Vintage Phoenix Q&A: Phil Barrett (2013)
You've been driving by the Toy Box on East Indian School Road for years now. Maybe as you're speeding past, you glance over at its glittery showroom, where cool old roadsters and carefully restored convertibles are displayed, and assume the Toy Box is a place that sells vintage automobiles.
It's not. It's a full-service auto shop, launched by mechanic and car fanatic Tim Horn in 1978. Horn sold the business to Phil Barrett, who grew up in the Valley in the '60s before relocating to Idaho in 1967. Barrett says that although his front-and-center showroom makes it look like he's selling old cars, the really vintage thing about the Toy Box is its work ethic.
Robrt Pela: I always assumed The Toy Box was owned by an auto mechanic obsessed with old cars.
Phil Barrett: Nope. I'm a retired air force officer. I got a master's in education in the military, and after my military career I always figured I'd be an educator. Instead, I moved back to Phoenix and I bought this place in the spring of 2001.
RP: How'd you end up ditching teaching for fixing cars?
PB: My brother was a customer here. He was getting an old Nash restored, and he called me and said, "Come down here, we need to talk about your future." He introduced me to Tim, and I spent two months training, while he gave me the eyeball, trying to figure out if I was a good fit. He was a redneck and he figured anyone who worked for the government was on the dole. But he eventually warmed up to me and, well, here I am.
PB: It really isn't the cars. I don't know squat about cars. I have these beautiful clean nails because I'm not a mechanic. I know how to take care of customers and the people who work for me. In a sense, my business is about treating people well.
RP: It's like an episode of Mayberry, R.F.D.!
PB: Integrity is important. All these auto shops around town claim to be certified in all kinds of specialties, and we have specialists working here, too. But our real specialty is integrity.
RP: What do you drive?
PB: I drive an old Ford pickup, but I own a 1959 MGA, and a 1974 Ford Duster.
RP: Is that your MG in the window there?
PB: Yes. I bought it when I was 30. I said to my wife, "Which should I get, a sports car or a blonde?" She said, "In the long run, I think the sports car would be less expensive."
RP: Why cars?
PB: It's not about cars. It's just the enjoyment of working with good people. I just happen to be doing cars. But I'm not the person who talks to the customer about why their AC compressor isn't working.
RP: Then what do you do?
PB: I mop floors real well. I empty trash cans. I do the taxes. I answer the phone. I do payroll. My employees are the key. I grew up when there were full-service stations. They don't exist anymore. It's not just gas stations, it's everything. Service is considered old-fashioned.
RP: So I don't have to own an old car to get service here? I can come here for an oil change?
PB: Well, if you want an oil change, you could go to Jiffy Lube. We change oil, but we're also checking your brakes and the air in your tires. We pull out your spare and check the air in that, too.
RP: You do?
PB: Yes, because no one ever does that. You need air in your spare, which nobody thinks about until they have a blowout on the freeway and their spare tire is flat.
RP: Maybe you need to figure out a way to let people know you're not selling classic autos here. From the street, you look like a place that restores and sells old cars.
PB: Well, on your way in here, you walked by three signs that say, "Full service garage." But, yeah. We have a perception problem. People think we're a car dealership. I'm not a car buyer or broker. What I do is I have customers who bring in their old cars, and while we're waiting on parts, we put them in the showroom out front. Sometimes we'll sell a car on consignment. There's a 1949 Plymouth out on the floor, and a 1970 Delta 98 out there, too.
RP: What makes someone choose an old car?
PB: Nostalgia. When I started here, we were selling and working on a lot of cars from the '30s and '40s to middle-aged guys because that was the car their dad taught them to drive in. Flash-forward, and those guys in their '60s aren't buying cars anymore. It's the next generation.
RP: Is it just me? I don't see any contemporary cars — or really much of anything made after 1980 — that's distinctive enough to one day be collectible.
PB: I don't think anything that's being made today is going to be iconic. After the '70s, the style and design just isn't there. That's why I have to wash the windows out front every day.
RP: I'm sorry?
PB: People press their noses against the glass. The cars we have here are beautiful.
RP: Tell me your worst customer story.
PB: I don't have worst customers.
RP: Give me a break.
PB: I've had maybe three really lousy people in 12 years that I've had to give my little speech to.
RP: Your little speech?
PB: It goes like this: "Apparently, we are unable to meet your expectations of customer service. I encourage you to look elsewhere to have your auto repaired." Because, of course, it's not professional to say to someone who's behaving badly, "Get the fuck out of here."