MARGATE, Fla. — Des Gibbs and Clem Hall began working together as dealership service tech-nicians in South Florida in 1987. President Ronald Reagan was in his second term, the stock market crashed, General Motors rolled out a solar-powered car and the Detroit 3 claimed a 71.7 percent U.S. market share.
Three decades later, Gibbs, 81, and Hall, 67, are retiring together as certified, full-time master body specialists. The techs, both natives of Jamaica, will hang up their work grays for the last time on July 1.
"I am going to really miss it," Hall says. "I am tired — that's why I am retiring. Otherwise I would keep going."
In all, Gibbs' career as a tech in U.S. dealerships dates to the early 1970s. In a conversation with Fixed Ops Journal at JM Lexus here, where they have worked as a team in the body shop since 1991, Gibbs and Hall reflected on the changes they have seen in fixed operations during their tenures.
The partners suggest that today's technicians don't get the amount of training they did before they were permitted to work on vehicles. Gibbs trained as a coachbuilder in the United Kingdom and came to the United States in 1971 to work as a body specialist at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Manhattan.
Hall completed a similar yearslong apprenticeship in vehicle repair that he says encouraged him to take pride in his work.
Gibbs recalls: "I attended a trade school [in England] where we had to learn about metalworking, modeling, woodworking and geometry before we were allowed to touch a car. They [assigned] you small toy cars to build, then you would build a body from scratch."
As a coachbuilder, Gibbs adds, he developed a system that enabled him to build as many as eight car bodies at a time instead of one. He finished faster than his coworkers, he says, with no loss of quality. Younger service technicians, he says, don't get the same opportunity to learn and experiment.
"I know they try their best," Gibbs says, "but I don't think there is enough training when they start. To really learn the trade properly takes time."
The pair mentored other body shop employees at JM Lexus. Hall says he warns younger techs that "everything you do, if you do it wrong, you will have to do it again."
After Gibbs left the Rolls-Royce dealership in New York, he opened a body shop in the city. Thieves looted his store during the 1977 New York blackout, he says, causing him to move to Florida to start over.
Separately, Hall also left New York, where he worked for 13 years at an independent body shop, for South Florida. Gibbs and Hall started working side by side in 1987 in the body shop of what is now AutoNation Nissan Pembroke Pines. Four years later, they took their talents to JM Lexus.
Both men cite major changes in vehicle design and technology during their careers, especially the shift from body-on-frame to unibody construction. That has made cars and trucks safer and easier to work with, they say.
They acknowledge the days are over when a mechanic could take a hammer and beat on a car. "You can't heat the metal and bend it to where it would fit anymore," Gibbs says.
Their collision shop now uses the Car-O-Liner Vision electronic measuring system. The veteran technicians, accustomed to working with a measuring rod, say they initially worried that the computer system would delay their work.
"They want to tell me this thing is much smarter than I am," Gibbs recalls. "But actually, I was only one brain fixing the car," compared with the brains of the thousands of engineers who helped develop the system, he says, adding: "The computer is precise."
John Buckland, JM Lexus' body shop production manager, says Gibbs has "absorbed computers, embraced them, and is going to preach about them to you like he was a 20-year-old. That's the wonderful thing that has kept the two of them right in the center of this."
Their close working relationship over 30 years has allowed Gibbs and Hall to develop a rapport that enables them to complete each other's sentences.
Working to restore vehicles in the body shop to pristine condition, Gibbs says: "I'll try something new and ask Clem what he thought of it. He would look and say, 'Hmm, that makes sense,'" or offer another view.
Brad Schafer, JM Lexus' director of fixed operations, says Gibbs and Hall have achieved "an unmistakable rhythm" working together that has enhanced their productivity and efficiency. Lexus has declared them "elite" technicians.
The two techs still routinely generate 150 to 200 labor hours per week, Schafer says. "Their old-school work ethic and dedication is an inspiration" to their coworkers, he adds.
Bobby Glaize, who directs the JM Lexus body shop, says the pending retirement of the tech team will create "a big hole for us to fill."
"These two gentlemen, they have never taken sick days, they do quality work, and they are great statesmen for the company," Glaize says. "I use them all the time as examples for younger workers."
Gibbs and Hall agree that the congenial work environment at JM Lexus has helped keep them on the job past standard retirement age.
"I really hope all of the guys realize how lucky they are to be working here," he says of his coworkers. "I really doubt you could find any other company in the United States that could do as much as this company does for you."
When Gibbs retires, he says he plans to give some of his tools to a coworker. Gibbs, who never married ("I can't afford it") adds that he wants to travel and manage rental properties he owns.
He says he also will give more attention to the 50 rabbits he keeps as pets — "I won't give them away because I am fearful of how they will be treated," he says — and tend to his mango, banana, coconut and citrus trees.
For his part, Hall says he plans to play more golf in retirement, and travel with his wife of 39 years. He adds that he plans to keep in touch with Gibbs: "I know where his rabbits live."