Making the past your future

Jan. 1, 2020
Political pundits say you need a certain "fire in the belly" to even consider running for President of the United States. It appears that same quality is also a necessity if you want to work on customs, classics, collectibles, hot rods and racers.
Repair specialist Bobby Saunders of the Downing Street Garage in Denver replaces the carburetor and tunes up a customer's 1967 Nova with a 1,200-hp Chevrolet big block engine.

Political pundits say you need a certain "fire in the belly" to even consider running for President of the United States. It appears that same quality is also a necessity if you want to work on customs, classics, collectibles, hot rods and racers.

It helps also if you yourself own an eye-candy vehicle to park at your shop, so passers-by can readily discern that you offer these types of services.

"It starts with that customer who has a unique car," says Douglass Kirchdorfer, co-owner with his wife, Rebecca, of the six-bay Downing Street Garage in downtown Denver. Housed in a recast vintage Texaco gas station, the operation is a perennial Motor Age Top Shop.

Kirchdorfer makes a point to have either one of his own classics or a customer's special car sitting out front during business hours.

"I drive an old car to start with," he says. "I have it in my parking lot so that other old car owners can see it, and that starts a conversation."

As a like-minded aficionado spots such a scene, "he sees the car I drive, and he thinks I can do that kind of work," Kirchdorfer explains. "Besides, if you are truly a 'Car Guy' and you are a perfectionist, your work shows and word spreads. Also, I used to own a body shop. That attracts everybody who dreams of getting their project painted and completed."

Before venturing into this realm, though, it is critical that you possess the proper attitude and aptitude. Accounting for less than 2 percent of Downing Street's business, meeting each customer's desires can amount to a considerable amount of time and energy to correctly complete the job.

"My suggestion is if you don't have an employee or owner that does this as a hobby, I wouldn't bother trying to get into it," says Kirchdorfer, who serves on the Automotive Service Association (ASA) Mechanical Division Operations Committee. "It's not like doing brakes and deciding to start changing oil or polishing headlights. This type of work is not for the profit-minded. If it wasn't fun to do and enjoyable, I wouldn't even do it."

Securing commitment

Being somewhat selective in picking your clients is another important element.

"Sticker shock happens," Kirchdorfer admits. "That's why I usually pre-qualify the customer. If they drive a piece of (a less-than-impressive-looking vehicle), I figure they won't have much money, and I am usually right. If they drive a new luxury car and want some old pickup restored, I start by asking them what their budget is. Most don't have a clue. But some will say they can spend $1,000 this month and then another grand in a couple of months. That's an owner who has thought this through."

Often, an hourly fee is established, along with an anticipated timeframe. "I have had projects that took many months. Then it's hourly, paid weekly with a large deposit. I don't really want to end up owning a car. You find out rather quickly how committed the owner is when he pays the bill weekly," Kirchdorfer points out.

Customers can supply their own components for installation, but that, too, is subject to appropriate ground rules. "I have done that with the understanding that if the part doesn't fit or doesn't work, it's still costs money to remove the old part and put that same part back on. I also raise my rate by 150 percent to cover lost parts profit," he says.

"And yes, if you bring in a set of struts, I'll still put them in. If I have to call the customer because the part didn't fit and they don't show up within the same time it takes for me to order the correct part from the parts source, I put the old part back on," reports Kirchdorfer.

Sleuthing for solutions

Tracking down the correct solutions can create considerable challenges. Kirchdorfer had a customer with an early 1960s tricked-out Jeep suffering from a leaking one-off, all-aluminum radiator. "The radiator shop shied away from it," he recounts. Suitable brackets were located at a junkyard, and further sleuthing revealed that a local speed shop had a high-performance unit that matched the setup. "We went from a total custom radiator to one that was off-the-shelf and designed for circle track racers. You have to be resourceful."

As you can imagine, developing and maintaining a network of contacts that can provide parts and clever alternatives is an ongoing endeavor, because you never know what you might need.

"It's not at all like the day-to-day chores of keeping family cars on the road," says Tom Piippo, a member of ASA's Mechanical Division Operations Committee and owner of Tri-County Motors in Rudyard, Mich.

"To do the job right, there are no shortcuts," he says. Some components have to be fabricated and otherwise re-worked to complete the repair. "People who supply parts for these cars are usually very helpful in steering you in the right direction if they don't have a particular part themselves."

Piippo and Kirchdorfer both resist the allure of stalking swap meets and other car-buff gatherings to stock up on assorted components that may or may not be needed. "I go to flea markets to look around, but I don't like investing in parts that I haven't sold yet," says Piippo.

ASA General Director Donny Seyfer of Seyfer Automotive, Inc., Wheat Ridge, Colo., who is also a Motor Age Contributing Editor and host of a car-related radio show on Denver's KLZ-AM, specializes in vintage American vehicles ranging from the late '40s to the early '70s.

"Some of that is the mechanical side of restoration work and some of that is building hot rods. I have 130 suppliers to work on just that narrow band of cars," he reports.

"You have to have a really knowledgeable and reliable supply base. There aren't that many wrecking lots that have these parts," says Seyfer. "Over 80 percent of this I do on the Internet. I will sit at home at night while I'm watching TV and hunt for this stuff."

Seyfer's father founded the shop more than 50 years ago, and "we worked on a lot of this stuff when it was new, so we have a fantastic library" of old manuals and repair guides.

"A lot of our customers refer other customers to us after we've worked on their cars, and some of our vendors refer customers to us," he says. "When we're working on a hot rod, we also ask those customers to bring us their later-model cars" for routine service and repair.

Piippo notes that often, his referrals do come through the bay doors dropping the names of "people I've never heard of" — and they arrive from within a vast marketing radius: "With their custom cars, people are a little more particular, so they are willing to drive a distance" once they discover a kindred spirit who does precision repairs.

'White glove' treatment

Piippo lists several classes of classic cars, beginning with "drivers" that are cruised around town for enjoyment on weekends and the like. These owners often want updated brake systems and other safety-related enhancements and conversions to meet current equipment standards. The installations should be discreet enough to avoid obvious detection.

"Show cars — Concours d'Elegance-judged cars — on the other hand, are generally restored and always kept as original, just as they left the showroom floor or better. These cars are given the 'white glove' treatment, and even scratches on the frame are unacceptable. These cars are detailed down to the correct bolt head markings and lock washers, and are judged as such. I would caution other shops to be aware of the owner's intentions before servicing these cars," Piippo advises.

"Another class of show car is the 'survivor' class. This is a car that has never been restored; everything is original as it left the showroom. The car may show some wear, but the less wear, the better. Any repairs made to these cars should not be readily apparent, so check with the owner and ask his intentions before swapping out that starter with a remanufactured unit. A better option would be to overhaul his original starter to keep the part numbers matching."

Piippo's shop is situated in a rural region, and he sees farmers coming in with mouth-watering vintage trucks that are still chugging through the mud and hauling hay. These are "daily drivers," he says, and "a vehicle like this only needs to be kept serviceable without regard to appearance."

James E. Guyette is a freelance writer with more than 15 years experience covering the automotive aftermarket. He contributes articles for Motor Age as well as its sister publications Aftermarket Business and ABRN.

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