Sunday, June 12, 2005

It’s all about the paint (job)…

Years ago, very close to 30 years ago now, I ran a small automotive shop in Oneida, NY.

It started as the realization of a dream of mine, and like most things you wish for, it didn’t turn out quite like I’d originally envisioned. Oh it started out great, huge excitement, anticipation of being my own boss, visions of independent wealth and so on. The reality however, turned out much differently.

I can still remember my first paying customer though. She owned a Toyota Land Cruiser, early 70’s style (this all began in the fall of 1977) and had a problem with the throttle linkage. It was a small problem, took maybe 30 minutes for me to fix for her, she paid me in cash (I still love cash) and was a customer until we closed the doors in late 1979.

Unfortunately, she, and a small select group were my only regular repair customers for a long time. It seems I’d made the mistake of opening up in a location that had previously been run by a series of folks who had, let’s just say, ‘questionable character’. Those are not my words, but from the stories I heard. I only met one of the guys who’d previously attempted to run a business from that location, and I personally had no problems with the man.

The reputation however, was ever present. It was a small town, and like most things in small towns, that reputation was always a point of discussion.

As I was inclined to do in those days, I refused to acknowledge there was a problem, convinced my skills and personality would eventually win me a sizable client base. I did get some great clients, and made an even larger number of friends, but, there never seemed to be quite enough money to pay all the bills each month. So, each month I’d get a little further behind.

In typical manly fashion I hid that reality from my wife at the time. My preference then was instead to get fairly ‘relaxed’ at a local pub on the way home each evening. I know now it was a futile effort to escape the ever present possibility that this, my first real business, would fail. In retrospect I should have shared my problems with her; I was just too young, too proud and living in the fear of being seen as a failure in her eyes.

Then, one day, a fellow pulled up to the pumps in a black 1971 340 Challenger T/A, the paint had a ‘flip-flop’ over lay and a beautiful mural on the trunk lid. So, I told him “Nice ride”, and we started talking. Over the next few weeks, he’d stop in for gas, we’d talk cars, hot-rods and custom paint jobs. It turned out he had painted the car himself, was the top guy in the body shop of a local car dealership, and quite the painter and artist. Eventually, he said to me: “I’ve been wondering… if you’d let me hang out my ‘shingle’ here?”, as we talked about it, what he wanted was a place, besides the dealership he worked at, to paint some cars on the side.

Well, that day Al Dimuaro and I struck a deal. He’d line up some work, I’d do some prep work during the day between other jobs, he’d stop in after work and do some more, he’d do the paint and we’d split the profit on each job. It seemed like a great idea at the time.

It turned out great too. We always had work. All of a sudden, folks were lining up to get Al (and me) to paint their vehicles. We even had a guy; with a brand new Chevy pickup have us repaint it for him. We’re talking a vehicle with no nicks, dings, dents or scratches and maybe 3,000 miles on the odometer. I still remember what he said he wanted: “I want it different, don’t want to see another one like it… but… don’t want it to stick out so much that everyone in town can tell my wife where I’ve been”.

It seemed simple enough, we’d multi-tone and stripe it, using non-Chevy colors, put a few subtle tweaks on it and we’d collect the $700 we’d told him it would cost. (By the way, this was back in 1978 folks, at a time when Earl Shibe was advertising the $59 paint job, it was a ton of money we thought)

It all turned out fine in the end, he got what he paid for, and we got paid, but it was not quite as simple as we’d anticipated. (Is anything?). The prep work went fine; it was when we began to lay the paint on that the problems started. The first coat (often called the tack coat) went on great, but during the second coat we began to experience what’s called ‘fish-eyes’ in the finish. Now fish-eyes are caused by residual silicones that are left on the surface, we’d washed the truck and used a silicone remover before we’d started. This problem was not on the agenda!

I should also mention that this was happening at about 9:00pm and there was nothing open in the way of a paint supply store. Fortunately, Al had a key to the dealership, and some additive for the paint to eliminate the problem in his toolbox there. He went and got it, and we completed the paint job, but with one ‘small’ problem. The paint looked good, but, if you looked closely, at certain angles, you could still see where those ‘fish-eyes’ had been.

There was only one fix for that, hand sanding! I spent the entire next day wet-sanding that truck, by hand, to eliminate the ‘crater lines’. That evening after drying off and re-masking the truck, we sprayed one more topcoat of the colors (there were three) and two coats of clear. The next day, a Saturday, we spent the entire morning finishing up by wet sanding and buffing that final product.

The owner showed up at about noon, with cash, loved the result and drove off a very happy man. Al and I were exhausted from several very long nights and little sleep. It turned out, in the end; the owner had used some new special silicone based ‘lifetime’ type car shine product and had neglected to mention it.

One other car I remember pretty vividly was a late model Dodge Charger, probably a 1978, and the guy wanted the scene from a Hallmark card in a mural on the rear of the trunk lid. It was close to noon on a Saturday and Al and I had plans to do a little work on our own vehicles, but we were a little short on ‘beer money’. So, ever creative, Al tells the guy, “Ok, $100 bucks, and you go get two cases of Miller ponies” (the little 8oz bottles, which were the beer of choice on hot summer days as you could finish one before it got warm, or the paint had dried too long.)

