The Advent of the Unibody
Long-time industry veteran Bruce Cooley spent years with paint companies Sherwin Williams and DuPont, retiring in 2013. Of the collision industry, Cooley noted in March, 2015, “The biggest single change to the collision industry did not happen overnight, but over time starting at around the early 1980’s. That was the birth of the unibody, and a time when auto manufacturers started building cars better so they would last longer. That changed everything. In the 1960’s and 1970’s many shops were called ‘body and paint’ shops, because they performed body work but did a fair amount of repaints and cosmetic work because OE finishes didn’t last. A lot of what shops did back then was repainting cars and fixing rust. Cars only lasted three to four years because they just rusted through. At four years old, the engine had 50,000 miles on it and was tired and the body was rusted through – it was time for a new car. Shops were fixing cars that were relatively lightly damaged. It didn’t take much to total a car back then. That all changed with higher-grade steel and new design. It revolutionized how we repaired cars.”
A trade magazine article from the summer of 1987 echoes’ Bruce’s sentiments. It states, “For many years, the industry evolved very slowly. Collision repair and refinish were pretty straight-forward. Bodymen were concerned with beating the clock. Most worked on a flat rate or commission basis. Back then, repair was quite different. Lead was a mainstay. Techniques such as metal working were the norm. How many of you remember when fenders were welded back onto the vehicle?” The article continues stating that the advent of the unibody vehicle changed everything. It stated that in 1987 some shops still continue to hold onto the notion that unibody cars are just a fad and that eventually, the body-on-frame method of building cars will return; so they refuse to learn new repair techniques and are not ready for the future. Unfortunately for them, as body-on-frame cars disappeared from American roads, so too did those shops that specialized in repairing them. Oddly enough, even in 2016, some shops still exist that cling to the old technology and repair body-on-frame cars, but these are more “specialty” shops now.
In her June, 1987 BodyShop Business editorial piece editor Denise Lloyd wrote, “This industry has changed more in the last 6 years than it has in the last 26 years!” Indeed things were changing faster, and with more depth than ever before.
An article appearing in the April, 1983 edition of BodyShop Business entitled Problems and Opportunities Created by the Growth on Unibodies by Dean Fergus Product Manager for Applied Power noted the following:
The collision repair equipment market changed from a mature market to a growth market almost overnight with the introduction of the domestic unibody cars. Prior to the early 1980’s, changes in the collision repair industry were gradual and evolutionary – rather than revolutionary. Prior to the early 1980’s, technicians could easily keep up with body construction and repair technology because the technology moved at a rather slow pace. “Our industry learned as we went along.”
However, with the introduction of unibody construction, the rate of change changed dramatically. In 1977, 98% of domestic cars were built on a frame and 2% were of unibody construction. In 1981, 52% were frame-based vehicles and 48% were of unibody construction. The article predicts that by 1985 4% of domestic vehicles would be frame-based and 96% would be unibody.
The problems (or perceived problems) created by the new unibody technology were myriad. Cars were considered to be “fragile” and unable to take a substantial “hit.” The insurance industry claimed repair costs were skyrocketing. Many shops were unsure how to repair them – and insisted on “sending them down the road” so they didn’t have to deal with them.
In a September, 1985 article in BodyShop Business, editor Denise Lloyd wrote, “Collision repair is no longer sheet metal, lamps, some filler and paint. It’s suspension and steering repair as well with more and more shops dedicating more and more space to mechanical repairs. As a collision repair shop technician, if it gets wrecked, you need to know how to fix it, even if it’s been previously considered a “mechanical repair.”
Smart shops were embracing the new construction technology, investing in the equipment and training to fix those vehicles, and promoting that fact to consumers and insurance companies. In fact, the 80’s marked a time when consumers were being recognized in something more than just a passive role. In her January, 1985 editorial called Educating the Consumer, BodyShop Business editor Denise Lloyd’s notes, “The collision repair industry needs to start educating the consumer; educating the consumer to the importance of and necessity of accurate collision repair. Educating the consumer that accurate repair repairs require skill, training and proper equipment. And finally that this skill, training and equipment has a price tag; a price tag that is not necessarily “the lowest estimate.”