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Atlantic Racing Scene

Body Language: there’s a lot of history in paint and polish

Thought you knew about paints and autobody work? Bet you’ve just scratched the surface . . .

The technical side of the automotive repair trade has changed greatly over the years.  

In the first half of the 20th Century it was common practice to take your ailing auto to the local “whiz’ who would listen to it running, perhaps use a few simple hand-held tools, such as a compression gauge, a vacuum meter, a stethoscope,  or an analogue voltmeter, then pronounce his (very seldom, ‘her’ in those days!)  verdict.

In the 50s we began to see big rollaround engine analysers with brand names like Sun, Allen, King, Bear, etc. Nevertheless,  the primary asset remained the experience and wisdom of the mechanic (Nowadays we call them ‘techs’). When I was very young, I worked at a typical shop whose owner boasted almost 40 years experience.  He could listen to an idling engine, and within a brief period of time pronounce something like, “She needs a valve job,  compression is down on three cylinders, #3 and #7 exhaust valve lifters need replacing, and there is a slight rumble from the mains.”

Quality of workmanship was the key criteria, and recognition came when you heard customers say, “Take it to Earl (or Fred, Joe, Pete, Junior, etc.)”. “He can fix anything and fix it right!”

Today, the mechanic has become the “tech” and he simply plugs his scantool / scope into the ALDL diagnostic port,  and consults the ECM  (our friend, the computer) which will check for hard and soft trouble codes, offer diagnosis of these codes, and pinpoint problems which might prevent the ECM from maintaining engine management and function within programmed parameters.  In 1948, you were very much at the mercy of a different computer, namely, the brain of the mechanic and the ten fingers it operated.

In 2011, you still rely on those same ten fingers, but now they are pecking away at a computer keyboard.  You still deal with someone you trust, but now the measure of their competence rests on their ability to secure the right hi-tech equipment, and be able to use it effectively.

Does this mean ‘Earl’ and his associates are a thing of the past?  Not exactly.  There is still at least one major area where craftsmanship, dedication, and competence produce high quality and enhanced customer acceptance.  This is the paint and autobody field.

Many are surprised to learn that the paint and body business predates the automobile itself, dating back to the 1800s when it was referred to as the carriage trade.

Today, a driver might take great pride in his Cadillac, Mercedes, or, Lexus, but in 1860 you might find him proudly taking his family out in a Merrimac carriage, built in Merrimac, Mass. or a Pacific carriage made both in Canada and the US.  A pair of fine Belgians might provide the motive power, via a custom fine tooled leather and polished brass harness.

Fisher Body of Norwalk, Ohio was first owned by the seven Fisher brothers and they built fine carriages and freight wagons well into the late 1800s.  They formed the Fisher Body Corporation in 1908, which became part of General Motors in 1926.  If you look at the sill plates of GM automobiles built prior to 1984, you will probably see the famous ‘Body by Fisher’ oval emblem displayed.

Brewster Carriage of New York was the largest carriage and wagon manufacturer in the world, from 1804 until 1910.   Studebaker (later, Studebaker-Packard) known for their somewhat unique automobiles, was building wagons in 1852.  These were mostly commercial and included the famous Conestoga wagons which helped open the West.

In England, HJ Mulliner,  Hooper, and Park Ward were just three of the high class carriage manufacturers who later switched to cars,  especially building custom bodies for Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Mercedes, and even a few Deusenbergs.  

Most carriages were built with wooden frames, usually ash, because of its rot resistance, with sheet metal or wood panels attached.  Early cars were much the same.  Innovations such as sliding windows, luggage trunks, leather upholstery, and rudimentary suspension systems also started out in carriages.

Gottleib Daimler is credited with the world’s first practical automobile in 1895, even though it was basically a small open wagon with a one cylinder petrol engine.   One of Daimler’s partners was Karl Benz, and the other was Willhelm Maybach who invented the first motorcycle, and the first closed car, which was (you guessed it) a stage coach with a motor.

