Eric Fabian is the first to graduate from SMC's auto program

Eric Fabian's '84 Nissan Maxima was a real headache. With its best years well behind it, some time during the Reagan administration, and an escalating bill for repairs, Fabian decided enough was enough.

Tired of giving every last hard-earned dollar to mechanics that he suspected, though could never confirm, of inflating the repair costs, he decided to take matters into his own hands. With little experience working on car engines, he enrolled last spring in Santa Monica College's newly piloted Automotive 40 course, automotive maintenance and operation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"My alternator broke and the mechanics told me it would cost roughly $500 to fix," said Fabian, rolling his eyes into the back of his head. "So I brought an alternator for about $100, took the car into class with me and fixed it myself. I must have saved at least $400. For me, that's a lot of money."

One year and nine units later, Fabian, 21, from downtown Los Angeles, has completed all three automotive courses available at SMC and was officially awarded the Certificate of Completion of the Introductory Automotive Technician certificate. He is the first student to receive this certificate since auto classes were reinstated at SMC last year, and the experience has expanded his horizons regarding his future career.

"Having taken this course, I really want to finish my [automotive] degree…Probably somewhere like Cerritos College," said Fabian. Both Cerritos and Rio Honda College offer certificates that seamlessly transition to more advanced training programs. "My ultimate dream would be to open my own garage…I would love the opportunity to provide fair and affordable auto care to those who can't afford to be ripped-off by mechanics."

Automotive classes were reintroduced at SMC after a hiatus of nearly six years. Up until 2003, the classes were conducted in facilities on the Pico Boulevard side of Drescher Hall. Now they are held at the Lexus-Toyota dealership on Ninth Street and Colorado Boulevard in Santa Monica.

The facility looks like NASA commissioned it. It is a cavernous repair "hanger" lined with hydraulic lifts along each side and equipped with the latest gadgetry capable of dealing with an increasingly computerized industry. However, it can only be used in the evenings after normal business hours.

Fran Chandler, chair of the SMC business department and one the people who awarded Fabian with his certificate, understands how fortuitous and beneficial the premises are to SMC.

"Mike Sullivan, the owner, and Dennis Erikson, the facilities manager, have been incredibly generous in donating their time and such an amazing facility to educate [SMC] students," said Chandler. "Our students have been lucky to learn in such a high-tech, real world environment."

Should the courses, which were tentatively introduced with the proviso that they prove to be popular with students, continue to gather the high enrollment figures that they have thus far received, Chandler said that it is highly probable SMC will once again have its own on-campus automotive facility. This, she said, might be at the proposed Career Technical Education building slated to be built at the Bundy campus by 2117, "should funding become available for it."

Aside from the course in maintenance and operation, SMC offers two more classes in braking and electrical systems. All three classes are specially designed to provide students with a fundamental overview of each operating system, all the while introducing cutting-edge techniques that will help them to come to grips with an industry that is becoming increasingly high-tech.

"In the '60s you could get a screwdriver and a hammer, give [the engine] a good whack and it would start," said Jose Camacho, one of two automotive professors at SMC. "Now, cars are more and more computerized… It's complex. Everything is in the software."

Camacho also said that as vehicles continue to evolve, eschewing high pollutants in favor of more sustainable fuels, it is imperative that the technicians of today stay current with trends in order to get the best possible jobs once their training is complete.

While the thought of getting stripped down and dirty with your two-liter, four cylinder combustion engine may seem daunting to the uninitiated, Camacho stressed that the courses offered are suitable for all levels of experience, even those who think an oil change means finding a different suntan lotion.

"Sometimes you can possess the gift without really knowing it," said Camacho. "So many students come who don't know a thing about cars, but after only a little while they're doing as well as anybody"

This sentiment is echoed by Fabian, who admits that when he first started he found it difficult, regularly "getting stuck on the basics." However, with Camacho's "patience and passion to show him every little [detail]," he said it soon got easier. "I quickly felt more confident…I felt powerful. I started working on cars more then I played on video games."

If Fabian's efforts are anything to go by, it seems as though SMC's latest automotive course is here to stay.