Panel Beating: Rare Skills at the Piston Foundation’s Spring Kickoff
Steve Hall and Mark Barton, from The Panel Shop in Stratford, Connecticut, and Sean Barton from The Paddock Classic Car Restorations, in New Britain, provided a rare glimpse into an art form that is practiced by fewer and fewer people every year. While thousands of car enthusiasts have admired the results of their ability to shape metal, few have witnessed them coaxing aluminum into the curves that form an exquisite, handmade car.
The pair volunteered to demonstrate these rare skills during the Piston Foundation’s Spring Kickoff event at Autostrada in Westport, Connecticut to illustrate the Foundation’s mission that supports skilled trade education.
It’s only a piece of metal. It doesn’t have a brain. It will go where you tell it to go.” However, the skill of shaping metal can’t be learned quickly. It takes a whole career.
“A panel beater told me, when I was 15, that this would be a dying trade,” Steve knows too well that new people must become students and apprentices before these skills are lost forever. “I learned what I know from older guys who trained me in the 70s and now they’re gone. I’m one of the last people doing this work. I don’t know anyone who uses the wheeling machine and gas welds aluminum every day.”
Beautiful Cars Set the Stage
Autostrada owners, Gioel and Ronni Molinari, donated use of their newly-constructed event space as an impressive setting for the kickoff, with several rare cars—including a 1929 Gordon England Austin Seven donated to the Foundation by Murray Smith and Gioel Molinari’s own Ferrari F40.
Panel Beating: A Skilled Trade on Display
“It’s only a piece of metal. It doesn’t have a brain. It will go where you tell it to go.” However, the skill of shaping metal can’t be learned quickly. “It takes a whole career.”
“Sean has apprenticed for 12 years with me and is still learning,” Mark said he’s glad his son is working at another shop and expects his education to grow there.
Learning how to use the 1,600 lb English wheel must be combined with gas welding skills. Steve excelled at welding and was encouraged to direct his skills to welding aluminum, the preferred material for marques such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, and Aston Martin.
“It’s difficult because there is no color change. You put a welding torch on it and you see grey, grey, grey, and then a big hole. With a trained eye, you can detect a slight dullness just as the metal is about to melt and you can apply the flux. Then, you use water to clean off the flux and put the panel through the wheel. It won’t crack.”
Metal joined by tig welding, with electricity instead of oxygen and acetylene or oxy-acetylene, tends to crack under the pressure of a wheeling machine because it’s not soft.
Partners Aligned With the Mission
In between the short lessons on metallurgy and automotive history, event attendees heard the Foundation’s plans for 2022: the first scholarships will be awarded in July 2022, supported by new fundraising campaigns and significant partnerships.
Richard “Dicky” Riegel, president and CEO of Lime Rock Park spoke to the track’s commitment to skilled trade education with its new Piston Foundation Partnership and the shared mission that drives both organizations. He was joined by Luigi Orlandini, chairman and CEO of Canossa Events.
Luigi spoke about Canossa’s commitment to building a sustainable future for the trades that support the collector car industry through the charitable initiative. As an expression of Canossa’s commitment, Luigi presented Piston Foundation founder and CEO Robert P. Minnick with a check for $30,000, funds raised during their premier event, The Cavallino Classic.
A Surprise Guest, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown
Luigi, Dicky, and approximately 100 guests, including 2021 Founders Club members Charles Mallory, Clifford Fink, and Kent Bain, appreciated the skills that Steve, Mark, and Sean not only presented but explained.
One of those guests joined by video. Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing and friend of the Foundation stepped away from his Formula 1 duties to share his advice with the audience of car enthusiasts. He said, “I would encourage all of you… to keep these treasures on the road. There’s some awesome vehicles with great history and we need to make sure we can do everything we can to preserve our history and I think people such as yourself can be big contributors to that.”
Zak would appreciate the skills that Steve carefully described to a number of fascinated onlookers, including two young people who, following the event, expressed a serious interest in spending their time as interns with a restoration shop.
“You need to have a pattern maker,” Steve told them that shaping metal depends on a variety skillsets and tools like a buck. “You have to keep your welds in small areas, like around the headlights or in the wheel well, then put your large panels over the wood jig. For most cars like Porsche, Lotus, and Ferrari, the weld goes through the center of the wheel arch.”
Both sides of a car must be identical, despite the fact they are handmade individually, and welded symmetrically.
Steve pointed out, “A wheeling machine has a lot of different uses but, basically, all it does is stretch the metal. You just have to know what you’re doing so it stretches in the right places. “You don’t want to make the panels too big because they’d be hard to handle through the wheeling machine. A roof panel that is four by six or seven feet long requires two people, one on each end.”
A Video Premiere Highlights the Cause
For the first time ever, Steve was joined in person by Kira Mundhenk, apprentice with Steel Wings in Pennsylvania. They are featured on the 2021 Piston Foundation Founders Club Poster. Kira is also featured in the Piston Foundation’s mission video, which highlights not only the challenges the car community faces with the steady decline of the skilled trade workforce but also the solutions created by the Piston Fund scholarship program and Piston Academy apprenticeship program. Supporting these programs through a charitable gift offers everyone who loves cars a way to help build a sustainable future for the automotive trades and the whole car community.
A Successful Event
Thanks to Steve, Mark, and Sean, the party was informative. Thanks to Lime Rock Park, Skip Barber Racing School, Vintage Auto Posters, Canossa Events, and the Cavallino Classic. the spring kickoff raised funds for scholarships that will open doors for young men and women building their automotive careers with talent, hard work, and a bit of help from the Piston Foundation.
Of course, event sponsors are vital as their support means more of every dollar donated goes to the mission. The Piston Foundation is grateful to Autostrada Westport, On the Marc Events, Sebass Events, Grundy Insurance, Wayne Carini’s The Chase Magazine, AMMO NYC, and Drive Coffee. We literally could not have created such an amazing community event without their help.
Visit our website to learn the ways you can support our scholarship and apprenticeship programs.