Driven Back into the Past

The Don of Diesel, the Maharaja of Motor, the Shogun of shot brakes. Patrick Lay–owner of Hyde Park’s Foreign car hospital–is a man whose career and devotion to foreign automobiles has spanned over half a century, from the OPEC embargo to GM gone bankrupt.  Mr. Lay has tended to and tinkered with foreign cars throughout, maintaining a down-to-earth worldview all the while.
Lay’s entrance onto the South Side’s international motor scene came less by plan than by a practical kind of happenstance. As a fresh graduate from Grinnell College in 1966, he decided to drive out East to visit friends. But he only made it as far as Chicago when his car broke down. Out of cash, Lay decided to stay for a while and took a job doing electrical maintenance at the Illinois Institute of Technology. That’s when he met and befriended the Foreign Car Hospital’s old owner, a man named Bob Lester. In his words, he got the job mostly through nepotism, “not because of any talent.” From there, Lay explains, inertia set in–45 years later, and he now owns the repair garage.
The Foreign Car Hospital has been operating since the late 1950s. The hospital’s first incarnation, South Shore Imports, was located in the company’s namesake neighborhood. Back in the homey days of apple pie and atom bomb scares, foreign car parts were hard to come by. Business boomed with the incoming babies, and, in 1960, the hospital moved to its current Hyde Park location, behind an apartment building on Kimbark Avenue, just south of 54thth street and across from Nichols Park. From the street, Lay’s dojo is only visible through an arch formed by a second floor addition between two apartment buildings. The arch empties into a small courtyard with well-worn French doors that lead into the shop. This location has been in continuous use by various mechanics since its construction in 1910. To give some perspective, that means that the garage was built two years after the first Model T rolled off of Henry Ford’s Michigan assembly line.
Nowadays, Lay sits perched at the entrance of the garage. There, he peers out at customers from behind a pair of thick plastic workman’s glasses that occupy a fashion space somewhere between the village people and that kid who got a swirly in middle school. Full in beard and belly, and sporting a dark blue mechanic’s vest with the inevitable “Pat” embroidered into a light blue breast patch, Lay could easily pass for the Michelin man’s wizened uncle.
The majority of his customers come from the University of Chicago community. Lay, who gave a derisive chuckle after telling me that he majored in English literature, indicated that, although he has many patients who belong to academics, he lacks patience for academia. Waxing combustive about his preference for pistons over Plato, Mr. Lay said in his rough and rusted timbre, “as someone who comes out of an academic background, the attraction of the concrete nature of auto repair…has great appeal, because things aren’t opened ended, things are finite, you can actually see results.”
This kind of practicality is thematic for Lay. When asked his favorite brand of car, he immediately switched gears to the most economical brands: “Hondas and Toyotas are absolutely the best cars to drive…people get sucked in by the nice leather and the driving experience, but Japanese is the way to go.” When asked if he had read Robert Pirsig’s rather relevant novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lay seemed exhausted. “The whole zen thing is psh…I have very little use for it.”
Lay’s utilitarianism also matches the décor. Equipment and cars under repair occupy most of the space in his dojo. The entrance area, which takes up around one tenth of the garage, could be mistaken for an exhibition on found-object art. Junk piles containing varieties of old computers, stray papers, auto parts, and innumerable campy knick-knacks reach high into the sky. The junk has an archival nature–a mechanical equivalent to the concentric rings of a recently felled tree. The deeper into the pile, the more obsolescent the technology gets.
Mr. Lay has been managing his auto shogunate since the Interstate Highways were in their infancy.  Under Hyde Park’s sleepy guise, the Foreign Car Hospital persists in obduracy against time’s backfires and burning carburetors. If history provides any indication, Hyde Park’s car hospital will stay open until the automobile finally runs out of gas.
5242 S. Kimbark Ave.  (773)643-3113. Monday-Friday, 8:30-5pm 

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