Thursday, December 25, 2014

They Call Me Mister MGB

Al Ribskis' MGB in the Victory Lane at Road America 

Al Ribskis locates TECH RacinGraphics, his custom race-car helmet business, at a point 150 miles south of Road America and 180 miles north of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  That’s one more set of coordinates that place Bridgeport more or less at the center of things, though the route he arrived by has been more like the historic road course, with its wooded moraines and its 14 turns, than an ovoid track.

Al grew up in Bridgeport, in an apartment at 3139 South Emerald; he graduated De LaSalle High School, Class of 1975.  His mother hoped he’d follow the path of his older brother, who got his engineering degree from UIC, took at a job after college, and stayed at the same company his entire career.  It was an interesting job, assessing risk for big structures like stadiums and convention centers, but still an unusual employment trajectory, especially for his era.

Al enrolled at UIC for 2 years after high school, but says he was distracted by a youthful bout of cynicism.  Cynicism is a word that’s hard to reconcile with Al Ribskis now -- he describes it as a nagging a sense of pointlessness:  good grades came easy, but he really had no idea what he planned to do with himself.  And in retrospect, maybe his doubts weren’t all wrong.

Al's logo for TECH RacinGraphics drawn by Roger Warrick

When Al was in high school, Don McLean was singing “Bye bye Miss American Pie” almost every time you turned on the radio. America’s long streak of post war prosperity, marked by steady growth, had crested and a long period of disruptions was underway – over the next 20 years they’d rattle every rung on the employment ladder.  If Al had gone ahead and pursued the course he couldn’t quite picture as a 19 year old, he might have been one of those middle managers shrugged loose mid-career by rounds of corporate streamlining.

Instead, he rebelled by leaving college to train as an electronic technician at DeVry.   He found electronics interesting – as a kid he built simple radios and motors from Heath kits -- and when he finished the program in a year and a half he had no trouble rounding up job offers.  Over the years, his skills haven’t exactly protected him from disruptions, but they have helped him pluck opportunities from the flux.

His first job was at JAY Cash Registers, a third generation, family owned business now known, after some adjustments, as JAY Retail Systems.  They started out selling used mechanical registers in the 1920s; by the mid 1950s they could claim to be the world’s largest used cash register dealer.  They also made parts and supplies for reconditioning machines, sometimes through contracts with overseas manufacturers.  Then, in 1973, they introduced the world’s first mass produced electronic cash register – with built in computing power that gave managers quick access to sales data a few key strokes.

Over the next 13 years, the company reports, sales jumped from a few million dollars a year to over $100 million in inflation adjust dollars. They didn’t build the registers themselves, they contracted with Japanese firms to do it.  Stateside, JAY maintained a network of over 600 authorized dealers, supported by hundreds of salesmen and technical support personnel.

Al joined their stable in 1979 in the hubbub of their most prosperous years.  He also married the girl he’d met as at his high school job as an Andy Frain usher at the old Comiskey Park.  They set up house in a cool Lincoln Park apartment; on week-ends they’d go dancing at Club 950, where DJ Joe Bryl was spinning New Wave records – Al runs into Joe in Bridgeport all the time now, some 30 years later, at Maria’s Community Bar or at the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And one afternoon back in ‘79, driving a Chevy Nova handed down from Al’s brother, they spotted a used MG sports car on a car lot, exchanged looks, and agreed they should buy it.  Al has collected some of the old print ads for that car -- they show young couples posed with the agile little vehicle at picnics, or at the beach, with gliders in the background – they depict a joyful, carefree existence that still reflects how he feels driving that car today.  And the car opened doors to other things.

They say the British MG was the vehicle that introduced Americans to the joys of the sports car. American GIs first saw it during World War II.  After the war, MG only built about 10,000 of its MGTD model, but a couple thousand made their way to US shores – modest numbers, but proportionally significant -- and  in the coming years, Americans would spend more and more time on the road.

The MGA was introduced in 1955 – the year before Congress passed the Federal Highway Act to fund a new Interstate highway system, and the same year Road America opened as the first permanent road race course on the North American continent.  The MGA was designed to make its mark in a growing field of European sports cars angling for a piece of the American market: the Italians would build fancy cars for the rich; MG built a quality sports car affordable to the ordinary driver.  It was the MGB, the car that Al bought, that would really solidify that reputation.  The MGB was introduced in 1962; MG sold 500,000 of them over the next 18 years.

