My dad swore by PB Blaster, and later I would too.
We lived outside Cleveland and were of humble means, which is a nice way of saying that our cars were crappy. And because those cars had spent their lives in the Midwest, they were rusty, too. Dad had a truly shitty Chevy Chevette for a while, a Plymouth Valiant from the Nixon administration at some point and a fourth-generation Chevy Malibu that lasted longer than you’d expect. There were at least three Volvo 240s, a Volvo 740 and even a Volvo 260. Somewhere in there was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
And those are just the cars I can remember, as we cycled through used car after used car. My dad had gone to trade school as a younger man and obtained a certificate in automotive repair, which he hung on the wall in the basement laundry room. He never actually became a mechanic — he couldn’t afford to buy his own tools, he would explain — so instead he got a job at what used to be called the Welfare Department in Cuyahoga County.
It was the ’80s, and then it was the ’90s. We got by. That wasn’t usually thanks to the cars.
My dad’s wrenching philosophy was pragmatic. A lot of parts came from Boyle’s Automotive, a junkyard a few blocks away. He liked to tell a joke about how his air-conditioning was “four-forty” — four windows down, going 40 miles per hour. It was never explained why he couldn’t go faster, though possibly that was because many of his cars simply couldn’t.
He also wasn’t really exceptional in this regard in Ohio, which doesn’t inspect cars for safety. In Ohio, there are a lot of people who drive whatever they can find that runs, in part a function of the state’s economic woes. Nobody wants to drive a shitty old car, of course. Most times that’s the hand they are dealt, and my dad wasn’t different.
New cars weren’t his world. His world was rust. Which is the part of this story where PB Blaster — like my dad, born in the late ’50s in northeastern Ohio — comes in. I can’t remember my first encounter with PB Blaster, but my enduring memories of it from childhood are like bad PB Blaster commercials: We’re trying to loosen a seized nut and keep soaking it with WD-40 before someone in the garage — probably my uncle — has the good sense to grab a can of Blaster.
We spray Blaster on it, wait a few seconds. And then, loose, like magic. “Blaster,” my dad would say with a shake of his head. “Blaster,” my uncle would repeat, in solemn agreement.
There was never enough Blaster. Using it was calling in the big gun; if Blaster didn’t work, nothing would. That meant the unpleasant business of bolt cutting. We knew it was an Ohio product, but never bothered to investigate beyond that. You could read the label, overstuffed with all kinds of information and claims, but all it’d really tell you was that it had good vibes. You could tell that whoever made this stuff was more indie than corporate. It was lightning in a bottle, and I figured it was best not to ask too many questions.
Until, recently, I did.
“That little insignia” — the apostrophe — “is just a talking point,” Randy Pindor, president and CEO of the company, told me last month. “It has a crazy label…we had at one point 32 or 33 grammatical or typographic errors on it.”
The first distinction, and discovery, I’ll make is that I’m going to refer to it as Blaster for the purposes of this blog. While B’laster is the proper name for it, it’s a little annoying to type. The apostrophe doesn’t stand for anything in any case, if you are wondering — it’s a leftover from the early years of the brand, introduced in 1957 in Cleveland, and still based in the area.
That the company understands the apostrophe as a kind of advertising is funny, because Blaster is the proverbial product that sells itself. Ask any Rust Belt mechanic, now or back in the 1950s, when William K. Westley invented it.
“They started selling it by driving around Cleveland,” Pindor said, “with a whole bunch of this stuff in the back of the car, and they would give it to mechanics — back in the day we had bunch of car centers on the corner, right? You know, Mike’s Car Care Center or Tom’s Jiffy Repair Place — and they would give a can to mechanics and say, ‘Look, try this stuff out. If it works we’ll come back in a week and you can pay for it. If not, we’ll just take it back.’ Everybody bought it.”
The formula has remained identical through the years, and might remain that way permanently. The formula stays in one place. It is a secret. It has never been patented or trademarked, because Blaster — family-owned, chairman is Tom Porter, son of Bernie Porter, an investment banker who bought Blaster in the ’80s from Westley — doesn’t want it getting out.
“You probably with some crazy reverse engineering could get close to some things, but no one’s figured it out,” Pindor said.
It also has a distinct smell. That won’t be going away.
“There was a point where we tried getting rid of some of the fragrance or the odor or whatever you want to call it,” Pindor said, adding that nothing is added for the sake of look or color. “It’s the character of the product. It’s got that color. It’s got that smell. Most people that we know say they like the smell. If you go online people make jokes about using it for cologne. It’s not really that bad of a thing.”
