Senior Coleman Harkey rests his head under the steering wheel of the Porsche 944. He reaches up into the guts of the stripped-down car, pulls out a mess of wires and hands them off to senior Mason Lieb. Lieb returns to his nest of colored wires on the concrete floor, sits and begins untangling. Next to him, senior Nick Alexander takes a break from rewiring the car, and sits down on a removed car seat.
In Autotech 2, cars are everywhere and everything. Even the bathroom pass is made from welded gears and bolts. All of the students in the class are senior boys who have taken the required Automotive Essentials, and have shown interest in taking Autotech 2 and 3, which as Autotech teacher Brian Gay explains, is the same class in different semesters.
The Autotech room is roughly the size of two normal classrooms, and usually hosts three cars at a time, as well as is home to the permanent resident, a VW van. In his eight years of teaching at East, Gay has made it a priority to ensure that the three car spaces were continually occupied by a variety of cars. One way he does this is by allowing students from the class to bring in their personal cars, as well as operate on staff members’ cars and even his own Porsche Carrera from time to time.
“This is [the students’] shop, so it’s my job to keep it running. It’s their job to want to work,” Gay said. “The first step in that is to get their buy-in. So their cars are first priority.”
Any car they bring in is turned into a project for the class. Most often, the cars require basic maintenance like changing oil, fixing brakes or rotating tires . But usually each car comes with a different process. Gay finds that a student usually knows how to perform an oil change on one car, but will be completely lost on the next. Because of the cycling of the cars, Gay believes the class is constantly learning.
“We pull this car in, and we’ve got a laundry list of crap on it, none of which the kids have ever done,” Gay said. “Fine. That’s what we’re here for.”
Autotech classes follow a curriculum that emphasizes that kids become skilled at certain common maintenance projects. But because the cars brought in often have unfamiliar problems, the students, in turn, constantly have to learn new solutions. Senior Joey Elifrits dealt with his car’s thermostat housing, intending on it being a four hour job. After unforeseen problems and losing a chunk of his finger, his job ended up taking three days. Yet, Elifrits finished the project and plans to take on the next problems that his car will throw at him.
“I’m going to buy new calipers and bleeder valves,” Elifrits said. “We might just have to change the bleeder valves but that’s not a likely option. We’re probably going to have to do two new calipers on the front brakes, so that’s going to be a fun job.”
If the cars aren’t in the Autotech room for maintenance, they’re being upgraded. The Porsche 944 was recently brought to the class by a former student with one request — to make it a race car. To do this, Harkey, Lieb and Alexander are currently stripping down the Porsche 944 of all its “luxuries” in order to make it weigh as little as possible. Along with stripping it, the boys are tasked with painting the interior and rewiring the car, a complicated and time-consuming process.
One of the class’s biggest upcoming projects will be working on senior Mark Ward’s BMW, completely replacing suspension and brakes. Because of the complexity of the project and how unfamiliar the students are with the process, the project will take several weeks, according to Gay. Because students will be working on the car, the process will take much longer than it would in an autobody shop.
“It’s not because it’s cheap, it’s because he loves playing with cars,” Gay said. “Mark, like most of these guys, walk in and want to get their hands on cars. You can’t train that out of somebody, or train that into them. It’s inherent — enjoying working with your hands.”
Most of the boys in the class plan on continuing to work with their hands after they graduate. Whether they want on career in engineering, work in the automobile industry or simply know how to changing a tire.
Whether they plan on pursuing career in engineering, working in the automobile industry or simply want to know how to changing a tire, the tools the boys have learned in Autotech will stay with them in the future.
Although the boys will graduate and leave behind the Autotech shop, they’ll be driving home in their own future projects.