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The Inside Job by Piston Scholar Joshua Warner

From reassembling chainsaw motors to studying automotive restoration at McPherson College, Joshua Warner, one of the 10 inaugural Piston Scholars, has come to the realization that becoming a custom automotive upholsterer is his life’s goal. He’s 19 years old and a sophomore at McPherson.

Warner was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but spent years living in numerous countries because of his father’s job. After his family returned to Michigan and moved to the town of Saline, he discovered his dad Terry had a 1965 Mustang 2+2, which he bought in 1994 and had been sitting in Joshua’s grandfather’s barn since 2004.

By Judy Stropus

August 14, 2023

A Mustang and a Dream

“My interest in cars didn’t really start until I was around 15 years old,” said Warner. “I came into my grandpa’s garage to grab a tool and I saw the Mustang just sitting there. ‘What is this doing here?’ I said. My dad had mentioned he had a Mustang but I didn’t know it was THAT Mustang.  So, I told myself one day, I’d have it back and running on the road like it deserves to be.”

The car may have sparked his interest in working on classic cars, but before his dad would allow him to wrench on the Mustang, he had to prove himself by rebuilding smaller motors, such as those in lawnmowers, chain saws, weed whackers and mopeds.

Learning from the Ground, Up

“In high school, I did odd jobs and I discovered some people needed those small engines rebuilt, so I would just buy them and rebuild them and sell them,” said Warner. “Just tiny engines, two-stroke, some four-stroke. My dad wanted me to prove that I could rebuild something before I got to disassemble the Mustang engine.”

Warner took a class in his freshman year of high school called “Engine Fundamentals.” “I became extremely interested in how different types of other components of cars worked,” he said. “Once I had rebuilt a handful of small engines and had read a lot about V8 engines, I convinced my dad to let me move on to the V8-289 small-block engine in the Mustang.”

A fascination with cars runs in the family. Warner’s grandfather Aaron “owns a few Mustangs,” said Warner. “He likes older cars and works on them, but he’s not a professional. He has a ’65 Mustang GT and a ’67 Mustang convertible.”

You can look at a car from the outside, but most of the time you’re inside the car and that’s where everything comes together, in my opinion.

A Special Love for the “Oddballs”

It’s only been four years since he discovered a love for cars, but Warner has already expanded his interest from American muscle cars to “oddball” cars, as he calls them. “I really like the Amphicar. I think that’s an awesome vehicle. I mean, how many other cars can go from being a car to being a boat? I’ve also found an interest in little cars, like the Kei cars from Japan,” he said.

“I’ve done some work on a Honda Acty, which is like a Kei truck, and I’ve done some minimal work on an Amphicar, and a few others, like Mini Coopers.” His summer jobs included stints at Fender Mender in Saline, Full Auto in Ann Arbor, and with his grandfather in the barn filled with Mustangs.

When it came to deciding what his lifelong career might be and what type of education he should pursue, Warner considered going into dentistry, “which is very different,” he said, with a chuckle. “As the months and years went by, I became more and more involved with the cars. I looked at all my options and found McPherson College, which I judged to have the best program for auto restoration. And I’ve been very satisfied with the work that I’ve been doing there.

“The courses are really good. I probably learned more in a single semester of engine classes there than I had in the two, three years of high school. I’m very impressed with the curriculum and I can’t wait to learn more.”

But, back to the ’65 Mustang. That project is not yet complete. The engine will be finding its way to McPherson for next semester so that Warner can finish restoring it. “I’m redoing the engine this year,” he said. “I’ve taken a look at some of the drivetrain components and those seem fine. So, really, it’s just the engine and the interior and then maybe a few seals and stuff. It’s just money that’s limiting me right now from getting it done right away. It’s just having to save up for the quality materials and parts because I want to do it right.

“I will definitely have it on the road in my senior year. I have the engine all ready to be transported to McPherson, where I’ll work on it. And then, after that, we’ll take the whole car down.”

Reaching New Heights with a Piston Scholarship

The Piston Scholarship he received in 2022 has motivated him even more toward achieving his goals. “It has helped me a ton,” he said. “It saved me just about an entire summer’s worth of working 40-hour weeks. That is a huge, huge help for me to be able to afford the college.”

Like his father’s Mustang, Josh wants to honor the classics.
Clean, functional designs with that make you say wow.

As a sophomore at McPherson, studying upholstery, trim and drivetrains, Warner has a clear vision of what profession in the world of car restoration he’d like to pursue after graduation. Restoring the interior on the ’65 Mustang inspired him to “go into interior work, like upholstery and trim,” he said. “I’m trying to get in contact with the best of the best because I want to put out the best work that I can. I don’t have much experience right now, but I’m trying to get as much as I can before I can eventually work on interiors.”

Bringing Beauty Back to Luxury Interiors

“I’d like to maybe get an internship at Rolls Royce, or other luxury brands with premium interiors. I think the experience of learning there would be awesome.”

When asked if he’d be installing the upholstery or actually designing it as well, he responded, “I would like to do both. I look at the interiors of some of these $250,000 or $350,000 cars and they’re nice, but they don’t blow me away. I think these cars are pieces of art on the outside and the engine bays are immaculate. Then I look at the interior and I’m not super impressed. I’d like to bring the wow factor to these cars.

“You can look at a car from the outside, but most of the time you’re inside the car and that’s where everything comes together, in my opinion,” he added.

Opening up his own upholstery business is his objective. “I really want to be the best of the best,” he said. “I’d like to add some modern luxuries to concours cars, like ventilated, cooled and heated seats. I want to be an industry leader.”

Josh dreams of modernizing concours-level interiors.
Is the show-field ready for Josh’s version of resto-mod interiors?

To Have What it Takes

At such a young age, Warner is keen to encourage other young people to pursue their dreams. “I’d like to encourage them to get good grades. It helps to get more financial relief from scholarships and it shows that you can handle the academic rigors,” he said.

“I think my generation has a very wide variety of tastes when it comes to cars and still has to learn a lot about cars. We’re less experienced but we’re also ready to take on the next generation of cars. We’re soon going to be getting these ‘80s and ‘90s cars which are becoming more and more collectible. Working on the electronics of the newer cars is going to be a while other story.”

His final advice to young car restoration aspirants? “Build on your experiences and create a portfolio of all you’ve done. You can learn a lot in class, but then a lot of the learning comes while working in a shop.”

Support skilled trade education for future auto restoration technicians.


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