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Open up that hood and say "Ahh'

"I tell people, "Always get a second opinion, even a third. Fifty percent of repairs don't even need to be done. And of the 50 percent that are, 25 percent are marginal.' "

That's the advice of Dennis Neighbor Sr., The Car Doctor.

Perhaps you have seen his program on Paragon Cable television, Ch. 16, Monday nights at 8. It's now in its fourth year.

Neighbor's mechanical expertise _ exhibited at Denny's Fina, 5800 Central Ave., and Nationwide South Auto Repair, 1099 49th St. S _ led a customer to recommend him for a new program that radio station WTKN was starting seven years ago. Called At Your Service, the program featured experts in various fields solving problems for listeners who called in.

When Neighbor was a guest host on the program "all six telephone lines were busy within five minutes and it stayed that way the whole hour," he said.

He was asked back again, and then got his own show. There was no pay, just good advertisement for his business.

Three years later, this led to a television program with the same sort of response. At one point, Neighbor was doing a television show in Sarasota, one in Pinellas County and the radio show.

This was a bit much, so he has narrowed it down to the Monday night appearance.

Neighbor accepts no sponsors for his show whom he cannot endorse personally, and if he believes a caller has been treated poorly by another mechanic or dealer, he will not hesitate to say so on television.

"The audience response is amazing and has been for the last four years," said Fred Carson, president of Talk TV.

The publicity and recognition the program has brought Neighbor is a little embarrassing to him. A soft-spoken, almost shy person, his manner belies his 6-foot-4 frame.

But Neighbor, 50, is not shy when it comes to talking about cars. "At 12, I took my first engine apart," he said. "I also had my first motorbike at 12, and drove at 13, although without a license.

"But I always thought if somebody could build something, I should be able to take it apart."

Many members of his family share his mechanical ability. "We have a natural instinct, a feel for it," he said. "People who do not have this just don't know when something is wrong."

"Mechanical parts actually talk to us," he said. "They are living things. They say "ouch!' If you listen, you can hear it."

Neighbor operated a service station and a backhoe business in Cleveland but brought his wife and three children to St. Petersburg in 1972 when his knees could not take another Ohio winter. He borrowed $2,000 from an uncle and made a $300 deposit on the Central Avenue business and a down payment on a house.

His brother Eric went into business with him, and the long hours and hard work began on Denny's Fina Station.

"We even bought our own washer and washed our own uniforms and rags," he said.

Eric Neighbor was killed in 1974 in a motorcycle accident.

Neighbor thought by dint of hard work and hours, he would make sufficient money at the station, "but I didn't know how oil companies work."

American Petrofina, which owns his Fina station, has gone from $1,800 monthly rent three years ago to $3,600 two years ago, then $4,200 last year and has notified him the rent will be $5,200 a month next year, "and no matter how hard we work at the convenience store and station there, we can't generate enough for that."

Seeing the handwriting on the wall two years ago, Neighbor bought a large colonial building in Gulfport, and opened Nationwide South Auto Repair in June 1991. It offers AAA emergency road service, which generates more than 500 calls a week.

His wife Carolyn runs the Fina, "and she works harder than I do," Neighbor said. Daughters Christine and Cynthia, who is finishing her last semester at the University of South Florida in Tampa, work there. Dennis Jr. is service manager for the Gulfport auto repair shop, which his father runs.

Although he also would like to own the Fina station, if the rent situation doesn't change there, the senior Neighbor will pull out, bring his employees over to the Gulfport business and enlarge it.

With all his hard work, Neighbor allows himself one pleasure: stock car racing. Despite the fact that his brother, two nephews and an uncle were killed in highway accidents, Neighbor and his son Dennis Jr., 21, are avid racers.

"I'll be safer driving at the (Sunshine) Speedway (on) Saturday than you will driving home," he said. He is sure that with adequate precautions and a well-maintained car, there is minimal danger involved on the track.

The shop and station are open six days a week and Sundays are spent working on the wreckers, Neighbor says. But everybody who can, goes to the races on Saturdays, including Mrs. Neighbor.

"That's why my wife works so hard, so she can go to the races on Saturday," Neighbor said. He said he doesn't make any money racing but covers his expenses. The largest prize he has ever won was $1,000.

On the show and in the shop, Neighbor's goal is to get people to understand their cars and maintain them properly. He believes any car can last 100,000 miles and perhaps even 200,000 miles if properly maintained.

And Dennis Neighbor has good news for you, America: "American cars today are far superior to Japanese and maintained far less expensively. In the last two years, they have done a complete turnaround."

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