By Lauren Arva https://ontheedgeofeverything.com/
Photos by Kenny Kroeker
“Mechanical engineering and mechanics saved my life. If it weren’t for those two things I would either be dead or in jail.”
This statement comes from Michael James Morrison, a fifty-two year old mechanical engineering technologist who discovered his love for mechanics from a young age.
“I was raised by my biological grandmother and her second husband. They are the people I acknowledge as my parents. As a child I was told that my biological mother was my sister. When I was 13, I was informed that my sister was actually my own mother.”
Mike’s parents ran a foster home in the house he grew up in. “In 10 years, we had over 130 kids come through our house. Working on cars in the shop was my escape, and mechanical projects were something that always kept me busy and simultaneously calmed me down.”
Mike was forced to be independent from an early age because of his living situation.
“To say I raised myself is an understatement.”
Unaware of Mike’s ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), a majority of individuals involved in his childhood simply deemed Mike’s energy and busy behavior as symptoms of a problematic child.
“I didn’t know I had ADHD. My parents handed me Lego one day hoping to keep my busy for a few days. I went through the entire box in 20 minutes. They kept buying me bigger boxes of Leggo and giving me bigger challenges to keep me occupied, but nothing worked. They thought I was just a typical annoying and energetic kid because nobody knew what ADHD was back then. I wasn’t tested for ADHD until I was in my 40s. I was just seen as a problem child throughout my younger years.”
Mike explains that his early interest in mechanics and mechanical engineering in combination with his ADHD presented itself when he was a mere two years old.
“I was 2 years old when I got my first pedal car. Mom worked as an accountant during the day and came back home to work as a hairdresser. My dad worked at Stelco. They bought that car for me, put me in it, and I pedaled myself around all day long. Our house was right on the street corner by Hamilton General Hospital, and because I saw cars driving by all day, I went out on the street and drove my pedal car directly in the line of traffic.”
Mike quickly found that his love for mechanics and engineering was growing with his age. He built an engine independently when he was 11, and at the start of his teenage years he delved into the world of soapbox derbies.
“I built and raced soapbox derby cars when I was 12. The parents usually built the cars for their kids, but the one my dad built was a disaster. I was the only kid who built his car himself, and I was the first one out of the gate. I was second in Canada.”
Mike’s education was plagued with many conflicts due to his ADHD. After being dismissed from Glendale High School in Hamilton for being categorized as incompetent, he studied for one semester at Mount Albion Vocational School and then changed to Delta High School.
“Teachers always thought I was academically challenged, but I really wasn’t. They just didn’t know how to recognize my strengths”.
Mr. Ouzas, Mike’s grade seven English and math teacher, was one person who did recognize his abilities.
“He was the only teacher who seemed to understand that I was a visual learner. I was failing his English class and he gave me a service manual from his 1970s Cougar and told me to take it home and read it. He told me he would quiz me on the pages I read. I aced all of his quizzes because I could see a picture of the manual in my head when he quizzed me. For the first time in my life I was getting As in reading comprehension. He started quizzing me on spelling from words in the manual too, and my grades were higher than they had ever been.”
When Mike was 14 years old, he purchased his first car from Mr. Ouzas – a 1970s Cougar.
“He saw in me what others didn’t,” Mike tells me, “Because of him I now have an automotive engineering library with over 200 books.”
When he was 16 Mike left high school to gain work experience in a mechanic shop.
“I would do whatever I could do… I bounced from shop to shop, working for free, for cash, anything to get hours as a mechanic and make money.”
After working in shops for several years, Mike came to the realization that he would not be able to be signed as an apprentice because employers were reluctant to give pay raises. Aware of his engine-building skills, he found work at an automotive machinist shop in Hamilton.
“I was hired the day I walked in the door. It was great experience, but I learned everything I could learn in a year and I needed more of a challenge. So, I went to work in a racing shop in Toronto and I built engines there for a year.”
Another year passed and Mike yet again found himself wanting more of a challenge in his work. He was working for Espar in Toronto when he was asked to visit Chrysler in Detroit to troubleshoot a product.
