Thursday, 30 June 2005 10:00

Parallels exist between castles and collision repair in Britain

Written by Dick Strom

A cartoon from a past New Yorker magazine pictured grizzled, war-hardened warriors about to attack a castle. In their midst a young, clean-cut warrior-wannabee proudly brags to his comrades, "I've never actually stormed a castle before, but I have taken castle-storming classes." 

Active Image
The absurdity of the situation this cartoon presented came into glaring focus as my wife and I studied first hand the intricacies of the inner workings of a number of real castles, during a one-month road trip throughout the British Isles. Avoiding big cities as much as possible, we drove 3,200 miles of back roads, on the wrong side of the road, to experience a slice of British life and history that not every tourist gets to see - in spite of close to $7 per gallon gasoline.

Though we saw hundreds of memorable sights, and compared notes with folks from all over the globe in bed-and- breakfasts, what fascinated me most were the castles - castles and walled cities by the hundreds - that dotted the landscape. For some folks a castle is just a glorified pile of rocks. But having spent my whole life within the confines of a country whose history is barely two centuries deep, castles are the stuff of which dreams are made.

Time and again I was totally awe- struck by the impressive sight, while meandering along country roads walled on both sides by ancient rock walls grown over with brush, when seemingly out of nowhere appeared an old fortress or castle dating back nearly a thousand years, or a 5,000- year distant "circle stone" arrangement (Stonehenge being one of hundreds), or a "circle fort" erected precariously above a 300-foot sheer cliff with a savage ocean crashing at its base.

These structures built millennia ago by long-forgotten peoples to protect themselves and their pitiful possessions inspired me to wonder, wander, and read whatever is available on what accomplishments these early people deemed worthwhile, what motivated them to accomplish the things they did, and how they did the seemingly impossible without the aid of modern tools and instruments of warfare.

Active Image
Now that he's retired, Autobody News columnist Dick Strom is touring collision repair facilities throughout the world. This foreboding English castle, the 900-year-old Castle Criccieth, was apparently on Dick's way to visit a body shop in Wales. Dick learned that insurers steer customers in Wales just as they do here, and that you might get your bonnet (hood) or front wing (fender) repaired at a combination mechanical/body shop, as only the big insurance shops do exclusively collision repair.
Active Image
Is Dick Strom shopping for a new retirement home? This castle is no fixer-upper.

What is so valuable

Considering the terrain surrounding most of the "circle forts" especially common to Ireland, one has to wonder what could have seemed so valuable in this rock- strewn, desolate prairie that would induce a people to make the incomprehensible back-breaking effort of stacking many millions of stones high and wide enough to protect themselves from invaders.

Of equal mystery is why any other people would want to challenge them over this virtual rock quarry, some of it being aptly described by a Cromwellian surveyor as "…a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him." Yet historians tell us that this land, no matter how worthless it may look by today's standards, was the only commodity men of that era could own that couldn't be spirited away by marauders.

It's hard for us in this materialistic age to comprehend the difficulty of life even as it existed several hundred years ago. Human life never has held much value since Cain slew Abel, but especially so when precious few adults lived to what we today consider middle-age. Savagery was rampant, as evidenced by unearthed human skulls cleft nearly in half in war by axe-blows, bones pulverized by clubs and stones, skeletons pierced through by spears, arrows, even pitchforks. Anyone and everyone was fair game as marauding hordes raped, pillaged, and plundered, with little to stop them.

What little the ravages of war spared these early people, famine and pestilence finished off before their time. Little wonder, then, that people eventually sought out defense from, and became subservient to, those who were in a financial position to provide protection in exchange for homage and taxes. Thus was ushered in the age of castles, most in the British Isles dating from around the 12th century AD. Though many castles lie in ruins today, some have been stabilized, some restored, and still others throughout the centuries have been converted to stately residences, some still in use today.

Castle keep

Early forts and castles provided people with a reasonable assurance that they could settle down and raise a farm and family, without molestation. When hostilities arose, those within the vicinity of the castle would be afforded safety for their family and herds until the danger had passed, when they could return to rebuild whatever remained of their home and crops outside the castle walls. Most medieval castles, other than those built by England to subdue unrest among the Scots, Irish, and Welsh, contained a "castle keep"- the strongest, most secure part of the castle, surrounded by one or more castle walls. The "keep" was where the lord of the castle and his family resided permanently, or temporarily when under attack.

The incredible attention to what might appear to us small details in castle construction is what made them virtually impenetrable. Most all staircases are spiral, and rotate clockwise from bottom to top because, most warriors being right handed, an advancing army attempting to fight its way up a tower to gain control of the "catwalk" surrounding the castle or city would be disadvantaged by having to wield their weapons with their left hands, against defending warriors fighting downwards with a right-hander's advantage.

"Trip steps," occasionally shorter or taller than normal steps, were built to confuse and cause offending warriors to stumble, making them easier to slay. (Interestingly, Bobbi's friend from high school, who presently works in Iraq and traveled with us for ten days, mentioned that Saddam incorporated trip-steps into his palaces).

