For nearly as long as there have been cars, mechanics have relied on low-profile wheeled platforms, called creepers, to work on the underside of a vehicle. As pivotal as they are, though, their design and construction – typically a finished wood plank with a head rest supported by swivelling caster wheels – hasn’t changed much in the century since their invention.
Enter Quebec City-based serial entrepreneur and inventor, Erik Sieb, whose company, Creepex, makes a line of modernized creepers that have caught the attention of Caterpillar, the U.S. military, prolific car collector Jay Leno and a high-profile aerospace company. According to Sieb, what sets his products apart is the fact that his designs aren’t hampered by convention.
“None of us are car guys or mechanics by trade,” Sieb says of himself and his three-man crew. “In fact, I’m not an engineer, a designer or a car person. I’m just a guy who has outside-the-box ideas and gets the best people I can find to do what I have to do.”
The first of Sieb’s unconventional ideas, and the inspiration for the company, came in 2006 from his then 17-year-old son, who had just bought his first car. Eager to keep it in working order, the teenager apprenticed with a car mechanic friend. However, a close call while under the car for the first time prompted Sieb’s son to ask why there wasn’t more protection for the mechanic beyond jack stands.
“He came home and asked me why there isn’t a roll bar on the creeper to act as protection,” Sieb recounts. “I thought it was a good idea, so I started searching to see if there was anything like that. What I found is that there were a number of creepers that were different here and there but all pretty much the same. So I filed for a patent and found a partner who was willing to manufacture it.”
Sieb turned to André Wagner, owner of Quebec City-based metal fabrication job shop, Machinerie P&W Inc., to help create the Creepex Bodyguard. True to the original idea, the heavy-duty creeper includes roll bars along the user’s torso and above the head. Together with its reinforced metal frame, Sieb says the Bodyguard withstands up to 30,000 pounds of crushing force.
“At that time, it was a novelty to put roll bars on a creeper,” he says. “They have traditionally been very flat and very low to the ground, but those designs forget that the mechanic is the highest point so why not make the roll bar protector the highest point.”
To promote his invention, Sieb took the standard trade show marketing route, but also approached both the U.S. military and Caterpillar with custom-made versions. While the U.S. construction equipment giant was intrigued, many of their mechanics weren’t as receptive.
“The Bodyguard is very efficient at holding up 30,000 pounds, but it’s a very bulky piece of equipment,” he admits. “However, Caterpillar’s rejection prompted me to create something else. Sometimes it’s a negative point that pushes you forward.”
That push forward became the company’s best selling creepers to date, the FastBack. According to Sieb, direct sales to professional and prosumer mechanics constitute the bulk of sales to date followed by bulk orders from U.S. and Canadian military bases and automotive repair schools. Most recently, the company has entered retail agreements with Costco, Canadian Tire and Part Source. As with the Bodyguard, Sieb relied on Quebec-based freelance industrial designer, Luc Fortin, to modernize the century-old tool and bake in the user-friendly features the creeper line is known for.
“Luc is more than the designer,” he says. “He does the CAD and the tooling afterwards, but he also thinks about every aspect. Not just the look and usability but he also makes sure the parts are replaceable and the overall product is maintenance-able.”
Similar in profile and ergonomics to the Bodyguard, the FastBack features raised tool trays in place of roll bars and removable LED lights on either side of the head rest. More notable, Sieb says, are the lighter creeper’s 7-inch straight wheels. Their positive camber and double bearing configuration allow users to spin in place while their dual tread works equally well on concrete or uneven surfaces. Most importantly, Sieb says their positioning removes many of the annoyances of traditional creepers.
“Because we are running on 7-inch straight wheels positioned at waist level, you can ‘pull a wheelie’ on the small control wheel under the head rest,” he says. “This allows the mechanic to easily pop over air hoses, floor grates and debris.”
To promote his user-friendly product, Sieb reached out to former Tonight Show host and compulsive car fanatic, Jay Leno.
“I called his secretary and I offered him a FastBack as a birthday gift,” Sieb recounts. “I think the secretary got a little annoyed when I called her every few days so she just handed the phone to him. When I said I was from Quebec City, he said he came to Montreal once a year for the Just for Laughs festival and he said I should swing by the garage.”
“Swing by the garage” came to mean the comedian’s influential prime-time television show “Jay Leno’s Garage.” Sieb’s appearance on the show, along with his creeper, marked a turning point for Creepex and ultimately led to the company’s latest venture, the Beast.
Initially designed for rocket engineers, the Beast isn’t a creeper by traditional standards but what Sieb calls an industrial chair. With input from Machinerie P&W engineer, Gaétan Roseberry, the Creepex team designed the chair to gently recline from a 45 degree back angle to fully flat using two motors powered by a rechargeable battery pack.
Sieb says the Beast’s ability to progressively recline the back rest and flatten the seat via a switch on the left hand arm rest makes it perfect for mechanics working around the curved underbelly of a plane fuselage or jet engine. Not yet available for retail, the Beast is currently being tested by Canadian Air Force mechanics working on CF-18 fighter jets.
“There are other industrial reclining chairs but not one as fully mobile,” he says. “We use the same idea as our other creepers, with two sets of frictionless caster wheels, which gives you a lot of stability and control when moving. We’ve also adapted the handles or arms of the chair so they are low enough that you can drive it precisely with your knees.”
As far as Creepex has come, Sieb says the company will continue to improve it’s existing line and add as many as eight new creepers to the line-up in the future.