Meeting a Hero and Learning from a Master

Reggie here, taking my turn on the blog. For once, I'm not going to write about business or economics, although my topic is still car related. At my core, I have a passion for cars that have been built by hand. These could be cars that are "rebuilt" or restored to factory specifications, cars that have been heavily customized or even built from scratch. 

Last week I had the opportunity of a lifetime! Not only did I get to meet, but also learn from one of my automotive heroes, Gene Winfield.  This guy is so incredibly inspiring! He’s currently 91 years old, and travels the world teaching metalworking techniques, while also running a shop in California that builds custom cars. Going forward, when I feel like I am tired or overworked, I’ll just think of Gene…Wow!

Where did I have to travel for such an experience? Elwood, Indiana of all places! There is an awesome Hot Rod shop in Elwood called Old Tin Rods. Ronnie is the owner and is an amazing craftsman. He has been hosting this workshop with Gene for the past three years. I definitely didn't get the "Furthest Traveled" award. That went to a fellow named Vicente, who flew all the way from Brazil (the country….not Brazil, Indiana). It turns out that Vicente is into BMW's and restores them back home. What are the chances!?

If you haven’t heard of Gene Winfield, I’d be willing to bet that you have unknowingly seen his work…and probably a lot of it. He’s not just a hot-rod/custom car builder but has also had his hands in TV and movie props for decades.  He’s the guy that designed and built the shuttlecraft for the original Star Trek series!

To get an idea of the scope of his work, check out his biography here:

I don’t know that my writing can even do this guy justice. There is something magical about being in his presence. He is supremely kind and patient, while also being a no-nonsense hard worker. Somehow, he even finds a way to squeeze in some humor.

I was also very happy to be able to bring one of our guys along for the experience. Brandon joined us about a year ago as our “Shop Helper”, which is an incredibly important, yet not-so-glamorous position at RMW. Over the past year, he has worked his way up and has been helping me with both metal work and mechanical work in the back shop. I can’t say enough about how quickly Brandon picks up on anything we give him. I’m very glad to have him on the team and am excited to see where we go in the future!

In the training, we learned several fundamentals about moving and shaping metal, but the first lesson was more about life. Gene’s number one slogan is “Every day is a School Day”. I have believed in this philosophy for a long time; I had never heard it phrased this way. His second favorite slogan? – “I don’t give a shit”…I believe this attitude might be the key to his youthfulness! There is no doubt that stress is a killer. If you can work hard and accomplish whatever you want without worrying all the time, I have to think it would add years to your life.  For me, I care deeply about my family, my team, and my business, but I also know that I’m not in complete control of anything. So, when I’m working on a car and a bolt breaks…I’ll think of Gene’s second slogan, solve the problem and move on.

We learned that sheet metal is shaped by shrinking some areas and stretching others. Gene demonstrated working with hammers, dollies, and various simple hand tools then moved on to the big machines like the English wheel and planishing hammer. We also got to see a power hammer in action, which is a really fast way to move metal. Gene stressed to us that, while the big machines made the work happen faster, all of the same things could be accomplished with hand tools. He even shared some of his special shop-made tools, like a hammer fashioned from an oxygen bottle cap, which he claims to be better than any store-bought shaping hammer. Gene also scours salvage yards looking for interesting shapes that he can use to form metal over. One of our classmates brought an old heavy fire extinguisher that he had cut up to use for shaping. The top was a nice round dome shape, while the bottom had a deep convex dish.

Gene demonstrated “hammer welding” in which you gas weld steel and immediately hammer it while it is red hot to keep it from distorting. This is how he is able to chop a top on a car or section the body without the panels becoming misaligned and warped.

On day two, every student was invited to try gas welding aluminum (which was far from easy) and “leading”, which is how body men filled imperfections prior to the invention of plastic body filler (AKA Bondo).  Applying lead is really a beautiful process. When it melts it spreads like butter. Of course, my attempt was not so graceful, but with some practice, I could see how this could be an enjoyable process.

Throughout the class, we heard stories from all of the various projects that Gene has been involved with over the past 70 years. His real-world experiences are what made the class exceptionally engaging. Through these stories, we were able to dig a little deeper into the engineering that goes on inside his head. Gene told us at the beginning of the class, that he would expect us to retain 40% of what he taught us. I know I walked away with much more than I expected, but am still not sure I retained the full 40%!

So, who would you like to meet and learn from? Who are your heroes? I feel very fortunate to have had this encounter. I sure hope to see Gene back in Indiana again next year!





Written by Reggie's Motorworks

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