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Tuesday, 06 November 2018 23:21

In Reverse: The Fabulous ‘50s and Mr. O’Donnell’s Invention

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The decade of the ‘50s marked a golden era in the auto industry. American servicemen were back from the war. No longer were factories turning out bombs and bullets. It was time to build some cars that were destined to be classics---and time to introduce some new automotive technology.


Mainstay models like the Chevy Corvette and Ford Thunderbird were introduced. The 1957 Chevy Bel Air became the quintessential classic car. Ford’s 1957 Fairlane became forgettable. It was also the decade that saw the emergence of the import car with names like VW, Triumph and Jaguar. Typically at the time, import cars were first characterized as vehicles that were difficult to repair and difficult to find replacement parts and refinish paint for. That stigma would remain until the 1970s.


In 1950, with so many people hitting the roads after being limited for so long by gas and tire rationing and simply lacking a vehicle, vehicle miles traveled and the accident rate began to soar. In 1950, 34,763 highway deaths were reported. It was time to implement some safety measures.


Wide curved-glass windows, front and rear, gave drivers an extra measure of safety to avoid accidents … and offered replacement window re-installers a new challenge. The new Chevy small-block V8 gave drivers safety in the way of more power on the new interstate freeways to pass and merge into traffic.


Safety became more of an issue in the 1950s for body repairers, the motoring public and civil and safety engineers. Vehicle safety meant greater use of seat belts and padded dashboards. The concept of automotive safety airbags was developed in the 1950s, but they were not very practical. To deploy an airbag, a driver or passenger had to anticipate a collision and flick the “deploy” switch in time. Most people weren’t quick enough.


Roads became safer with new legislation that called for more signs and lane separation. Civil engineers designed roads with a crown in the middle, allowing rain water to run off to the edges, leaving a better, less slippery surface. It was also the start of the interstate highway system, which promoted driving and led to more accidents and more need for body shops.

Some key events in the 1950s would lead to the industry’s first voice in the 1960s. In June of 1955, Emil Stanley founded Stanley Publishing, which produced two magazines: Transportation Supply News and Jobber Product News. Little did he realize, he would later be an innovator in the world of publishing for the collision repair industry. In 1962, Stanley would produce the first nationally distributed collision trade publication, Auto Body News and Good Car Care magazine. Finally, the collision repair industry in general, and shops in particular, had a voice.


Auto body painters finally learned that breathing toxic paint fumes all day was just not good for their lungs, and great strides were made in the world of paint application and the paint-application environment. It was around this time that German engineers developed downdraft technology for rapid air movement and adapted it for use in paint booths. During the war, people and soldiers in Germany worked underground for protection and secrecy. German engineers devised a method of pushing fresh air underground to soldiers and workers and pulled spent air out the bottom along a trench and then exhausted to the outside.


When the industrial infrastructure of Europe was rebuilt, engineers turned to the downdraft method. This was a technology whose time had come because painter health and safety became more of an issue in the 1950s. The downdraft system could quickly and efficiently suck fumes and spray away from the painter and into a floor trench. Fire prevention also became more of an issue, which promoted improvements in spark and fume control and spark containment within the booth. However, not every shop had a booth or saw the need for a booth. Lacquer was the paint of choice in the ‘50s, a product that dried so fast that overspray didn’t go nearly as far as enamel. Besides, lacquer needed to be polished to a shine, so a little overspray that settled on a freshly painted surface was not a problem.


In the early 1950s, the average hourly rate for collision repair was $4 to $5 per hour. The average hourly wage for a body man was $1.75 per hour. This seems ridiculous today, but back then, bread was $0.12 per loaf, and 3 pounds of hamburger cost $0.89.

An article appearing in a 1969 trade journal provided one long-time shop owner’s vision of the collision business over the past 20 years. He noted that 1949--1954 were the best years of his operation. There were few shops and plenty of work. He employed 15 body men---a huge shop for the time. Intrusion from the insurance companies was almost non-existent, and in fact, the insurance appraisers seemed most amiable.


As the industry as we know it today was taking shape, it was composed primarily of skilled auto body craftsmen---artisans who knew how to work metal. However, many lacked the leadership and professional skills to deal with the more business-savvy insurance companies and the changing landscape. They were craftsmen, not businessmen. According to a report done in 1969, almost 10 percent of those in business during the 1949--1954 period refused to change with the times and the changing industry dynamics. Instead of changing, they became bitter and frustrated, allowing the industry to be permeated with low-paying or no-paying work. This later paved the way for early industry leaders, such as Silvie Licetra, to conduct business training courses in the early 1960s, which became popular.


Then, according to the industry veteran, from 1954--1959 things started to go downhill. Insurance companies found it difficult to find good appraisers. They were ill-trained and not experienced. They became argumentative. Out of frustration, this was the period auto body associations, some around since the early 1940s, began to be more prevalent. The only problem was that those shop owners in the association would say one thing at the association meetings and do the opposite at their shops the very next day.


Shop owners began to ask insurance companies to be their “shop of choice,” setting the stage for the future DRP concept. As an incentive to the insurance companies, some shops offered a 10 percent parts discount on claims. However, many made the offer “tongue-in-cheek,” knowing that they would increase the labor charges to make up for it. Thus, the insurance company demand for parts discounts was on.

Prior to this time, body lead was required to fill small imperfections in sheet metal. The lead was sold in 1-pound bars, 20 bars to a box. It was heated and turned into a molten form, then worked into a fender or other sheet metal panel with a wooden spoon. It worked pretty well. But by about 1955, health and environmental issues raised with the use of lead spelled its demise.


A Mr. J.C. O’Donnell invented body filler in 1955, but it would take another year before it was referred to as plastic body filler. Next to the development in 1956 of acrylic lacquer by DuPont Company and Rinshed-Mason, plastic body filler was one of the most profound developments of the collision repair world in the ‘50s. It didn’t take long before many simply referred to all plastic fillers by one of its most popular trade names: bondo. Plastic fillers were easier to use, enabling the shop to make a cheap and fast repair. The problem was, however, that early plastic fillers sometimes fell off the car, prompting either a redo of the repair or a very angry customer---or both. O’Donnell went on to found the Unican company on July 31, 1962, which is well-known for its variety of body filler products.


By the mid-1950s, the collision repair industry as we know it today was in full swing.

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