Father-son Experience (Thanks, Dad)
Teaching the Next Generation
Submitted by readers - May 23, 2013 10:00 AM
There are plenty of enthusiasts who received their love for the automotive hobby in one of the most efficient and effective ways possible.
It was handed down to them or perhaps they were doing the handing down. The relationship between a father and a child is strengthened by shared activity and anyone who has had the chance to be there for the magic that happens in a garage knows the story well.
To commemorate Father’s Day, we asked for reader submission and got some. Before we get there, though, we looked at a different side of the spectrum. Contributor John “Gunner” Gunnell has recently brought his son, Jesse, to his business, guaranteeing the next generation will keep the course in Gunner’s Great Garage. We asked him to share his story, so here goes.
John and Jesse Gunnell
The original concept or business plan behind Gunner’s Great Garage was to buy a building, rent it out to a couple of mechanically inclined individuals and use my 40 years of hobby experience to help them develop thriving auto restoration services. When we opened in 2010, there was no way to predict that it would ultimately become a family operation that would give my son Jesse both a part-time job and a shot at a better life.
A 3,200 sq. ft. building in Manawa, Wisconsin, serves as the business home. We opened on a snowy January day. A sign, carrying the following message in part, was placed near the entranceway: Living the Dream.
To vintage car lovers “Living the Dream” means turning your passion for cars into a career. John “Gunner” Gunnell has been successful in making his living writing magazine articles and books about vintage cars and motorcycles.
Gunner’s Great Garage was created to help other’s live the dream. When he was a kid, John played with tin toy gas stations like those you’ll find in his office today. His dream was to own a real “garage” filled with automobilia, tools and beautiful cars. Gunner’s Great Garage is a practical way to realize his dream.
Gunner’s Great Garage is like a “mall” hosting other hobby businesses including two separate restoration shops and Gasoline Gallery, an auto art gallery and gift shop.
As far as repairs and restoration work goes, Gunner stresses that the businesses “middle name” – GREAT – is the important thing. We want to do great work at the lowest possible cost to our customers. Due to our low rent, hobby networking and experience, we believe we can do high-quality commercial restoration work at the lowest possible cost you’ll find anywhere. We are committed to the concept of treating our fellow car collectors fairly.
Now, putting a vision like this one on paper is one thing and making it come true is another. The three Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) inside Gunner’s Great Garage all crashed and burned. The last renter/leasee left at the end of December of 2011. So, beginning in January 2012, it was clear that we had, as they say, “bought ourselves a job.”
As 2012 unfolded, our promotions and advertising brought a couple of good jobs. We first got to detail out a beautiful 1966 Pontiac 2+2 hardtop that later won an award at the Pontiac Oakland Club International meet. The owner of a ’67 Cougar drove to our area to attend a show and blew up his engine. His car wound up in our shop and is still a work in progress. We also did some leak tracing and detailing on a gorgeous 1963 Pontiac LeMans convertible.
Working on the cars was fun, but Gunner’s was strictly a one-person operation and it became difficult to balance the hands-on restoration work with travel, writing freelance articles, selling books and car parts on eBay and doing collector car appraisals.
The one-man staff at the shop was getting weary. To put it simply, my retirement dream was turning into more work than play. Potential customers kept saying, “I came by your shop the other day, but the doors were closed and no one was there.” There wasn’t enough steady business to hire a full-time employee and working on collector cars wasn’t a job for part-timers with no experience whatsoever.
My son, Jesse, was working as a detail man for a used car dealer in the next town, but he was getting fewer and fewer hours. The owner started sending Jesse home if there were no cars that needed cleaning. Last November, the detailing job suddenly went away.
Although he wasn’t a restorer, Jesse was comfortable around cars and he had very extensive knowledge of vintage automobiles. He had grown up going to car shows with me and reading my books, press kits, auto literature and magazines. There was no doubt he had some skills we could put to good use.
Although he is only 33 years old, Jesse has at least 25 years of experience in the old car hobby. We had worked together over the years on his 1976 Nova, 1962 Mercury Monterey and 1957 Buick Century. We had both owned different 1989 Chevy Caprice 9C1 police cars and the same 1991 Pontiac Sunbird convertible. This young man grew up as a car guy and needed a job.
Jesse came aboard in January 2013 and things have been going uphill ever since. He has been learning that frame-up restorations start with a zillion pieces and that each time you put a part on the car, the next part becomes that much faster and easier to find and install. Jesse likes media blasting, painting and experimenting. So far, he’s not extremely comfortable turning wrenches, but whenever he does pick up a spanner he does a great job.
When asked what he learned from Dad, Jesse mentioned reading books and working on his first car — the ’78 Nova — with me some 20 years ago. That Chevy was a problematic model. While we were researching what it needed, we got a letter from a man who had bought one new when he worked for GM. He had taken it to the GM Tech Center where some friends of his went over it and made a three-page printed list of all its problems. No wonder we never got the car done, but it was a learning experience for Jesse.
