The Next Gen­er­a­tion

A SMALL COL­LEGE IN RU­RAL KANSAS GROOMS TO­MOR­ROW’S AU­TO­MO­TIVE AR­TI­SANS

Automobile - - Contents - By Aaron Gold

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

by AARON GOLD PHOTOGRAPHY BY WIL­LIAM WALKER

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.

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