Anyone who has ever enlisted the services of a professional shop during the course of an automotive restoration has likely experienced levels of frustration ranging from mild to extreme. At best, maybe they only missed their deadline by a few days. At worst, your car, or parts were either returned no better than when you dropped them off, or they weren’t returned at all, with the hundreds or thousands of dollars you paid in advance not refunded.
Many of us undertake the restoration of a classic vehicle with the understanding that we cannot complete all the work ourselves. Some of us can overhaul an engine (although unless you’re a machinist even some of that work will need to be outsourced), and many of us can assemble completed components, but few amongst us possess the ability to fabricate and repair body panels, sew interiors and install headliners, and shoot paint to show quality standards. Unless you’re an professional, you’re going to need some help. In the extreme case, you drop off your car at a shop, tell them what you want and when you want it, and sign a blank check. If all goes well, they meet their deadline, on budget, and you return months or years later to see your dream car just as you envisioned her. Your drive home is like you always imagined it. The sun shines brightly off perfectly chromed trim and polished paint, the engine sings, she drives like a dream, and you don’t hit a single red light on the way. More likely your experience is one of missed deadlines, expectations not met, cost overruns, all of which are not clearly communicated to you, the customer.
The fact is that these individuals are artists firsts, and businesspersons second, and candidly that’s the way it should be. Your beloved car was most likely created in an era before cost controls and accountants ruled manufacturing processes and materials used. It was an expression of artistic and technological vision first, and business third. Cars were built by hand, using techniques long lost to efficiency and expediency. The very fact that there are people left who know how to hand form aluminum bodies, recreate fabric sheathed wiring harnesses, or source and sew period appropriate fabric and leather for the interior of your 60 year old classic. The individuals who still care about and practice such skill sets are often times throwbacks, oddities, and don’t easily assimilate to modern life. The very fact that they revere such arcane methods and practices is itself a denial and repudiation of the mass produced products which have contributed to the “disposable culture” which now rules our world. If you’re lucky they’ll have a cell phone and use email for regular communication. If you’re fortunate enough that they send you regular updates and photos to chronicle their progress consider yourself doubly lucky. What you should not expect however, is that they’ll tell you “I’ll have it done in three months, and it will cost $5,000. I expect a third of the total amount paid upfront, another third when we review progress in 6 weeks, and the final third upon completion. I accept cash, checks, and all major credit cards.” It’s more likely that they will not be able to tell you when it will be completed, “yeah, I dunno, I can probably do it pretty quickly, it shouldn’t take too long,” how much it will cost, “I charge based on time and materials, there’s not that much there, so it shouldn’t cost too much,” or tell you exactly how it will look, “it’s not too hard of a job, we just need to figure out x and y and we should be able to get pretty close to what you’re talking about.” It’s unlikely that there will be any sort of contract, written estimate, or statement of work. There will be no legal documents to sign, which you may think is a good thing until such time as you find them in breach of contract and seek legal action against them. Most frustrating is the fact that you can either play by their rules, or find someone else to do the work.
For those of us with business backgrounds these practices seem not only hard to accept, but completely implausible. After all, who would willingly engage in a business relationship with someone who could not commit to a delivery date, a total cost, or a level of quality? Apparently, most of us who patronize such craftsmen do, every year. If you think that such challenges are only experienced by cars of lower pedigree, you’re wrong. Walk past the rows of cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, or any car show for that matter and if the owners are honest, they’ll tell you horror stories about the pain and suffering they endured to get their car finished. Be it Pontiac or Packard, Alfa Romeo or Aston Martin, Dodge or Duesenberg, at some point some part of that gleaming example of automotive perfection you see in front of you was being worked on by a talented if curmudgeonly guy in a dark basement who was months behind his deadline.
