Cradle of the Restoration Craft
This small school in rural Kansas grooms tomorrow’s automotive artisans
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 Willys-Knight 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 1971 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 un-common 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 of weekends and stayed past 10 p.m. helping me get my engine together. They are incredible people. And the students here are just the same."
"You're not going to find a community of young people that are as universally interested in cars as you'll find here. "
Although the program aims to give them a broad base of skills, students often find themselves specializing in areas they initially had no interest in.
"I had no experience with upholstery," Harris says. "I came into the Intro to Trim class and learned everything. I'm in advanced trim this semester, and I did an entire interior for my 1970 F-350 Crew Cab. I did what a 1970 King Ranch would have looked like, with a dark tobacco vinyl for the bolsters and a tight-woven tan and dark brown cloth for the centers."
For some students, forays into a new topic are the pathways to a career. Senior Tim Kortebein served an internship at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, and has since been offered a job after graduation.
"I never had any experience [with interior trim] in the past," he says. "I came in here with mechanical experience and figured I might want to build engines. I had no idea that I would want to do upholstery." As part of his internship, Kortebein restored a large portion of the interior of a Gullwing, including both front seats. This year, his interior—along with the rest of the car—will go to Pebble Beach.
The Mercedes-Benz Center has hired several McPherson graduates, as have the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and Paul Russell and Company, a Massachusetts restoration house with a long list of The Quail, Pebble Beach, and Amelia Island winners to its name. Chris Hammond, a restoration technician who specializes in electrical systems for Paul Russell, graduated from McPherson in 2003.
"I'm humbled by these students every day. They're smart, and they're going to do great things. "
"There's an aspect of dedication to what they are doing," Hammond says of young McPherson grads. "They tend to be dedicated, they work the hours they need to, they take direction well, and they are good team players. That's important on a big project, which needs a lot of collaboration."
McPherson students also graduate with a well-rounded education. "A lot of the restoration shops we're talking to, they like that our students are broadly educated," Green says. "We can't provide a 20-year veteran, but we can provide someone who understands the implications of automobiles in our society and has a good work ethic."
Alex Heikamp, a graduating senior who aspires to own a Jaguar restoration shop, worked on the NCRS restoration of the 1971 Corvette chassis as his senior project. "When I came here, I didn't really know anything about cars," he says. "I rebuilt a few engines with my friends, but I'd never really dug deep into the theory. The school has really helped open my eyes."
"I came here to expand my horizons," adds Chris Hughes, Heikamp's partner on the Corvette. "What coming here has taught me is a wide array, from interior to paint and metalwork and engines, everything about every aspect of a restoration. You're not going to find a community of young people that are as universally interested in cars as you'll find here."
Goodwin, the engine professor, agrees. "I'm humbled by these students every day," he says. "They're smart, and they're going to do great things."
In many cases, they already have.