Interesting, for a sports car, it’s unlikely anyone ever bought an MGB for power or speed.  The car had a modest 4 cylinder, 94 horsepower engine, and it didn’t have the comforts considered basic in American cars, like heat, or windows that could be rolled down, or defrosted.  For comparison, Ford introduced its Mustang GT, setting the standard for a whole class of pony cars, in April of 1965.  It had an 8 cylinder, 225 horsepower engine, and Ford sold 417,000 of them before the end of the year.

Still, MG was selling all the cars it could build.  They had a reputation for simple design and quality construction, and they handled well, they were fun to drive.  Al describes their “underdog appeal” in racing terms  - how in a mixed race, the cars with the most powerful engines would pull out on the straightaway, but the small, maneuverable ones could outfox them on the turns.

Over the years, these qualities were partly muffled as the MGB was ‘federalized’ to meet emerging American safety and emission standards.  Raised suspensions made it a little less maneuverable; heavy rubber bumpers altered its looks.  When the 1975 model came out, the modifications strained every system in the engine, reducing it to 63 horsepower and leaving it susceptible to mechanical problems. Al spends a lot of time in the garage, absorbed in loving repairs, but he still describes driving that car as a joyful experience. 

1975-76 turned out to be a record sales year for the MGB, though sales dropped after that, and MG’s problems were compounded by labor disputes, until 1980, when they stopped production.  But their cars still have a strong following today.  There are over a hundred active MG owner’s clubs in the US, whose members can talk shop, source parts, and socialize in rallies and caravans.  Back in 1979, when Al had just bought his MGB, he joined the Chicagoland MG Club and drove in a club caravan to Road America, the historic road race course in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin, over Labor Day.  He was smitten.

Helmet painting for a customer who told Al
"Every day at the racetrack is like having ice cream." 

Within a few years he was attending Skip Barber Racing School, which provides an introduction to the elements of racecraft, from techniques for braking and passing to controlling vehicle drift, and prepares students to qualify for an amateur racing license.  Graduates can race Skip Barber cars with limited damage liability at Skip Barber racing series that cover 30 race courses in Canada and the US.  Soon, Al was racing 2-3 times a year, and occasionally manning flag stations along the race course.

Back at the job, the electronic cash register business was also accelerating.  JAY’s electronic machines had changed the cash register industry; by the mid-80s competitors had entered the field.  Soon, cheaper versions of the “ECR” (electronic cash register) could be had through discount stores, without the benefit of an expensive support staff. 

Al was let go as JAY’s made adjustments, but he was able to pick up a job at a competitor’s shop on the old Northwest Highway.   And bout that time, he happened to see an ad in the Chicago Reader classifieds that would mark a significant turn in his alternate career.  It was listed under “Opportunities,” and it was located just a mile down the highway at Orion Industries, applicators of industrial coatings.  At the time Orion applied Teflon to cookware; now they apply coatings to medical instruments.

Owner Bruce Nesbitt was a savvy businessman.  Nesbitt is also a prime example of a type Al describes with admiration – the wealthy individual whose success in business allows him to buy a race car and try his hand at racing, and whose priorities gradually evolve until he’s building the business to support the racing habit.  Bruce had been racing for 20 years when Al met him.  He’d built a shop out of a corner of the Orion facility where a crew of 4 or 5 guys worked on his Camaro.  

One of them was a paid crew chief, the others were volunteers who worked for the love of the sport. Al started in the summer season as a volunteer mechanic; by winter, Bruce had hired him as crew chief.  The meticulous work suits Al’s skills and proclivities, though the stress of the occasional part failure did not.  Between them the crew might put hundreds of work hours, using endless checklists, into preparing for a 45 minute race.  At high speeds, heat and vibrations would jolt things loose and cause loose parts to fail.  Al vividly remembers one race that Bruce was leading with a real chance to win, until smoke started pouring from the engine and he had to drop out of the race.  A bundle of cables had rattled loose and short circuited as their protective coating wore off.  Bruce took incidents like that with relative equanimity, it was all part of the sport.  But they wore on Al, and by the end of the season he felt he had to resign.

