At CarrXpert Beloeil, everyday life is spiced up with the spirit and knowledge of a 1960s collision shop owner.
Réginald Gagné had been in the business for some fifteen years, and every Christmas he delivered a new remote-controlled vehicle to André Pelletier, which he managed to dismantle before New Year’s Day.
Although one was born behind Chicoutimi’s cathedral in the early 40s, and the other in Murdochville some 30 years later, they share the same passion.
While Réginald painted his little cars with his mother’s nail polish, or later tore apart lawnmowers and snowblowers, he straightened and restored any vehicle.
A craftsman in the early decades of the car industry, Réginald could have been a master to André, who earned his DVS in Rimouski in 1988 after being introduced to the trade at secondary school.
In fact, it would have been normal for this to be the case, since the first teachers of the collision programme were professionals of Réginald’s generation.
Like his fellow workers, whose working conditions in their almost prehistoric era were almost unimaginably hellish, he has a lot to tell.
The age of resourcefulness
Proud of having made magic ‘out of nothing’ in environments as unhealthy as they were toxic, Réginald speaks volumes about those days when excellence and resourcefulness were synonymous.
It was a time of total freedom, when the absolute standard was to satisfy customers by handing them a vehicle with a brilliant finish thanks to generous coats of acrylic paint.
And he goes on to say that, compared with today’s water repellents, this type of hard-wearing coating meant that an entire car could be repainted in 60 minutes!
He adds that very few vehicles were sent to the “graveyard”, unlike the growing number of total losses that have been queuing up for recycling since 2000.
In the old days, it was fascinating to see the precision with which Réginald could identify the points of impact and straighten vehicles as if by magic. The more damaged they were, the more fun he had!
— André Pelletier
“His” augmented reality
Faced with a severely damaged vehicle, his arms didn’t fall off, but rather he felt whipped up by the challenge of giving it a new lease of life by straightening it to perfection.
His secret: first he paused to detect the point of impact with his eyes, and then in his mind’s eye he saw the chassis unfold exactly as he expected. In other words, he was already using augmented reality!
The hours didn’t count, and the only breaks were to stop at the next stage, he points out, if not to change plans because of parts that were expected.
In his time, you could always straighten a vehicle by hanging chains from anchor points, and use a “galon” to measure the square line and the distance from one ball joint to the next.
Just as the arrival of the legendary Wedge Clamp system was a milestone, so the advent of 3D measuring systems, programmable welders and riveting machines was a quantum leap.
While he is impressed by the changes that have taken place, Réginald Gagné is convinced that the fundamental aspects of the trade, which began exclusively by hand, remain the same as they were in the early days.
From the Saguenay to the South Shore
It’s at La Huche Sans Pareille in Rivière-du-Moulin, near Chicoutimi, that Réginald Gagné got his first pay cheque at the age of 14, back in the days when bakers still delivered by horse and cart.
After a decade spent working partly in the village sawmill and partly for furniture manufacturer Saguenay Furniture, he was happy to dive headfirst into the collision world that so fascinated him.
Following in the footsteps of his friend Serge Simard, a car dealer, in the 60s and 70s he found himself in a dozen workshops on Montreal’s South Shore, including one for a transport company.
By the time he joined Claude Camiré and Réal Jauvin in ’79, he was already renowned for his expertise in structural straightening, repair and mechanical engineering.
From rotisserie to Spider
Since the first car he was entrusted with — a 1948 Ford — his most satisfying challenges have been restoring 3 Chevelles and a 1927 Star, as well as ‘miraculising’ countless cars.
A true craftsman of the last century, Réginald Gagné reckons that the best years of his career, when vehicles were cut in half, “roasted” or turned into convertibles, were the 70s and 80s.
While he now enjoys his summer rides in his Spider, every autumn he can’t get enough of the pleasure of continuing to practise his craft with an enthusiasm that’s as infectious as ever.
As eagerly awaited as ever
André Pelletier is proud to say that at the end of each summer, he and his team are delighted to see him return and to rediscover his timeless humour and spirit, which are a joy to behold, and which make time stand still.
And he adds that Papi, as he is affectionately known, likes to say that he is lucky to be kept young in this way, rather than being exposed to nothing but boo-boos.