As a used car detailer, Jesse cleaned and polished some mundane automobiles and he’s still adjusting to working on Cougars instead of Cavaliers. “Dad, for the last three years, I came to see cars just as part of the job,” he told me. “I don’t think I have the same interest you do yet. I just want to do the work right and do right by the people who bring us their cars.”
Jesse is an idealist with high standards and likes the fact that we keep our hourly rate low. “Just because everyone doesn’t have a fortune to spend on a car, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a nice old car,” he said. “I think a lot of people get burned and you don’t want to get burned by a hobby. People are giving you money because they love their cars, so try to give them something back.”
According to Jesse, one thing he appreciates that Dad has been drumming into his head lately is the idea of doing things right, even if it takes longer and costs more. “There’s a way to do it right and still come out ahead,” he agrees. “So take a little longer and do it correctly.” In his previous jobs, the pressure was always on to work fast.
When asked what would happen if he had to take over Gunner’s Great Garage tomorrow, Jesse admitted, “I don’t know if things would be exactly the same or if restoration would be my main focus. Personally, I have nothing against a nice restoration, but inside I find myself wanting to go crazy with a car; I see this roof on that body—and other things like that.”
Jesse sees two trends in the hobby, one based on restoration and the other on wild creativity. “In one way, you can preserve a car by not changing it,” he pointed out. “If I found an original car with 15,000 miles on it, I’d want to buy it myself to preserve it that way. But there are other cars that you can preserve by changing them. In other words, you’re preserving them from the crusher, but also by making changes that allow them to be fixed up affordably.”
As far as working with his father, Jesse said, “It really doesn’t bother me. I feel a little less independent, but it also makes me think of all the cars we drove in together over the years. We didn’t have a garage back then and I remember one time we took it to the company garage to use a hose to wash mouse nests out of the rocker panels. And I remember driving real fast in your ’63 Chrysler. I guess these kinds of memories make the father and son aspect kind of fun.”
My father was born in 1920 on a farm in southeast Kansas, and was extremely precocious with reference to machinery. When he was 13, long before the government was imposing burdensome requirements such as driver’s licenses, he drove his mother to North Carolina in his father’s 1920 Pierce-Arrow Model 48 two-door coupe.
His grandfather bought a new 1937 V-12 Lincoln Zephyr four-door sedan. The Pierce-Arrow ended up in the barn, with the cast-aluminum body removed from the chassis and propped-up on tall stacks of National Geographic magazines, and the rolling chassis parked beside it.
Dad married my mother in 1941 and bought a new Ford Deluxe. He got a job as a mechanic at a local gas station, and his mechanical abilities soon brought him to the attention of both the bootleggers and local law enforcement, who kept him profitably employed trying to give each a horsepower advantage over the other. The family moved back to Kansas and he held a series of jobs. In 1951, he became the in-house mechanic for Constant Construction Company, which owned all of its own heavy construction equipment, and did all of its own construction work, without hiring subcontractors. He was still working in that same shop at the time of his death, more than 40 years later.
In November of 1951, Dad bought a 1940 LaSalle 5219 four-door sedan which had been owned by a neighbor lady. He continued driving the Ford to work, and my Mom drove the LaSalle to her job at Centron Corporation. When I was born in October of 1954, the LaSalle was the car in which I was brought home from the hospital.
One of my earliest mechanical adventures, when I was still small enough to stand up under the dash, was to unscrew the two windshield washer jets that my dad had added to the cowl of the LaSalle. He was not pleased to see me following in his footsteps of doing “mechanical work” at an early age.
The Pierce-Arrow had been sitting in the barn all this time. My dad explained to me that he didn’t want the restoration of that vehicle to take him away from his family, so he was waiting (so he claimed) until one of his three sons got old enough to get interested in cars, and to then make working on the Pierce-Arrow a father-and-son project. I would then sit in it for hours and pretend to be driving it. My interest in the car did not go unnoticed by my father. In November of 1964, the barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, taking the Pierce-Arrow with it.
Had the Pierce-Arrow lasted another 10 years, it would most likely be sitting in my garage today. I’d gotten a summer job at the construction company in the summer of 1970, after my sophomore year of high school, and they assigned me to be my father’s shop assistant. In August of 1972, my father’s employment with the construction company ended, but they offered to rent him the shop and its equipment, and promised him all the mechanical work they still had, if he wanted to open an independent repair shop. He asked me if I would help him open the business, which I did, and Travis Heavy Equipment Repair was born.
We worked together at the shop for portions of at least a dozen years. I can’t truthfully say he taught me everything he knew, because there were certain jobs that he enjoyed so much that he didn’t want me to know how to do them. He taught me everything mechanical that I know. There’s no better way to learn how to work on cars than to work on them, and working under his watchful eye every day for a decade was a wonderful learning experience.
