacco and an exodus of young people to the big city.

But today, the future of the family-owned business is uncertain.

"From my aspect, it don't look that good," he said. 

Doug Swinn (right) and his friend at 6 a.m. at Swinn's Service. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Doug is my uncle through marriage. I met him seven years ago, and through him, I discovered the fascinating world of a rural service station.

By 6 a.m., the door squeaks open and Randy, walks in, pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down at the main desk.

Then Doug and Randy talk about the snow and check corn prices. 

While Doug, 80, has been retired for two decades, I can tell opening the shop is important to him.

"No use sitting over at the house and beats the alternative … sleepin' forever," he said, chuckling. 

Swinn’s Service once catered to the tobacco farmers whose tractors needed servicing. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

By 8 a.m. when the garage officially opens, Randy drives home and customers start trickling in.

Swinn's Service is 15 kilometres from the town of Tillsonburg, Ont., about two hours west of Toronto. 

It's a place Stompin' Tom Connors put on the map with his hit Tillsonburg, an ode to the songwriter's time working in the tobacco fields there.

That song came out in 1971, a year after Doug opened the garage. In the early days, Doug spent most of his time servicing farmers' tractors and trucks. 

In fact, Doug grew up on a tobacco farm down the road from the garage, but he didn't want that life.

Tobacco fields to a Toronto dealership 

The Addison on Bay Cadillac dealership in Toronto, Ont. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032)

When he was 16, his uncle found him a job apprenticing at the Addison on Bay Cadillac dealership in Toronto. 

"I was very nervous. Not like the farm life, that's for sure."

Doug eventually got used to city life and honed his skills as a mechanic in the city.

Meanwhile, he married his high school sweetheart, my Aunt Marg. When they started a family, they decided they'd rather be back home closer to family.

Uncle Doug and Aunt Marg on his family farm in 1976, seven years after he started the garage. (Submitted by Lisa Xing)

Doug and Marg bought a farm house near Tillsonburg and had two kids, Mike and Pat. Doug worked at garages in the area but eventually decided to open his own auto shop.

"Everyone said, 'What are you doing building out in the sticks?' But I built anyway." 

What was first known as Doug Swinn's Service opened in 1970. He put in long hours, which eventually paid off. 

Less than a decade later, business was so good, Doug expanded and hired two mechanics. One of them is still there today.

The next generation 

My cousin Mike Swinn, in his mid-50s, was seven when his dad started the shop. He got his first experience using his dad's tools fixing up his dirt bike he kept crashing. 

Eventually, Mike went to school for auto mechanics in London, Ont.

Just like Doug in his youth, though, working in the family business was the last thing Mike wanted to do. 

"I needed to be out on my own," he said. Mike spent the next 20 years as a mechanic in London, thinking he'd settle there. 

Meanwhile, Doug was coming to a realization back at the family garage. 

"I opened the hood of a car. Where's the engine?" he said. "It was all covered in. I thought, 'Enough of this for me.'"

Technology had changed and so had cars. 

Fortunately for Doug, Mike had started questioning his decision to live in London. 

"My country heritage started tugging at me," said Mike. 

So on May 6, 1999, a date etched into his memory, he returned home to Tillsonburg and to Swinn's Service.

Mike Swinn in the office of Swinn's Service. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"I was nervous. I felt pressure to perform immediately," he laughed. 

Even though Mike runs the business now, the social dynamics of the garage haven't changed all that much. Customers still tip with pies or fresh veggies.

Many of them stop in to see Mike, then head next door to Doug's workshop, a space he built after retirement and somewhat of a local hangout. They have beers, talk about their day and play cards. 

"I've gotten to know all the people, especially when you've lived here pretty well all your life," said Doug.

An uncertain future

How long that way of life can continue is uncertain. 

"Cars and trucks broke down far more often 20 years ago than they do now," said Mike. 

He says the vehicle systems are increasingly computerized and because different cars require different tech to fix, it quickly becomes expensive for independent garages. Many cars go back to the dealer instead. 

There's another hurdle.

Mike's now around the same age his dad was when he retired, but he doesn't have children to take over, and finding a mechanic is tough because few people want to move to the country. 

"People aren't getting into it. I don't have the pool to pull from that a place like London or Toronto is going to have." 

And Mike's only mechanic, Bob, is 62 years old. 

Bob Ball, 62, works on a car at Swinn's Service. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Bob's worked there since Doug hired him straight out of high school.

"When you go into a garage, all you see is older guys instead of young people anymore. It's sad," said Bob. 

With two bad knees, he's looking to retire.

While Mike says he hasn't yet given himself a timeline to figure it all out, for Doug, change is inevitable.

"It's going to come to an end with these smaller garages," he said.

"Maybe it'll come around. Hopefully it does."

In the meantime, Doug will continue opening the shop at 6 a.m., change the calendar and make himself a cup of coffee welcoming his friends to drop in.

About the Producer

(Submitted by Lisa Xing)

Lisa Xing has been a reporter and host for more than a decade. She has worked across the country from Edmonton to Halifax, and internationally from London, U.K. to Seoul, Korea. She loves sharing the personal stories of people who we may never otherwise meet, especially through the use of sound. She's also a creative writer and photographer, with work published in The Wall Street Journal and THIS magazine. 

This documentary was produced with, and edited by, Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.