Shop owner Christian Lajeunesse says he loves teaching teaching kids who are mechanically inclined like he is.
So when he was asked last year to put on some basic workshops for a half-dozen would-be techs from the local high school, he jumped at the chance.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says about the weekly classes designed to encourage kids to stay in school. He hosted the kids in the four-bay garage that he and his older brother Yvan operate together in St. Anne de Beaupré, a 20-minute drive northeast of Quebec City. “It’s great to see kids’ eyes light up when they see how something is done or how something works.”
That’s a big reason why Lajeunesse decided to ratchet things up this year with a far more ambitious project that might just put his young students on the road to becoming automotive technicians.
In November, nine students – all of them boys between the ages of 13 and 15 – began a 15-week project to strip down and rebuild a 1970 Opel. With help and guidance from Lajeunesse and Christian Fortin, a friend and local body shop owner who keeps the car in the basement of his business in the nearby town of Beaupré, the students work on the vehicle on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.
The goal is to have the vehicle ready to be shown at the Salon de l’Auto Sports in Quebec City in April. It will then be sold or raffled off to help raise money to fund a similar project again next year.
According to Lajeunesse, the idea for the project stemmed from his disappointment with the workshops last year.
“The problem was that the kids just did routine things like changing tires and oil, which was kind of boring and uneventful for them,” he says. “They didn’t really learn a lot. But now they have something tangible to work on (and) their friends and families can see the results.”
After developing the Punk My Ride-style project with Fortin, Lajeunesse says he had to sell it to officials with both the local high school and Emploi-Jeunesse, a provincial non-profit group that sponsors and organizes programs aimed at keeping kids in school.
“They were worried because it seemed too ambitious,” he recalls. But their fears dissipated once he raised most of the $32,000 needed to fund the project from some two dozen corporate sponsors, including Telus and the Desjardins credit union movement.
Two thousand dollars of that money was used to purchase the Opel, a small sports car picked for its compact size, flashy design, and novelty on the roads. Another $18,000 is being spent, mostly on Chevrolet parts.
“Our goal is to make a muscle car with a small block 350 V8 and an automatic transmission,” says Lajeunesse.
The rest of the money is being spent on associated costs like transportation and the expenses of an Emploi-Jeunesse supervisor, who has to be on site to ensure the students show up and behave.
Both Lajeunesse and Fortin will also receive $3,000 each as honorariums for the 120 hours they will spend in the shop helping the students. “In reality, we’ll more than likely end up spending two or three times that amount of time on the project,” notes Lajeunesse, who plans to re-invest most of the money he receives back into the project.
Notably, the car’s motor will be rebuilt in another local garage with the help of two of the students. Two other students will help rebuild the transmission at yet another local garage.
In the meantime, four students are continuing work on the Opel’s body in Fortin’s basement, where they’re stripping layers of old coats of red, orange, and blue paint. Then they will help repair the body by welding and removing dents before applying primer and paint.
The interior will also be completely redone as well, with new electricity, dashboard, audio, seats, and rugs. “We’re going to rebuild it from A to Z,” says Fortin, who goes by the nickname ‘la pieuvre’ (‘the octopus’), a nod to his acrobatic style as a former senior hockey goalie. “It’s going to look like a million bucks when it leaves here.”
Students receive no academic credit for their participation in the project. However, to be selected, they must have – and must maintain during the school year – at least a 60-percent grade average, which is the passing grade in Quebec high schools.
“This is a project in perseverance,” says Maude Ash, the Emploi-Jeunesse supervisor. Despite the lack of academic credit, about 25 students applied for the project.
“I think it really touched their imagination (and) desire to be involved with something innovative,” says Ash. “Participants in projects like this can get a lot out of it, not just in learning about a potential career but in terms of the personal growth that comes from working in a team, being responsible and seeing a project through to completion.”
The Opel rebuilding project, she points out, is the most ambitious automotive anti-drop-out effort ever undertaken in the region – maybe the province. She credits local news coverage of last year’s workshops, together with word of this year’s project, for creating a buzz among students at the local high school, which closed down its auto shop and other occupational programs about 20 years ago.
“This is super cool,” project participant Jonathan Dupont tells Canadian Technician, as he helps strip down the car during the first class in early November.
A 14-year-old in his third year of high school, Dupont says he’s always been interested in engines – and of maybe one day becoming an automotive technician. “Since I was little I’ve always tinkered around with cars and engines with my dad,” he says. “This is a great opportunity for me to learn more about cars and how to fix them.”
He adds that he is working harder academically this year than ever before in order to keep his marks high enough to avoid being removed or suspended from the project. “I don’t want to miss anything,” says Dupont. “I’m really looking forward to the car show in April. I can’t wait to show my family and friends what we built.”
That’s music to Lajeunesse’s ears. Born and raised in the nearby village of St. Ferréol les Neiges, which is home to the Mont Ste. Anne ski resort, he grew up in and around the garage/gas station that his grandfather opened there in 1941, and which his father, Roch, took over in the early 1970s.
“My brother Yvan and I literally grew up in the garage,” recalls Lajeunesse. “Our dad used to change our diapers on the work bench between quarts of oil.”
After getting a college degree in industrial electro-mechanics, Lajeunesse, now 35 and a father of two, worked as a millwright at the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Joliette for a decade – a dark period during which his father closed and sold the family business.
In 2005, however, Christian and Yvan decided to go into business together and bought a garage on a busy boulevard in St. Anne de Beaupré, just a kilometre from the famous basilica of the same name – the largest Catholic shrine north of Mexico.
Fueled by business from passing motorists, the sure-handed mechanical know-how of Yvan and the many new long-term maintenance contracts with public agencies and private companies that the energetic, smooth-talking Christian was able to land, the business was a success from the get-go.
In addition to adding two bays and two technicians, the garage became the first in the region to earn the Clé verte accreditation for environmental friendliness.
Last year, the Lajeunesse brothers acquired a local towing company and made their dad dispatcher. They also purchased the old family business, which they now use to store impounded vehicles.
Despite all the expansion, Lajeunesse says he had no trouble finding the time and energy to help out school kids – and maybe some future technicians. “It’s rare in our business to have a chance to give back like this to the community,” he says. “And when you think about it, we’re really helping ourselves by lending a hand to the next generation.”