Aluminum is experiencing a renaissance in the auto body world. Long prized by performance and prestige car makers for its lightness, aluminum is making its way from high end makes like Aston Martins, Audis, Porsches and Teslas to everyday vehicles like the new 2015 Ford F-150, which uses aluminum body panels to save 700-lbs, compared to its predecessor. With the return of aluminum to car bodies, repair professionals are discovering what Michael Vollmar has known for years – that working on aluminum is a completely different experience from typical steel body work.
We spoke with Vollmar and asked him to share his insights on working with aluminum. “When steel gets damaged and reshaped in an accident it has a certain amount of memory – that “I don’t belong in this shape” – and it can be persuaded to return to its prior shape,” Vollmar told us. “The thing with aluminum is that when it gets into an accident, it has very little memory of how it use to be. It is convinced now that “this is my correct shape”. Vollmar hasn’t just mastered aluminum, he’s fallen in love with it. For all its stubbornness, it’s clear that he relishes the challenge it presents, and takes great pleasure in the intimacy with which he understands its properties. “Because it has so little ‘memory’, you have to do a lot more persuading, by pushing it and warming it, to convince it to resume its prior shape,” he says. “But it dissipates heat at three times the rate of steel, so working it is a constant dance, between heat and force, chasing the shape you want to create.”
Michael Vollmar’s experience in aluminum fabrication and repair specialist goes back over 20 years of experience working in the metal. One of I-Car’s first ever instructors in aluminum fabrication, Vollmar credits his heroes like Ron Covell and Ron Fournier with inspiring him to perfect his craft. “I knew and admired Ron Fournier through his book, Metal Fabricator’s Handbook – the aluminum worker’s Bible. When I found out that he was teaching a class in Troy Michigan in 1991, I was quickly on a plane from Colorado.”
Flying from Colorado to Michigan for the class was no small expense for an auto body professional, but has he says “Some people have heroes in life. Some have baseball heroes or football heroes. My heroes have been metal fabricators like Fournier, the people who can take a piece of metal and fabricate an entire car from scratch.” Nonetheless, Vollmar was intent on getting his money’s worth out of the aluminum working class. He pleaded with Fournier to let him attend the advanced class in aluminum fabrication, citing his prior experience with the metal. Fournier wasn’t sure, so Vollmar started the week-long aluminum bodywork school in the beginner’s class. He showed his hero he was ready for the advanced class by finishing his project before anyone else in the course.
There seems to be every likelihood that the trend in aluminum car bodies will continue to spread, as car makers chase better mileage figures, and as construction techniques continue to develop. That suggests a rosy future for aluminum fabrication aficionados like Michael Vollmar.