The term “grease monkey” dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when small children were hired to grease industrial machinery and make minor repairs. Because their work required them to scamper about, like monkeys, and because they were always soaked in grease and oil, they came to be called “grease monkeys”. When autos came upon the scene, mechanics often came home nearly as dirty as these children had before them, and the term soon came to generally mean anyone who made mechanical repairs.
Over time, “grease monkey” devolved into a derisive term applied almost exclusively to auto mechanics. In the early days, the numbers of makes and models of cars was very limited. When an automobile was a relatively simple machine to work on, anyone with a good helping of common sense could learn to be an auto mechanic.
Changes in society
As technology advanced, machines began to do the work of men, and fewer people actually needed to do manual labor. With the evolution of the white collar job, for the first time people had the opportunity to work in a clean, safe, and comfortable environment. Over time, white collar jobs grew from only 20% of our workforce to roughly 60% due to improvements in technology.
The trade school stereotype
By the 1960s, the usual high school curriculum was divided into academic and vocational courses. It was generally “assumed” that students with the potential to succeed in college, would want to go to college, while those who took vocational courses, did so only because they knew they were not smart enough for college. This only tended to maintain the “grease monkey” stereotype.
Improving automotive technology
Meanwhile, advancing technology was making automotive repair a much more complicated process on an almost daily basis. Today there are over 50 major manufacturers of cars, each producing a number of models. It is also estimated that there are over a billion cars in the world today. Every year manufacturers come out with models equipped with new technology. Cars now have not only have cameras which allow you to see in blind spots, but which can display the actual distance you are from an object and sound an audible alarm when you are too close. They can also now alert you when you are driving erratically and even help you spot pedestrians in the dark.
The trend toward professional certification and specialization
In 1972 the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) was formed. Its purpose was to set objective standards for the auto repair industry and to offer certifications of competence in over 40 specialties. In 1979, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-Car) was formed to promote professional standards in the auto collision repair industry. Each major manufacturer has dealerships with mechanics specializing in repairing their specific make of cars. Some auto components, such as transmissions, are now so complex that mechanics prefer to farm out repairs to the specialists.
With the diversity of cars on the road, the complexity of their mechanics, and the constant changes in technology, it takes an exceptional person to be a good auto mechanic . . . like Sarah Lateiner, who graduated Phi Betta Kappa in 3 years with a double major in pre-law and women’s studies, but opted to open her own auto repair shop. Is “grease monkey” really a suitable term to describe someone like her?
Kevin Armstrong is a freelance writer who loves cars deeply. If you’re in Texas and looking for a used vehicle check out used cars Dallas.