“I fixed it and Chrysler asked me to look at some more things. They called my boss in Toronto and asked if I could stay and work for them for three days. I spent the first year at Espar driving back and fourth to Detroit as a supply engineer for the Big 3.”
He worked at the dealership during the day and worked on his independent projects in the evening.
“I wanted to keep learning.”
One afternoon while on his lunch break at Ford, Mike was flipping through an edition of Road and Track Magazine.
“I remember the edition was about the fastest cars in the world. All the guys at Ford knew I was a big Ford guy, and so I was reading about a Mustang going 177mph in the article. I innocently remarked to my co-workers how for a quarter of a million dollars the car had better go that fast, and so one of the guys jokingly challenged me to build a Ford that drove 200mph. Problem was, I took it as a challenge.”
Mike already owned an 82 Mustang GT that was essentially destroyed, and his conversation with his co-workers that day prompted him to rebuild it.
“I built it in a one car garage at my parents’ house. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, but I was teaching myself. I was making parts on my own trying to fix some flaws.”
That car was the same one Mike raced at Bonneville Raceway in Utah.
“I ran in Bonneville for two days and I broke 200mph. According to the tack I was up around 220mph, but I bent a valve and I had to shut the motor off. When the motor was shut off I was clocked doing 189.6mph.”
Mike describes the experience to be surreal.
“I can still see the track in my head. It was incredible. It honestly felt like I was doing 100km on the 403. You can’t really see anything. It felt like driving down the highway.”
Hoping to receive some recognition for the machine work he achieved on his car after Bonneville, Mike was surprised to experience the exact opposite.
“If anything I pissed guys off. They were annoyed with how well I did. I figured it was time to go back to school, so I went back because I had to finish grade 11 and 12. I went to Sherwood High School in Hamilton and I completed both grades in one year.”
After completing his high school education Mike applied to Mohawk College in Hamilton to be a Mechanical Engineering Technologist.
“I studied there for three and a half years until I ran out of money and motivation, and my ADHD was a real problem. The teachers and their union refused to consider that I was at a disadvantage. They threatened to fail me if they saw me recording their lectures, even though I had a letter saying I was allowed because of my learning disability. ”
Despite encountering numerous challenges throughout his post-secondary education, Mike recalls one of the greatest experiences he had while studying at Mohawk.
“I asked if I could build a SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Super Mileage vehicle. The Dean of Engineering told me they were throwing out a car from 15 years ago, and so I claimed the car. He told me if I wanted to run the SAE Super Mileage team at Mohawk, I had to do it all on my own, without any funding or help from the school. I took the car home to my parents’ one car garage and started working on it.”
Mike explains how the purpose of Super Mileage cars is rather simple – to get the most mileage possible.
“When you registered a car for Super Mileage, Briggs and Stratton Engines gave all of the competitors a 2.5 Horsepower engine so everyone was on the same playing field.”
He tells me how seventy-five schools entered the SAE Super Mileage competition in Michigan, with Mohawk being the only community college competing.
“In the rules, it was stated that any modifications could be made to the engine. The guys on the team with me figured I was going to crazy with modifications on the motor, but I said the trick was to keep it simple. I told them if I was wrong they could take the team over next year. We literally used a bucket for the nose of the car and held it on with Bondo. We used an old pool liner to cover the body. We used clear plastic wrapping as a windshield. We wanted our competitors to out-trick themselves.”
He recalls the day of the competition with amusement.
“We showed up to the competition and went through tech like everyone else, but I wanted to be one of the first cars through so we would be first on the track. The funny thing was that about half of the cars didn’t even make it through tech because of the modifications made to their engines. After posting 450 miles per gallon we were so bored we were switching drivers in and out for shits. We came first and second for Canada (we had two cars), and fifth and sixth in North America in our first year.”
One of the best memories Mike has from the Super Mileage competition regards a report that was to be submitted describing the design of the car entered in the competition and the modifications made to it.