This left him, in 1986, at a loss what to do with himself for the first time since his college days, though he no longer had that cynical streak.  He took a seminar called “Empower Your Career” that he credits with launching him into something entirely new.  He knew he wanted to try his hand as an entrepreneur, by the end of the seminar he had identified opportunity in a new kind of electronic signage with scrolling type.  The signs were made in Japan, but he could source, distribute and install them.  And once he began subscribing to trade publications, it turned out the sign business was in the midst of another transition, in which hand lettered signs were giving way to adhesive vinyls, cut with a computerized plotter.   Al didn’t buy the equipment, he saw opportunity specking and installing them. 

Compared to fast cars, installation of pre-built electronics and adhesive vinyls might sound like dull stuff, but Al, with his meticulous streak, takes great pleasure in the survey work – the measurements and preparations that make the installation go well.  It’s the part of the job he believes others too often neglect.  He might use third party contractors to build an enormous sign cabinet, to operate the crane that hangs it, to shape the neon tubes that light it and cut the vinyl letters that will spell out the menu around the edge of the roof, and if he’s taken an accurate survey, it will also fit together without a hitch.  He describes working atop a ladder – applying lettering or paint or connecting electronics – as peaceful and absorbing, above the hubbub of the street.

For 9 years, Al’s best client was Leona’s restaurants.  The first sign he did for them was a vertical cabinet with Leona’s name spelled in ruby lights – it still hangs along Taylor Street.   When business slowed after the dot-com bust and 9/11, it became clear that his ability to survey a job did not extend to managing cash flow.  In 2002, he closed his business and began to work for other installers, joining the sign installers union in 2007. 

Union work brought him to big jobs at hotels and office buildings where he might mount hundreds of labels at doors and stairwells – jobs that had less to do with orchestrating the details of one big sign than working out the quickest way to mount a dozen in an hour at precisely the same height.  But there too, Al appreciates a sense of landscape: a job in the West Loop puts him in proximity to where a construction boom unfolds, or it might put him in the service of impressive clients.  When one job sent him to work on a Crate and Barrel store, he was delighted at the prospect because he admired the company.

“I was thinking ‘This is great!  I get to work for Crate and Barrel – (founder) Gordon Segal is a retail genius!’”  Then he arrived at the site, and the store manager filled his ear with complaints about shortcuts and unfulfilled promises made by the installation company that had sent him to the job.  Al went home and wrote an earnest letter to the company president, because surely upper management would want to know about the client’s concerns, and he felt let down when he got a letter back, dismissing the client’s claims in soothing terms about how misunderstandings are inevitable in business.

Al’s other career affords more idealistic principles.  In the mid-2000s, a friend invited him to a luncheon with the Chicago Loop Auto Sports Society (CLASS), an informal club of serious enthusiasts who meet monthly at Pazzo’s restaurant to talk about cars and racing.  It was at a CLASS luncheon that Al met David Cooper, whose west loop company Cooper Technica does extravagant restorations of vintage cars.

For photos from the restoration of this Land Rover,
see Cooper Technica's web-page under "For Sale"

For the purist, a vintage car is a pre-war vehicle, built between 1919 and 1939, though Cooper does other restorations, like vintage Land Rovers built between 1950 and the mid 1970s. He searches out devalued specimens in poor condition with uncertain origins, and assembles a pool of investors to buy them, and fund their restoration.

A rare car’s provenance, its origins, ownership and any racing career, can have a dramatic impact on its value.  Cooper takes pride in his skill as a sleuth – he’ll track down heirs, study family photos for images of a favorite vehicle, he’ll press survivors to visualize themselves back inside the car. “You want to turn on the windshield wipers,” the Chicago Tribune once described him pressing the son of a socialite whose famous custom car may have turned up in a collection of packing boxes. “Where do you reach?”  The answer that helped prove he had the right car: the man reached for a switch overhead. 

His shop mechanics will rebuild the car at Cooper Technica’s West Loop garage, which has its own machine shop, sheet metal and paint facilities.  As they do it, they’ll strike a careful balance between preservation and functionality, because when the car is finished, it won’t be a fragile show piece, it will be a real vehicle built to drive.  Cooper Technica boasts that some of its restored cars may be driven every day.  Wherever possible, they’ll use original specifications and period production techniques, authentic right down to the chemistry of the materials.  But they may make discrete modifications in consultation with an owner -- use modern valves or rubber gaskets for instance -- to adapt the car for current fuel and driving conditions. 

