Amanda Gutierrez didn’t grow up in the old-car world. But she, as vice president of McPherson College’s famous Historic Automotive Restoration program, now helps guide the future of the next generation of car restorers, historians and scholars. McPherson awards bachelor’s degrees in car restoration. SCM first met Amanda at Pebble Beach a few years ago, and she often shows up at major concours. She doesn’t bring a car to show off — she brings students to see the future. She’s this month’s SCM Interview.
You lead a program that has a huge impact on the collector-car world. How did you find yourself in this position? How long have you been with McPherson College?
My relationship with McPherson College began in 1995, when I worked in the advancement office as a fundraiser for a few years. But my connection to the restoration program didn’t begin until I returned to the college in 2009. As I got to know our faculty and students in that program, I became highly motivated to connect them to the larger industry. The president of the college recognized that it would be a good match for me and moved me into this position. Nothing makes me happier than seeing our students graduate with meaningful careers ahead of them
When did the Auto Restoration program get started?
The program started in 1976, when a local entrepreneur, Gaines “Smokey” Billue, approached the college about teaching students how to restore cars. He donated a collection of cars and set up a trust to help fund the program. The vision was important — to pass on these skills and an understanding of automotive heritage — but they couldn’t have expected it to become what it is today.
What has been your biggest surprise since you joined the program? Did you ever see yourself running a program like this when you were an undergraduate?
When I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my business degree! Perhaps that’s what attracted me to this program: These students are so serious about this field that it’s difficult to not share their enthusiasm. The biggest surprise for me came early on when I went to my first car show: the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance! I had no idea of the vast opportunities in the automotive world for young people and the industry’s need for new talent.
How many students are in the McPherson Auto Restoration program right now? How do students gain admission to the program?
We have about 160 students in the program. Students apply to the college, and once accepted by the college, they submit a portfolio of their work for the faculty to review for acceptance into the program.
What do you think when you see a new class of students arrive on campus?
I meet with first-year students early in their arrival to campus. You can see the ones who are ambitious and enthusiastic, but I also know there are some that will take a while to find their place. So when I see them on campus — either on a visit day or once they are here as a student — I think about the possibility each one has if they step up.
Where would your students be if this program didn’t exist?
It’s possible that they would be at another college studying something by default, not because they care about it. I really believe our degree gives them an adaptability for their life and career that they can’t find anywhere else. And that comes from bachelor’s degree experience and concurrently taking their core courses along with their restoration track.
What do you hope every student gets from the program? What is McPherson’s long-term goal for the program?
Whatever touchpoint to the automotive world a student brings — maybe they like hot rods, or NASCAR, or cars from the 1950s — I hope that they gain a broad appreciation of the evolution of the automobile. Understanding the impact of the car on culture, society, and technology really underscores its significance and gives a depth to their studies across disciplines.
The next big goal we have in front of us is the frame-off restoration of a 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S cabriolet. This project is going to encompass what defines our bachelor’s degree: craftsmanship, communication, historical research and documentation, critical thinking and problem solving. And we want to take that car, restored by students, to compete at Pebble Beach. It’s not about getting there fast. It’s about excellence and education.
How can car collectors support your program?
As a nonprofit, private institution, there is always need. There are three key areas we highlight: Tools and equipment — with 160 students, items get worn or broken, and we need to keep the shop areas well equipped. Scholarships — gifts to our annual scholarship fund help students afford their education. Automobiles — we can’t accept every vehicle that comes our way, but we do have a list of kinds of cars we’d like to have in the shop and help build our collection.
Some college graduates have trouble getting a job after earning a bachelor’s degree. What is it like to see your students graduate and get jobs?
In May, 98% of our graduates had jobs in the field before they walked across the stage to get their diploma. Of those, 86% had at least one internship while a student. That makes me proud because they are doing work that matters to them and to the industry.
What are your professional goals going forward?
Right now I’m very focused on my work at McPherson College with this program. I used to think my career path would always stay in higher education, but the car changed that for me. I’m not sure where that will lead.
Do you have a favorite car?
This is the worst question! My answer changes all the time. So today I’m going to go with a 1955 Jaguar XK 140 MC that I recently saw on a road rally. It’s a beauty.
Vocational and technical programs have vanished from many high schools. Do you think your new students would be better prepared for your program if they had auto shop in high school? Do you think McPherson helps students who missed out on technical training and a job path in high school?
Over the last decade, we’ve definitely seen a change in the skill set students bring from high school. The new students with the most experience have learned alongside a family member or mentor — or they’ve been lucky enough to come from a high school that still has an auto program. But if a young person has a passion, we’ll help them develop those skills. And the ones we’ve seen come in — those who take their path seriously and go out on internships, and practice their craft — can turn out to be some of our stronger students.
What has been your best moment at McPherson?
There have been a lot, so I’m going with a recent one. Every year, we take students to Pebble Beach. This year we took five students who had the opportunity to prepare two cars from the preservation class for presentation on the field. Two of those students researched the cars and presented to the judges. To see them demonstrate their skills so competently and with such enthusiasm was a really great moment.
What question should I have asked you but didn’t?
Well, I’d like to make sure you know about our student-led car show on May 4, 2019. Our students work all year long to put on a fantastic show, with a wide variety of marques and cars from all over the country. Last year we had 400 cars including a 1930 V16 Cadillac, a Shelby Cobra (CSX2409) and a 1929 Ford Model A that won the Battle of the Builders at SEMA 2017. Adam Banks, one of our alums, had a big hand in building that car. ♦