Our Gearhead friends may recall the restoration of our own Alfa Romeo 1900C SS. We had hoped and expected that it would be ready for the summer of 2014, in time for the car shows of that year. Our goal was to have it accepted in to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a world class car show with few peers. The car was delivered to a well-known, and seemingly respected craftsman, we will call him Sean, located in Lebec, CA in February of 2012. This individual has two websites which profile work that he has completed on rare cars such as Carroll Shelby’s personal Cobra, and a Toyota 2000GT which was repaired for the Toyota museum in Long Beach. He is considered the world’s leading authority on Toyota 2000GTs, having written what is the definitive book on the car. His practice consisted of just himself and one employee, a man we’ll call Tony who had worked for Lockheed building titanium parts for the SR-71. He told us that he had begun his craft in Italy, apprenticing for Elio Zagato at the Zagato factory in the 60s, and that his current customers included the King of Sweden, and other well-known automotive collectors. He is an artist who creates painstakingly rendered cutaway drawings of dozens of cars, works of such intricate detail that would seem to define him as someone who not only can see the proper curve of a vintage car, but who also has the patience, skill and dedication to create such works in metal. As is often the case, we felt as if he was interviewing us (rather than the other way around) when we first reached out to him. It was clear we’d be playing by his rules. No definitive time to complete. It would be done when it was done. The initial quote was subject to change (and it did). It would require lots of consultation and visits on our part. We knew that there are few people capable of fixing a 60 year old car, made by hand (no two are the same), out of aluminum. We knew that there were virtually no other examples available for us to use for guidance, and we knew that our Alfa Romeo had sustained numerous damages which had been poorly repaired over the years. We knew that the services of an individual capable of, and willing to tackle such a challenge would not come cheaply. So we did not blink when the initial quote as about the same as you’d pay for a new Toyota Camry. This guy knows Jerry Seinfeld, and worked on Carroll Shelby’s own car! He’s even appeared on Jay Leno’s Garage. He is a world renowned artist and revered restorer of old cars. Surely he’s not only capable, but trustworthy as well. His is an honorable man who can be counted on to do what he says he’ll do.
Arrangements were made to deliver the car to his shop and we personally trailered the car to him in February of 2012. At this point we’d not met him in person. Our discussions regarding the car were conducted over the phone and his verbal quote was based on photos emailed to him. We wanted to make sure that when he saw the car in real life, he was still willing to stand by his initial quote, and that he would commit to repairing the car. After inspecting the car he remained confident that he could and would repair it, with a Pebble Beach quality finish. There was no explicit timeframe stipulated, but we kicked around rough goals of “a year or so.” At that point we remitted to him 95% of the total amount he’d quoted, in cash, with only a handshake, and a receipt showing the amount paid for “restoration services for Alfa Romeo 1900C SS.”
This is what our car looked like upon delivery, in February of 2012.
As mentioned earlier, this specific Alfa Romeo is unique in that its construction is a combination of a welded tubular steel frame over which hand formed aluminum panels are wrapped. The manufacturing technique was pioneered by Carrozzerria Touring of Milan, and is renowned for its combination of light weight, rigid structure, and beautiful body panels. It was a technique that was way ahead of its time when the car was built in the 50s, and it was extremely labor intensive. Forming aluminum is a skill that has been lost in recent decades as few car manufacturers used the lightweight metal (a trend now being reversed in a quest for lighter and more fuel efficient vehicles). Forming, fabricating, and welding aluminum require unique talent, and many body shops and restoration professionals are unwilling or incapable of working on old cars. When the car was new, its skin was formed over a wooden buck, and so fixing our car via the same practice made sense from both a historical and authentic accuracy perspective. We were told that the wooden buck would be ours once the job was done, which had additional value should we ever need to repair the car, or use it for creating reproduction panels for other 1900 owners. 95% of the damage to our 1900’s body was from the front windshield forward. The plan was to fabricate a completely new front end, entirely out of aluminum sheet. Done properly, the body would be “metal finished,” which means that no body filler, or skim coat would be used. For a fabricator with the right set of skills, this is not a stretch, and in fact no proper craftsman would allow anything other than a metal finished car to leave his shop. Aluminum is softer, and more challenging to work than steel, and the proper way to weld it is with a Tig welder, which gives the fabricator very fine control over the amount of heat that is put in to the metal, minimizing warpage and hardening of the work. A metal finished aluminum body is so pretty you almost hate to paint it, and many times hot rodders leave the bodies unpainted so that you can see the quality of work that was done.