For a time, Al had the great pleasure of working at the Cooper Technica shop alongside an older mechanic named Sonny, who drove his own vintage Land Rover.  Al got to fabricate a complete wiring harness for one of the Cooper Technica Land Rovers.  As wires age, their insulation turns brittle and cracks.  Al ran new wire, making fuse boxes and connections to all the switches with careful reference to the original manual, because every detail would be accurate – if the manual called for a particular connection to be made in blue wire, or in brown wire with an orange tracer, he’d reach for one of the spools Cooper Technica kept ready to hand.

He recalls one happy afternoon spent with Sonny, carefully scouring corrosion off the original spoked wheels of a 1930s era Alfa Romeo.  The metal was 70 years old, they knew its metallurgic composition and the city in Italy where it was made, and at one point they looked up at one another and asked “Can you believe we’re working on this?”

For photos from the restoration of this Alfa Romeo,
see Cooper Technica's web-page, under "Past Projects"

Which points toward one of the contradictions of their craft -- because there is fantastic money in it. Vintage cars have been racking up record prices at auctions through 2014, and the most rarefied specimens never make it to auction, they’re usually placed through private brokers and dealers.  They tend to hold their value when stocks and real estate do not.  That means Cooper’s investors might put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore a car that will eventually fetch tens of millions.  But the restoration will take thousands of hours, and after it’s finished they may wait years to place it with the buyer prepared to pay its real value.

In the meantime, the restoration itself is done by meticulous, skilled craftsmen who might work for something close to the honor of working on the vehicle.  Al got paid for working at Cooper Technica but eventually, he had to quit because he simply couldn’t afford it.  Sign work pays better and it is his main employment today.

But he remains involved in the Midwest racing circuit, and his racing connections spawned the business that would become TECH RacinGraphics, when his friend Rusty Zimmerman first asked him to decorate his racing helmet in 1999.  It turns out that the paint masking techniques and adhesive vinyls Al uses for sign work also lend themselves to the kind of meticulous detail his helmet customers ask him to produce.

TECH RacinGraphics, might decorate a $1,000 helmet for $600 to $900, depending on the level of detail.  To make the checkered pattern on this helmet Al masked out hundreds of tiny squares.  Customers have occasionally hinted he might charge more, and he admits he finds it hard to set prices, which is one reason he eventually abandoned his business as a full time entrepreneur.  He made a living during a respectable stretch of good years, but his work life has spanned a postmodern period defined by the pressures that acceleration, globalization, and widening disparity of incomes exert on labor and ownership alike.

In some ways those pressures have made work more exciting: Al agrees he’s had opportunity to engage in far wider array of interesting work than he would have in a quiet office or on a factory floor.  In fact, his particular interests in racing and rare cars are fueled by the fortunes of wealthy individuals.  But for Al, there has been a big trade off in basic job security and the absence of a reliable safety net.

On the race course, Al says the most expensive car doesn’t always win the race, but he says the car probably counts for more than half of it.  So it’s partly to keep the sport interesting that the racing community self regulates, subdividing the field into classes, so that cars of an era, or similar horse power, compete against each other, giving the widest possible field of cars a fair opportunity to push their limits at the track.

Short of some real life parallel, there is the satisfaction of finding your niche, and finding it again if you can each time the course changes.  If Al’s not sure how to price his helmet graphics, that’s partly because he’s prone to lose track of time while he’s working on them.  He describes himself at work in his paint booth in the middle of the night -- the work is peaceful, he is fully absorbed.  He refers back to that “Empower Your Career” course he took years ago when he says “Working in that paint booth is exactly the kind of work environment I belong in.”

Al on the F1 podium at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
from TECH RacinGraphics web page:
"This is the level of enthusiasm I apply to every helmet I work on."

1 comment:

  1. My uncle had an old MG, he promised it to me when I was 12 or so. Never ran, I think he ended up selling it for a few grand. Garaging it was a loosing proposition, like paying $50 a month in fees to keep $2,000 in a bank account. It always astounds me how cheaply you can buy these old cars and how most of the guys take a loss on parts & labor when they are sold.