Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trade School to open at Robison Service complex in Springfield MA

The automobile trade has been good to me.   From a humble beginning in the garage beside my house, Robison Service has evolved into one of the leading import car specialists in New England.  We’ve grown from a twelve by twenty foot stall to a complex of buildings; all by providing a service few people choose to offer.
Our business has succeeded through the hard work of many people, and the support of a loyal clientele.  But before we had those things, there was me – an autistic adult who needed a job.
I started this company because I couldn’t fit in at the Big Corporation.   It’s given me stability, and a sense of value in the community.  As manufacturing and management jobs have evaporated from the businesses around me, it’s also given me security.  No one will be outsourcing repair of Mom’s BMW, or restoration of Dad’s Jaguar anytime soon.
The same can be said for most of the trades.  Electricians, plumbers, mechanics, HVAC people . . . we do very different work but we have a few things in common:
  • We work with our hands
  • We rely on focus, concentration, and specialized knowledge to succeed
  • Technical skill means more than people skills in most of our jobs
  • Our jobs are local, and they won’t be outsourced to India or China any day soon!

Becoming a skilled tradesman is one way a person like me – from an at-risk background, with some “differences” to set me apart – can find success in this society.  An established tradesman will always have work, often with a better-than-average income for his area.
Knowing that, I’ve always wished there was a way I could teach the practical trades to young people like me.  I get a steady trickle of emails asking that very thing.  This summer, I am pleased to say we are taking some action.

We are seekign MA dept of education approval to open a trade school in the Robison Service complex.

We want to to teach basic mechanics, vehicle inspection, detailing, small engine repair and landscaping.  All that will be done right here where I work every day – alongside real professionals practicing the same trades day in and day out.
We are partnering with NortheastCenter for Youth and Families, and Tri County Schools of Easthampton.  Students will divide their time between shop classes in our complex and the regular academic program at Tri County’s Easthampton campus.  I will be an advisor but the teaching will be done by legitimate special ed professionals, not just outlaws like me!
Tri County is a long-established non-profit Massachusetts Chapter 766 approved special education school.  Students in our programs will be referred by state agencies, school districts, and private professionals.  Some of our kids will be on the autism spectrum, but we will also take kids from at-risk home environments and kids with other developmental challenges.
We are presently recruiting a shop teacher and several other staff.  Follow this link if you’re interested in working with us.
Write me if you’re a parent or prospective student interested in our programs.  We hope to be open for fall semester 2013, subject to state approval, and we plan to begin taking applications for summer school 2014 very soon.  I expect mostly day students but NCYF does have residential options.
I’m very excited about this new program.  Frankly, it’s something of a dream come true.  I can’t wait to see us open the doors, in a few short months.  Do you know someone who wants to be in our first class?
Stay tuned for updates, and think hard about those trades.  Not everyone is cut out for college.   I wasn’t. 

John Elder Robison is an adult with autism, and the parent of an adult son with autism.  He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department if Health and Human Services.  He serves on numerous public and private boards, and he’s the founder of JE Robison Service of Springfield, MA.  John is also the NY Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, andRaising Cubby.  He lives in Western Massachusetts.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Evolution of Maintenance

Over the past thirty years, car maintenance has changed dramatically.  Since most owners of collector cars are older than 45, this means that they have seen this transformation in their driving lifetime.  

Oil changes have gone from every three months or 3,000 miles to 7,500 miles or more, and one to two years.  Cars needed new spark plugs every 15,000 miles; today’s cars go 60,000 or even 100,000 miles on a set of plugs.

What do the new maintenance guidelines mean for old cars today?   Do they apply to vintage cars, or only to new cars?  Let’s look at oil.  BMW says its OK to drive a new 5-Series 15,000 miles before changing the oil because they use a special long-life formulation.  What does that mean for an owner of a 1983 5-Series?  Can he fill his car with today’s super-duper BMW oil and get 15,000 miles on a change?

In most cases, the answer is NO.  Maintenance requirements for new cars do not translate retroactively to older cars simply because thinking has changed and fluids and parts have evolved.

Older cars were made in a time of looser tolerances.  That’s evident when you look at the number of adjustments on a vintage car.  Fenders – to choose one example - have slotted holes so you can move them for alignment. Everything is adjustable.   New cars are the opposite – very little is adjustable.   Parts are machined precisely and fit exactly as intended.  At least they’re supposed to!

The same situation holds true in the engine.  Where a 2012 engine might have bearing clearances of 1.5 thousandths of an inch, a 1952 car might have three or five times that much clearance.  Some is a result of looser production tolerances when new, and some the result of wear and age.  What does that mean?  It means the older engine will require a thicker oil to prevent metal-on-metal galling.  It means the long-life attributes of the new oil are not the determining factor in its suitability for use in an old car – viscosity is!  And the new oil is in fact the wrong viscosity for the old car.

