Unless you were lucky enough to be one of the 84,309 people who licensed a brand-spanking-new Irish car in 2020, then you [like the rest of us] might find yourself needing to take your older vroom-vroom to an auto repair garage in the very near future. Fortunately, generations of drivers across this land have had a love affair with the automobile, so there is no shortage of independently owned garages vying for your attention and promising to treat your prized four-wheeled possession as if it was their own.
The world’s first large-scale production car, the Benz Velo, was also the first car to be imported into Ireland in 1898. A quarter of a century later in 1923 – the original Ford T, considered one of the most influential cars of the last century, was built at the factory of Henry Ford & Sons in Cork. Renaults were assembled at Trinity Street in Wexford and German Volkswagens were put together in a former tram depot on Shelbourne Road, Dublin. As cars evolved and became affordable for the masses; new road and motorway infrastructure was rolled out together with legislation. Fast-forward to today, and there is no chance a dangerous jalopy would pass an NCT.
The vast majority of people [me included] are really not that interested in what lurks underneath the bonnet. So, I too have been on many a quest to find a trustworthy garage run by a highly skilled and honest mechanic in the great plains of Leinster. A place where my noble diesel-steed can obtain repairs while my satchel isn’t completely emptied. Yes, we all try to keep our car in tip-top shape, but when things do go wrong – we need that fault diagnosed swiftly without feeling that we’re being billed for needless work. Recently, I discovered a family-owned auto repair business based in the Deerpark Commercial Centre in Athlone called Johnston Auto Repair (https://www.johnstonautorepairs.ie/). This hidden away gem of a business was founded by ex-soldier and trained mechanic Alan Johnston.
Although Alan was born in Ballinasloe, he was reared in Kilnagross – a small village, about 9 miles from Carrick-on-Shannon. He was one of six children and attended Kilnagross National School before continuing his education at Carrick-on-Shannon Community School. Going to College and completing 3rd level was never something Alan considered:” I just wanted to get out of school and work to make a few bob.”
Ever since he was a young boy, Alan has been fascinated by cars and those people working on them “To me mechanics were magicians because they could work out what was wrong with a car just by listening to it. I was amazed by that!” Unafraid of getting his hands dirty with grease and oil, he decided to look for an apprenticeship so he could train as a mechanic himself. He had a dream of one day owning his own garage and fixing cars as a living.
In The Army Now
One day Alan decided to go along to the local FCÁ (Local Defence Force) office and there he met an Irish Army recruiter. “He told me that I looked fit enough to enlist to join the Irish Army and that I should fill out the form he handed me. I didn’t know anyone in the army, so I just asked if there were any mechanic apprenticeships. He told me to write my request down on the bottom of the form.” A few weeks later, Alan found himself travelling to the army barracks in Athlone to attend an interview, followed by a fitness test and medical examination. “When I had bloods taken, I fainted and had to be picked up off the floor! It was a big eye-opener for a shy, young 17-year-old Leitrim lad.”
The 13th July 1999 was the date that Alan began his career in the army. He was told to bring an overnight bag…3 weeks later, he got home on Friday and was told to report back on Sunday night. “I would have been one of the fittest guys, but the experience was overwhelming and, in many ways, slightly terrifying.” However, Alan was with a great bunch of recruits and took the training day-by-day and became a fully qualified soldier after 6 months. Over a number of years, he was stationed at both Athlone and Mullingar barracks. Incidentally, it was in Mullingar that he met his wife Bethany. “The day I filled out the form was the best decision I made, as I got the army bug almost straight away. It was a good, secure job that allowed me to get a mortgage as a 20-year-old man.”
After about two years of pure soldiering, Alan found himself on an apprenticeship at the army vehicle-based workshops at the Curragh in Kildare. He stayed there for about 3½ years. “There is a very wide range of vehicles in the army, including armoured cars, so I got an unbelievable amount of experience. I was also lucky enough to do a new Bosch diagnostic course in the army that was held over 5 months and remember having to do various tests just to be accepted onto that course.” In 2005, Alan was told that army mechanics were needed in Liberia (West Africa) so he agreed to go and spent the 6 months of the monsoon season in very humid and sticky conditions. “In 2007, I was detailed [ordered] to go over to Kosovo as a mechanic and was made a 2 stripe Corporal at the same time. It was nice and warm and bearable, unlike Liberia!”
Alan’s military career lasted 21 years, and he is so grateful to the army and says that it has turned him into the man he is today. It gave him security and brought him out of his shell. “It gave me maturity as I was only a kid going in, and I have made lifelong friends along the way.”
Pre-retirement and Roscommon
While he was in the army, Alan had always been tinkering around with cars and doing the odd job for colleagues. But, as he was approaching his retirement from the army, he started doing car repairs from a small shed in Mullingar. However, that became difficult, “90% of the business came from my army connection and those customers were based in Athlone. I was commuting from Athlone back to Mullingar with a car 2 or 3 times a day, and it was just torture. I was still in the army at the time and was working in the evenings or whatever day I had off. Usually, I would work a full day on a Saturday until 10.30-11 pm, and it affected my family life because I was always working and never had any quality time with my two children Harry and Gracie, so something had to change.” Alan then started providing auto repairs from a garage at the back of the house in Athleague, Roscommon to be nearer to Athlone. He worked from Athleague for about 6 years, but the dream did not fade: “I never wanted to be the person that did 30 years as a mechanic from the back of the house and always dreamed of having my own garage.”
Move to Athlone
Alan had been looking for a workshop for quite some time and in 2018 a small workshop unit at the Deepark Industrial estate in Athlone became available. “I moved to a little unit for 500 Euros a month and was hoping that I could cover this extra cost.” However, soon he found himself looking at a bigger workshop a few doors down. “This current unit I took over is much bigger and used to be a Crossfit gym. It was perfect when I took a look around and ideal for expansion.” Both Alan and Bethany fully understood that he would need to take on more work and would have no choice but to hire his first mechanic too.
Thankfully, Alan did not need to source any external funding, such as any bank/credit union loans borrowings. He already had an existing client base of good, loyal people who kept returning. Also, he had built up a lot of tools and equipment over the years and didn’t need to buy much from scratch – that also kept the cost down.
For Alan, doing a good job at a reasonable price was very important. “I’m just straight with people. I only opened Alan Johnston Auto Repairs from here in 2018 because I was retiring from the army the very next year. Thankfully it just exploded from there, but I didn’t take a wage for a long time!”
Today, the business employs Alan and Bethany on a full-time basis, together with two local mechanics with young families. “It’s a massive responsibility when you have staff with families. I’m not worried about making the big bucks and only care about having a good, honest trade. Bethany and I always try to explain to people that we want to provide a good car repair service and never want to rip them off. We also care very much about word of mouth and I suppose we pride ourselves on being a local family run business. If the car isn’t worth fixing, we will tell you that and would lose sleep if anyone left us a bad online review. If someone wasn’t happy with something, we would bring the car back in straight away. We still have customers from Mullingar that drive to Athlone to visit us!”
Johnstown Auto Repairs provide car repairs and servicing. They also replace tyres; provide a full air conditioning service and can diagnose an engine or electrical fault. Alan is optimistic about the future, “Maybe there are 20 years of work ahead of us, so we will be here for a few years more. We are going to be upskilling to get more training on electrical vehicles repairs.” Thanks to the army, Alan is where he is today. But he always had a clear vision and mindset from a very early age. He always wanted to go into the motor trade and found a way to acquire the professional skills to do that. “We work hard for what we have. We have built up the goodwill. You get back what you put in.”
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent 17/02/2021.