If there's a limit to where Mike Lonabaugh's collision repair skills can take him, this award-winning I-CAR instructor hasn't found it yet. This blog follows some of his adventures down a career path that is part traditional and part less traveled, with the most amazing outlet for his talent on the silver screen (yes, we do mean Hollywood).
Basic refinishing and body work can be stepping stones to a wide variety of opportunities, and “no one should be washing cars for two years unless they lack interest and motivation,” says Lonabaugh. Entry-level employees looking to advance shouldn't wait for management to seek them out, he advises. “No one knows what your goals are, so don't be afraid to speak up and use your voice. Don't limit yourself.”
“There are so many opportunities in this industry,” Lonabaugh says, “including working with exotics and high-line vehicles, estimating, working for vendors, insurance, management and teaching. For young techs who are computer literate, there's a huge opportunity with ADAS calibrations, electric vehicles, and working with software.” He recommends technicians ask for hands-on ADAS and EV courses taught at I-CAR's Chicago Technical Center.
“Sell yourself; tell them you grew up with technology and are good with this stuff. Tell them this is another aspect of business to grow.”
Keeping Tuned In to Opportunities
Like many in the industry, Lonabaugh had an early exposure to the auto trade through a family business. As a teen, he worked in a New Jersey business owned by cousins, occasionally helping out in the mechanics' shop and more regularly in the “street rod” side of business, where he got hooked on body work. He enrolled in a collision repair school program. His career accelerated quickly from the start. If he's had some lucky breaks, it's because he keeps his antenna up, always tuned in to opportunities.
“I became head painter within six months at my first body shop job,” he says, explaining he played up everything he had to offer, however modest. That included high school art classes and his eagerness to pick up the slack of an unreliable employee.
Refinishing was an early strength of Lonabaugh's, and over time, he mastered body work and sought mentors who could help him perfect his technique. “I have the attitude that if you can do it, so can I,” he says. “I enjoy learning and wanted to be a specialist in all of it. I never wanted to be constrained to one skill set.”
A move to southern California in 2003 opened two new career paths for Lonabaugh. One reset his priorities to make a broader impact in the industry as an I-CAR instructor. The other was an opportunity of a lifetime that gave his work a public stage to be admired by millions of people.
Sharing Expertise with the Industry
Relocating across the country during a poor economy, Lonabaugh had no problem finding employment due to his impressive range of skills. His hunch to visit a paint store in search of job leads paid off. A customer buying supplies for his body shop overheard him and “found it hard to believe I could do it all. He asked me, 'Why don't you paint some cars for us while our painter is on vacation?,' and after I painted the third one, he fired his painter and hired me.”
The owner of that Lancaster shop was an I-CAR instructor, and Lonabaugh, who has been mentoring his whole career, volunteered to assist with his evening classes. With encouragement from his employer, Lonabaugh decided to teach for I-CAR. He instantly clicked with the instructors he met in training. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
When he was hired in 2010, I-CAR employed only part-time instructors; yet Lonabaugh set a goal to teach full-time. “I told myself I don't know how to reach that goal, but man I'm going to try. I saw the importance of the work I-CAR was doing. It's extremely difficult to stay up to date in this industry without training.”
Before the introduction of online courses and centralized fixed training sites, the instructor's job was more demanding, requiring a lot of travel. Working in the evenings and on weekends, Lonabaugh was qualified to deliver welding instruction and the majority of I-CAR's live course training, which at that time numbered over 60 courses. Word of mouth about his teaching style to actively engage students often filled his classes with 40 to 50 students. After just 18 months of service, Lonabaugh was recognized by I-CAR as an Instructor of the Year.
Lonabaugh would eventually realize his dream I-CAR job with the launch of In-Shop Knowledge Assessments. Demand for the new service required full-time staff; and in 2017, he was among the first full-time instructor/assessor hires. Today, he also specializes in welding and hands-on courses like rivet bonding. He is proud of all the positive feedback he's received. “Of the thousands of classes I've taught, I never had anyone tell me that I wasted their time.”
You Ought to Be in Pictures
The most unusual turn in Lonabaugh's career path happened while he was working as a part-time instructor. In 2014, his nonstop schedule opened up when his employer retired and closed shop. The stars must have been in alignment for his charmed career, because at the same time, a painter was retiring at Cinema Vehicle Services. Lonabaugh was not familiar with this supplier to movie and TV productions, but a contact of his at a paint company recommended that Lonabaugh's first-rate body work 'ought to be in pictures.' And so began “one of the coolest things” Lonabaugh says he's ever done.
Heading Cinema Vehicle's body shop for the three and a half years preceding his appointment as a full-time I-CAR instructor, Lonabaugh led a team of eight, who collaborated with a fabrication team, to customize, build, restore and 'age' everything from vintage vehicles for period pieces to fantasy vehicles for sci-fi blockbuster movies and TV series. The two teams created life-size models based on artists' drawings. The Jason Bourne 5 movie was one of Lonabaugh's most demanding projects, requiring 140 vehicles painted as either taxis or regular passenger cars, 21 police cars and six SWAT trucks, which were built on a Ford-50 chassis.
In the make-believe world of Hollywood, “anything you couldn't do in a body shop, we were able to do.” Movie vehicles don't have to be road-worthy, Lonabaugh explains. “They only have to look good.” In between movie jobs, he did restoration work for Cinema Vehicle's auction business, including the iconic “Eleanor” from the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This revived an early interest from his New Jersey days, and today he operates his own restoration business. He's very selective about work he accepts, such as the painting and body work portion he handled of a $183,000 restoration of a 1965 Oldsmobile 442.
Often asked about his 'Hollywood gig,' Lonabaugh can oblige with name dropping that makes his students' jaws drop. Some of the vehicles he worked on were featured in the movies “Ant-Man” and “The Nice Guys;” TV series “Jack Reacher,” “Agent Carter” and “Divergent;” an O. J. Simpson documentary and other TV specials; and commercials like the VISA 'carpool' spot that aired during the Summer 2016 Olympics.
Whatever other adventures lie ahead in Lonabaugh's career path; they will need to be compatible with his work as an I-CAR instructor. He's enjoyed every part of his career, but educating the industry “is what I most love to do. I could never give it up.”