Four decades under the hood
Stevan Bennett was working part-time at a restaurant in town and looking for something different.
He met Nancy Wagner there, who told him of an opening at her father’s garage.
“I had a love of cars, even as a small kid,” Bennett said. “I knew whatever it was I was going to do in life, I wanted to have some involvement with vehicles.”
He started working at the garage part-time while going to school with the plan of finding something else to do full-time when he finished school. The next year (1979), he married Nancy Wagner and now owns the auto repair shop at 1215 N. 15th St.
Wagner Garage has been in business since 1939.
Menso “M.D.” Wagner built the house, single-door garage and next-door house in the 1930s then took up occupancy. He opened the garage as a business in the winter when he wasn’t working his ranch in the summer on Grand Mesa.
Back then 15th Street was pretty much the edge of town.
“It’s fascinating,” Bennett said. “They used to hunt rabbits on the other side of 15th Street. North Avenue was a dirt road. They had a corral on 17th Street, where they would bring cattle down from the mesa.”
The second bay was built in the 1940s. The back bay was added in the 1950s.
When M.D. Wagner, nicknamed “Doc,” operated the shop in the 1940s, they did uranium truck repairs, Bennett said. “When the uranium trucks pulled in the shop, they would literally drop yellow cake in the drive, but they didn’t find (uranium contaminations).”
M.D. Wagner handed the business down to his son, Dick Wagner, in 1965. He remained in the house in front of the garage until his death, but his second wife still lives there to this day.
“Menso earned a reputation as very honest,” Bennett said. “That’s the way it was back then, but he called it the way he saw it. He was well-liked.
“You couldn’t get under Dick’s skin. He was one of the most honest people. I would see him do things for people because they don’t have money. Granddad did the same thing, too.”
Dick Wagner only had girls. Bennett starting running the business in 1998, 20 years after starting there.
“When I took over, it was huge pressure to try to maintain the level of quality my father-in-law did,” Bennett said. “It chokes me up a bit because he was a hard act to follow. It’s like being a second-string quarterback.
“My first few years (as owner), I asked around to make sure I was upholding some of the standards. I try not to get complacent.”
Bennett has relied on reputation and is has served him well, estimating more than 100,000 customers have come through the doors.
“We form relationship with our customers and the cars,” Bennett said. “Before you know it, we learn about their families and private lives. We build a trust with our customers. They depend on us to help them with car-buying decisions or repair decisions.”
His staff includes John Alsobrook and Bennett’s son-in-law, Dane Siess.
“This shop has certainly given a lot of mechanics their start,” Bennett said. “Dane is an example. This is something he wanted to do and didn’t have any experience. A few of them went on to start their own shops.”
They don’t rebuild automatic transmissions, because of the cumbersome space needed, but they do everything else.
“I know we look small and some people think we’re this little biddy shop, but we have some powerful computers that allow us to do so technical stuff,” Bennett said. “When I came on board as computers started coming into cars, my father-in-law had the insight to send me to some factory schools. I got to hob-knob with some engineers. Back in the late ‘80s, we used to do engine installs for Mazda when they had problems with rotary engines.”
They work on most everything from domestic to foreign cars, but that wasn’t always the case.
“Here comes this smart-aleck guy (Bennett) driving this puny 1958 Austin Healey and was going to be a mechanic,” Bennett said. “The next thing you know, import cars were really starting to catch a hold in the late ‘70s. Those cars were either going to dealers or weren’t fixed. When I came on board, I became the whipping boy for anything that was not a domestic car.
“We had a Bentley Turbo R, Porsche GT2 and a Kia in the shop at one time. I thought, ‘Where would you see such a diversity of vehicles?’ ”