Blaster might have started regionally, but now it’s an international concern with business lines across the Western Hemisphere. The biggest state in terms of sales might actually be Florida, Pindor says. Its competitors don’t really represent much competition. On paper, you might think WD-40 is something, but Pindor says it isn’t.
“They play in our world and we play in theirs,” Pindor said. “Their biggest player is a lubricant. Ours is a penetrant.
“Our competitor, WD, out there, is just a lubricant, basically a paraffin wax and a solvent. Anything can be a lubricant, even water. But to break rust and to free tightened and welded together, practically, parts that have been, you know, ironed out with rust, PB kind of just does the job.”
(I emailed WD-40 for comment and will update if I get a response.)
Pindor is an engaging interview; that is to be expected from someone who worked in marketing for years. He owns a couple of ’68 Firebirds, along with a Harley Road Glide, some Jet Skis.
He said his favorite Blaster stories are those of sunken boats and Jet Skis that are revived thanks to Blaster’s ability to free engines. He did not take the bait when I asked if he had heard of any sexual uses for Blaster. All he’d heard of was some people using it for arthritis and for keeping dogs at bay, though he couldn’t recommend either. Pindor said that Blaster was compliant with all of the relevant regulatory people, but also affirmed that ingesting Blaster is not advisable.
As for concerns, he said he is worried about what electric vehicles will do to Blaster’s business, since EVs have fewer mechanical parts. But not that worried. EVs, we agreed, will still need Blaster in some way or another.
“Cars still have brakes, suspension, undercarriage,” Pindor said.
No matter how many fresh Teslas clog McMansion driveways, there are plenty of used cars still on the roads and plenty of salt awaiting them in Ohio winters. That salt will be waiting for the Teslas, too.
Blaster as a company, meanwhile, has been doing pretty well in the pandemic. Like other auto-related businesses, they’ve seen an uptick because a lot of people are opting to work on the cars they have instead of buying new ones. Pindor wouldn’t give me numbers for Blaster but did say in general in the auto parts industry things were up about 20 percent.
“Every time there’s a sputtering in the economy we see an increase in sales,” Pindor said. “[Customers are] not buying new, they’re working and fixing.”
Blaster is pretty small, or about 60 employees in its corporate office in Ohio. The sales reps are independent and are spread across the country. There’s a lab, which develops new products like the Multi-Max Lubricant, introduced last year, which Pindor describes as a “WD-40 killer.” Against Blaster’s sales, competitors like Liquid Wrench are also fading concerns.
That Blaster is a local product (still) gives me some hope.
I wondered why it hadn’t been purchased by a bigger competitor, or maybe even gone public. Pindor said that they have received plenty of offers, but the owners simply aren’t interested in it.
“We say no, and our plan here is to continue growing,” Pindor said. “We’re not looking to sell this to some equity company. We’re not looking to sell this to some competitor.”
He spoke of one such attempt many years ago.
“All they wanted was the name,” Pindor said. “They didn’t want to keep the manufacturing. They didn’t want to keep the people. They didn’t want to keep it in Cleveland. We’re like, ‘No, man, we’re from Cleveland. We like having people work for us. We like having people in manufacturing.’ [The owners] literally got up out of the conference room and walked away.”
Believe it or not (I believe it), Pindor says his position affords him star treatment in some settings. At a Blaster retreat in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, one year, someone approached the group.
“He starts talking about lawnmower tune-up,” Pindor said. More people approached. “Once you say PB it’s almost like you got a little [stardom] or fame.”
Which he doesn’t mind, because for Pindor, like me, his relationship with Blaster goes way back.
“Blaster was a thing you needed if you were going to work on anything,” Pindor said, referring to his days as a teen in Ohio. “Being in Cleveland, you know how it is up here, everything’s rusted. One or two winters and you can’t get a lug nut off. Hell, you can’t get a manifold clamp off no matter what. And it was just kind of, hey this is the only stuff that works.
“I still get my hands greasy,” Pindor said. “My fingernails are black.”
At some point, I acquired a reliable first-generation Chevy S-10 and went off to college; before that my family had found a trustworthy Volvo mechanic and my dad stopped wrenching altogether. He does only a little bit of wrenching now that he’s retired; the last time I talked to him he told me some crazy bullshit about buying used tires in Akron, something about buying tires from a human on the street. I refused to listen to the rest.
He’s not the greatest PB aficionado in the world any more, in other words, but that just means he’s moved on from the trenches. I like to think of PB as an eternal resource, discovered and rediscovered by generations.