Play risky for me – Blackbourn 396

By: Rob Blackbourn, Unique Cars magazine

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Should you ride a horse? How dangerous is Russian roulette? Rob fails to answer these and other questions…

Play risky for me – Blackbourn 396
Bill 'the Leadslinger' Hines.

Bill ‘the Leadslinger’ Hines died earlier this year in California aged 94. Not a name on everyone’s lips certainly, but one that’s familiar to keen observers of the US custom-car scene from its earliest days.

Leaving school at the end of year 11, Bill opened his own modest garage where, between pumping petrol and cleaning windscreens, he honed his body-work and spray painting skills, becoming an automotive-customising pioneer. Winning the Best Custom award at the 1953 Detroit Autorama confirmed that he had arrived. He went on to both work for and compete with luminaries like the Barris brothers.

He was still at it, working on a custom job when interviewed just before he died. He explained: "That’s what keeps me goin’. What am I gonna do, lay in bed?"

While Bill’s achievements and longevity are worth celebrating anyway, it was the mastery of the old school lead-wiping craft behind his nickname that prompted this column. If like me you’ve tried to avoid using bog by having a go at lead wiping, you’ll share my admiration for the guys who make it look easy as they juggle the oxy torch and their oiled wooden paddles, making the lead submit to their will, defying gravity as it obediently stays in place even on vertical surfaces. Respect, fellas. Respect.

Here’s the thing though, Bill was thoroughly old school, never wearing a mask to protect himself from inhaling lead vapour or ingesting fine lead particles as he applied the torch or finessed the shape with file and sander. How could he with a fat cigar seemingly permanently clamped between his teeth? And he did it for the best part of 80 years.

I’ve been buying batteries from another veteran lead-man for years. He reconditions and remanufactures batteries for classics including rare stuff like the long, skinny, six-volt type used in early-50s Studebakers, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. It involves melting lead to cast battery parts like terminal posts and cell bridges – he must be nudging 80, been doing it all his life, never a sign of a mask as he crouches over his pot of molten lead, and apparently as fit as any of us.

Not that long ago working with lead was as unremarkable as using a spanner. Blissfully unaware of the now well-documented risks associated with lead, we also sloshed benzene around, enjoying the heady fumes of our favourite ‘aromatic hydrocarbon’ as we mixed a batch of ‘racing fuel’ (occasionally using benzene to wash the grease from our hands before lunch). And then there’s asbestos. Brake drums were excellent receptacles for the asbestos-loaded dust produced by wearing linings. What you couldn’t shake out of the drums during a brake rebuild, you blew out. A thorough job required several breaths to be taken and expelled, all done with the drum in front of your face. Incidentally garage mechanics were arguably little better off using compressed air to do it – the service-bay air soon filled with a potentially toxic cloud of dust.

These anecdotes aren’t intended to challenge the value of O H & S thinking in today’s society. I’m just reflecting on the fact that while restrictive risk-based regulations deliver statistically valid benefits across whole population groups, no specific individual is necessarily fated to come to harm by engaging in a known risky behaviour.

It’s interesting that ‘The Leadslinger’ who lived to 94 shared the additional health hazard – cigar smoking – with American comedian George Burns who made 100 (they both preferred El Producto cigars apparently). It makes you wonder about Fidel Castro’s recent demise at 90, a relatively tender age by comparison. He apparently gave up cigars in his late 50s. Perhaps he should have persevered

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