Monday, 05 February 2007 07:08

So, what’s new?

Written by Sam Metz
James William Lambert is not a name any of us would recognize, but we owe Mr. Lambert a lot. Driving down the road, minding his business, Mr. Lambert hit a tree root, lost control and smashed his car into a hitching post, in Ohio City, Ohio. The year was 1891 and it was the first automobile accident in world history.

 In the early 1900’s, about 120,000 horses pulled carts, wagons and carriages in New York City alone. It is estimated that these animals produced three and a half million pounds of manure each day…I can’t even image how many horses it would take to move society today. Considering the pollution trade-off, I’ll take the automobile.


Cleaner and safer, the automobile excited people, and that has changed little in the last 100 years. It was a status symbol then, as it is today. In the beginning, it was somewhat of an art that evolved into a science that demands ongoing training and a level of understanding that must be constantly updated. Or is it?

The early pioneers provided drawings, a vision if you will. The build process was left entirely up to the coach builder. With very few standards, each body would have it’s own unique characteristics. It is estimated that in the period between 1903 and 1908 over a hundred car makers existed. These vehicles shared many mechanical items, such as fuel and electrical components, but the body was the distinction between carmakers.

Early body builders relied on the technology of the time, with bicycle and carriage builders as engineers. A well-equipped shop would have a wood planer, hand-saw and a small forge …lots of hammers. The horseless carriage was just that ….a horseless carriage. The frame of the body was made of wood with metal panels attached to the exterior. Moldings were used to hide the seams. Early builders were limited to the simplest of curves, so many of the early bodies bore a close resemblance to each other. The creative use of the moldings and other exterior trim was often the only noticeable difference. With aerodynamics set aside, this is still the most distinctive method of model image.

These early bodies creaked, rattled and were not extremely structurally sound. Door openings tended to shift, seat mountings would become unstable and weather would affect the wood frames.

By 1920, casein was being used to glue the wooden body and frame components together. Casein is an adhesive of which the base ingredient comes from skimmed milk. Glue was used to increase structural strength, decrease vibration, reduce fasteners and weight. Hmmmm… sound familiar? Casein is still used in many applications today.


In 1901, the Eastman Steam (hydrogen?) was the first American automobile with a steel body, but it was still attached to an all wood frame. 1902 brought the Marmon with an aluminum exterior, attached to a wood frame. The 1911 Hupmobile used wood frames reinforced with steel (armored wood) to increase rigidity.

The 1919 Dodge was the first car with steel frame members and body panels. If you were fortunate enough to live through a collision in one of these vehicles you would have to enlist the services of a blacksmith, carpenter, plumber and house painter for any repair attempt. The vehicle did not go to the repair shop, the “technician” went to the vehicle, most likely getting directions from the local doctor.

Until 1924, a mix of paint and varnish was used to refinish the bodies, which was very slow in drying. As demand grew and production increased, it would not be unusual for the larger producers to have cars lined up for miles waiting for the varnish to cure. When storage space was filled, production would have to be slowed. Refinish was somewhat simplified in the repair process as, like Henry Ford’s early volume production, most car makers offered choices like black …and black on black. No blending here, and masking was an option.


Quick drying lacquer was introduced in 1924 and turn around time was greatly decreased. Hmmmm…turn around time? Eventually lacquer would reduce drying time from days to hours.

In 1915, an engineer named Hughes suggested combining the body and frame into one unit. Excessive cost and body vibration could both be addressed by making the car smaller and lighter. A week later, a car named the Ruler Frameless was announced and became the first unitized body. The engine and transmission were mounted to a separate platform and joined later.

 A career in collision repair was not even an afterthought in the early days of the automobile. When Henry Ford began mass producing vehicles that were affordable to a larger segment of the population, it is not hard to imagine that a blacksmith somewhere discovered that there was a dollar in it, and the collision repair industry was born.

Historically, Detroit Michigan is recognized as the birthplace of automobile manufacturing. In fact, the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it was Ohio innovators in Cleveland that were pushing the technology forward. These “inventors” unknowingly sparked another industry into existence. With approximately ninety percent of the Collision Industry repair dollars coming from insurances sources, it seems appropriate to quote from the Ohio Historical Society.

The first insurance policy:

“In 1897, Dayton, Ohio, resident Gilbert J. Loomis purchased a liability insurance policy from the Travelers Insurance Company for one thousand dollars. This policy protected Loomis if his car killed or injured someone or damaged their property.”

His claim handler could not be reached for comment…sorry, I couldn’t resist saying that.

Today, the label “body shop” is probably less appropriate than calling Home Depot a hardware store. While the actual processes have changed little, the complexity of each process is often referred to as high technology, and rightfully so. Tolerances of ten thousandths were acceptable only a few years ago, and now we must achieve zero tolerance in many repairs.

At one time, Bill Harrah had one of the most complete automobile collections in the world. Bill seemed to enjoy buying some very questionable cars for restoration. He met the challenge of restoration by creating his own wood shop, welding shop, upholstery, refinish departments in a large warehouse in Sparks, Nevada. About 200 of these cars are on display at the National Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada. This is a trip back in time that will definitely boost your pride in what you do, and possibly the understanding of where our industry comes from.

 We have come a long way….
 So…What’s new?

Sam Metz is the manager for Bill Pearce Collision Center in Reno, Nevada. Sam has been a member of the PPG MVP Roundtable for 10 years, and a member of the Nevada Collision Industry Association.