Alan Ault and some friends were hoping to open a classic car museum. Instead, their eyes were opened to a more practical way of promoting the hobby and helping others.
Ault and other car enthusiasts created Montana Automotive Technologies in 2005, and the Missoula-based organization now facilitates the mentoring of high school automotive students and also helps train single mothers and recently-incarcerated individuals.
“It has really been incredible,” Ault said of the impact that Montana Auto Tech has had on the community. “Originally, we wanted to start a museum, so I went to 35 auto museums around the country to get ideas and learn how they worked. But 95 percent of those museums were created by one family with a lot of money and a lot of cars, and we didn’t have either of those things.”
Through his research, however, Ault discovered that Missoula County Public Schools no longer offered auto shop courses. He saw a need that he and his friends could fill.
“We already had the building,” Ault said. “So I went to the school with a proposition: They furnish the students, teachers and bus service, and we furnish the rest.”
The idea was a hit. Donations of tools and equipment began arriving at Montana Auto Tech’s rented facility, and before long, so did the students. Today, a dozen volunteer mentors help provide specialized, hands-on instruction.
“There’s a ratio of about one mentor for every 2-3 students,” Ault said. “With those numbers, the mentors and students are able to develop strong relationships. It’s beneficial for both. They cultivate friendships while learning about cars.”
The Missoula Workforce Development Center certainly took notice of the program’s success. It has joined forces with Montana Auto Tech to help train single mothers and those who have had run-ins with the law. They are taught new skills – both automotive and secretarial – and also gain a new outlook on life.
The partnership also helps troubled teens fulfill community service requirements.
“We have them sweep and mop floors, but we also get them working on cars – and they love it,” Ault said. “I remember after one kid finished his time, he came up and asked, ‘Can I keep coming here?’ That’s exactly why we started this – for kids like that.”
Ault said that “95 percent” of the students who take part in the program “come here wanting to be a body man.” But they soon learn there’s a lot more to restoration and automotive repair than body work.
“We give them the opportunity to work on all aspects of the car so they can decide what they really like,” Ault said. “By working on vintage cars, they get a sense of history, and we teach them how to act in this kind of environment, how to work safely, how to clean up when they’re finished.”
To help increase their students’ employment opportunities, Montana Auto Tech has created a Board of Advisors that includes car dealers and manufacturers reps.
“It costs those companies a lot of money to train people, so we can offer them students who are worth the investment,” Ault said. “If they come to us and say, ‘We’d like nine of your seniors to join our training program,’ they know we’ll send them nine people who already have an interest in this line of work and already have a feel for it.”
Among the current projects that the high school and Missoula Workforce Development teams are working on are a 1964 Chevy pickup, ’36 International Harvester truck, ’68 Chevy pickup, ’54 Lincoln Capri convertible, ’54 Hudson Jet and three vintage motorcycles.
Ault said the volunteers at Missoula Auto Tech are thrilled with the program’s success, but he and his fellow-enthusiasts would still like to fulfill the dream that started it all. He said that maybe the two projects can actually feed off each other.
“Some day, we hope to open the Missoula Transportation and Restoration Museum,” Ault said. “I’d love to see a living exhibit where people can look through a glass wall and see the students restoring cars. I think something like that would draw a lot of attention.”
It already has.