Clever refinements in defense

Other refinements of war incorporated into some castles include the mushroomed-out base of castle outer walls, making it more difficult for attackers to position ladders and wooden scaffolding, or construct fires of sufficient heat to weaken the lime-mortar holding all the rockwork together. Mushroomed wall bases also doubled as launching pads for rocks dropped from the castle wall catwalks. Moats left offenders exposed to withering crossbow fire, and multiple steel and heavy wooden gates were dropped to the ground when needed to corral the enemy like trapped rats, at which time "murder holes" would be opened from above to allow stones, arrows, or whatever was handy to finish them off.


Active Image
Bobbie Strom, who worked with Dick at the shop for many years, enjoys having time to travel.
Active Image
It appears from this serene scenery as if Bobbie and Dick Strom visited the end of the world.

"Arrow loops" (narrow vertical slits built into castle and city walls) from which skilled archers with crossbows could easily pick off intruders, were plentiful. Many castles were as much as 20-feet thick, originally coated with shiny white lime mortar as much to protect the rock structure from the elements as to make a statement to all that this was not a place to be messed with.

Castles often traded hands, from battle to battle. But, in an effort to enforce her iron grip over present-day Wales, England's Edward 1st established a line of incredibly strong and high-tech castles, for that day, most so well built that they yet stand impressively intact. Elaborate monoliths of ingenuity of the best minds of war, some include lead-lined water plumbing (which likely didn't help their mental capabilities) built into the rock inner walls, latrines that dumped outside the castle walls, kitchens fit for a king, and banqueting halls of incredible size and design. Indeed, kings and their families were known to have lived in, produced heirs to the throne from, and ruled from these very rock fortresses that were so well fortified that a garrison of as few as 30 skilled archers, at times, successfully defended them against thousands of invading troops.

Collision repair in Wales

While checking out the castle at Criccieth, Wales, high above its ocean- battered coastal cliff, we spotted in the city below a sign advertising collision and mechanical repairs. Amid the reverie of untold archaeological wonders beyond imagination, I couldn't help checking out this shop, Automech Services, owned by Giovanni Braia, who went out of his way to show me around his shop, and fill me in on collision repair details, insurer relations, and the like in Wales.

Like virtually everyone else we met in Britain, Braia and his employees cheerfully took time out of their busy afternoon to show me around and explain the nuances of collision repair in Wales. Having owned this shop for 14 years, he wasted no time verifying that most insurer relations are a big pain, at least for smaller shops like his. Having seen only a few collision shops on the whole trip, asking around I was told that many mechanical shops also do some lighter collision repairs. The heavy-hits and the remainder of the small-to-medium hits are apparently repaired in large shops that specialize in these… and whose reputation for quality repairs isn't exactly stellar, in the opinion of this repairer.

"Insurers push ("steer" or "direct") people to go to the big shops, with which they have agreements. These big 'approved repair' shops push the jobs through so fast, to please insurers, that their work lacks the quality that many smaller shops provide. We combat this by educating our customers." He estimates that 50% of his work is insurer-paid, and said insurers often delay supplemental payments for up to four weeks. "The 'approved repair' shop closest to ours is 60 miles away, and yet insurers are very successful at talking folks into driving their damaged vehicles such great distances to have them repaired at the big shop."

His repair labor rate is 24 Pounds per hour (roughly $47/hour), which insurers try to discount to around 21.5 Pounds (around $43/hour) for the privilege of not spiriting the vehicle out of the smaller shop. Of note, reimbursement for paint materials is much more liberal than in the U.S. A shipping box for an OEM Ford front fender nearby spurred me to ask to what extent aftermarket parts were a problem. Braia answered, "Insurers write strictly for new OEM… the A/M parts we have seen (which apparently are available, though seldom used) are junk, and insurers know they are."

A whole new language

Active Image
If the insurance adjusters attack your castle, archers can shoot through these openings.

Some of the names they use for various automotive parts are of note: Beside a hood being a "bonnet", a "front wing" is a front fender, a "wheel disc" is a brake rotor, and a "windy" is an Irish term at least occasionally used to indicate a "windshield." PPG polyurethane paints, plus another brand I'd never heard of, are used at this shop, and his paint booth is of the homemade variety, located in a building detached from the work area. Though insurers don't want to pay for blending, he blends most everything, and R&Is parts as needed.

Within his workshop, one employee was deeply involved in isolating wires from a wiring loom, to install some electronic gear. A newer Ford van with its plastic filler sanded was being readied for spot filler putty. Noticing they were using the same lacquer-based "red stuff" and "green stuff" we used years ago for scratch filling, I found that as far as Braia knew they don't yet have access to the catalyzed spot fillers that we use today. Having little outside parking available, most of the interior of his shop was filled with vehicles needing repair.

As I left, his crew stood proudly outside their shop with 900-year old Castle Criccieth still standing tall upon a nearby hill. Some things never change: For Castle Criccieth it was the long, bloody struggle for freedom that Wales has fought with England and other powers intent on forcing their will upon her, before a form of normalized relations with England were reached. And for Braia, as with so many others of us around the world who realize that everyone involved in the repair process is better served when shops are allowed to work in the best interests of their customers, it's the long, uphill struggle to operate our businesses free of insurer control. Change does eventually come, but not without struggle. Cheers!

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@qwest.net.