“I started in the (auto repair) business in 1969 in North Portland,” says Ken Van Damme, owner of Ken Van Damme’s Automotive, which celebrated 20 years of business in January. “I worked at a gas station as a mechanic and pumping gas. Then in ‘84, I moved to a Mobil station at 33rd and Broadway.” The station still operates, having changed brand affiliation a few times throughout the years.
What has not changed is Van Damme’s interests and natural talent to tinker. He was born and raised in Clackamas, attending Clackamas High School where he took “the shops”: auto shop, wood shop and metal shop. He graduated in 1972.
In 1995, Van Damme purchased the building that housed Lackman’s Automotive and Towing at 6143 N.E. Sandy Blvd. and opened Ken Van Damme’s Automotive. For a while, when Van Damme was running a one-man shop, George Lackman helped him out by “driving my customers home. George was in his eighties at the time,” says Van Damme.
Van Damme’s has been running like a fine-tuned sports car ever since. Eight employees — including Van Damme’s nephew, Tom, and Dan Ford, the service writer — keep the 13-service-bay shop running. Ford is the longest-tenured employee at fourteen years. He and Van Damme have known each other since Ford was in his teens. Van Damme and all his technicians are ASE Master Tech Certified or ASE Certified, and the shop is AAA and NAPA approved.
“We think of ourselves as one-stop automobile care shopping,” says Rosemary Franklin, who ran Tune Rite with her husband, Henry, until the two shops merged in 2011. She now manages the Van Damme’s office with Ford. A customer can bring their car in for an oil change or tune-up and, if they need windshield work done at the same time, “we have connections with mobile glass companies that can handle that end at our site at the same time,” says Van Damme.
“Whatever your automobile problem is, call us. If we can’t handle it, we have connections that can. There are no stupid questions except the ones you don’t ask,” Van Damme says. Sometimes women are uncomfortable when it comes to talking to automotive people. “We don’t talk down to them. And from a comfort level for some women, Rosemary is a big plus for us in that way.”
Van Damme’s is a full-service shop, doing work on engines, drive axles, rear ends, electrical system maintenance and repairs, air conditioner work and computerized diagnostics. They can also handle your factory maintenance, do a pre-purchase vehicle inspection and keep you posted on recalls and other updates from the manufacturers. They sell tires, buying from five warehouses they work with. Other offerings include minor body work (molding, side mirrors, etc.) and discounted towing rates to their customers. They offer a 24,000-mile or two-year warranty on all their parts and labor.
And if you have a classic car, they can help you with that, too. They are well equipped to help with all aspects of restoring classic cars. “We build custom exhaust systems. We don’t just find a part here or there. We build the whole system for you,” says Van Damme. They even build pipes for other area shops on occasion.
The shop is eco-friendly, recycling all oils and fluids. They even recycle their oil filters, which are approved for disposal in the landfill. It seems like the right thing to do.
And that’s a big part of Van Damme’s approach. When the shop does an oil change, they will conduct a full inspection of the vehicle at no extra charge. Their AAA and NAPA customer service satisfaction is in the high 90s. They offer Senior and AAA discounts, and run specials and promotions throughout the year. And Ken and his team give back, as members of the Eastside Professionals Association (since 1996) and through toy and school supply drives connected with Doernbecher’s Children’s Hospital. “We collect toys and supplies and, in the future, we will donate a percentage of the business on certain days to charity,” says Van Damme.
So how does Van Damme feel about being in Northeast for 20 years? “It’s a neighborhood. It’s not a commercial zone. Most customers live in the neighborhood and have become friends. People walking by with their dogs stop in for a dog biscuit,” he says. And kids he coached in baseball years ago are now adults that stop in the shop to say hello and to do business with Van Damme’s.
“I still have a few customers back from ’69 and’70. Lots of long-time loyal customers,” Van Damme says.