With advances in metalworking equipment, particularly metal stamping machines, vehicles came to be built of all-steel construction, although as late as 1939 wood was still used for floorboards, roofs, and those trendy wood-sided station wagons we see in all the old movies.  By 1949 most US and Canadian automobiles were all-metal construction, with an ‘H’ configuration frame to which the body, suspension, axles, fuel tanks etc. were attached.  This was so standardized that in-ground lifts built by Rotary, Weaver, Globe, Joyce and others were virtually identical because the cars were so similar.

In 1941, Nash Motors Division introduced the Nash 600 featuring all-steel unibody construction including a one-piece welded steel body/frame to which the suspension, engine, transmission, axles and all anciliary components were attached. Today, this is basic procedure, but in 1941 it was innovation! Because of the reduced weight, and improved aerodynamics,  the Nash 600 delivered  fuel mileage of 30MPG (US) and 36MPG (CDN).  Pretty good, even today!

The Chrysler Airflow entered limited production in 1934 and was promoted as a unibody vehicle, however, it really had a unitized body with a series of interlocking steel squares with the body panels attached. It featured greatly enhanced  aerodynamics, but it was thought to be a homely vehicle and expensive. In Depression-ridden North America it did not catch on with the public so production ended in 1937.   If you know where there is one sitting in a barn, however . . .

The paints used on horse drawn carriages, railroad carriages, and early automobiles were, essentially, descendents of lacquers or lacquer-enamel varnishes dating back as far as 7000 years in China and over 4000 years in Egypt. They were referred to as India enamels (nothing to do with the country of India), and were slow drying, requiring up to as many as 18 coats, applied by camel hair brush,  to achieve the desired depth of finish.
Most of the early automobiles and virtually all the high quality carriages were either black in colour, or some other dark earth tone, because the light colours faded so rapidly.

Perhaps this is why Henry Ford is reputed to have said you can order the Model T in any colour you wish, as long as it’s black!

In 1923 nitrocellulose paints were introduced.  Based on purified cellulose, this new coating, the first in almost a millennium, offered a large range of stable, long-lasting colours.  Evidence of this may be found by the proliferation of bright creams, browns, beiges, etc. found on the big roadsters popular in the late twenties and early thirties.

In the 1930s, Alkyd resins based on animal/vegetable fat glycerins, delivered a high gloss, and were fast drying. After World War II, lacquers were developed and designed to enhance rapid production of vehicles for the hungry postwar market.  With vastly shortened drying times, and speedier assembly and paint lines, these new lacquers delivered on their promise,  their only drawback being the requirement to buff after drying to bring out the shine.

Acrylic resins were next, offering enhanced enamels which were almost immune to sunlight damage and  offered greater durability. In the 1980s, basecoat/clear coat set the trend.  This was, essentially a clear base coat followed by a full colour coat and then another clear coat, resulting in extremely high gloss and chip resistance. Urethane paints have also enjoyed considerable success, being easy to use, but requiring a catalyst for speed drying.

Everyone is concerned about the environment, including car and paint manufacturers.  This has resulted in a move toward water-base paints which do not release harmful solvents into the atmosphere.  They are ‘green’, non-toxic, and easy to handle, but have a few disadvantages compared to solvent-based paints.

The colours are not quite as bright, because water is not as effective a carrying agent as solvent, and drying time is longer.  Typically, a drying time of 15 minutes for a solvent base, will lengthen to 45 minutes for water base. Paint gun orifices must be reduced to paint manufacturer’s specifications, or, as a working rule 1.0-to-1.3 for water and 1.2-to-1.4 for solvent.

Despite these relatively minor drawbacks,  most paint experts feel water base paints are the future and will gradually improve and take over the market.

There is much, much, more to the autobody field.  Other subjects include repair procedures, frame straightening, spray equipment, sanding procedures, sandblasting, buffing procedures, mig/tig/arc/gas welding procedures, air compressors, filtration systems, panel installation procedures, rust treatment, just to name a few.

Most of these activities are subject to workmanship, just like back in 1940.  The better it is, the better the result will be.  The better your reputation will be, and….the better your business will be.

There is much more history regarding the autobody and paint field, some of which may surprise our readers.  We could easily fill the magazine, and still, only touch the surface.

Perhaps, we might find room in future editions.  All the Best for 2011!


(Publishers note; special thanks to our veteran editorial contributor John Cannell for this well researched story).  



Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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