“I didn’t want to write the report because I did so little to the car in the first year, plus I figured there was no point because it wasn’t mandatory. We came second and third in North America in our second year, and so as the years went on I kept getting asked what I did to the car because I never wrote a report. In my last year I point-blank told the other Super Mileage teams how I didn’t do any modifications to the car to prove a point. I wanted to show that common sense and basic skill can do the job as well as modified vehicles. They were madder than hell, and from the years on after I left the report became mandatory.”
Mike has always kept himself busy with independent projects. Aside from his 82 Mustang GT, he also owns a 67 Comet in storage that he works on periodically. One of his greatest accomplishments involves his 93 Trans Am Mustang.
“The Trans Am car was the car I really wanted to build. I went to school for engineering to learn how to build better racecars and my number one priority was to be able to build technically correct racecars.”
Mike wanted to build his own road-racing Mustang.
“I did a lot of research and I would go to racetracks on weekends and videotape cars to learn how to build one myself in addition taking courses in Detroit on weekends when I wasn’t in school. I started building a ¼ scale Trans Am chassis out of balsa wood.”
Mike’s dedication and creativity in regards to his Trans Am car became apparent the more he worked on his model.
“I bolted one end of the chassis to my desk so it would hang off. I put a bar through it and I would push on the bar, and by doing so I could see where the car was moving and flexing where it shouldn’t be through the balsa wood.”
Mike tells me his position as a supplier for the Big 3 is what allowed his Trans Am car to achieve completion.
“Through my job in Detroit I became acquainted with Roush Racing (now called Roush Fenway Racing). I brought my balsa wood model to them and it was the identical twin to the Roush Trans Am Mustang chassis.”
He explains to me the impact the individuals at Roush had on him as a mechanical engineer.
“When I started building the car from my model, the guys at Roush started tutoring me. While I was building on my own and learning from them, the car came together.”
In addition to cars, Mike is also heavily involved with tractor pulling.
“I hate tractor pulling, but I love the mechanical challenge of it. So when my good friend Paul Arva came to me and said he wanted to build a pulling tractor, the first thing that popped into my head was a tobacco scale. I was picturing how he could drive a tobacco scale down a track.”
Mike is conscious of how his way of thinking is not exactly typical.
“The way I think about mechanics and engineering is hard to explain. I can’t turn it off and my mind just keeps going until I have a concrete idea in my head. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
He tells me how Paul, my dad, and his desire to tractor pull was configured uniquely in his mind.
“Paul’s whole tractor was built entirely off of the schematics of the old tobacco scale he has in his barn along with the fundamentals of the construction of my Trans Am car.”
I have known Mike for several years now, and I believe his story is one that needs to be told. His technical skill is undeniable and the passion he has for mechanics is apparent in every project he participates in. Mike is an example of how truly unique each individual is in regards to their learning style, and his perseverance and dedication is what has allowed him to be such a successful mechanical engineering technologist. He has overcome tremendous setbacks and challenges in his personal life and furthermore in his work and schooling, and despite facing constant criticism and doubt he is one of the most accomplished individuals I have had the privilege to familiarize myself with. It is my hope that sharing Mike’s story can educate individuals about who he is as a person and what has shaped him into who he is today.
Hermit Crab Piece – A Love Letter to a Car/Motorsports
You’ve been with me for as long as I can remember. My passion and dedication for you only grows with time, and I seem to appreciate you more as you age. We’ve done everything together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I took you with me on my first date, my first job, and now you’re living with me in my first home. You’re always there for me, comforting me and easing my mind with your touch whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed. You always listen to me without interruptions and you lend me your shoulder when I need to shed a tear. Sometime you get angry with me, and when you do you growl and snarl with a ferocity that shakes my soul. If I push you too hard you smoke and squeal with exhaustion but always seem to calm down once I leave you alone for the night. I care for you when you get dented and scratched and always make sure you’re okay before taking you out on the town again. We’ve been through it all, my girl, and I know I’ll never find another like you.
Hermit Crab Piece – A ‘Dictionary’ Definition of Motorsports
Motorsport(s): An undeniable passion for motor vehicle. Requires dedication, devotion and sacrifice. Typically produces vast quantities of frustration.