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Monday, 16 April 2018 17:28

In Reverse: Duke, Dunk and DuPont---Tales from the 1930s

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Duke Norman

Unless you happen to be a student of the collision repair industry, you’ve probably never heard of Duke Norman.  But if you are a shop owner, estimator or adjuster, you likely use or benefit every day from the product he helped create.  In 1938, Norman began his career in the body shop at Robertson Buick in Chicago.  He knew little about the business at the time, but became a fast study.  

At that time, the only reference for collision repair times were factory bulletins---times based on removing and replacing undamaged parts on undamaged cars---an operation performed with considerably more effort when the car was damaged.  Shop managers were making estimates based on common sense and their own experience.  When the insurance adjuster came in to review the car, the shop manager and estimator would both sit down and negotiate, in good faith, what was required to properly repair the car.  

Norman quickly saw that there was a need for some standardized times.  Others in the industry had the same idea---but Norman did something about it.  He began keeping track of the time it took to do a particular operation.  He also noted that some technicians took longer or shorter times to do the same operation.  After documenting the same operation 10 times, he calculated what the average time was to do that particular operation.  

At that time there were “a few” companies who began publishing repair data. National was one such company.  Periodically, someone from National would stop by the shop, take Norman to lunch and pick his brain about what he was doing … and how he was doing it.  Eventually, in 1950, National offered him a job and thus, Duke Norman, Body Man became Duke Norman, Editor.  

But coming up with proper times was not enough.  Norman had an idea that the books he produced needed exploding drawings.  National didn’t want to change---and Norman felt frustrated.  Then he met Glen Mitchell.  Mitchell had a competing product to Norman’s---and hired him.

In January 1958, Norman went to work for what would become Mitchell International.  The Mitchell estimating books at that time were sold regionally, and Mitchell wanted to go national.  Norman’s job was to build a sales force and figure out how to put illustrations in the manuals.


With the proliferation of cars’ models in the late ‘50s and the need for more and better data, Norman’s former employer could not keep up and was ready to fold.  Mitchell stepped in, picking up the National subscribers---and Mitchell was off and running as a nationwide collision industry provider of repair information.

To ensure the times Mitchell was using were fair and equitable for all parties, Norman organized meetings all over the country for shop owners, technicians, dealer associations and insurance companies to review repair times and operations.  These meetings continued from 1963 to 1968.  

By the mid-1960s, the team of Duke Norman and Glen Mitchell had grown to 130 people.  In 1972, the company was sold to Cordura, a technology-based company, with the intention of bringing Mitchell into the 20th century with new technology.

In 1973, Norman suffered a stroke.  The travel and long hours had caught up to him.  He returned to work later that year and retired in 1976.

Alfred Dunk

Alfred Dunk died of pneumonia in California on March 6, 1936.  He was only 61 years old.  Few, if anyone, remember Dunk today, but if it had not been for him providing replacement parts to mechanical and body shops for early model vehicles, more cars would have hit the scrap heap at a much earlier age.  Dunk was a pioneer in the replacement auto parts field and single-handedly responsible for helping keep probably tens of thousands of cars on the road.  No doubt, many mechanics and body men praised him for his simple but visionary idea.  

During the earliest years of the automotive industry, scores of car companies were founded, lasted a few years, sold a few cars, then went bankrupt or otherwise disappeared.  This left thousands of “orphaned” vehicle owners and repair shops with no way to get parts for repair and maintenance.  Enter Alfred Dunk.  In 1908, two car manufacturers approached Dunk to set up a parts distribution system for them.  The two companies would merge into a company called E-M-F and Dunk would handle parts distribution.  Dunk then founded a company called Auto Parts Company and made himself president.  By 1910, Dunk was doing such a good job, another car maker, Blomstrom, asked Dunk to distribute parts for them, which he did.  

Over time, and as more and more car manufacturers went out of business, Dunk found it advantageous to not only buy the manufacturer’s parts inventory, but also the blueprints and drawings so additional parts could be made.  Dunk then formed another company called The Puritan Machine Company and began to manufacture parts as his inventory exhausted itself.  A magazine article of the time touted that Dunk had parts or could make parts for 196 obsolete automobiles.  In 1929, Dunk turned over to the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, records for parts for 756 companies.  Many early auto repairers and early body men certainly knew and depended on his parts companies.  Consider also that this pioneer of the auto parts business was born in 1875, the height of the cattle-drive era of the old west.  


Before it was known for its automotive refinish materials and a multitude of other diverse products, DuPont’s main product was gunpowder.  In April 1801 (yes, that’s 1801, not long after the American Revolutionary War), the DuPont company was born.  In the summer of 1803, its gunpowder factories in America were ready.  E.I. DuPont himself sent word to President Thomas Jefferson that his company stood ready to provide gunpowder to the U.S. military as needed.  The company called its product “Brandywine Powder.”   

In the ensuing years, DuPont was a major supplier of gunpowder for the U.S. military as well as other purposes.  Through the War of 1812, WWI and other skirmishes, DuPont was there to help defend America.  

But in December 1934, things turned ugly.  DuPont was called before the U.S. Senate Munitions Investigating Committee to answer allegations of profiteering during WWI.  Senator Gerald Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, chaired the committee.  

Ironically, between the end of WWI and 1935, DuPont had changed its product mix from 97 percent explosives to 95 percent non-explosives with a growing number of products aimed directly at consumers.  DuPont had been, in a word, “burned” during WWI.  They ramped up gunpowder production to a phenomenal level, expecting the war to last longer than it did.  When it didn’t, DuPont executives decided they had better diversify.  

But the newspaper headlines didn’t see that part of DuPont’s business, and the company was viewed as a “merchant of death”---a public relations nightmare.  Although some members of DuPont’s upper management still did not see the value in a positive corporate image, others did, and it was decided that something had to be done.  

In 1926, DuPont got into the sprayable lacquer business for auto refinishers with its Duco brand, followed by Dulux alkyd resin enamel and Lucite Acrylic lacquer.  In early 1935, a positive public relations campaign was launched.  One of the main initiatives was an entertainment program developed and sponsored by DuPont called Cavalcade of America.  It started as a radio show and eventually went to television in 1952, lasting until 1957.  The show advertised DuPont non-explosive, consumer-oriented products and made a point to promote ingenuity and patriotism.  Out of this PR campaign came the now-familiar motto, “Better Things for Better Living---Through Chemistry.”  But despite all the positive messages and slogans, perhaps nothing did more to rejuvenate DuPont’s image than the development of nylon hosiery for women.

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