Whether you want to refurbish an old hot rod or just need your regular vehicle repaired, family-owned-and-operated X-Ray Motors J & R Transmission on Van Horn Road is ready to serve you.
Founded in 1996 by owner Steve Martin, the shop specializes in transmissions but offers complete general automotive repair. Steve, a long time gear head who’s been “wrenching longer than I can remember,” runs the shop and sons Justin and Ryan are his only employees. Steve’s wife Jennifer, whom he married in 2016, works full time as an office manager at a dental office but does the bookkeeping for the shop on Fridays. The family dogs — Tallie the chocolate Labrador, Jax the husky and Royal the Rottweiler, have full run of the place.
Steve spoke to the News-Miner on a rainy Thursday afternoon while Tallie and Jax curled up back-to-back on the office floor. The occasional screech of pneumatic tools punctuated the conversation as Justin worked on a Ford Explorer nearby.
Finding his niche
Born in Fairbanks and raised in North Pole, Steve spent his childhood tinkering with “mechanical things” and driving every vehicle he could get his hands on.
“My brother had hot rods and I learned pretty early on that I wanted to do that kind of stuff. We’d take perfectly good Radio Flyers and take them apart and make go-karts out of them and race them down hills. I raced motorcycles when I was very young, BMX bicycles, snowmobiles, then progressed to stock cars and sprint car racing. I rode everything under the sun,” Steve said, noting that he learned how to drive a car when he was just 12 years old.
Steve took auto body classes at Hutchison Career Center and started working in that field as soon as he graduated high school. One of his employers was Mike Lawrence, a custom car painting and body work expert he credits with teaching him “an amazing amount.” After Lawrence passed away, Steve couldn’t find a shop that specialized in the custom work he wanted to do, so he took a job as a tire man at Auto Service Company. Eventually a mechanics position became available, and his destiny was set.
“One of the guys took me under his wing and taught me a lot about transmissions. I excelled at it, so I continued doing that. It’s just a natural niche,” Steve said.
Steve went to work for Sunshine Ray Motors in 1987 and became good friends with the owner, drag racing with him in Anchorage and traveling to the Lower 48 to watch races. When the man decided to retire, he offered the business to Steve and a friend.
“We started talking about it ‘93 or ‘94, and pretty much had a price agreed upon, but once the lawyers and the realty company got involved we kind of had a falling out. The joke around the shop at the time was that we should start our own shop and call it the “Ex-Ray Boys.” I didn’t like that so much, so we came up with X-Ray Motors.”
Steve, who became a single parent when his youngest son was 13-months old, raised Justin, now 27, and Ryan, now 25, by himself while building his business. Since he specialized in transmission work, he added J & R Transmission to his company name in honor of his boys.
A varied customer base
The business does very little advertising, relying instead on word of mouth and a good reputation to keep customers coming in the door. While Steve is sometimes called upon to rehab an old muscle car or talk a friend through fixing their own car, the shop gets a lot of its work from various auto body repair shops around town.
“I do a lot of work for Scott over at Fairbanks Collision, and I’ve done stuff for just about everybody at one time or another. I don’t do any body work any more. In addition to transmissions we do mechanical and custom exhaust work and everything else, from wiring to engines to what have you,” Steve said.”
The shop welcomes walk-in customers and aims to provide a level of service they might not find somewhere else.
“We exist because people want choices. They can seek out an independent repair company or take it to the dealer. We’re here to service you and get you back on the road, and, in most cases, at a lower price,” Steve said. “We do provide services that dealers don’t. They typically don’t want to work on cars that are 10 years old or older. The benefit of coming to us over a dealer is that we outsource to a thousand different parts places to get your car back on the road, whereas the dealerships are mostly pulling parts off their own shelves and don’t want to outsource.”
Challenges and rewards
Though Steve had 10 employees at one point, he and his sons now do all of the work themselves. They stay busy and are booked one to two weeks out, a pace he says suits them perfectly. While the business has had its ups and downs throughout the years, things have generally run smoothly, according to Steve. Currently, however, COVID-19 related shut downs have complicated operations.
“This Covid thing has been a challenge in itself. When the big three manufacturers shut down, then parts slowed down. You can look at every dealership in Alaska right now and they don’t have cars on the lot to sell and they don’t have parts in their inventory. We’re searching from dealer to dealer to dealer to buy parts for some cars.”
Steve said shipping issues have always been a struggle, whether in the middle of a pandemic or not.
“There are companies that won’t ship to us because we’re in Alaska, and the cost is ridiculous. We run into that all the time, so then we’re resourcing. There are times that I’ll spend two hours doing an estimate for a customer, just trying to find the parts,” Steve said, noting that he spends the weekdays working mainly as a service writer and can only find time to get his hands dirty in the off hours.
“Saturday and Sunday I’ll come in and knock a bunch of stuff out, or at night. I make more money for the company from closing to 10 at night because I’m not answering phones. Today I haven’t turned one wrench,” Steve said, wincing a little at the thought.
Though he works long hours and has been doing so for 24 years, Steve said pride of ownership and the ability to work with his sons and wife makes it worth the effort. Even so, he and Jennifer have begun to look forward to the day when they can retire and let his sons take over the business.
“We’ve talked about it. We’re looking at properties in Arizona right now, and we’d like to snowbird it at some point. I think we’re on the three to five year plan right now.”
Contacts staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.