CALLING ALL MACHINISTS
BY JAY LENO, Photos By John Lamm
This is an article that was published in the Popular Mechanics magazine. Written by the former Tonight Show host Jay Leno.
Nowadays, if I meet younger people who run machine shops, they're working there because it was their father's machine shop. You don't see a lot of young guys starting machine shops. But it's a respectable trade and there's still a lot of money to be made. Take the guy who used to be in the building next to mine. He made airplane parts and his business got so big he outgrew the space. This was a guy with a little machine shop with a bunch of machinists. He made $14 million the year he left. I'll tell you how he did it. There are tons of phony airplane parts coming from Asia and other sources that are stamped "Approved." Trouble is, they're not approved by anyone that matters. So the big airlines would come there and say, "We need 600 titanium bolts." Then they would have to have somebody stand there while the guy made the bolts out of titanium. So the work never got out of the airlines' hands. When the bolts were done, they were stamped, graded and delivered. You have to understand that some critical aircraft bolts are 4 grand apiece, because the only way you can ensure that the bolts are being made right-there's such a black market for counterfeiting aircraft parts-is to pay a trustworthy man to watch each and every part being machined. That's why they're so expensive. So bolt by bolt, this guy's a millionaire. What a difference from years past. In the old days technology was expensive and labor was cheap. Look at my 8.0-liter Bentley. You've got about 75 acorn nuts holding the water jacket on. When this car was built you could pay a guy 10 cents an hour to sit there all day and tighten acorn nuts. Now it's just the opposite: Labor's expensive and technology is incredibly cheap. It's odd, but I'm not simply talking about physical labor today. I'm talking about people with real skills. I watched "Dateline NBC" a while back and they had some guy on who was a math genius. You could throw him a column of figures and he could add them up quicker than you could on a computer. There are guys like that with machinery, guys who can just look at an engine and know all there is to know about it. Take the late Harry Miller, a real American genius-aesthetically and mechanically. Here was a man who made racing parts and engines in the 1920s and 1930s that looked like beautiful sculpture, but they actually worked. I don't believe Miller was a trained engineer-he was just an intuitive engineer. I don't think he went to MIT or anything like that. But he had the vision. So did Ettore Bugatti. And they had shops full of guys who had the skills to machine and make anything they needed. How many guys are there like that today? I don't know. But a lot of them just get passed by because it doesn't seem as though preserving and encouraging these skills is worthwhile. By establishing college scholarships, I'm just trying to open up another area for kids-an area that they may not know is available. When you're a kid, you always think you're the only one who thinks about anything. It's like sex. You think, "My parents don't know anything about this." It's the same type of reasoning. I like the idea of making the job of a mechanic a respectable position. In my mind, I rank a machinist higher than a computer operator. But I think in America's mind, a machinist is like a Jiffy Lube guy-nothing against Jiffy Lube, but these are guys who have only the most basic automotive skills. The machinist's craft just isn't acknowledged, probably because it's hard, meticulous, often dirty work. People don't understand it.
When Leno needs parts for his cars, he can’t usually
find what he needs on the shelves at your basic discount store.
Here's an example we should never forget. Somebody literally made all the airplanes-the fighters, bombers and transports-we used in World War II. We didn't win the war just because we were great fighters-not to demean anybody who fought-but we also won because we had the ability to overwhelm the enemy in terms of skilled production and technology. Think about Henry Ford and his chief engineer, Charlie Sorensen, figuring out how to build four-engined B-24 Liberator bombers on a mile-long assembly line in an enormous building at Willow Run, Mich. In California, before these East Coast guys got into the picture, they built aircraft painstakingly one at a time outside in the sun. But under the pressure of a world conflict, a couple of mechanical geniuses figured out a better way. Back then, we had plenty of people with the necessary skills: Kids learned machining and welding in high school, then they worked as apprentices until they mastered these trades. We built things that were very well done. And we did it all in America. Take my '32 Packard V12. It was built in Detroit, but some of the parts came from as far away as South Bend, Ind. The whole thing was made here, most of it under one roof. That doesn't happen anymore and it worries me. You think about another world war and you say to yourself, "Uh oh." I needed high-speed gears made for one of my Duesenbergs. They're hypoid and helical. I found people who could make one or the other, but not both. I couldn't find anyone to make them. There wasn't one company in this entire country. Every gear cutter I tried told me that all the machines had been sold. Some went to Korea, some to China. But I called a company in India and they could make the gears. And I guess that would be okay. But finally, through an older man in Chicago, someone 10 years past retirement, I was able to get them made. And all it took was 18 months. But a few years ago, this job could be done within a few miles of Burbank Airport, right near my garage. I don't know if that means anything to a lot of people but it's important to me. All these venture capitalists today don't make anything. When they're dead, there's nothing left. Years ago, people made things that lasted. There was a finished product. I have a garage full of 'em. If you want to preserve old cars, you need people with the skills to do it. We're growing a generation of kids who won't know how to work on old cars. That's why I support the Fred Duesenberg Scholarship and POPULAR MECHANICS sponsors the Jay Leno/POPULAR MECHANICS Scholarship at McPherson College. It's too bad, but I see a lot of essential skills going to Mexico or Japan. You can still wander off on a side street in those countries and see some guy making something work because he's literally whittling a piece of metal* to fit. True machinists don't think of metal* as something hard and unchangeable. They can make anything they want, or replace nearly any part that's ever been made. I have a lot of respect for those guys. I always will.
This article was printed in Popular Mechanics magazine. (2001)