Tucked between the rain gardens of the YMCA and the elevated train tracks running over Huron Street is an unpretentious brick building home to Illi’s Auto Service.
The shop’s name is advertised on a brown awning and a matching street sign written in a classic serif font. A postal service truck can often be found parked in the driveway. It might be easy to miss while driving past, but for longtime residents of Ann Arbor, Illi’s is known as the place to go for honest, thorough service.
History of Illi’s
Founded in the late 1940s, Illi’s has been a fixture in Ann Arbor’s westside for decades.
The shop was passed down between two generations, from founder Elmer Illi to his son, Ron. Raymond Roberts owned the shop from 1979 to 2002. In 2002, Larry Young purchased the business.
Though not an Illi, Young is no stranger to the family — he attended Pioneer High School in the 1970s with Elmer Illi’s grandchildren.
After graduating from Pioneer, Young enrolled in a mechanical engineering program. He soon learned that he was better suited for the hands-on learning of auto technology.
“I was acing auto technology, so I realized this is my area,” Young said. “Let me read it in the book and then go over here and do it on the car. That’s where I’m comfortable.”
He started in a work-study program at Jim Bradley Pontiac Buick GMC and graduated with his Associate’s degree, then began a career as a car repair technician at many Ann Arbor auto shops. He was working as the assistant service manager at Fischer Honda when he received word that Illi’s was hiring a technician.
Despite the demotion in job title from assistant manager back to technician, Young was drawn to the higher pay that Illi’s auto technicians received.
“Financially, coming here was a step up,” Young said. “I was making more as a technician here than I was making as a manager.”
Young said he was also drawn to the possibility of future ownership.
“I was getting kind of burned out in the dealership atmosphere,” Young said. “Everybody’s expecting you to do something, and you have to go to somebody else to ask to do something. You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s the right thing to do, I’m doing it.’”
The day to buy Illi’s came sooner than Young imagined. Roberts’ health declined rapidly in 2002, and Young began the process of purchasing Illi’s that year.
By early 2003, Roberts passed away. Young said that he misses his friend, but he still keeps the memories of Roberts alive in the shop. The plants that hang above the waiting area have been there since Roberts’ time, and his tool chest is still in the same spot. Some of the original artwork from the 1960s and 1970s hangs on the wall. The effect is a feeling that the shop has stood still in time, maintaining an approachable, old-timey charm.
Skilled and well-paid technicians
Young also maintains Roberts’ staple business practices. Auto technician turnover can be quite high at most shops, but at Illi’s, many have worked together for years — and even podded their families together during COVID-19 lockdowns.
“We have what we feel are the best technicians in town,” Young said. “And probably the highest paid technicians in town. If not the highest, darn close to it. It keeps them happy to be here and makes them want to be here.”
Young’s overall goal is to serve the community, he said, noting that he is not interested in selling Illi’s to a larger auto service conglomerate or expanding to multiple shops.
“By spreading out too thin, it would be more money with less service or less quality of service,” Young said. “I’m not getting rich quickly by making that decision, but I felt that keeping the reputation up and servicing a smaller clientele better was more important than serving a clientele so-so.”
This motto matches Young’s self-ascribed business motto of “high moral integrity.”
“You do have to be profitable, sure,” Young said. “But that doesn’t take the place of that customer feeling that they got taken care of properly, and they want to send their friends and your family to this place. That is our formula for success, rather than the owner walking away with as much cash as possible.”
Illi’s survival during COVID-19
COVID-19 struck small businesses across the country with a serious, and sometimes fatal, blow. Many relied on federal assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to receive Paycheck Protection Program loans, though assistance was not equitably distributed.
Young said Illi’s survived thanks to a “relatively-small” PPP loan and a contract with the United States Postal Service to maintain their vehicles.
“We were excused on (the loan) so it turned out to be basically a grant,” Young said. “We did not have to pay it back. We have the proper things, the proper paperwork, and it was used properly. Between that and the Post Office, (it) probably actually saved Illi’s.”
Young said his business shrunk to roughly 50% of its usual profits during the worst of the pandemic. In late 2020, business expanded to 65%. For a month or two in mid-2021, business was back to 100%.
“For a little while we were two weeks out for appointments,” Young said. “It was like everybody started driving at the same time and all started hearing their brakes making noise, and their air conditioning wasn’t working well enough.”
Now, Young says, business is fairly stable, though still a little slower than it was pre-pandemic.
Local, generational clientele
Fortunately, Illi’s clientele is predominantly loyal locals who typically come to the shop year after year.
“We have a lot of children and grandchildren of previous customers,” Young said. “They introduce their kids and say, ‘this is where you’re going to be bringing your car.’ We’re getting this multi-generational thing, which also tells us that we’re doing the right thing.”
This is true for former Ann Arbor resident Jordan Siden, who first visited Illi’s after his parents recommended it to him when he was home from college. His car broke down during the holiday break, but he was able to get an appointment at Illi’s at the last minute. His car was fixed before the end of the school break.
“Not only was he willing to turn the car around that quick, he told me about a recalled part (and said), ‘We’re not going to charge you for it because it’s covered,’” Siden said. “He will do his best to explain everything in an insane amount of detail … I feel the permission to just ask him any questions I have.”
Since moving to Detroit, Siden still makes the trip to Illi’s for major repairs, like inspections of his used car.
“My current car is such a mess, (but) we really trust Illi’s,” Siden said. “(Young) never really seems rushed or stressed, he’s always willing to take the time to explain things.”
Rackham student Laura Saunders also spoke of Young’s thorough explanations for his work. Saunders went to Illi’s several years ago to replace a flat tire soon after she moved to Ann Arbor.
“I was new to Ann Arbor and the location was favorable,” Saunders said. “But when I described the situation to him (over the phone), he said, ‘Ok we’ll probably have to replace the tire, we can get you in on this date, and it’ll cost approximately this much.’ I thought that sounded reasonable.”
While the cost of repairs may be prohibitive for some, Young remains steadfastly committed to his prices.
“It may take someone a couple of visits to see and feel and understand the difference, but once they do it seems like they’re here forever,” Young said. “Because they understand, yes you’re coming in for an oil change, and yes it’s an expensive oil change, if you look at it like that. But what you’re actually getting is a master mechanic giving your vehicle a good check over, and while he’s doing that, he just goes ahead and changes your oil and filter.”
The future of Illi’s
Young said that he and his team would like to keep growing the classic car repair business, but the specialized cars give his technicians the chance to flex their skills. He said there are usually one or two classic cars in the shop at a time.
“That kind of goes along with us being a little bit more old-school here and our mom-and-pop type of operation,” Young said. “And it’s fun. You get to see some pretty cool and some pretty exotic cars.”
The Illi’s team is also looking forward to specializing in electric vehicles, Young said.
“We decided not to go with the hybrid trend, but we’re definitely more interested in working with the pure electric vehicles,” Young said. “Especially the fact that they still have steering suspension brakes, which we’re still doing that kind of thing on all cars, including hybrids.”
Most importantly, Illi’s is going to continue to be a place that looks out for its customers, Young said.
“We’re not a hard-sell place,” Young said. “I consider it my job to basically let them know what’s going on with the car, but let them know in such a way that they understand the priority level.”
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.