The Advent of the Unibody

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.”


The Ballad of Frederick Simms

Of all the safety equipment ever invented for a motor vehicle, none has been so ubiquitous, and been damaged so many times in so many accidents, and has generated so much income for so many parts suppliers, and provided so many labor hours for so many collision technicians, as the item invented by Frederick R. Simms.  Simms was born in Hamburg, Germany, August 12, 1863 and became a British mechanical engineer, businessman, and inventor.  He was a personal friend of Gottlieb Daimler and became involved in the company that eventually became known as Daimler-Benz.  In association with Robert Bosch, he invented the magneto.  He started the Simms Magneto Company in New Jersey.  The company eventually went on to produce a number of electrical items through the 1940’s and eventually was bought out by the British company, Lucas.  But for those in the collision repair industry, Frederick Simms is not remembered for his achievements in the world of automotive electrics.  Frederick Simms is known as the inventor of what is arguably the most maligned safety item ever – the automotive bumper.

History of the NE Automotive Services Show

In March, 1977, the first of what would become known as the Northeast Automotive Services Show, or better known as simply, the Northeast Trade Show, is presented by the North Jersey Auto Body Association (NJABA) at the Ramada Inn in Rochelle Park, NJ.  The show is called “Allied Member Night.”  The show was the brainchild of Ron Mucklow, NJABA president for 1977 and 78, George Threlfall, founder of NJABA along with former NJABA presidents Dave Demarest and Jim Bowers.   It was a table-top show strictly for local jobbers, allowing them to show off their latest products.  “This was the days before spray booths, frame machines and all that stuff” said George Petrask, NJABA president for 1981 – 82 in a 2017 magazine interview.

Ron Mucklow and George Petrask handed out a “bunch of tickets”, set up the room and waited for people to show.  Nobody came, the two men thought it was a bust, and left for dinner.  A short time later they returned to find throngs of people waiting for the doors to open.  It was claimed that the fire department was called and no more people were allowed to enter the room because it was so packed.

For the rest of this story and more interesting and insightful information about the early days of the collision repair industry in America, click on the “Order Here” tab above and order your copy of YesterWreck today!

Thank The Chauffeurs

In the very earliest days of “motoring” only the wealthy could afford cars and in keeping with the social protocols of the still-present horse and buggy means of personal transportation, wealthy vehicles owners were driven around by chauffeurs.  Chauffeurs would drive their employers into the city for work and then, because most early cars were open, had to park the car in a parking garage and wait for their employer to come out of work 8 hours later so they could drive home.  By default, the chauffeurs became mechanics and body men, repairing their owner’s cars as needed. During the long 8 hour wait for their employers to get out of work, some chauffeurs chose to go joy riding and inevitably, ended up getting into accidents.  At the time, the vehicle owner was held liable for any damages to the other party’s vehicle.  Of course this caused a deep rift between the vehicle owners, and their chauffeurs – the guys who repaired their cars.  Eventually, the law was changed and the driver became responsible for damages in an accident.  And people other than chauffeurs became adept at auto repair.  But the damage was done and those who made auto repairs were seen on a lower social strata than those who owned the cars.  For an expanded version of this story, and other interesting historical tidbits, order YesterWreck by going to the “Order Here” tab above.

The Start of the MSO Movement

The 1970’s saw the seeds sown for what would become the model for 21st century collision shops.   Before the days of ABRA, CARSTAR and Caliber, Pittsburgh industrialist Ward Wickwire signed the first franchising agreement to open an American Way International body shop in Pittsburgh.  The agreement carried an option for franchised shops throughout Pennsylvania.  Wickwire fully believed that the AWI business model would solve many of the industry’s problems.

AWI never became a household word or was nationally recognized, but this period would give rise to those who were.  In 1972, Anthony A. Martino opened his first auto painting shop in Wilmington, DE.  Using the first letter of his last name, and the first letter of his first and middle name, he called his new business Maaco Auto Painting.  He soon began to open additional shops providing a good overall paint job at a reasonable cost and by 1977, he had almost 200 locations.  Martino died in January, 2008 and in October, the company he founded was sold to Driven Brands of Charlotte, NC, a holding company which also holds Meineke Car Care Centers and Econo Lube among others. 

For this and more interesting pieces of collision industry history, go to the “Order Here” tab on this website to get your copy of YesterWreck.

