Mark Brandow learned he wanted to be a mechanic after finding a 1947 MG TC in the jungle of Malaysia, stripping it down to the bolts, and teaching his Peace Corps class how to put it back together. More than 50 years later, he’s still at it, leading Quality Coaches, an auto repair shop on 38th and Nicollet in South Minneapolis. And even more than fixing up old English sports cars, he’s in the business of serving the people who call his community home. We sat down with Mark to chat about learning, creating a place to play, and nurturing people.
April 18, 2022
How do you describe your job?
Well, these cars all have a history—their own karma. So, I’m a karma collector. When a car comes into the shop, I try to find the right parts and pieces to make it whole. I rebuild, repurpose, and reuse what is old and tired, down and out. The cars all have a story, and the fun part for me is to see those stories come alive.
"These cars all have a history—their own karma. So, I'm a karma collector."
Is there a particular story that stands out?
I think of the story of the car that got me started fixing cars. When I was 19, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Malaysia to teach woodworking, metalworking, and small engine mechanics to junior-high-school boys. While I was over there, I found a 1947 MG TC that became my personal project. But I soon realized it could be a teaching opportunity, so I had my students take it apart, and I proceeded to put it back together to teach them the interrelation of all the different skills they were learning. And ultimately, that experience led me to keep fixing cars, which led me right here.
What did it take for you to translate that experience into a business?
It took a lot of learning. When I found the MG in Malaysia and started fixing it up, I didn’t have much support. There wasn’t a community of mechanics or a huge market of used parts. So, I had to dive into the potential and deal with the possibilities. I made connections and built relationships with strangers who had the parts and pieces I needed to rebuild the car—and that was a totally green experience for me. I had never done anything like it, and I had to learn about everything I was doing as I did it. But the learning process is what intrigued me about it—and it still intrigues me today.
What are you still learning after 50 years in business?
I’m learning that life is about taking things step by step. I didn’t start off being a car mechanic, but I was able to gain the skills I needed to fix my own car when I was young. And because I loved doing it, I kept fixing other cars one at a time. That eventually turned into this business, which is something I didn’t initially plan on. A lot of people want to start big and do everything at once, but I wanted to start little. I wanted to create a place to help people and fix cars—a place to play. And step by step, I’ve been making it work.
"We get to be dream merchants—getting creative and working together to make dreams a reality."
Can you say more about the shop being a place to play?
It’s fun working here. There’s always work to do, and we get to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to all sorts of mechanical problems. A lot of times, we get to repurpose used parts to make old cars new again. And we work hard to do it all properly, which adds to the fun. People come in here with dream desires—visions for how they want their cars remodeled—and we get to be dream merchants, getting creative and working together to make those dreams a reality.
What do you set out to offer people who interact with Quality Coaches?
I want people to walk out knowing we did good by them. I want them to know that we’re not about being cheap or fast—but rather about giving people what they need and doing it well. And I want to do that for anyone who walks through the door—anybody and everybody who needs service. Because everybody wants to be honored and valued, and everybody deserves to be.
What does community mean to you?
I see my way of doing business as a community concept. I have Black customers, White customers, Latino customers—all kinds of customers—and we’re all in this together. It’s not about me, the big dog on top. I don’t want to be on top. I’m just here to help people with their challenges and figure out how to be a valued player in their lives. Because I feel like we are all buoyed up by the people we help—and we all need to be nurtured.
"We loaned him $1,000 to put toward buying a new car, which he pays back whenever he has an extra $100 or so."
What have you done to nurture people in your community?
I remember a few years ago, a guy was driving around the corner in a Chevy Lumina and the axle fell out. He drove it in here, and we fixed it up, but he couldn’t afford the whole bill—so we let him pay what he could. When the car eventually broke down, we gave him one to use for a time. And we loaned him $1,000 to put toward buying a new one, which he pays back every time he has an extra $100 or so. That’s just one example of what I believe it means to nurture people. It’s helping them with their challenges by meeting them where they’re at.
What are you building?
I want to keep making Quality Coaches a place for everybody. For example, each of my employees has a key to the shop so they can work on their own projects on the weekends. One of the guys who works here is 66, and after a career in real estate, he wanted to learn how to play with cars—so he came here for an apprenticeship. Another guy, who does seat work for me, is 85 and helps out just because he likes doing it. So, I see this shop as a way to give people a place to work with their hands, learn new skills, and do something that brings them joy. And all the while, we get to keep solving problems for anyone who needs them solved.
"If I'm still alive, I must be here for a reason."
What drives you to get there?
38 years ago, I crashed my pickup in a drunk driving accident—and when I came to in the hospital, the doctor said I was lucky to be alive. I thought to myself, “If I’m still alive, I must be here for a reason.” Now, I’m 38 years sober and have spent every one of them trying to do good work that makes a positive difference. And I think that’s led to me living out my dream of just being here, being me, and helping others do the same.