“Is he the guy with the moustache?” If the name Dennis Gage is not instantly familiar to someone, his handlebar moustache certainly is.
Dennis Roy Gage spent his childhood in northwestern Illinois, growing up on the family farm. There was not a lot to do in the small town, so playing with cars and motorcycles was entertainment. His father, CP, and mother, Rose, were both into cars.
“He was a Buick guy and drove like a madman, and she liked big engines and fast cars,” Gage said.
Gage got his first motorcycle at age 12 (a Honda 50) and his first “official” car when he was 15—a ’59 Ford Thunderbird. Rose was driving a ’65 Chevy Impala, but Gage talked her into a ’67 Pontiac GTO convertible, which he then drove to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where he landed with only $20 and a scholarship.
It was the early ’70s, and Gage launched a triple major: chemistry, physics and math. But after two years of “partying my brains out and working my brains out on three majors” he quit to become a technician at Amoco Chemicals. He lasted only nine months, but it was a life-changing experience, and he returned to college even more focused. He dropped math, but his undergrad degree was in quantum physics, and he was primed next to get a PhD at the University of Wisconsin. But as fate would have it—a constant phrase in the twists and turns that are the life of Dennis Gage—an Eagles concert changed his life.
Fascinated by a musician playing a pedal steel guitar in the warm-up band, Gage taught himself how to play. Instead of grad school, he started a band called Madfoot with college friends. Before long, he was invited to join another band that did warm-up for acts such as Charlie Daniels and Waylon Jennings.
“Even though I loved music, I didn’t like it as a job,” Gage said. “I’m not nocturnal. I’m more of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. It’s all flipped if you’re in a band.”
And so, off to grad school he went in 1977, this time pointing his dad’s ’70 Ford Maverick westward toward the University of Idaho, with plans to become a professor.
As fate would have it, Mount Saint Helens volcano erupted in Washington, and Gage was part of the university’s atmospheric monitoring group, which set out to monitor the particulate levels for health implications of the ash now covering four states. He also happened to have taught himself how to use the department’s Raman spectrometer—and as the only person who knew how to use it, he became the guy who analyzed Mount Saint Helens’s volcanic ash.
“I had the only technique that could do this, so I had my PhD thesis project literally fall from the sky,” he said.
Wooed by Proctor & Gamble to become a scientist in their food division after graduation, his product development work included the Pringles chip (his name is on some of the patents). Then came a case of corporate espionage that turned into a legal battle. It’s noteworthy, because this ultimately became the largest patent settlement in U.S. history at the time.
“I was kind of the key guy again,” he said, ”because I do weird stuff. So I developed a way to do X-ray refraction spectrometry on cookies.” (He monitored crystal growth to show the infringement.)
Gage next became director of product development for Bristol Meyers Squibb and spent five years traveling the world. He also was juggling life as father to three children with his high-school sweetheart, Ellen. While he was looking into modeling schools for his two daughters, an agency suggested that Gage take a headshot, too. And, as fate would have it….
“I had my picture taken, forgot about it,” he said. “Then, a couple years later, I get this call that a local law firm was wanting someone with a turn-of-the-century look for a commercial.”
In case you wondered, he had that moustache even back at Proctor & Gamble.
Gage and the commercial’s producer started talking cars, and the two put together a 30-minute sample episode of “My Classic Car,” with Gage as host. TNN premiered the full series in 1997, and it has been on the air now for 20 years, enduring network changes.
“People think I know so much about cars, but I’m not an authority,” Gage said. “I’m the ultimate enthusiast. No one knows more about a car than the guy who owns it.”
He also made time to volunteer with SEMA, including with the Automotive Restoration Market Organization (ARMO). In that group’s early years, Gage was a vocal proponent of bringing more awareness to its mission. He was also a member of the Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA) and served three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors.
Gage has been the recipient of many honors, from awards for science in school and from the American Chemical Society to the ARMO Hall of Fame. But ask him about the SEMA Hall of Fame, and you will render him speechless.
“It’s beyond flattering,” he said. “When I think of the SEMA Hall of Fame, I think Carroll Shelby, Vic Edelbrock…iconic, legendary people. And they bring me into that? I’m totally stunned.”
Perhaps it has not been only fate guiding Dennis through this journey but also his belief that if you work hard, you get ahead.
“Deliver the goods, deliver results,” Gage said. “And don’t fear failure.”