Growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, Bruce Galloway worked on two cars before he ever drove one legally.
The 14-year-old started under the hood of a 1949 Cadillac. Galloway knew he wanted to be a mechanic someday.
However, it was the ’53 Mercury he tinkered on that sealed the deal — driving a car he rebuilt from near ruin was what gave him a direction for the rest of his life.
“We had a big patio and that’s where I got these cars that were totally destroyed,” he said. “My father had them towed away and he had another one put in. So I progressed along that way and that really helped me to understand mechanics and give me a visual on what happens or what goes on and that sparked my interest in doing it.”
Then it was a 1955 Chevy convertible, then a 1962 Chevy Fastback, then a 1964 GTO and then a 1969 Chevelle.
These days, the 64-year-old Soldotna resident drives a sky blue 1993 Ranger pick-up.
“Hey, I’m in Alaska, OK?” he said with a laugh.
Regardless of what’s on the outside, Galloway contends he can find his way around the engine of any car, hot rod or pick-up.
“I like mechanical things,” he said. “I’m basically a hands-on person and that’s how I like to teach my classes. Books are nice because you can’t remember everything, anymore. It used to be you have a point setting for a 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder and an 8-cylinder and … now the only thing you can do is use your cell phone to call a tow truck.”
Now retired, Galloway likes to spend his time teaching basic engine repair and engine diagnostic classes through Kenai Peninsula College.
What Galloway’s course focuses on are the basics.
“Everything boils back to the basics,” he said. “If you have fuel, a spark and compression, your engine is going to run and I don’t care how many sensors or switches or whatever else you have in there, if you don’t have those three things, your engine isn’t going to start.”
From the time he started getting greasy to today, engines are basically the same, he contends.
“Yeah, sure, they added a lot of bells and whistles,” he said.
“So when you open a hood, you see the thing that says ‘Chevy Vortec and it’s a 4.3 or 5.3’ and they got this fancy cover over it, but it just makes it harder to get to the stuff,” he said. “You’ve got to take it all off before you can get to the engine.”
As a youth, Galloway would hang around and get to know the two brothers that owned the New Jersey service station he lived near.
“Which we don’t have anymore — they’re all gas-and-gos,” he said, crinkling his eyebrows behind his oval glasses.
Eventually, he started working.
“Not really for pay, but just kind of hanging around and helping them do stuff,” he said.
Then came the night auto classes, and after a stint in the military, Galloway progressed up the ladder and moved to Alaska where he first learned to rebuild a transmission.
“I didn’t change my job very often in my life,” he said, with a laugh.
In 1987, he was hired as a mechanic for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and worked up to lead mechanic. He was in charge of the whole auto shop and took care of all the borough vehicles, in addition to the school district’s busses.
“That was a pretty big responsibility, but it was challenging, it was nice,” he said.
Although he is now retired from that job, he holds his teaching gig in the same kind of respect. He has been hosting the basic engine rebuilding class since 1992.
“I thought it was only a one time thing, and then they got another application and so we’ll do this one more time, and one more time, and one more time and it’s a steady thing since ’92, you know?” he said.
The engine diagnostics class started about four years ago.
“It’s been hit or miss,” he said, noting some residents might not aware KPC offers such a class.
Kids these days, he contends, know how to buy parts and install them in a car, but most don’t understand how an engine works at a basic level.
“They can read a hot rod magazine and they can memorize the things in there, but they don’t have the hands on,” he said. “And that’s what I try to give them — the touchy-feely.”
But, Galloway’s class is for everybody, regardless of age.
In engine repair, 12 students work on an engine by disassembling it, looking at its inner workings, finding and repairing what problems there might be, whether it’s the lifters, pistons, the rings or any other parts.
In engine diagnostics, Galloway teaches students to use a scanner to test different sensors — the engine controls, brakes, transmission, fuel system and injectors among others.
He teaches the shortcuts so students can diagnose their own vehicles and know what they can do to repair it.
“Or at least so they have the knowledge that when they take it to an auto repair shop that they are not like a deer in the headlights,” he said.
As time goes on, Galloway said, the car repair industry is shifting away from the rebuilding industry. Now, it’s a replacing industry.
“Just about everything in your car is run by some sort of computer,” he said. “Things today aren’t ‘Take it apart and fix it,’ they are components. You diagnose which component is bad and you take that component out.”
Technology, in general, is a good thing, he thinks, “but it just limits the backyard mechanic.”
A lot of the younger, up-and-coming mechanics latch onto the technological side of cars, but they still aren’t asking the basic question, ‘Why?’ he said.
“But what I try to bring out and emphasize to them is that just because you can plug a computer into your car … you can’t believe it all the time,” Galloway said.
“You have to understand what makes that sensor turn that light on.”
The technological shift has left some of the old time mechanics behind, and Galloway maintains the art of maintenance is a constant education.
“It comes to a very fine line — they get dropped off along the way,” he said. “As you get older, it is harder to teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak.”
But just like he learned under the hood in New Jersey — either on the patio or in the service station — Galloway just hopes to impart a bit of knowledge.
If it turns into a profession, that’s all the better, he said.
“If it sparks somebody’s interest in progressing on to a mechanic position or something else, then that makes me feel good that somebody has a profession they can actually use instead of wandering around aimlessly,” he said.