In the beginning, I knew nothing, so he had to stand over my shoulder constantly, telling me what to do next. He always took the time to explain how the things I was repairing were supposed to work, because he believed that no mechanic could make a proper repair without fully understanding exactly how the mechanism was intended by its designer to function. When I was just starting out, he’d have to explain exactly which tool he wanted, and there was the process of teaching me the names of each of them, so I’d know the difference between twelve-point and six-point box wrenches, or the difference between a crow’s-foot wrench and a flare-nut wrench.
I think the part of working with my father that I liked the best was our diagnostic brainstorming sessions. Sometimes, we’d have to leave the shop and go to the coffee shop for pie and coffee to continue the discussion.
The LaSalle was in limbo until my parents told me I could drive it if I did all the mechanical work it needed and painted it. I had to do all the actual work, but my dad would buy whatever parts and supplies I needed. I spent the summer of 1969, before my 15th birthday, sanding it down in the garage, applying an execrable two-tone paint job, and doing my first valve job. It was my only car from my 16th birthday until shortly before my high school graduation, when my father bought a low-mileage 1969 Eldorado and sold the Electra to me. The LaSalle spent most of its time sitting in the driveway.
When my father died in January of 1992, both the LaSalle and the Electra were still at the shop ... the LaSalle inside, where it had been since 1977, and the Electra (plus the parts car I’d purchased in 1977) outside. I finished up the work on the LaSalle that had been started 15 years earlier. When Mom died in 2011, at age 90, she likely had not been for a ride in the LaSalle since she taught my brother how to shift gears in it in 1964.
Today, my car collection is very modest, consisting of the LaSalle, a 1965 Honda C102 50cc motorcycle that the middle son bought (as a one-year-old used vehicle) shortly before he was killed in car wreck in January of 1967, and two not-yet-collectible Thunderbirds, a black 1989 and a pearl 1997. The LaSalle has now been in the family for more than 60 years, and it seems pretty amazing to me that, at age 58, I still have the car that brought me home from the hospital when I was born. It still needs a few mechanical repairs (primarily rebuilding the manual steering gear and the transmission), plus a replacement for the terrible paint job I gave it when I was 15 and a new interior, but I remain optimistic that someday (fairly) soon it will seem to me to be substantially ready for the road ... even though it must be one of the longest-running “restorations” ever, having been started 44 years ago, when I began sanding on it in my parents’ garage in the summer of 1969!
All the mechanical lessons Dad taught me are still being used every day, and not just in the old car hobby. I ended up specializing, in my legal career, in representing the administrators of vehicle service contract programs, and for the last 18 years, I have exclusively represented an administrator in Atlanta. I have been able to secure that work solely because I am one of the few lawyers in the country who understands how automobiles work and why they break down, and who can reach independent judgments about both the mechanical and legal aspects of a breakdown. The knowledge my father amassed in his nearly 70 years as a mechanic, and that he did his best to impart to me during the decade we worked together in his business, continues to serve both me and my client well.
It all started for me at age 15. Walking home from school, I spotted a 1940 Chevy Deluxe sitting behind somebody’s house, obviously not a highly prized vehicle by the current owner. I finally worked up the nerve to approach the owner, who said, “yes I will sell it.”
She wanted $65 and my income consisted of $1.15 an hour working about 16 hours a week in a grocery store after school. My next hurdle how was I going to convince my folks to let me buy it and it was a smart thing to do. I made all the appropriate promises about doing my homework, getting good grades, cleaning my room, doing chores, and quit tormenting my little brother. To this day I don’t know what exactly I said that convinced them to let me buy the Chevy, but actually it was my dad who bought it. I paid him back by pulling weeds, cleaning the garage and other assigned odd jobs.
My dad drove the car home and right into our backyard, I wasn’t licensed, the car wasn’t insured, and we discovered why it was parked in the back. It had a cracked engine block. Our next door neighbor, a machinist that worked on the Navy base, gave me a metal sealer caulking and the block no longer leaked water out, but it still leaked water internally. I learned early what oil in water looks like on a dipstick.
My dad gave me driving lessons in the family’s 1954 Chevy pickup with a granny four speed, and a mighty six cylinder. I eventually mastered shifting without grinding gears, stopping without launching us through the windshield and accelerating from a dead stop without stalling the engine.
I finally acquired my driver’s license, got a raise in pay and hours at the grocery store and fell in love with a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. It was a low rider, with New Mexico plates, dual cherry bomb equipped exhaust, shaved door handles, decked hood, and full finned wheel covers. It was 400 bucks, but I put down $70 and financed the rest with my dad’s co-signature. I sold the transmission out of the old Chevy deluxe for $35 for the gearbox and I threw in the rest of the car to seal the deal.
So that was how I bought and sold my first car. I have spent a lot of money over the years on cars and car stuff, but, as my dad once said to my wife, “Well, at least it keeps him out of the bars!”