Choosing a Shop
by David Grainger
President, The Guild of Automotive Restorers
Each year I have the opportunity to work on dozens of Classic and Antique cars and they range in condition from very good to absolute basket cases when they come in. I have literally had cars brought to me in boxes and stacked on flatbed trailers, and I have had others driven in which at first glance looked nicely restored but actually needed to be stripped right down and started over again. The owners who bring them in have many personal reasons for having the work done and these reasons are often as varied as the cars themselves. The love of the car is difficult to explain, and love affairs range from the adoration of cantankerous single cylinder 1900's wheezers to the blatting and snarling tin monsters of the late sixties. Every car has its admirers and there is no logical reason why one fellow will be madly in love with an Austin A 40 while another can't take his eyes off of a 36 Buick Sedan. In the world of the car the three wheeled Messerschmitt has as much right at the show as the 16 cylinder Cadillac.
So when you finally find that one special car how should you go about restoring it? How do you find someone to entrust your project to who will treat your dream car with the respect and care that you would if you could do the work? How do you pick a shop or shops to restore your car? So let's explore your options and perhaps some of your motivations.
Money is important to all of us and money, or the spending of large amounts of it, is what is always required to restore a car. So we have immediately set up a conflict here, because although you may want the car restored, you may never be able to escape the feeling that you are paying too much money to have it done. The restorer on the other hand knows how hard it is to even ball park a restoration's costs and will live all the way through the restoration with a fair amount of pressure from the owner to explain and justify every expenditure. So what can you do to ensure that you are getting your money's worth and what can the restorer do to put your mind at ease? I'll lay out a few things that I have learned over the years, both from a restorer's standpoint and from an owner's.
First, when you first approach a restorer of any kind there are a few things that you should expect to hear and see.
You should of course be given a tour of the shop as a matter of course. Don't be so excited about your own project that you fail to take a really good look at other people's projects which are under way. Walk through with a very critical eye. See how things are being done and how the cars are being treated. So what exactly are you looking for? What you are looking for first is organization. Restoration is the most difficult and complex task that can be performed on a car. If a shop appears disorganized with piles of parts strewn about in haphazard fashion and with the cars being used to store parts on then you should hear faint warning bells. Even a small and busy shop can keep organized and in fact has to if it is to do its job properly. There are bound to be small messes around any shop as work is done but you can tell when it is standard operating procedure to live in the mess or whether it is just because of tasks being performed at that moment. One thing I always try to impress on my staff, and it is difficult to police without appearing as a nag, is that cars are not tables and when working on a car you should not use it as a work bench. Leaving tools all over a car is, in my opinion, something that should be taboo in any shop. It not only shows a certain disrespect for the car and by extension its owner, but it can cause small dents, scrapes or other damage which has to be fixed and costs money. Once again, common sense should be used. If a mechanic is twisted over a fender and into the depths of an engine compartment, he should perhaps be allowed to put a couple of tools within reach on an inner fender as long as he has taken precautions to ensure that they will cause no damage. A nice chrome air cleaner should not be used as a convenient table on which to pile wrenches and vice grips.
You should look to see if the shop uses fender covers and blankets to protect the cars when they are being worked on and check to see if the cars are kept fairly clean when they are in the shop. Cars covered in inches of dust and dirt are not a good sign.
Being critical of the work itself is almost impossible because you don't know what exactly the shop has done or what it hasn't or at what stage the project is in. I recently heard two car club members who were on a tour through our shop discussing what a lousy paint job had been put on car that was in the shop. What they thought they were seeing was a finished paint job with drips on it. What they were seeing was a Concours project which was purposely shot very wet so that the paint would flow and set up glasslike. This avoids the need to cut orange peel off the car, a thing that happens when paint is shot either too dry or with fast dry catalysts. Your new car is covered in it and it is standard. It is not permissible on a show car though. By shooting the car very wet and with slower acting catalysts we get runs occasionally but these take very little time to sand off and polish compared to having to color sand and polish a car with orange peel. So their judgment was incorrect, but easily explained.
Now if you see something that you don't like the looks of, ask. There should be an explanation, but not an excuse.
Now after your tour of the shop you should then sit down to discuss your project with the restorer. The first thing that you should hear from any restorer is that the job will be expensive, there is no getting around it, and if you are not hearing that message then you may have a problem. I would be a little suspicious of any professional restorer who avoids telling you that restoration is expensive or goes on about how much money he can save you. In restoration, if the restorer is experienced and honest, then the car will end up determining how much money will need to be spent on it and both you and the restorer will be in for the long haul. This is why it is critical to have a restorer who explains all of this to you before you start the project so that you can make an informed decision about whether you really want to restore that car.
I have a rather negative selling technique which I use. People come in and say perhaps, " I have a 1966 Chevrolet Sedan which I would like to restore". My reply to this is invariably, "No you don't." I then spend the next half hour trying to talk the owner out of restoring the car by explaining that he or she can probably find a nice driver which needs no work for about one fifth the cost of restoring the same car. I also explain how much things like interiors and chrome plating cost, which when combined with nothing else, can eclipse the value of the finished car. If after that the owner still wants to go ahead then it is my duty to find the least expensive way to do the job properly.
If after a good talk about procedures, costs, billing and parts acquisition you feel comfortable with the restorer, then you may be able to get started.
Another thing that you should find out is how much work the restorer does on site and how much he farms out to others. You should know up front if your car is going to go out on a major tour while it is being restored, and if that will end up incurring more costs than you feel comfortable with.
Another thing to look for is equipment. It is all right to say that a car is all hand crafted, but if the shop is hand crafting something in a day which could be done in an hour with the right equipment then you are not getting your money's worth.
In order to save money, many owners will opt for what I call "the Restoration Tour". This is a process where the owner takes the car all over the countryside having small shops here and there do individual tasks. In the next column I will cover how this can work for you, and how it can backfire and blow up in your face.