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COLLECTING; A Curriculum in Classics With a 4-Wheel Degree
By FRED BROCK (NYT) 1166 words
Published: June 11, 2006
McPherson, Kan. - IN a 1936 New Yorker essay titled ''Farewell, My Lovely,'' E. B. White lamented the demise of the Model T Ford, the last of which was built in 1927. ''The great days have faded and the end is in sight,'' he wrote.
White's shade must be smiling kindly on McPherson College, in the heart of central Kansas, where the Model T and dozens of other glorious old cars are not only getting a shiny new lease on life, but are training students to become specialists in restoring antique cars. The liberal arts college, founded in 1887, is the only one in America to offer a four-year degree in automotive restoration.
With support from the program's National Advisory Board and financial aid and publicity from Jay Leno, ''The Tonight Show'' host who is an avid car collector, McPherson has offered a Bachelor of Science degree in auto restoration since 2002. The college offered a two-year associate's degree beginning in 1976, using a $2.5 million gift from a local entrepreneur and collector, Gains H. Billue, known as Smokey, who died in 1990. It has since ended the shorter degree program.
There are 110 students -- slightly more than a quarter of McPherson's total enrollment -- in its automotive program.
The college, in a town of about 14,000 an hour's drive north of Wichita, has become an important source of technicians, managers and new owners of auto restoration shops across the country. Students can take courses emphasizing historic automotive technology; auto restoration and design; and restoration management.
Automakers have noticed McPherson's program. In 2003, the college received a $100,000 grant from the Maybach division of Mercedes-Benz USA ''to refine and promote McPherson's degree-granting program in automotive restoration technology.'' It also established two internships.
McPherson's program restores only one or two cars a year, selling them at auction when they are complete. Last January, for example, a 1949 Chrysler that students restored brought $11,000 at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. ''Our main product is graduates; cars are a byproduct,'' said Jonathan D. Klinger, McPherson's director of automotive restoration promotions and resources development. ''Students go through classes faster than cars. It's a learning process, and they make mistakes.''
That's just fine with Mr. Leno, a collector of Duesenbergs and other classic and antique cars who has become a kind of unofficial godfather of the program.
''I consider automotive restoration the same as restoring paintings by the Old Masters,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''I call it automotive archaeology; you take something that's 100 years old and you want to recreate it as it was. It takes a deft touch to do it properly. I want to help give respect to this skill and people learning it.''
Mr. Leno has also established the Frederick J. Duesenberg Scholarship for McPherson automotive technology students; it is named after the co-founder of the Duesenberg Motor Corporation. Mr. Leno later established a scholarship program with Popular Mechanics magazine that provides a full $20,000 scholarship each year for an auto restoration student at McPherson, along with a summer internship at the shop of Randy Ema, a prominent Duesenberg expert in California. Mr. Leno donates the pay from his monthly car column in Popular Mechanics to McPherson's program.
One recent Leno scholar, Ross Barton, 22, from Golden, Colo., said he had ''heard about McPherson in the seventh grade, when Jay Leno mentioned it on TV. So I looked it up on the Internet and decided that was where I wanted to go.'' He graduated from McPherson last month; this fall, he will be working for a private collector in Florida.
Leno scholar Ross Barton
A classmate, Mariah Coberly, 19, a sophomore from Clay Center, Kan., is one of four women in the program. She says she doesn't mind getting her hands dirty and wants to go into custom auto painting when she graduates, although she adds that she is ''pretty good'' at metal work. ''I took auto and welding classes in high school, and I was regarded as kind of unusual,'' she said. ''I've had no problems like that here. This is really a good program that gets you ready to go out in the real world.''
A 2004 graduate of McPherson, Ryan Mahoney, a native of Toms River, N.J., owns Red Door Restorations here in McPherson. ''There's nowhere else like the program at McPherson College, where you get a full range of courses,'' said Mr. Mahoney, who is 25. He said he was a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston when he heard about McPherson's program, finished the year, and headed for Kansas. ''I had always been interested in cars,'' he said. ''And I love it here.''
A 2000 McPherson graduate, Jake Yenny, 25, from Grand Island, Neb., restores vintage hot rods and racecars for high-end collectors at Custom Auto in Loveland, Colo., where an owner can expect to pay $50,000 to $100,000 -- or more -- to fully restore a car. ''I get to come to work every day and build stuff like I think it should be, with an unlimited budget,'' he said.
McPherson's restoration program is based in Templeton Hall on the college's campus, a building that contains classrooms in addition to shops for paint and body repair, sheet metal fabrication, transmission rebuilding and upholstery work.
Walking through the building's various sections is like visiting a hospital for old cars. The patients, in various states of decrepitude, are a roll call of automotive history: a replica of an 1886 Benz Patent Motor Car, the world's oldest car, with just 0.75 horsepower, which looks a little like a three-wheel bicycle with a one-cylinder engine attached; a 1907 Holsman, with its rectangular box and seat atop four skinny wheels; a 1917 Willys-Knight, a four-seater resembling the Model T; a 1929 Ford Model A woody; a sporty 1929 Stutz Blackhawk; and a 1957 MG.
Students in Templeton work in various specialties -- from frames to transmissions to upholstery -- practicing under the watchful eyes of instructors and professors. On a recent day, one student cut ash for a woody's side panel, another checked a connecting rod bearing while a third worked with paints and lacquers that looked original but met modern environmental regulations.
The McPherson program attracts a surprisingly diverse group of students, some who later teach or work there, like Mr. Klinger, the McPherson administrator. Joe Dickhudt, 62, was an electrical engineer with NASA before coming to McPherson two years ago. Richard Dove, assistant professor of technology, left a career in graphic design to come to McPherson at age 40.
For Mr. Leno, one reward of his involvement with McPherson is matching young people interested in mechanics with auto restoration. He sees rewards for collectors for years to come.''About 12 years ago I tried to get some special gears made for a Duesenberg,'' he said. ''I finally found an 80-year-old man in Chicago who was able to do it. We live in a country where working with our hands has become less important than working at a computer.''