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The Restorers Trap
Are they the new 'Bad Boys' of the Collector Car hobby?

Published 10/4/2005

More and more it seems we are hearing of horror stories from within the collector car restoration industry. With the values of classics rocketing skywards, that old car you've had on life-support in your garage suddenly seems to be a viable candidate for restoration - or so you think.

A big part of the problem comes from your side - it's the emotional attachment. The idea of your car looking all shiny and beautiful numbs your brain and suddenly you are not listening or thinking like a savvy investor at all, but more like a kid who's been given a hundred bucks to spend in a toy store! The restorer knows you likely don't have a clue about what is involved to remove and replace a panel or rebuild a motor, they can smell your naiveté and the unscrupulous ones among them will take you to the 'cleaners' prove their point.

The scary thing about the restoration business is, that it is today, as it has been for many years (with one possible exception), an unaccredited and hence unregulated industry. The bottom line, when it comes to being a restorer, anyone can claim that moniker. People in this particular trade that succeed do so purely on the quality of past their accomplishments and reputation.

When people go to a restorer one would expect the individual to be honest and reputable and to have your best interests at heart - sadly that is often NOT the case. They simply look at you as a cash cow that's stumbled into their web.

That being said, this is not an article about the quality of the workmanship done by these companies and individuals, but rather about the ethics of the industry as a whole.

I will relate three stories to you, two from clients who called us and one about an incident involving myself. I learned a hard and somewhat expensive lesson and I hope to save you my pain by sharing this story with you now.

The first story is one of a young man who had taken his 1967 GTO to be restored at a particular restoration facility in Enfield , CT. They had his car for over a year and after milking him of $120,000 they still weren't finished! When he finally ran out of money and got the car back he approached us to appraise it for him. When he told me how much he had in it I fell off my chair, but once the inspection had been carried out I just got plain angry that this unsuspecting car guy had been taken advantage of. His car was not only not finished - the body had NOT been removed from the chassis, the interior was still original and the engine bay had not been detailed. In short the car was worth maybe $35,000! I asked him WHY he kept paying them money. His answer was one I could relate to and understand. He said "I didn't know, I just wanted my car done and they kept saying they were really close finishing and needed just a little more money so they could do it right". That story shocked me and I wouldn't have mentioned the location of the establishment in question if a second and unrelated story about them hadn't emerged. It came from a wealthy doctor I met at a Car Show in Greenwich CT. He owned and rare Alvis roadster, we were chatting and I'd asked him who did the work on his car, ironically he told me that it had been done this very same company in Enfield , CT. Although the work was nice, he didn't really seem pleased and I enquired why. He told me that it had cost him way more money than he could ever hope to recover. I asked what exactly they had done as I could still see issues with the car. He said the main problem was that they took some of the sheet metal off to repair a section of the wooden frame and then they found there was more they needed to do, they had told him that they couldn't give him an exact price as they had no way of knowing what would need to be done. I had asked him why the shop couldn't give him a 'worse case scenario' price and he said they told him they couldn't - I told him in no uncertain terms - that was BS. He said, once they had removed the panel and some pieces of wood, it put him in a bad spot. He couldn't very well take the car away as it was now in pieces, all he could do was give them the go ahead to dig a little deeper and pray it wasn't too bad. Well they milked him good and hard.

This particular car was rare it had a steel chassis, ash frame wrapped in steel or possibly aluminum. But still, there are skilled fabricators like 'Rod Jolly' in the UK for instance who upon seeing photos of the car, would have been able to quote and almost exact figure for creating an entirely new ash frame and wrapping it in steel. The restoration shop in Enfield should know that and have advised the client accordingly as to his best course of action - but they didn't because they'd rather milk him for $60 an hour! Incidentally, did I mention that this particular company charged the guy with the GTO $50 an hour for SANDBLASTING! Just as with our Doctor, the guy with the GTO should have been told a worse case scenario up front. How can it cost more to repair a car than it would to buy one that has already been fully frame off restored? Honestly I don't know how the guys in that establishment can sleep at night!

