Friday, 27 October 2017 17:03

In Reverse: The Seasons of the Industry

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Welcome to In Reverse, a new column for Autobody News. Each month, we’ll put time and space in reverse to revisit the people, places and events that brought the collision industry to where it is today.

For many people, working in the collision industry must seem like an everyday grind that is always the same---a never-changing, endless stream of todays with the same challenges. 


Well… some things in the collision industry are the same today as they were 100 years ago, but much has changed.  Historians and writers like to compartmentalize changes into periods or eras.  In some instances, it is a specific point in time, perhaps a day or a month, that marks those changes.  In other cases, it is a period of time defined by events or trends.  Some are very distinctive, starting and stopping while others tend to run into one another.  Whatever the case, it is interesting to look at how these slices of time helped define the evolution of the collision repair industry. 


Consider the following:

Pre-1900: Although motor vehicle crashes were still a few years off, several companies that would later serve the collision repair industry had their start way before the automobile even existed.  

1900--1910:  Automobiles, or horseless carriages, were new---and everything about them was new.  The infrastructure to sell, service and repair automobiles had to be invented.  Subsequently, blacksmiths, machinists, bicycle mechanics and even plumbers and chauffeurs maintained and repaired cars.  There was little, if any, distinction between mechanical and body repairs.

1910--1915:  This period marked a transition from the blacksmith or bicycle mechanic repairing a car under the shade of a tree to the earliest auto repair businesses.  In large cities, automobiles had no place to park, especially if its well-to-do owner would be working in the downtown district for the day.  The concept of the parking garage was born, imitating the livery-stable model for horses.  It did not take long for some enterprising people to figure out that an automobile parked for the entire day could very easily be serviced or repaired during that period---hence the birth of a term we still use today: repair garage.

1916--1925:  Early automobiles were of the open-top variety.  In snow-belt regions of the country, they were used only in the summer months and kept in the garage during the winter.  Eventually, automakers realized the automobile needed to be drivable in all sorts of weather.  Thus, during this period, more cars began showing up at dealer showrooms with enclosed bodies.  Driving year around meant more miles driven, in more inclement weather---and more auto accidents.

C. 1939> Steel, rather than wood, became the body material of choice and body-on-frame became the car-building design of choice.  Some car makers would experiment with aluminum and fiberglass, but steel was king.


1941--1946:  Life pretty much stood still while the Allies were making the world safe for democracy.  But the stage was being set for an explosion of another sort---the post-war American economy, and the birth of the collision repair industry.

1946 >:  In the post-war economic boom, the car industry took a giant leap forward.  Those were heady days at General Motors, with chief body designer Harley Earl placing fins and chrome on everything.  Cars went from black and muted greens and blues to vivid two-tone eye-catchers.  Most in the auto industry in general, and collision repair industry in particular, agree that the post-war boom gave birth to what we know today as the modern body shop business model.  In the post-war boom, the term “Paint and Body” shop was born.

1962, September:  For the first 10 or-so years after WWII, the collision repair industry was simply a growing number of independent and disparate businesses spread across the U.S., with little or nothing to hold them together as an industry.  Gradually, small, local auto body associations and guilds began to emerge.  Then, the industry began to coalesce.  In September 1962, a major breakthrough occurred when the first industry trade journal, Auto Body News and Good Car Care magazine were published.  Finally, the industry had a voice!  Some local auto body associations published their own newsletters or magazines, but there had never been anything like this.  With the magazine, industry leaders began to emerge.

1960--1974:  Horsepower was exploding through the chromed grills of American cars that grew ever-larger with each passing year.  Ten miles per gallon wasn’t a problem when gasoline was $0.25 per gallon.  However, that all came to an end in 1974 with the first gas crisis.  All of a sudden, small, imported cars were “in” and body shops had to learn how deal with this new breed of transportation.  Accessing paint and body parts for imports became an instant issue.

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