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Panayiotis Charalambous, Tyre Fitter

January 7, 2012
by the gentle author

One of the friendliest places I know in the Roman Rd is D & G Autos where there is always a stream of taxi drivers lining up to get their tyres fixed and enjoying the opportunity for a chinwag. Most of the customers have been coming as long as Panayiotis has been here, which is more than thirty years, and consequently everyone feels completely at home.

This nineteen fifties shopping precinct might – at first – appear a strange location for an auto shop, but if you go around to the rear of the former butcher’s premises, you will discover the yard where the tyres get changed. This is the hub of activity, as the tyrefitters make quick work of getting the taxis back on the road while the cabbies wander in and out of the workshop, exchanging banter and seeking refuge in this safe haven from the turbulence and clamour of the city traffic.

Yet in spite of the spectacle, the most powerful sensation to greet the casual visitor is the smell of oil which permeates the air inside the shop, coating every surface with grime, casting an inky black shadow and defining the extent of this territory where no-one minds getting dirty. “You never lose the smell,” said Panayiotis, as we stood for a moment to savour the fragrant atmosphere,“when I take a week off, it really hits me!”

He and his colleagues William Boyle (known as Baldrick) and Ryan Leon wear dark clothing caked with oil, and their hands are ingrained with it too, the proud badge of their work – setting them apart from the rest of the world and engendering the playful spirit of anarchy that pervades in the auto shop. Everyone is an equal player here. The taxi drivers are their own bosses and Panayiotis is keen to emphasise that he does not set himself above his mates. “I won’t ask the guys to do anything I wouldn’t do, I work hands-on, everybody together.” he assured me with an eager smile. And the evidence of this was all around us in the tiny workshop, as the business of fitting tyres went on furiously while the cabbies stood around chatting, swigging tea and regarding the activity in the same way that drinkers eye a snooker table at the centre of a barroom.

After I left school at fifteen, I worked for two brothers who ran a garage in Hackney but the trade took a dip so I got laid off. A friend who worked here asked if I could do him a favour and take a look at a broken machine, so I came over and refitted it and it worked – I replaced one of the parts. They gave me a job and there you are, I’ve been here thirty-six years. My old guvnor, Terry Harding, he got ill about thirteen years ago and passed away, so I kept it going for his wife until two years ago when we came to an agreement and now I own the business.

When things are going well, it’s easy but this year may get tricky. We predominantly fit taxi drivers and it’s a constant trade, but with the new low emission zone it’s half what it usually is because the owners are replacing their fleets and the new vehicles won’t require replacement tyres for six months. We sell new tyres but the trade is predominantly remoulds because of the price, ninety-eight out of a hundred we sell are remoulds – a remould is £42 whereas a new one is £90. We send a used tyre back to the factory and they strip it back to the wire and rebuild it, we just do the fitting. Even in the recession people still need their tyres changed but now they are leaving it as long as possible, until it bursts – they come in with tyres that are down the wire, down to the canvas.

We’re pretty easy guys here, stuck in the nineteen seventies. There’s no office or reception rooms, you just walk in and here we are. We get a lot of bullshit merchants. You create a gap between the ears – what they say goes in but when it reaches the bulshit level, you switch off. The problem is sometimes they take liberties, but if they owe you an amount of money and you ask for it nicely I think you are more likely to get paid. I’ve been fortunate in that I have only had two people knock me back in forty years.

You see, it’s a repeat business, the majority of my customers have been coming for ever. If you provide a service and look sharp and try hard and you don’t take liberties, then they will come back. If someone wants me to fit a pair of brake pads, if I can do it I will. Any time here, you might see six or seven taxis queueing up. To an outsider, it looks like we’re doing well but you’d realise it’s not so, if you saw what we took. People don’t just come for tyres, they come to get their oil topped up or check their wheel alignment.

In general, I enjoy it. It’s like a social club really, they are in and out all day. I don’t think I’ll ever become a millionaire because it’s a turnover trade, you’ve got to sell a lot to make a profit. But it’s provided a living for me, I’ve brought up four kids and I’m happy.

The shopfront facing Roman Rd.

Terry Harding, Panayiotis’ former boss, pictured in 1976.

Panayiotis changes a tyre.

Terry changes a tyre in 1976.

The yard at the back where the taxis pull up.

Panayiotis (centre) with Terry on the right and William on the left, in 1976.

William & Brian, tyrefitters of the Roman Rd in 1976.

Brian, Mo & Panayiotis, in recent years.

Panayiotis with his mate William Boyle, known as Baldrick.

Remembering Terry Harding at D & G Autos, 110 Roman Rd, E2 0RN.

New photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

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