Beneath a clear covering on the front desk at Santa Monica Radiator are dozens of cards and notes from customers thanking the business owners and staff for their extensive knowledge, unwavering dedication and friendly service.
But very soon, those and hundreds of other customers will have to find another auto repair shop.
After 93 years, Santa Monica Radiator is closing for good later this month as plans for renovations along Lincoln Boulevard continue unfolding.
“We have had an amazing 93-year run in business,” said Chuck Perliter, a third-generation owner. “But the reality is, it’s time. Operating the business has become extremely stressful. It’s much more difficult to be profitable.
“Life is short. My dad recently turned 90. I’m 65, and it’s not a magic number, but there are other things I want to do in life. So much of the operation of the business has fallen on me, and it became more and more difficult to have time away from here.
“We were at a point where, with the redevelopment in Santa Monica, particularly on Lincoln, our property became more valuable than the business itself. It presented an opportunity. It’s the right time.”
Perliter’s family owns the property, which is located on the east side of Lincoln between Broadway and Colorado Avenue. The building will be leased to an incoming BMW motorcycle dealership, which Perliter said plans to incorporate the building’s history into its renovated space.
In July, Santa Monica Radiator sent letters to the 1,800 or so customers it had served over the last year, notifying them that the business will close Sept. 25.
‘The extra distance’
The facility, which Perliter said will be cleaned out over the following month, housed a company that evolved throughout its history to meet customers’ needs.
Santa Monica Radiator opened in 1923. Around the same time, Perliter’s grandfather, William, started up a similar business in Southern California, repairing and restoring radiators for cars and trucks.
Perliter’s father, Harold, started working in the family business after serving in World War II and took the reins when William died in 1972. Harold merged his shop with Santa Monica Radiator, which was owned by a close friend, about 35 years ago. Perliter got involved in 1986 after a short career in law.
“I decided to get into a cleaner business,” he said.
Perliter learned the importance of customer service while growing up, when he often worked with his father on Saturdays.
“I saw how much his customers loved him and respected what he did,” he said. “You have to be ethical, and you have to have integrity. It’s so important. Most people don’t really understand what’s going on under the hood, so people appreciate a little explanation. … You just want to make sure you go the extra distance, and if something goes south you deal with it in the best way possible.”
Over the years, the Perliter family bought a few other radiator shops in the region, including Bun’s in Culver City. They ran another Santa Monica location near the intersection of Lincoln and Marine Street until about 2000, Perliter said.
At its height as a radiator operation, the business employed seven full-time radiator technicians. These days, there’s one person fixing radiators for a few hours each week.
Changes in radiator production, Perliter said, had encouraged Santa Monica Radiator’s owners to offer other auto repair services.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “The price of radiators became so inexpensive that it didn’t make sense to repair them. We had been servicing car dealers and other garages, and 80-percent of the business was wholesale. But when radiators became disposable, it flipped. Our business became 80-percent retail. The radiator industry was shrinking, and our customers were begging us to do more. So we went full-service.”
Still, Santa Monica Radiator remained a family-first operation. Perliter’s wife and mother have both helped with bookkeeping. His son, Alex, a musician and producer, has worked shifts at the shop.
And Perliter said he’s been awed by the loyalty of his staff. A manager who passed away four years ago worked there for 50 years. Two employees have been there 30-plus years. Another has worked at Santa Monica Radiator for 20 years.
“They are just gems,” he said. “We appreciate how they’ve stood with us and become part of our family.”
Perhaps most of all, Perliter said, he will miss interacting with the customers who have supported Santa Monica Radiator over the years. Since he announced the forthcoming closure of the shop, some customers have brought in cards and baked goods. Others have let a few curse words slip.
“Some people said, ‘Well, if you’re closing, we’re selling our cars,’ and ‘We’re going to bring in our cars and have you do everything because we only trust you,'” he said.
“In the last two months, as the reality of the closing has come into focus, and as I get closer to closing, it’s become really bittersweet. I’m looking forward to whatever new adventures are out there. But saying goodbye to longtime customers has been really difficult. It’s really been very heartwarming. It’s been really special.”