John Twist still flying at University Motors

There’s an urban legend about a group of scientists who analyzed the common bumblebee and concluded that it shouldn’t be able to fly. According to the laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees do not have the capacity in terms of wing size or beats per second to achieve flight with the degree of wing loading necessary. Yet bumblebees fly.

About 15 years ago, a business efficiency consultant called up John Twist, of University Motors, with an offer to evaluate John’s business and offer recommendations for improved profits. Figuring he had little to lose, he let the consultant study the operation for a few days and take a peek at the books. The recommendation came back much like the flight of the bumblebee; the consultant was amazed John had stayed afloat as long as he had. The recommendation was that John couldn’t make a living in the restoration business.

Yet for 20 years before that, and 15 years since, John has made a living in the restoration business. His status is legendary among British car aficionados, and when he announced plans last year to shut down the business, the outcry was deafening. Now he’s back at work, with help from his son, and University Motors lives on.

Twist launched his restoration career with a position in London. After time at college, a stint in Vietnam and various ventures in the U.S., John landed a job in 1972 at University Motors in London — the largest and best known MG dealership in England at the time. The year he spent abroad primed him for his own establishment in the States. He followed this time by working at a few dealerships and repair shops, learning all aspects of the business. By 1975, he was ready to hang out his shingle and University Motors Ltd. in Grand Rapids, Mich., started repairing and restoring MGs.

In 1977, Caroline Robinson became John’s business partner, and by 1978, his wife. While he continued to develop a very methodical approach for repair and restoration of MGs, Caroline developed and maintained the business. Together, they realized that they needed to do more than just fix MGs; they needed to organize, publicize and educate those involved with the hobby.

John began writing technical stories for magazines. In 1979, University Motors started its Early Summer Picnic and Summer Party — the latter lasting more than 20 years and regularly attracting more than 500 MGs. And John started offering seminars to educate enthusiasts on all aspects of repair and restoration of MGs. John and Caroline also started a local and national MGB club.

By the 1990s, University Motors had done more than just repair and restore MGs — it had enhanced the hobby via its events, publications and participation in clubs. But people weren’t driving their cars as much, and John and Caroline realized the business needed to change.

Abandoning their previously strict MG-only rule, University started working on other British cars and offering the same type of enthusiasm and support to the whole hobby. As the 1990s moved into the new millennium, other innovations kept University Motors relevant and key to the hobby: John co-founded the British Motor Trade Association to improve the quality of parts and service. He began offering free tech support by phone from 1-2 p.m. every day for British car enthusiasts. And he embraced YouTube, sharing his knowledge around the world via video in short, informative and entertaining clips.

But it all caught up in 2009. After having survived several economic downturns and changes in the industry, the combination of the bad recession and the terrible news that Caroline had cancer took its toll. John just didn’t have the time or energy to slog it out and refresh the business again. He decided to shutdown to take care of Caroline and spend time with their four children.

Much has been written about John because it looked like his business had finally succumbed to the dire analysis of the consultant. John had watched many of his colleagues close down and felt there was more to it than just disappearing someday, leaving more questions than answers. He decided to stage a very orderly, transparent and effective shutdown. He notified employees, customers and close associates privately and made sure that the shutdown would impact them fairly and with the least possible strain. He notified the public and put in place a liquidation plan to share the parts, tools, knowledge and other legacies of University Motors with all who wanted to be a part of it. And he spent as much time with Caroline and the grieving family as the cancer got worse. In the meantime, a daughter got married, his fourth child graduated from high school, and several other transitions happened.

John’s loyal friends and customers just wouldn’t have it, though. The jobs wouldn’t stop. When Caroline succumbed to cancer in January 2010, the outpouring of support was incredible.

Since the work kept coming in, the last day for University Motors never came. Then John’s son, Brooks, came home to fill his mother’s shoes on the books and plans. With some cost cutting, they’ve planned an upcoming move to a more efficient location, and new training seminars at other shops and venues around the country (15 this year already). University Motors has been refreshed again to keep serving the hobby. This bumblebee continues to fly.

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