I want to reiterate, I'm not saying they did bad work, as far as I could see they didn't, what I don't see them as being is honest, or having the best interests of the customer in mind.

Don't think that this is an isolated case and that they are the only restoration shop to do this, I know of at least one other facility in Pennsylvania who did something similar to a guy with a Cadillac. They took it apart and then they have you by the proverbial 'short and curlies', your car is now in bits - do you take it home or pay them to put it back together?

My experience with a restorer was on a smaller scale but the pain and the lessons learned were no less traumatic. It involved 'Nu-Chrome' in Massachusetts . You'd think with all my experience I'd know better - but I'm here to tell you that I just got myself burned. So I'll share my experience with you in the hope of sparing you my pain. Apart from owning old cars, I'm also into old motorcycles. Last December before Christmas my brother called up and suggested that I remove the gas tank from my 1936 Norton and take it with his to be chromed. After stripping the paint, I found some bondo hiding a couple of dents, but nothing too drastic. His tank was actually in a little worse shape than mine. Upon arriving at 'Nu-Chrome' we showed the tanks to the 'production foreman' and after eyeing them up and explaining that he'd have to cut them open beat out the dents and re-weld them shut, seal them then copper and chrome them to a high standard etc. he told us the charge would be $1600 each! We'll we dithered for a bit at the lofty quote, but the thought of shiny chrome tanks on our vintage bikes for the following spring took hold the 'red mist' moved in and we gave him the go ahead to proceed. We were told that they would be ready in six weeks and that he'd need 50% of the money upfront. He even gave us both a beer and we obliged only to spend the two hour ride home questioning our hasty decision. Well six weeks came and went pretty quickly and I called to see if my tank was ready only to be told "almost, it's been a lot of work and it's all done, it's still in copper however, we'll dip in chrome later this week and call you to come pick it up". The week past without a call - so I called back, "Is it done?" I said. They said they'd go check and then returned to the phone to say that they were going to chrome it, but they had to change out the chemicals in the tank and it won't happen until next week now. So it went on, each week I'd call, each time I'd get an excuse. As spring drew near I begged, screamed, spoke to the highest authority and STILL my tank was never quite ready. SEVEN months passed before I finally had enough and sent my bother to go get our tanks. When we got there the tanks were still in copper - but the project had long since been abandoned. WHY? Because they never cut the tank open to remove the dents as they told us they would - instead they thought they could simply fill the dents with lead and then copper over it. The only problem was each layer requires re-dipping the tank in acid and they did it so many times it ate through the metal of the tank until it was so thin there was a hole in it big enough to put my finger through and no way to repair it because there was no good metal left to weld to! THE TANK WAS DESTROYED. As the tank is VERY rare, I knew there was little to no chance of having a second hand one come up on eBay - so all I could do was to ship it off to the UK to have a new tank custom fabricated by a specialist at great expense. My brother's tank had suffered a similar fate although he is trying to salvage his. Why these people couldn't have been honest when they screwed up, called and said, "Hey we have a problem, come by we'll show you what's happened and discuss how we can make this right" But no, they elected to shovel BS down the phone for seven months until I was all filled up. That's the lack of ethics I'm talking about.

I liken a restoration company to a construction company. A construction company is presented with a building project and asked to bid. They must rely on their experience and knowledge to estimate how long the job will take, what equipment is involved, what materials are needed and how much profit they want to make, then they throw their 'hat in the ring' and see if the customer accepts it. If they win the project and find out due to their inexperience they have "under-bid" it, THEY LOSE - they must still finish the project (or quit without getting paid), but usually their profit margin diminishes. If they bid too high they run the risk of not getting the job at all.