A Voice From 1971

Ernest Hanni has a rather unique perspective on the collision business. That’s because he has been a body shop owner in San Francisco since 1935.  According to Hanni, the three biggest problems with the industry in 1971 are; enough qualified body men, the ability for independent shops to buy parts at competitive prices (compared to dealer-owned shops), and the need for more shops to become involved with industry associations to make the industry a better place.  Fast forward another 48 years to 2019.  Dealer parts pricing structure is no longer an issue, the other two remain.

For this and other interesting pieces of collision repair industry history, get your copy of YesterWreck.  Go the tab on this site marked “order here” and order yours today.

Donations Near $1,000

For 2018, sales of YesterWreck helped donate almost $1,000 to the Chuck Sulkala NABC Appreciation Scholarship fund.  Thanks to all who purchased a book in 2018 and made this possible.  Let’s keep this rolling in 2019.  Thanks in advance for your support!

US Government First Addresses Auto Safety

Automotive writer James Crate wrote in 1993 that from the birth of the automobile up until 1956, the auto had been wholly unmolested by federal laws primarily for a reason that was left over from the days when horses were the primary mode of personal transportation.  And that is the then-motoring public and the federal government considered the automobile a personal item, much as a horse had been, and thus was an inviolate part of a person’s way of life and such a personal artifact should not come under the scrutiny of some government law or entity.  That began to change on July 15, 1956 when Congressman Kenneth Roberts, an Alabama Democrat opened the first session of the first House subcommittee on traffic safety by proceeding directly to the subject of automotive design standards.

The auto industry was not ready for Congressman Roberts.  They weren’t ready to be asked if the vehicles they were putting on the road might be designed better and safer, to first help mitigate accidents and / or to reduce the severity and save lives.  The motoring public, at the time, was apathetic.  Even Robert’s fellow legislators and other federal personnel were apathetic at the least and at the worst, condescending.  Roberts was not re-elected.  However, during his tenure, he managed to get H.R. 1341 passed which set safety standards for those vehicles purchased by the US government.  At the time the federal government purchased about 35,000 vehicles a year, a proverbial “drop in the bucket” in the total scheme of things.  But it set a precedent, and got people and the government to give vehicle safety and design another look.

Coincidentally, this was the same year that Ford tried selling safety as a vehicle feature.  An optional safety package came with seat belts, padded dash and padded sun visors among other items. (Seat belts would not be federally mandated until 1964)  Fewer than 2,000 of Ford’s safety packages were sold.

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The Xirallic Disaster

The Xirallic Disaster

On the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan.  It was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan and one of the five largest earthquakes ever recorded in over 100 years of record-keeping.  The earthquake then spawned a tsunami generating waves over 100 feet high.  Among other things, the tsunami damaged a nuclear generating plant and wiped out countless homes and businesses.  Among the many businesses hit was the Merck company, the world’s sole maker of Xirallic paint pigment, a product used extensively by most major car companies for both factory paint jobs and field refinishing.  Immediately, major refinish paint companies began to ration the product.  Whereas a paint distributor may order a gallon of Xirallic material, they were now reduced to pints or less.  The disaster also had a an ill-effect on many parts manufacturers, suppliers to auto manufacturing lines.  Hardest hit were Toyota and Honda.  The Xirallic issue was rectified in about 90 days once the plant was brought back on-line.  Parts issues, mainly with Toyota and Honda lasted almost a year.

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The Infamous Two-Man Shop

The Infamous Two-Man Shop

In the 1970’s, the number of shops continued to grow, fueled by younger techs who did not want to conform to the rules of an existing shop, or didn’t like the work they were getting, and decided to start their own shop.  Angry, and determined to “get back” at their former employer they found a small garage, hung out a sign, and opened for business.

Industry veteran Tony Lombardozzi explains, “When these guys left, they either took someone with them, or very quickly realized they needed some help, and became a two-man shop.  Then they went to all the former shop’s insurance contacts to tell them, to get their business, they would charge $2 per hour less than their previous shop.  So the work started to roll in, but in the days before job-costing, those two guys never knew if they were making any profit or not.  Subsequently, many of them didn’t last.”

Some of these shops exist today (in 2017) operating on a shoe-string and “flying under the radar.”  Lombardozzi explains, “There is always someone looking for a cheap and fast collision repair, not caring if OE procedures are observed or not.  And there is always a small, out-of-the-way shop that is willing to provide it, and maybe even save their deductible for them.  But the cost of doing business is now so high, and in the wake of the John Eagle Decision, the liability is so high, it’s only a matter of time before these little shops disappear.”