Well, the guy agrees and heads off to the beer shop about a mile away. Al and I started in on the trunk deck. I was masking and sanding the surface; Al was looking through our paint remnants for colors and cutting templates at the work bench. We finished at about the same time. It was as I watched him work on that mural that I realized how talented Al really was, in the next 15 minutes, with a standard Binks #7 spray gun and those templates, he recreated that Hallmark card scene on the car. It was so fast, that the clear coat was dry by the time the customer got back (it was all done in lacquer, even synthetic enamels would not have been dry that quickly).

I was amazed, the customer astounded, and we each had $50 in our pockets and more than enough beer for the afternoon.

There were literally 100’s of cars, and customers, like this. The shop started to become a fun place again, the bills were getting paid, I was even making some headway on the past due items and I was finally having as much fun as I’d originally thought I would.

But, it wasn’t to last. We got so busy in the shop that I shut down the gas pumps. It was actually costing me money, not making money to pump gas. That decision triggered a series of problems with the town ‘zoning’ board. There was something in the zoning law that they’d failed to mention when I’d checked into the location that said something to the effect of: “…Fix, paint, weld or repair cars… must offer gasoline for sale to the public.”

About that same time, the owner of the building approached me and wanted to buy me out of my lease. Seemed she had a buyer for the property.

Now Josephine was a negotiator. She owned a car dealership with her brother, and in addition to several months of rent free occupancy, she offered me a job, at a very fair wage, as the assistant shop manager in the dealership once I’d closed the shop. Between her offer, and the ongoing zoning issues, and the marginal profitability, my choice was clear. I took the deal.

Those last three months were fun though. With no rent or utilities to pay, we slammed a bunch of work out the doors, I paid down my debts significantly and the work was all fun again.

I remember a great deal of sadness when I locked those doors for the final time. In fact I sat for quite a while in the truck, in the parking lot, thinking about all the great work we’d done, the fun, the laughs and how I’d miss them. The job at the dealership is another story all in itself that I may tell one day. Most of all I remember this time in my life as the one that eventually convinced me to return to college and get a degree. That one decision continues to have positive effects on my life today.

Maybe it was all just ‘paying my dues’, or a learning experience in being careful what I wish for, I don’t really know. What I do know is that it yielded memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The last I heard, Al and his family were living in Arizona, Al working as a manager in a construction firm. I sincerely hope he’s still painting a car or two on the side, or at the very least painting, drawing or doing something artistic. He had such a wonderful talent, I’d hate to think he wasn’t using it. Al was a great guy too, loved his wife and their kids. He never seemed to mind that he'd traded 'toys' for the family. In fact, as I recall, he'd rather buy Janie, or the kids something, than spend money on himself. Al's another of the people in my life I wish could be living next door!

Thanks again for taking the time to stop by and read this. As always I’m interested in your thoughts, comments or general musings after reading this.


Spirit Of Owl said...

That's a great story, Bill. Man, I was quite moved thinking of you sitting there in your car when the doors closed for the last time. It was like the last episode of Happy Days! LOL

You know far too much about cars. I manage to put the petrol in mine, and even drive it, but if anything goes wrong with it, I take it to a guy like you. :)

Comfort Addict said...

What a wonderful story, Bill. I'm definitely envious of your manly skills. I tend to be better at cooking and cleaning than auto and home repair. Fortunately, I married a woman with complimentary skills.

Spirit Of Owl said...

I'm so with comfort addict. If I couldn't cook I think Mrs Owl would have little patience left with me. But I think comfort addict means his wife has complementary skills? Mind you, either works, really, I guess. LOL!

Firehawk said...


I think that, when you look back on a time when you were busy with "real work", that stuff that leaves a tangible impression...those times seem more alive in your memory than others. When you've really put your all into creating, building, improving your own environment, it's a very satisfying feeling.

That feeling of hollowness when something that's been a good and exciting part of your life ends is a universal, and you said it well.

Thanks for the continuing stories, Bill.

Bill said...

Spirit: I know far too much, about far too many things I rarely use anymore! Turning wrenches is one I hope I never give up. As an aside, I 'cut my teeth' on British cars, Triumphs, MG's, Jag's, everything from the late 50's through the late 70's. I owned at least nine that I can recall.

I'm also a fair cook, in fact, in about 20 minutes I'm making dinner with some of that Yellowfin tuna we caught!

Comfort: Thanks, the truth is, each of these guys, had skills far beyond my own. Joe was one of the best fabricators I ever worked with, as skill I struggle with even today, he made look simple.

My wife, is also the perfect 'other side' to me!

Firehawk: I think you're very right on that! I've always liked those endeavors where I could stand back and look at what I'd done. Programming fills that bill at times, but never like hearing a big block come to life for the first time!

Thanks for reading, and especially for the comments. As for the continuing stories... well I'm glad you like them, they seem to be pouring out these days for one reason or another.

Beth said...

I don't think anything replaces the feeling of "real work" and a job well done. Just was passing by. Nice story.

Bill said...

Thank you Knitter! For the visit, and the comment!

I have to agree, and like Firehawk mentioned, that feeling, along with others seems to be universal. I can see from your blog that you're getting that same sense from your efforts.

Karyn Lyndon said...

Nothing like a happy ending! It seems like some opportunity always comes a long at the last minute to save your assets...


Bill said...

Karyn: I guess I focus on the happy endings. Or maybe as in this case, put a decent spin on what was at the time a not very happy event. After all, it's the process that we remember most, not that instant of 'outcome'.

As for saving the assets... well, I've lost nearly everything material on several occasions. The key word being 'nearly', and I consider myself very fortunate in that respect.