So the use of oil made for a 2012 BMW in a thirty or forty-year-old BMW might actually be destructive.   What about going the other way, you ask?  The use of the older car’s thicker oil in a new BMW could result in excess pressure, and damage to engine components that were not even invented in the 1970s.  Furthermore, the absence of the long-life additives would contribute to premature failure. 

When we consider how long an oil will last, we look at two things:  How rugged is the oil, and how fast will it get degraded by combustion byproducts as the engine runs?   Oil that has the weight rating for old cars does not have the long-life wear additives needed for new engines.  That’s one basic fact.  Old engines generated more waste product when they ran, right from day one.   That’s the second key fact.  We all know old engines polluted more.  What many people don’t realize is that some of that pollution ends up in the engine’s crankcase, polluting the oil

What that means is this:  The life of oil in a vintage car is usually determined by contamination of the oil, either from sludge in the motor or excess combustion byproducts.  The use of long life oil will not help that situation; indeed the more aggressive detergents may make things worse!

For that reason I suggest a change interval of once a season or every 3,000 miles on your collector vehicle.  And use the right weight for its age.

What about the other fluids?

Brake fluid absorbs moisture from the air.  In most climates, it is ready to be changed after three years.  Failure to change brake fluid leads to rusting of the internal brake parts and costly repairs.  So I encourage you to change it semi-annually.

Some coolants do last longer, and they may be used in older cars.  BMW and Mercedes coolants – for example – are backward compatible with most older models.  But check the labels to be sure.

Modern transmission and gear oils will last longer, but again contamination is often the enemy in an older car.  Since usage varies so widely there is no one recommendation for changing these oils, but in any case I would not run them longer than 6-8 years, even in a low mileage show car.

Spark plug life in a vintage car depends mostly on engine wear.  Pull your plugs annually if possible, and check for fouling.  Often only one cylinder will foul, and you may choose to replace just the one plug.  There are old cars that never fould plugs, and others that do it every second tank of gas.  Know your vehicle. 

Most old cars are not driven enough to ever clog air filter.   Fuel filters are another matter.  I suggest fitting a modern filter to your old car because they are so much more effective, and change it every 3-4 years as you can’t see inside, and fuel can carry invisible contaminants that will collect in the filter. 

Now it’s time to take this information and run with it, because spring is here, and another driving season is upon us!  Good luck!

John Elder Robison is the General Manager of JE Robison Service of Springfield, Massachusetts.  Robison Service specializes in repair and restoration of BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, and Rolls Royce/Bentley motorcars.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Corners and Cadillacs

I flew close under a stone bridge on the Merritt Parkway, the narrow and twisty tree-lined pathway connecting Connecticut to New York.  Looking down at the speedometer I saw I was just beneath the century mark. At the same time, the sign for my exist flashed by, close on the right.  I stepped gently on the brakes, moved into the exit lane, and popped on the high beams. 

EXIT: 15 MPH. 


At one hundred fifty feet a second, the sign was coming up fast.  There was only one thing to do.  I stood on the brakes.  Hard.  There was a clatter behind me, as the contents of the backseat relocated to the floor.  However, the disruption was brief as the stereo adjusted itself to suppress the additional noise.

As the sign swelled in the headlights, I released the brakes and turned the wheel in one smooth motion.  That’s where most drivers go wrong – they stay on the brakes, and go straight off the road.  These modern cars have wonderful stability control and drive by wire electronics.  It’s all designed to give top priority to straight line braking.  So you’ve got a choice:  brake hard, or turn hard.   But you can’t do both at the limit.  Not with electronics.  Braking will always win, and you will exit the road, nose first.

With my foot off the brake the stability control took over.  The DSC sensed the rotation of the car and the slip of the wheels.  It responded by braking individual wheels faster then I could blink, and drifting the car perfectly around the corner.  The drift burned off the excess speed, and I exited the turn at a much more moderate rate of progression.

Just let the electronics do its job.  That's what they tell us, at service school.   

As that happened, the stereo calmly adjusted its volume, and Lou Rawls sang smoothly over the cacophony of tires on pavement.  There was no sign that a disaster had just been avoided.  Indeed – had you asked – I’d have denied the whole thing, saying that was how I do that turn every time.

The STOP sign flashed by, as I slowed to the speed limit – or something reasonably close – and opened my window.  Lou Rawls was just leaving Chicago, and the Girl from Ipanema was headed our way.
Cars sure have come a long way, in the four decades I’ve been driving.

But there’s still a place for a ’59 Cadillac, a ’63 Lincoln, or a 65 GTO Tri Power.  Even if the new BMW or Mercedes does have better stereo and cornering.  There’s a reason we won World War II, and it’s got nothing to do with electronics.