Tuesday, 02 April 2019 17:22

In Reverse: The 1970s - Part 1 - The Collision Industry Starts to Mature

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If the 1940s and 1950s marked the industry’s earliest “modern” beginnings and the 1960s signified the industry’s “grammar school” years, the 1970s could be seen as its teenage years.


Changes were happening, signs of maturity were beginning to show, and yes… there were some “growing pains.”


Veterans of that period claim it was like operating in the Wild West. After calling on a shop, one former insurance adjuster noted, it was not uncommon to return to one’s car to find an envelope stuffed with $100 bills over the visor to ensure continued “favorable treatment.”


Another veteran noted that during that time, the collision estimating guides were competing for market share. Each one tried to outdo the other by building in repair times here and there and then showing the prospective shop how much more time and money they could make with their brand of estimating guide. It was not until the insurance companies started writing their own estimates that they started noticing the differences.


It was a time of what one industry veteran called the “Infamous Two-Man Shop.” Young technicians wanting to strike out on their own, either because they didn’t like the work they were being handed or because they thought they would make a bundle of money as an owner. They would leave their shop, rent a small garage and start their own business. It wouldn’t be long before they’d realize they needed some help and would recruit a buddy from their former shop. They then would go to all the old shop’s insurance contacts, tell them they would do the work a little cheaper, and the cars would start to roll in. Unfortunately, in those days before job-costing, the new shop never knew if they were profiting or not. Many simply went bankrupt and closed the doors.


The 1970s saw the seeds sown for what would become the model for 21st century collision shops. Before the days of ABRA, CARSTAR and Caliber, Pittsburgh industrialist Ward Wickwire signed the first franchising agreement to open an American Way International body shop in Pittsburgh, an early model of the MSO concept. AWI never became a household name and was never nationally recognized, but this period would give rise to those who were.


In 1972, Anthony A. Martino opened his first auto painting shop in Wilmington, DE. Using the first letter of his last name and first letter of his first and middle name, he called his new business Maaco Auto Painting. He soon opened additional shops that provided a good overall paint job at a reasonable cost. By1977, he had almost 200 locations.


Innovative ideas were popping up all over the place. Early 1972 saw a short trade magazine article suggesting that a car should be totally torn-down in order to write a complete and correct damage estimate. This was perhaps the first time this was mentioned in a trade magazine, indicating this might have been a “novel” concept.


Industry associations were growing in numbers, strength, and savvy. State and regional associations were popping up all over the place and joining with national associations. The industry’s voice was getting louder. This was spurred by the growth in number and popularity of industry trade magazines. It was becoming easier for a shop owner to see what was going on outside his four walls and easier for them to take an active part in the industry.


Traditional part jobbers had been carrying paint and related collision repair products since the 1930s. By 1970, of the roughly 25,000 full line automotive parts jobbers in the U.S., about 15,000 carried paint and body supplies to one extent or another, but only 2,000 or so actually promoted the sales of these items. This left the door wide open through the 1960s and early 1970s for a slightly different business model---that of the paint, body and equipment (PBE) jobber. The Automotive Service Industry Association (ASIA) defined a PBE jobber as a store for whom at least 70 percent of their sales come from paint, abrasives, tape, collision repair equipment and the like sold to body shops. At a 1972 industry show, ASIA recognized the PBE jobber as an official industry entity.


Automotive technology continued to move forward---although it was not always a pretty sight. In 1973, the 5-mph bumper was introduced. Still made of chromed steel, the bumper was supported on the frame by shock-absorber units allowing the bumper to move in and out. In 1974, similar bumpers became standard equipment for the rear of the car. The bumpers were described as “monstrosities” and appear to have been added to the car as an afterthought because essentially, they were.


In the 1970s, vehicle engines and transmissions were more durable but lacked today’s e-coat to prevent rusting. An otherwise well-running car would rust out in 3--4 years, especially in areas where road crews used salt and sand on snow-covered roads. Salt, water, and sand, combined with exposed sheet metal all contributed to some serious rust problems. Fixing rust holes correctly and legitimately was time-consuming and expensive … and not covered by insurance.


In many cases, the entire panel had to be replaced, including rocker panel rear quarters or front fenders. And even when panels were replaced, rust would break through someplace else. It was like a cancer. Used-car dealers found themselves with lots full of otherwise good used cars--- except for the rust holes---that they wanted fixed as quickly and cheaply as possible. Left to their own devices and being paid on a “per-car” basis, creative body technicians found quick and easy, albeit non-permanent, ways to fill the holes and make the car look good---and just long enough to get it sold. This led to some sore customers, and a black eye for the used car industry and body repair industry.

Paint technology started to change in the 1970s as well. Paints became more durable but had some unforeseen consequences. In the early 1970s, DuPont introduced its Centari line of paint ---a poly-urethane-based product that required an isocyanate hardener. Little thought was given at the time to safety measures and little was known about the effects of isocyanates. Suddenly, painters began experiencing asthma symptoms. Many ended up in their local hospital emergency room. Depending on their length of exposure or how they were exposed to it---either by inhaling it or being exposed by touch---the ill effects could have been short-lived or permanent.


The ill effects of shooting Centari and paints with similar chemical properties were not the only hazards body shops faced in the ‘70s. In the days before we as a country and as a culture grew environmentally conscious, body shops had some horrendous ways of disposing of highly toxic waste products.


Many times, leftover paint was stored for a while until it gelled, then was thrown in the trash. Other times, it would be thrown on waste paper and burned. Some shops threw all waste products, including paint, thinner and primer, into a 55-gallon drum. When the drum was full, it was dumped off in some remote area---sometimes with the drum and all, or sometimes just the contents were dumped and the drum was reused. Some poured the barrel’s contents on the gravel parts of their lots or driveways to keep the dust down. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, was the principal federal law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste, which essentially ended shops’ practices of indiscriminant waste-dumping.


And if managing hazardous waste wasn’t enough to give shop owners a headache, OSHA entered the industry lexicon in the early ‘70s as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 took effect April 28, 1971. An article in the August 1971 issue of Automotive Service and Body News magazine noted that shop owners had to comply with federal inspectors who were able to stop in and inspect their shop at any time with fines for safety infractions reaching as high as $10,000. ASBN suggested 10 areas where inspectors were liable to look for safety hazards. The article also noted that the federal government was poised to “plague shop owners.” Shop owners now had something else to keep them awake at night.

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