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Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

February 19, 2009

Off-Road Entrepreneur

4x4_center The 4x4 Center in South Burlington repairs all manner of 4x4s and SUVs and specializes in the restoration of British Land Rovers. It also operates a unique training program where civilian and military drivers can hone their off-road driving skills. I met with owner Mike Hopwood recently to find out what keeps them motoring along.

BOB KILPATRICK: You guys have a wide portfolio of offerings here. Let’s start with the backbone of the operation, your service business. 
MIKE HOPWOOD: Basically, the ratio of our business is 25 percent restoration and 75 percent regular service and repairs. We fix everything. We install transmissions and motors. We do oil changes and brake jobs, the whole nine yards. If it’s on an SUV, we fix it. We have factory-trained techs and the right equipment to do it.

BK: What advice would you give to SUV owners to keep their vehicles in good working condition over the long haul?

MH: Stick with the scheduled service maintenance. Do not ignore check-engine lights. A lot of people are under the misconception that, “Oh, the light is just on again.” Well, it means something and it needs to get checked out. Go to a quality shop, even for your oil change. Because an oil change is an opportunity for a shop to have a quick look over and say, “Yep, you’re good.” If you bring your truck or SUV to a quick lube, all they’re going to do is drop the oil, slam some more oil in it and ship you out the door. That’s a missed opportunity to have the whole vehicle quickly looked at. A small problem will turn in to a big problem and cost you twice as much if it’s left.

BK: Why the focus on Land Rover?

MH: Well, we don’t just do Land Rovers. We fix all kinds of trucks, crossovers and SUVs. We specialize in Land Rovers because that’s what I grew up with. I was originally born in England and I grew up in Worcestershire. There they are as common as Chevys are over here. So that’s what I’ve loved since I was a little kid. As far as using them for our driving school, there are really just a few vehicles that could do the job. Land Rover is one of the few that will take that abuse on a daily basis.

BK: To an American who has less familiarity, what makes a Land Rover special?

MH: I think it’s a combination of durability and ability. It’s a special vehicle. They drive like nothing else. When you’re driving one, no other vehicle in the SUV world compares. When you physically get behind the wheel of a Land Rover, it makes you feel pretty special. It makes you feel secure and it does a lot of the hard work for you.

BK: Tell me about the different driver-training programs you have.
MH: By far the majority of our work is for the military. We also do corporate entertainment. Groups looking for an outdoor experience that involves vehicles. We train private individuals for whatever reason; maybe they’re going on safari to Africa. Maybe they’re just looking for a unique experience. We do a lot of work for Michelin Tires. We train people from all over the country in all aspects of their light-truck range. Michelin Tires owns B.F. Goodrich and Uniroyal. We teach their sales people how these tires perform off-road, on-road and how the various features balance the tires’ abilities.

BK: With the military training do you get into security and tactical driving?
MH: We typically do not address higher-speed driving. We’re not ramming and we’re not sliding vehicles around. What we’re doing is teaching them all aspects of recovery and traction. So no matter where they are in the world, they understand what it takes to get the ultimate traction to get where they need to go. On recovery, if one sedan goes off the road and all you’ve got is another sedan, how do you use one to the best advantage to recover the other? You don’t have a big heavy truck with a winch, so how are you going to do it?

BK: Do you have a local training facility?
MH: We do a lot of training at the Bolton Ski Area. It’s great terrain and it’s really close to the airport. We take over the Timberline Lodge for the duration of the summer. As soon as it’s done being a ski lodge, it becomes an off-road classroom. We have offices and a conference room, all of the facilities that we need. This summer we are scheduled to do 70 days of training.

BK: Tell me about the art of vehicle restoration.
MH: Restoration is a really tricky thing to do because no two jobs are ever the same. Customers’ expectations are always extremely high. It’s very difficult to keep budgets in check. Over the years we’ve become better and better at meeting and exceeding customers expectations by managing the projects properly. We have awesome techs who know what they’re doing, and we also have a huge library and history of past projects that we can draw on and try to pinpoint costs and potential problems before they occur.

BK: Why should vehicle owners consider the 4x4 Center versus another shop?

MH: We’re interested in quality. I’m not going to pretend that you can’t find a place to get the job done cheaper somewhere else, but what leaves here is going to be top-quality work.


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