The Continental Imports Story
We pride ourselves in being a family owned business serving your premier import auto maintenance and repair needs since 1978.
Walter Bodendorf and Steve Brotherton met at the Mercedes dealer and worked next to one another as technicians there in the early 70’s. A lifelong friendship and later partnership was started back then. Steve left the dealer in 1976 and started a service shop in a Porsche restoration business in north Gainesville. It was called Type 356. That business thrived, but the demands of the service shop were increasing as technology made huge leaps. Desire to achieve technical excellence needed a new direction.
In 1978, a good reputation, a lot of hard work, and a strong personal bond, allowed Walter and Steve the good fortune to be presented with the deal of a lifetime, an owner financed building on a busy intersection with significant space for growth. Continental Imports was started on May 1, 1978. The building was located at 1701 S Main St on the northeast corner of the intersection of 16th Ave and S Main St.
At the time Gainesville didn’t have an independent German car specialty shop and the market was there. Being on the daily route of many working Gainesville commuters, word spread and the business prospered. From an original three employees and a dirt parking lot, the business grew to more than 8 people in the next seven years. The parking lot was paved and fenced, lifts were added both inside and into an addition built onto the back of the property. This new addition added 4 lifts to the two original including Gainesville’s first true computer 4 wheel alignment package added in 1980 without a roof overhead. The electronics had to be rolled inside at night or anytime it rained.
A friendly relationship with a new BMW/ Porsche independent facility up the street brought the next significant change. The partnership in that business, sadly, didn’t thrive as Walter and Steve’s did and when it dissolved one partner Alan Rhodes joined Continental Imports bringing a huge experience with BMW. A year later as the Main St location overflowed its facilities, Continental Imports leased the facilities of that other location at 604 SE 2nd St. They were now running two locations with 12 bays and 10 lifts. The expansion to a second location occurred in 1985.
At this same time another rather unique and educational situation had been occurring. Due to Walter’s German heritage with existing relatives in Europe and the unique monetary situation of the dollar to Mark relationship, CI joined a budding importation industry that was occurring in various parts of the country. While not exactly in a competitive location in Gainesville due to testing requirements that caused all cars to have to be shipped to South Florida for final certification, Continental Imports did bring and modify nearly 30 cars into the US from Germany in 1984 and 1985.
The main significance of this period was that due to the legal requirements of certification an importer was required to design and produce systems to handle and be tested for the current US emissions standards. As a U of F graduate engineer Steve was well suited to this and attended training in various spots across the country taking the added effort to learn the technology that was probably a number of years from hitting the bays of independent repair shops. Thus CI was required not only to be able to repair the systems but had to design them and be tested on their products. A tremendous technical advantage was gained as a by-product.
Then Along came Bosch… As a result of their position in the industry Bosch came to CI in 1985 and asked for their participation in the creation of the Bosch Service Center program in the US. A pilot program of 5 shops had existed in all the US through 1985 and in 1986 CI was added as one of the first group of Service facilities for the new program. At the time there was just 6 such facilities in Florida. By 1989 CI had been recognized by Bosch as one of the top 10 facilities in the Southeast.
The business continued to grow and the two locations were a burden to management and efficiency, so in 1990 CI purchased most of the 1200 block of South Main street. Included were five acres and three building comprising almost 40,000 square feet of interior space. The newer building was renovated to be the current shop facility. It includes 25 bays and with recent lift additions 13 lifts.
Through the 90’s Continental Imports maintained a steady growth, both in personnel and technical expertise. Their position as an industry leader in technology was continually strengthened by the addition of strategic testing equipment almost always being the only one in Gainesville with such tooling. Much of the firsts were in Bosch equipment for both diesel and gas fuel injection. They have always had the first and only Bosch LED tester for Antilock Brakes. They became the only service facility in the region with a drive cycle, load capable chassis dynometer in the late 90’s. This provided the ability to recreate driving conditions in the bay while attached to the array of testing equipment available, again totally unique to the region.
Computers of course entered the business at an early stage first appearing in 1986. By the early 90’s the business had a complete network of computers and by the mid 90’s every tech had access to a terminal and printer. Information systems which were the heart of CI’s prowess left the paper and micro film state in the late 90’s, as all manufacturers went to PC based data systems. Through wideband internet access over the shop network, and huge in-house data storage each tech acquired access to every data bit imaginable.
In the late 90’s computers also actively entered automobile diagnostics. Each manufacturer designed diagnostic software and hardware to communicate with the cars built-in onboard diagnostics. Continental Imports was again first and for the most part still is the only local facility using factory computer software and hardware for these diagnostics and increasingly for everyday maintenance functions. This is not just unique to Gainesville, Continental Imports has acquired a national reputation for their level of tooling. There are probably less than 100 independent shops nationwide that have factory tools for MB, BMW, and Porsche, let alone having it also for Volkswagon/Audi, Saab, Jaguar, and Land Rover. All of these tools are factory authorized tools, not cheap generic aftermarket tools. Unknown to most consumers it is very rare to find an independent shop using realfactory diagnostic computers. This is changing, but Continental Imports has been a vocal leader of this change.
As the business moved into the 21st century CI cemented their position as a unique technical facility. Steve was awarded recognition for industry position by the iATNwww.iatn.net in 2003. He became a contributing editor of Import Car (a trade publication, in 2000. He became a founding member of the BMW technician group BIMRS (www.BIMRS.org) and currently is an officer and member of the Board of Directors. He became a moderator of an internet forum dealing with Mercedes-Benz;www.mercedesshop.com. He was nominated to the national Mechanical Operations committee of ASA (http://www.asashop.org) and became a member of the advisory board of Santa Fe Community College. In 2005 he was asked to testify before the US House of Representatives as an expert witness in the state of automotive technology.
Unfortunately, Walter passed away in October of 2006. The character of the business was much a result of Walter’s passion for people and the industry. It was carried into the future by a loving staff of 19 and a new partnership between Hannelore (Walter’s wife) and Steve and his wife Lin. The future is also strengthened through youth with Walter’s daughter Heidi.
Although CI has a vast history and is a huge service facility compared to other independents, it is a uniquely family oriented business for a modern facility. In September of 2014, Steve sold his interest in the business to Heidi and Darren and semi retired. Wife Lin did retire. With young energetic leadership Continental Imports has grown even further adding two lifts and three techs in the last two years.
Phone: (352) 377-6604
Fax: (352) 377-2218
1219 S. Main St.
Gainesville, FL 32601 USA