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The Piston Academy: A Primer

Why did I get involved with the Piston Foundation and why the Piston Academy?

By Jeff mason

February 26, 2021

First, Robert Minnick’s a clever fellow with a long overdue, good idea and a socially responsible program in The Piston Foundation. He understands the big picture and is orchestrating his personally motivated “give back” for all the right reasons. And, second, I’ve enjoyed a spiritually rewarding and financially sound “earn as you learn” career among the restoration arts. I seek to encourage and assist others to realize the rewards I’ve enjoyed while building the car culture “art and craft of the automobile” skill set resource pool.

I see my primary role with the Piston Academy as supporting those interested in a real career path toward becoming what the British call “practical engineers.” Our methodology entails structuring then helping administer a Piston Foundation subsidized “earn as you learn” apprenticeship program in the U.S.

What are my qualifications?

My formal education is as an industrial designer. I spent about six years in the field before setting out into the then relatively new enterprise of collectable vehicle restoration, care, and feeding. While I had learned a lot in the practical application of my formal design and engineering courses, once I embarked on my new career path, I found a great deal more to learn. Rewards ensued with each accomplishment as did finding something remarkably nourishing about hands-on experience and using the acquired skill sets/knowledge to realize observable, positive effects.

I also see my role in the academy as having a desirable side effect: elevating the status of hands-on work.

I enjoy the satisfaction of knowing I preserved something of value with a hands-on solution. I think well selected apprentices will enjoy that as well, especially those who share the allure of interesting machinery. The Piston Academy should and will exist to help turn interest and enthusiasm into careers. Matching that interest with the opportunity to learn is the key.

An auto mechanic's toolset is the heart of the Piston Academy.

What do I envision for the Piston Academy?

In application, that looks like giving someone knowledge and tasks, evaluating how they perform with consistent goals and measurements, and ensuring that the world recognizes their Piston Academy experience and their qualifications as highly desirable. A Piston Academy certificate will embody value and will, I believe, facilitate careers that provide good measures of both financial and spiritual reward.

I’m semi-retired at this point and can give back with what I’ve learned in well over 40 years of restoring, vintage race preparing and preserving a broad array of collector cars. I can be proactive in the design and administration of apprenticeship programs, helping to identify the shops where participants can train and ensuring those shops have what they need. With funding support from the Piston Foundation, we can start by putting together an application process that identifies the best candidates, an evaluation process that continues reward for measured accomplishments, doing it all in a very hands on, earn-as-one-learns format.

Our partners in the U.K. at Heritage Skills Academy have successfully worked with the government but, here, in America, there is no job classification for restoration specialist. Therefore, there is no government educational funding available. All we do in this arena doesn’t appear as a craft/skill/career path in the Department of Labor index of jobs. The Piston Academy exists in part to correct this situation. Given the “hobby’s” growth and the development of collector car culture, the automobile and all we share as enthusiasts has become a part of our country’s social fabric and powered vehicles a major contributor to our last century’s lifestyle developments and history. It certainly seems the right time to assist interested people to find good, rewarding careers in the field.

Where do we go from here?

We are in the formative stages and some distance from roll out. It will take time to develop our program; we can learn a lot from HSA and the Association of Heritage Engineers. Maybe well down the road, we could integrate the programs so students could spend some of their apprenticeship in England/Europe, and our completion certifications will align such that our graduates gain world market credential. Right now, we’re focusing on the basics. Frankly, given the growth of car culture, I’m amazed that a program like the Academy hasn’t already come along.

I also see my role in the academy as having a desirable side effect: elevating the status of hands-on work. There are many car collectors who enjoy being part of the restoration craft, of exercising their capabilities and creativity in their own garages. Sharing what Piston Academy participants are doing in promoting and publicizing the program will expose more people to the rewards of car craft and the skills needed to perform well.

Frankly, given the growth of car culture, I’m amazed that a program like the Academy hasn’t already come along.

I’ve always hired people who knew a lot more than I did and I’ve enjoyed learning from them. That feels just as good as the accomplishment I feel when I’ve completed a difficult restoration process. Someday, I hope our world reinstalls the respect we once held for a broad range of hands-on crafts and that we come to recognize vehicle restoration and preservation craft for the comprehensive skill set based profession it is. The Piston Academy will have accomplished something very worthwhile if we can educate a pool of dedicated individuals and elevate all practitioners to recognized professional status.

Kent S. Bain is the founder and former director of Automotive Restorations, Inc. and Vintage Racing Services in Stratford, Connecticut. Kent is an active vintage racer and the winner of the SVRA’s driver of the year award. He is also a founding partner of The Collectors Car Garage and a number of other classic automotive enterprises.

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