When most people hear the name Bob Knight, they think of the most controversial coach in college basketball. But to old car enthusiasts around the Midwest, it's a name that's been dedicated to rods, customs and classics for over 40 years.
Virtually all of his life, Robert Knight, a.k.a "Bondo" Bob, has held an intense passion for car restoration. He's even gone as far as saying, "Building cars is like an addiction. I spot an old car and immediately think 'wow' what I could do to that!" In fact, this hardcore enthusiast has been giving dilapidated vehicles a new lease on life before he could even drive.
The Onset of Obsession
In 1966, Knight was a 15-year-old kid growing up in Northwest Indiana, an area deeply rooted in the steel industry. He worked part-time at a local transmission shop, which conveniently sat across the street from his house. It was here where he earned the money to purchase and restore his first car: the shell of a junkyard-pulled 1956 Chevy.
Because Knight was hired to remove transmissions from scrapped cars, Jack, the shop manager, let him pick what parts he needed to get his "new" rusted piece of metal on the road again. Once the car was running, the next logical step was to give it a facelift.
While it certainly isn't a practice he uses today, Knight took screen wire and Bondo to essentially sculpt a new body for his Chevy. After the plastic filler turned rock-hard, he sanded it to the proper shape, added a coat of primer and spray painted the entire car black. Amazed with the end result, Jack laughed and christened him "Bondo" Bob.
With $25 and a couple months of hard labor put into the car, Knight parked it in front of his house and slapped a "For Sale" sign on it. Knight recalls that his father sat there the entire time shaking his head and telling him it would never sell. And much to his father's disbelief, two guys were happily driving the putty-based beauty down the street less than 30 minutes later. "I was proud of the $200 I earned that day and my dad never doubted me again," Knight said.
After growing tired of pulling transmissions, Knight started working at the auto body shop down the street after school. It was here that Red, the owner, taught him the old-school way of rebuilding cars: hammer welding and using lead as filler.
For three years, from ages 15 to 18, Knight worked for Red for free. But for the determined Knight, it wasn't about the money. He knew he was earning lifelong lessons in how to restore and paint cars the right way.
"Red was a moody old shit and it wasn't until I stayed up all night painting a 1962 Chevy station wagon that he finally gave me the credit I deserved," Knight said. "Red was so impressed with the car's flawless light green finish that he almost didn't believe I painted it. He was finally convinced after seeing traces of paint in my nose."
To Knight's surprise, Red exclaimed, "Bobby you're getting paid to paint everything else from now on." While Knight didn't realize it at the time, that statement turned out to be quite a powerful one: it essentially marked the start of a lifelong career.
After graduating high school in January of 1971, Knight, like most everyone in the Calumet Region, started working at the steel mill. However, he still continued his part-time work with Red. That is, until he accepted a decent-paying engineer position at the Rock Island rail system.
In 1972, still working on the rail road, Knight married his high school sweet heart, Connie. Then just before they had their daughter Sarah in 1976, the couple bought their first home, a quaint little white house with black shutters, on Jackson Avenue in Hammond, Ind. In order to continue to feed his passion for old cars, Knight built a three-car garage so he could monkey around with hot rods and customs when not on railroad duty.
When the Rock Island folded in 1980, however, Knight became more serious than ever about his love of old cars. The family's garage officially became his new place of employment. Knight's second daughter Samantha had just been born so he knew that if he was going to do this, he would have to be in it all the way.
From that point on, old decrepit cars would fill his driveway only to be transformed into fancy show vehicles of exuberant colors. In fact, his neighbors were amazed by how he saw life in the old cars that others passed off as scrap metal.
The Road to Collision Repair
When a tight economy put nostalgic cars in less demand, Knight slightly shifted focus and began a small collision repair business in Highland, Ind. and named it Classic Auto Body. "With people getting in fender benders everyday, this move seemed like the next logical step," he said.
Even though heavy-duty collision work became his new specialty, Knight did not give up on his true love and would still tinker with his toys on the side. After earning a respectable reputation, Knight temporarily moved his growing business to an abandoned industrial area in Griffith, Ind. before finally settling in Gary, Ind. in 1983.
When Knight started to get more work than he knew what to do with, he bought and remodeled the building next door, basically quadrupling his floor space, and hired more line technicians. Classic also became one of the few businesses in the area that made antique car restoration and custom conversions a large part of its business. Heck, even Knight's artistically hand-drawn business card logo featured a 1956 Chevy Nomad wagon and 1948 Chevy pickup truck.
However, Classic Auto Body wasn't without its problems. Knight's number one priority was customer satisfaction. He didn't want any car to leave the building unless it met his perfectionist standards. Unfortunately, there were some frustrating forces that often stood in his way. Many times, the car insurance companies would dictate how he was to handle a repair so they could save a few bucks.
"Sometimes the insurance companies would come in and let me fix a customer's car the right way. Other times, they'd hound me wanting to know why I replaced a part that they claimed could have been repaired or why I purchased new parts instead of used," Knight said.