Spotlight on Talent: Tony Harrington

Training and finding talent are two topics we never tire of. Sometimes a training program is as close as a collision centre’s backyard, a local community college, or even a high school.

Originally published in Collision Quarterly, Spring 2021

by Eli Greenbaum
Photos courtesy Tony/Mike Harrington

Finding new talent can be mighty impressive. Case in point: Tony Harrington, from Victoria, British Columbia.

Tony is a recent graduate of Victoria High School, where he immersed himself in the school’s auto body repair program. The four-year course gives students a hands-on shop experience where they can learn to repair and refinish a variety of cars and trucks.

When Tony started the program, he actually had a jump start over his classmates. Tony’s father, Mike, is a veteran body man. Tony was just four years old when his father taught him how to weld (with Mike closely supervising). Tony took to it instantly. His first project was a battered fire engine pedal car that needed a new life. Tony and his dad cut up, welded, rebuilt, and refinished the little car, transforming it into a miniature blue Dodge Charger. And when Mike built a custom chopper-style bicycle for Tony on his fifth birthday, Tony was hooked. Mike introduced Tony to the craft of collision repair, and then watched his son take off.

Tony was soon building custom bikes with a group of kids through the Angels Chopper Bicycle Club, which Mike led. They all worked together to build chopper-style bicycles inspired by their favourite musicians and other celebrities. That’s how Tony—when he was eleven—and Mike met with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, presenting him with a custom bike that Cornell rode on stage at all his shows on a subsequent world tour. Tony had put 100 hours into the bike. Tony and the team also built a bike for Ringo Starr—a Yellow Submarine-themed creation. Tony’s older sister, Sophia, a builder in her own right, came up with the concept for Ringo’s bike. That was after she built a chopper for Ozzy Osbourne, complete with a homemade casket-style gas tank. There were other stars, too, including Gene Simmons and Jackson Browne.

That was just the start. “I learned a lot from my dad just by osmosis,” said Tony. In the eighth grade, before he even had a driver’s license, Tony paid $500 for a worn-out 1976 Plymouth Volare Road Runner. It would turn out to be a long-term labour of love. Tony worked on the car throughout high school, methodically restoring it to pristine factory condition. He gave it a dazzling Spitfire Orange finish with yellow stripes and a semi-gloss black hood. The car is now a rolling tribute to Tony’s workmanship and has won several top awards at regional shows. The investment has also paid off: the Road Runner, sporting collector plates, currently has an appraised value of $26,000.

“Victoria High School gave me my first true auto body class,” acknowledged Tony. The teenager and the school’s shop program were a solid match. Tony especially liked painting, and he was soon spending all his spare time in the school paint booth. “I lived in the paint booth,” said Tony. “I was in there every day at lunchtime. I love the end result when I put on the clearcoat and the car gleams, the final stage that makes it shine.” By the time he was in the eleventh grade, Tony was happily instructing younger classmates on the fine art of automotive refinish techniques and generously sharing his knowledge.

Kevin Blecic, Tony’s collision repair teacher at the time, now a career coordinator for the Greater Victoria School District’s trades program, got to know Tony well. “Tony is a standout,” he said. “He had a great attitude, was willing to listen and learn. He was unselfish, ready to help others, and always challenging himself to do better. He would make a great teacher, and it was a pleasure to have him as a student.”

That respect runs two ways. When Blecic was leaving the school to start his new position, Tony organized a car show as a celebratory send-off for Blecic. More than a dozen classic cars, some worked on by students and others brought in by local enthusiasts, filled the school parking lot. It was his way of saying thank you to Blecic. “He was great. I’d never had a teacher like him.”

I lived in the paint booth. I was in there every day at lunchtime. I love the end result when I put on the clearcoat and the car gleams . . .”

Part of Blecic’s praise comes from watching Tony’s performance in the Skills Canada competition. In the tenth grade, Tony entered the car painting competition and won the gold at the provincial level, beating older, more experienced students. Escorted by his mother and Blecic, he went on to the nationals in Edmonton and captured a silver medal. Again, against older, more experienced competitors.

Blecic was not the only instructor impressed by Tony’s talent. Robin Popow was Tony’s instructor when he attended the Youth-Train-In-Trades Collision Repair Program at Vancouver Community College. The college offers the largest collision and refinishing program in Western Canada, teaching more than 200 students annually. The program is run jointly with area high schools and provides students with opportunities for dual secondary/post-secondary credits plus credit for the first level of their ITA (Industry Training Authority) trades apprenticeship. While parts of the program operate online, with students creating e-portfolios of their work, Popow regularly travels to high schools for face-to-face visits to teach key competencies. Popow got to know Tony and echoes Blecic’s comments. “He has such a passion for the industry,” said Popow. “Tony loves working on cars, he loves learning, he is positive and open, and he’s so easy to work with. If you can’t get along with Tony, you can’t get along with anyone.”

Tony’s parents, Mike and Annabelle, have been supportive of their children (Sophia is now studying to become a doctor), allowing them to chart their own paths and providing them with a moral compass for the journey. Annabelle homeschooled the siblings through the eighth grade. “Tony has accomplished so much,” said Mike. “It’s a pleasure to see him succeed, and he’s very humble about his successes. I’m very proud of him.”

Since his graduation in June 2020, Tony has been working at his grandfather’s machine shop, AGO Environmental in Victoria, where he is doing an informal apprenticeship in mechanical engineering and machine tooling. In his spare time, he loves working on his second car, a black 1990 Mazda Miata roadster. Unsatisfied with the car’s 1.6-litre engine, he is currently switching it out for a 1.8-litre version. Coincidentally, Tony’s girlfriend, Sophia Garcia De Leon, who is also into collision repair, owns a Miata as well. Tony does work on her car too. At 19, Tony has already accomplished quite a bit, but he has more plans in the works, including returning to school to further his education. In the end, though, he is a hands-on guy and looks forward to doing professional body repair, paint, and mechanical work. Ideally, that would mean his own shop, where he could be his own boss. Until that happens, some savvy collision managers might be knocking at his door, trying to persuade him to think about working for them.

Not every graduate of a training program is a Tony Harrington. If there was a collision industry draft, as with professional sports, Tony would be a number-one pick. But there are plenty of other talented young people just looking for the chance to show what they can do. Enlightened shop owners and managers might be well served to check out the various training programs around them and search for those upcoming stars.