LOCAL HAPPENINGS AND MORE IN THE SOUTH ORANGE COUNTY CITY OF SAN CLEMENTE

El Camino Auto

San Clemente’s Master Class

By: Stephanie A. Klein

It’s downright impressive—the size, scale and history of the operation at El Camino Automotive Center.  The shop is the size of a small dealership, comprised of 10 bays big enough to fit any car, whether classic, modern or recreational. Located near the Ave Pico off-ramp, it sits on a secure lot of almost 2-acres and houses a team of master mechanics with well over a century’s-worth of collective experience, serving almost four generations of loyal South Coast customers.

El Camino Auto’s “Master Class” (what they call their collection of automotive experts) is led by founder and frontman RJ Blickhan, who has long been known as “the auto guy,” straight back to his days at San Clemente HS when he raced motorcycles. Back then, he was employed at the full-service 76 station on El Camino Real at the south end of town alongside his dad, Roger Blickhan II.

In 1990, Blickhan was fresh out of college from San Diego State where he’d studied public administration and majored in “having a good time,” when he and his dad bought the 76 station and continued serving and acquiring local customers. We’re talking generations of business professionals, parents and their coming-of-age kids who still bring their cars to Blickhan today.

As the business continued to grow throughout the ‘90s, Blickhan continued to do what he loved, splitting his time between the shop during the week and racing professional motocross on the weekends. He ultimately competed freestyle in the ’99 Summer X-Games at the San Francisco Pier.

ElCaminoAuto

From there, he accepted an invitation to serve as head judge for the event and created the consistent criteria for judging freestyle motocross still used to this day. He also formed FBI (Flying Bike Industry), a cohort of 15-20 seasoned riders who, over the next 8 years, judged upwards of 260 freestyle motocross competitions. By the time he opted out in 2007, the game had changed dramatically, as had things back at home.

The station’s neighboring Coco’s restaurant had new developers, which meant big changes for the 76 station. Fortunately, the parties each had different interests: the developers wanted no part of the auto repair shop—the one part of the business lot that Blickhan was determined to hold onto. A spot became available in the historic downtown business district, so Blickhan sold the station and salvaged the shop, moving it eight blocks up the street, and minting it “El Camino Automotive.”

Pictured is frontman RJ Blickhan and Preston Wilson

Over the next few years the shop thrived. All the while, Blickhan kept his eye out for another, more permanent spot. They did a lot of fancy footwork to keep up with the 30-50 cars a day their reputation brought in. Blickhan even hired a guy whose only job was to park the cars on public streets and bring them up when they were ready to be serviced. But despite the challenges, he “loved the location and the feel of downtown.” He bided his time, growing his arsenal of state-of-the-art equipment and assembling his dream team of service writers and mechanics—his Master Class.

It was a Woodie that took the business even further, a fluke really. In 2009, Preston Wilson, a fellow SCHS graduate, vintage car enthusiast and long-time friend brought his fully restored 1950 Ford Country Squire “Woodie” in for some motor work.

Wilson knew that Blickhan’s master mechanic, Larry McCombs, was an ace in the pocket for any car that’s got a little age on it. McCombs knew the motor from one end to the other, and Blickhan wanted to help Wilson out. But the shop was just so busy! Wilson, an avid volleyball player, surfer and surf-rocker, is also a numbers guy—he’s a graduate of Brigham Young University and holds an MBA in Marketing/Management.  Bottom line: He could do the math. And the truth was, RJ needed to add one more person to his team. “He had reached a workload he just couldn’t handle by himself,” Wilson says.

ElCaminoAuto2 Wilson also recognized what a stellar and unique set of skills and equipment Blickhan had assembled and was adamant that people needed to know about it. This recognition birthed an idea, which led to a business dinner, which led to a smile that hasn’t gone away for either one of them since.  And so grew El Camino’s Master Class by a very important addition of one—Preston Wilson.

“Adding Preston to the business end of things was the absolute right thing to do. I knew I needed somebody dedicated to managing the numbers. It leaves me open to take care of the cars.  We couldn’t be more different, more night and day,” Blickhan laughs. “But he had the same exact vision as I did:  Let’s get a bigger shop.”

And that’s just what they did. Sharing a mutual love for cars, their hometown and a commitment to providing the absolute best customer value and experience, when the perfect location presented itself, they were ready. In January of 2011, they opened in a spacious spot on Ave Navarro, right in one of San Clemente’s two automotive districts, complete with a rare city permit for 24/7 operation.  If anyone can put that permit to good use, it’s these guys.

Now, thanks to their incomparable reputation, equipment, and specialized team, they boast the largest independent automotive service center in South OC, and maintain the most extensive corporate account-base in all of Orange County, offering VIP services which keep your business running and your workday undisturbed.

“Car repair is such a small part of life,” Blickhan says. “Or at least it should be. We want to keep it that way for our customers.  We want them to know that nothing’s gonna go wrong at this shop.”

And boy, do they ever mean it.

ElCaminoAuto1 El Camino Auto maintains the vehicles of every plumbing company in San Clemente, from basic pick-ups to large box vans. They take care of all the Chase banks, as well as South Coast Distributing, one of the area’s largest janitorial supply companies, servicing their entire fleet, even diesel vehicles.

Rick Arons of South Coast Distributing, itself a 62-year staple in San Clemente business, has no question as to the value of their services. “I can’t say enough how they’ve saved us thousands of dollars—so much money, even on tires. The honesty, fast work, and courtesy,” he attests. Arons has been relying on RJ since he and Roger first won him over roughly 20 years ago.

“Old school,” is what Julie Ragenovich of Sonny’s Pizza & Pasta calls it—and we know she wouldn’t use that term lightly. As Sonny’s business expands into catering and deliveries, she knows she will be relying on El Camino Auto even more. “They go the extra mile to give you the service. I love going there.”

Eric Johnson of South Coast Fire, another one of EL Camino’s corporate accounts, brings them every one of his vehicles, even his boat trailer, and sends his mother there, too. “They jump right on it, get it back on the road, and send me a bill at the end of the month,” says Johnson. “I’ve been other places in town that have been there a long time, and it seems like they do a good job at first, but after a while it’s apparent they’re just not as skilled.  At El Camino Auto, their level of service hasn’t changed.”

El Camino Auto also has a number of surf industry accounts: O’Neill, Ripcurl, Volcom. Got a motorhome?  Their lifts are big enough to hoist it! They run a completely green shop for all your basic auto repair and maintenance, and they can also custom-build the car of your dreams, classic to modern, or execute a full frame-off renovation.

ElCaminoAuto3 Nicknamed Preston “Will Go,” Wilson spends a portion of his days filling in the holes to keep the business running with well-oiled efficiency. Sometimes that means picking up a part, or running a customer home or back to work.  He is often spotted at the STGE Power Plant servicing their fleet of over 1,100 vehicles, or back and forth from the San Onofre Military Base where they donate time and at least a 15% discount to military families in conjunction with The Wounded Warriors Project and Words of Comfort, Hope and Promise.

“If you’re not bringing your car to us, then you’re paying somebody too much money,” Wilson says. We believe him.