The Next Generation
A SMALL COLLEGE IN RURAL KANSAS GROOMS TOMORROW’S AUTOMOTIVE ARTISANS
In rural Kansas, a small liberal arts college offers the only bachelor’s degree in automotive restoration.
WHERE WILL WE find the next generation of automotive restorers? It’s easy to picture an eager young apprentice learning at the knee of a grizzled old panel-beater, and indeed that does still happen. But an increasing number of these future artisans come from a small liberal arts college on the windswept Kansas plain—and many of them are eagerly snapped up by some of the country’s finest restoration shops.
Industry pundits may bemoan the apparent lack of interest in cars among young people, but a quick drive through the McPherson College parking lot proves car culture is alive and well. And we’re not just talking about tuner cars and modern metal—you’ll find students driving classic Mopars, Model Ts, International Harvester pickups, and everything in between.
Among the jobs we saw in progress at this school an hour north of Wichita: a 1906 Cadillac engine on the rebuild bench, a 1917 WillysKnight with a sleeve-valve engine being readied for the road, and a 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet in the early stages of a restoration that will eventually take it to Pebble Beach. Our spring visit coincided with the presentation of senior projects, which included a 1969 Corvette chassis meticulously restored to National Corvette Restorers Society standards, right down to the factory-correct paint overspray on the bell housing. One student lectured on the legacy of the Duesenberg brothers while others recounted their experience hand-building new panels for a collision-damaged Camaro.
“I LIKE TO EXPOSE THEM TO THE WORK IN THE CHRONOLOGICAL WAY IT WAS DONE FROM THE BEGINNING.”
The auto restoration program at McPherson began in 1976 when local businessman Gaines “Smokey” Billue donated his 125-car collection to the school in the hopes it could raise the next generation of automotive restorers. Initially established as a two-year program, McPherson has used grants and donations from Mercedes to expand the program to four years (in 2003) and from the likes of Jay Leno to fund scholarships. Today, McPherson says it offers the only bachelor’s degree in automotive restoration, with concentrations in restoration technology, management, communications, history, and design.
“After this program, you have the knowledge to take a car from basket case to fully restored,” senior William Strickler says. “You can do every step of that process.”
What separates McPherson’s auto restoration curriculum from a tech school? The inclusion of a full raft of liberal arts courses is a major component, but what really stands out is the enthusiasm and respect shown for automotive history. The program concentrates on cars built before 1970, and a surprising number of students have developed a passion for cars as far back as the brass era.
“If they’re interested in tuners, which is not that uncommon here, they end up gaining an appreciation for the Model T and the Model A,” says Garrick Green, who teaches woodwork. “Not that they’re technically wonderful cars, but they’re technically significant. They mark significant points in automotive history where something has changed.”
History is a fundamental element regardless of the task at hand. “Whether you’re taking drivetrain or engine rebuilding, they’re going to teach you history,” Davis Bint, a third-year student, says. “If you’re coming to school for classic cars, you should understand the emphasis of what history does for them.”
Technical schools tend to concentrate on modern repair methods; McPherson, however, teaches the techniques needed to work on older vehicles. Students in the basic engine rebuilding course overhaul a small-block Chevrolet V-8. “You can learn all the fundamentals on that engine,” Curt Goodwin, an engine professor, says. In the advanced class, they move on to the Model A engine, which Goodwin calls “the small-block Chevy of the past.” McPherson also offers a class on Babbitt bearings, which are used on antique engines and are poured as molten metal directly into the block.
“I didn’t expect the depth we go into,” Bint says. “We cover important steps and important names—guys in the 1800s patenting things that are still used on cars.” Bint, like many of the students we spoke with, sees the positive influence this can have on his career. “You can speak fluently to someone at Pebble Beach who has a one-off Duesenberg,” he says. “You understand the car and know the history. It does a lot more for you in the car world than, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty Duesenberg.’”
McPherson delves not only into the history of the automobile but also the history of the processes used to build it. Woodworking students start off by hand-building a mallet from blocks of wood. Basic machining classes use World War II-surplus South Bend lathes from Boeing’s Wichita factory; sheetmetal students form 3-D teardrops from flat metal.
“I like to expose them to the work in the chronological way it was done from the beginning,” sheetmetal professor Ed Barr says. “Before power hammers, [metal workers] were creating crown panels on flat, clean pieces of steel, banging the metal into shot bags or stumps. So our first shaping exercise is in that mode.
“The work we’re doing here is very, very specialized,” he continues. “We’re using techniques that are completely archaic, like lead solder. It takes a lot more understanding of what is happening in the metal and how to control that metal. It’s good to know these techniques because sometimes people will insist that cars are restored using the original methods.”
Those antiquated techniques aren’t just used for antiquated restorations, though. “We practice a particular skill, like cutting dovetails,” Green says. “Is it all about the dovetails? No, it’s about accurate marking, layout, doing precise work with a good, sharp chisel. Those are the kind of things that are transferable to any project.”
Michael Dudley, who teaches the interior trim class, also stresses the importance of history. “The evolution of materials and trim is a big topic,” he says, “because students need to be able to look at a car and say, ‘This [material] wasn’t used then. That’s too early.’”
Although many of the students who come to McPherson’s Auto Restoration program are lifelong gearheads, most are inexperienced in some aspects of auto restoration, and a few have no car experience.
“One student had a master’s degree in music,” Goodwin says. “He knew zero about cars when he started, but he was like a sponge. He was one of my better students—he just soaked it up. That’s the kind of kids we get here. They’re really hungry. They ask good questions. They’re curious. If they’re willing to learn, we’ll spend the time.”
Barr also appreciates students who come in with a clean slate. “They don’t have any bad habits coming in,” he says, “and they are bright-eyed and eager to learn.”
Nearly all of the instructors have master’s degrees, and all but one are alumni of the program. “All of the professors are wonderful,” third-year student Paige Milem says. “They go above and beyond their duties. Curt, the engine professor, has come up here a couple
McPherson students show an unexpected enthusiasm for brass-era cars like this 1917 Willys-Knight. The holistic education they receive is essential in restoring such classics.
Using hand tools, students at McPherson College learn period-correctmethods of restoration andrepair.