There are companies in the US and Europe who can give you a fixed price for building what is essentially a brand new car. I know of one in Florida for example who for about $30,000 would build you a perfect 1966 Ford Mustang using a donor car that they locate, and then doing a total frame-off restoration putting paint and interior colors or options of your choice. So why can't restorers?

So what's the lesson in all this? GET IT IN WRITING! If they say they'll cut the tank open and knock out the dents and that it'll be finished in six weeks - GET IT IN WRITING! Get a completion date and a penalty clause if necessary, like if they are late they'll knock a $100 off for each day over. If they don't accept it walk away. At least that way you have something to sue them with when they breach the contact. If it's a car you're having done - ask for a worse case scenario - body panels like floors, fenders etc have a fixed price, if the restorer is experienced enough he should be able to tell you clearly how long it would take to cut off the rear quarters, cut out the trunk pan and rear valence and weld new panels in. Think about it - they have books for this stuff - how do you thing insurance adjusters could calculated how much it will cost to repair a car that has been in an accident? There are books that tell them (based on previous experience) how long it should take someone to remove and replace a particular panel, wheel arch or what ever and replace it with an entirely new panel. That figure should be your worse case scenario, if he tells you he'll charge you more than that to section in a patch panel then clearly something is wrong - he should be advising you to replace the whole panel as (a) it the cheapest way to go and (b) it will look better.

The onus is on him as the one with the experience to know his business. He should know cars and know pretty much exactly how long it will take and therefore, how much it will likely cost. If he gets it wrong then it's HIM who pays for his inexperience, NOT you!

Finally, YOU should understand what the car or item could be worth best case if restored to pristine condition. Check for an accurate up-to-the-minute guide as to what collector cars are fetching on the open market.

Figure out what you already have in the car and ask the restorer what it is likely to cost to bring your car to #1 condition, if the numbers don't add up, you may well be better simply selling your car 'as-is' and buying one that someone already has made the mistake of restoring so you can buy it from them for pennies on the dollar.

Did you know it can easily cost $15,000 to paint a car the size of a GTO convertible today? And that doesn't include any accident damage or rust repair. A good restoration shop will strip the car back to bare metal, take all trim and glass off, remove the hood, trunk doors and soft top, reset body panels if necessary to ensure gaps are correct then they paint it, so you'll never know it'd ever been painted, no tape lines, no overspray no unpainted surfaces. Of course once you have nice shiny paint, all the bright work that didn't look bad at all before now looks like hell, as does the glass, the rubber gaskets and just about everything else, and on it goes - welcome the restorer's trap!

Very few cars are going to make you money once you restore them. Usually it's only the rare and unusual types of cars - you know the ones I'm talking about, they're the pile of bits found in a barn in Italy that someone mysteriously pays $100,000 for at auction and you think he's crazy? Well 3 years later when you see him and his investor buddies drive on the 18 th green at Pebble Beach smiling, it's because he's most likely made himself a million dollars even after the costs of restoration/recreation have been deducted.

Most of us don't have that kind of money to play around with toys but, no matter what car interests you, if you have the budget, you are always going to be better off buying a car that has already been fully restored, providing you know it's been done right. (If you are not sure use a inspection group like to check it out.) You'll get to use and enjoy it from day one and providing you take good car of it, the worst that can happen is it will gradually depreciate over time as it ages. Remember that the only real problem with buying a fully restored car is terms of it's condition there is no where to go but down - It's kind of like getting old, you can use wrinkle creams and stay our of the sun to try and slow the process but there is nothing you can do to halt the ravishes of time. Once a car has been restored and then used on the street for any length of time, there is no way to turn back the hands of time, meaning you cannot buy the car and clean up the parts that have begun to show signs of age and make it a #1 car again - all you can do is drive it, care for it and enjoy it and eventually after several years it will likely be in rough enough shape and the values would have appreciated enough to warrant you spending the money to tear it apart and fully restore it all over again. Which I believe brings us back to where we came in.

Jeff Webster
CEO / Buyer Services International LLC

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