Auto-Biography: Tales From High School Auto Shop

(first posed 1/31/2018)     I never really took auto shop in high school. It wasn’t offered at my school, but I found a way around that…

A couple of my friends attended a different but nearby high school that did offer it, and in Grade 13 I had a spare first period when they had auto shop, so I started unofficially attending some of their classes.

The auto shop teacher looked a lot like Fred Flintstone in a blue shop coat, and he was close enough to retirement that he didn’t care. My first day he was taking attendance, looked at me, looked at his list, looked at me, looked at the list… then continued like nothing happened.  He never said anything to me, and I was too shy in those days to say anything to him.

I was a good student, I was quiet and listened, I read the material and watched the old Chrysler Master Tech recordings and film strips that were still being used in 1985 when this happened.  In fact, we used to have a great time using the “Tech” voice when insulting each other in class.

What I did not do was tear apart my own car in the shop, since “my” 1972 Matador was a daily driver and belonged to my Dad.  So I tried to help the other guys with their projects, and watched and learned as much as possible.  Here are some stories of the cars I encountered during my brief auto shop career, with internet pictures as close as I could find:

An unlikely hero, a green 1971 Chevy Impala, was the success story of high school auto shop.  It had been purchased for $150 and needed a lot of help.  The fellow who owned it very diligently made the necessary mechanical repairs and got it back on the road with some help from a slightly under the table safety check.  It was done by a mechanic friend of his father, one of these “here’s your paperwork, you need a muffler, a ball joint and fix those rust holes” deals but the work did get done.

Once he’d accumulated some more money he rebuilt the 350 small block on his own at school, and added a Holley carb, a hotter GM cam, Edelbrock Performer intake and headers.  The 350 looked a little lost in that cavernous engine bay but at least there was lots of room to work around it.

It turned out to be a very strong running and durable engine, and propelled the Impala down the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds (with a 2.73:1 open rear).  Thanks to the tall gearing and powerful engine this car was also capable of burying its 120mph speedometer, which I witnessed on several occasions.  Yes it was thrilling at the time but it makes my blood run cold now to think what could have happened.

Luckily nothing happened, and later that motor got transplanted into a Rally Nova with an M21 4-speed.  What a handful to drive, but it was still going strong 4 or 5 years later when he sold it after college.

If the Impala was the winner of the bunch then the 1970 Chevy Camaro was the loser.  It had been painted yellow with black stripes, and although it looked far better than the Impala it was in not in good shape.

Its venerable small block was equipped with the usual speed parts but quickly came apart, never to go back together.  The rear subframe was completely rotten with rust, and the owner was trying to repair it by pounding sheet metal over the outside and brazing it on.  The brazing wasn’t sticking very well to the rust, I saw the teacher inspect the workmanship, shake his head and move on, again without saying anything.  The Camaro’s owner soon acquired the nickname “The Torch“.


One of the guys somehow got wind of an honest to goodness 1970 Pontiac GTO stashed in a backyard in the old part of the city.  I went along the night he brought it home, it barely scraped between the two houses with the side mirrors removed.  We flat towed it back and although it was a bit rough looking it was in quite good condition for a 15-year-old salt belt car.

It had a 400/auto and although I recall him collecting parts enthusiastically and working on the engine at school, I don’t recall much reassembly.  Years later he had a ’69 GTO with a four speed for his daily driver while he continued to work on the ’70.  I lost contact with him after college, so I don’t know if the GTO ever got finished.  But while he was in high school his parts chaser was…

An orange 1977 AMC Gremlin X.  Everybody hated this car, which I think was his mother’s.  For us lanky teenage boys it was torture to squeeze into the tiny back seat, and it was slow.  It was a six cylinder/3-speed manual, and the floor mounted shifter was so worn out, it was a struggle to get any gear with it.  I went to drive it once and couldn’t get it to move, so I was banished to the back seat.  As bad as it was, the Gremlin gamely stood up to the abuse (both verbal and physical) that was heaped upon it.

I didn’t see the 1969 Mercury Cougar XR7 in the shop much, because it ran and was in good condition.  Given what happened to most of the cars that came into the school shop it was probably a wise policy to steer clear of the bays.

Sometimes we would work on stuff at night, because there were evening classes and the night school instructor would let us in.  He told us about a day student who had previously owned some hopelessly rusty pile, and did not disconnect the battery when he removed the carburetor one day.  In the evening the night school instructor came in and seeing the keys in the ignition tried to move it to make some space.  It actually started enough to pump fuel all over the place and set itself on fire.

Luckily it didn’t burn the building down, and the car owner got an insurance check which paid for an actual nice car.  Who knows if it was true or not, but it’s a good story and as a result I always remembered to disconnect the battery when making fuel system repairs.

At any rate, my final semester of high school flew by and the knowledge I’d accumulated formed another piece in the puzzle of my automotive education.  The next fall I was off to university, where nobody had an interesting car.  Wealthy students drove new Honda Accords and starving students (like me) walked or took the bus.

Do you have a memorable high school auto shop experience?