Here is an example of a metal finished 1900C SS. This is the work of Bernhard Fleischhacker, of Graz Austria. It is a thing of beauty and Bernhard is one of the most talented fabricators in the world. He has restored numerous 1900s like ours, and has probably restored more than any other single individual. He would have been our first choice, but the logistics of sending our car half way around the world did not make sense, and we figured we had our own version of Bernhard here in California.
Over the coming year we visited his shop and our car numerous times. Every couple of months we would make arrangements to come by to check progress, assist with specific details, and bring the relevant parts (headlight buckets and trim, body trim, etc.) required to make sure that the body fit. Our car was not the only only project in his shop as he was working on a couple Toyota 2000GTs, but he told us that our car would be his final project, and his legacy. Numerous prospective clients requested that he restore their cars, but ours would be his last, he said.
About 6 months after we delivered the 1900 we were informed rather hastily that more money would be required. This was the first indication that perhaps something was amiss, for even two guys working 40 hours a week would have spent more hours, and made more progress than was evident on our car, which looked very similar to the condition it was in when we’d dropped it off. How could tens of thousands of dollars have been spent already, when the only cost other than labor was a big sheet of aluminum? With some reluctance we immediately delivered another $10,000 in cash with the reassurance that no additional money would be required to complete the work.
To be very clear, the job was not an easy one, but it should not have been hard for a body repairman or fabricator with the background and skill set we’d been told our guy had. Subsequent visits revealed additional challenges related to the shape and size of the apertures for headlight buckets, and grilles. An obvious lack of progress was evident and shortly thereafter Sean told us he was being sued for $1M by a very bad man who was unhappy with a custom built version of a Toyota 2000GT. Sean claimed that the man suing him was unrealistic in his expectations, and that he’d done nothing to warrant such a libelous claim. He’d need to sell his prized car collection to pay for an attorney, he said. He would need to declare personal bankruptcy to prevent losing everything, he moaned. At first, we sympathized. We wanted to believe that Sean was being victimized, treated unfairly by a man who sought only to ruin the lives of good, decent and hardworking souls. We and other friends of Sean’s rallied around him, defending him and offering to speak on his behalf in any legal proceedings which might occur.
At that point, things started to come unraveled. Sean’s attention on our car was lost, but as we later learned, it had never been a focus of his in the first place. When we questioned certain techniques, “why is he using a Mig welder?” we were told “Tony says that’s the way to do it.” When we pointed out that certain shapes or details were obviously incorrect, he again blamed it on Tony. We gently insisted that the work be done over, reminding Sean that we we’d agreed upon, and paid for, a Pebble Beach Concours quality restoration. A few months later we were told that Sean and Tony had a falling out, and that Tony no longer worked there. Sean blamed Tony for all of the poor quality work on our car, while we reminded him that it was his name over the door, and his reputation at stake. Even worse, when we first entered in to this business arrangement, we had expected that Sean would be the one doing the work, not someone else. Sean then filed for personal bankruptcy and it was at that point that we realized we needed to get our car back. After all, if he could not pay his creditors, who was paying for the rent on his shop? Concerned that his landlord would install new locks on the building and our car might end up on a late night “lost treasures” show, we high tailed it south to retrieve our car. In the weeks leading up to our eventual retrieval, Sean assured us that the car would be mostly finished, but that several small items had not been completed. He claimed he was working soley on our car, that it would be his legacy, and he wanted it to be right. We wanted to believe. Oh how we wanted to believe.
When we finally laid eyes on the car, nearly two years and a massive sum of money later, we were so stunned that the poor quality didn’t sink it. It was so bad in so many places that we couldn’t process it all. It was as if a cruel joke had been played up on us. It seemed incomprehensible that someone with such apparent ability could let something so horribly wrong happen to such a rare and special car. Shocked in to silence, we said few words, but pushed the sad car, with its horribly botched repairs in to our trailer, and drove home.
Over the next few days and weeks, the reality of the situation set in. We’d been taken. We’d been lied to by someone who likely never had the ability or even the real desire to restore our car to the level we’d agreed upon. At first, excuses were made, and then came admittance of shame and failure. Sean told us to bring the car back, that he’d make it right. “I have to,” he said. “It’s my legacy.” In the weeks following its return home some newly found local craftsmen helped us to remove almost 5 gallons of body filler off of the car. What we found underneath it was appalling. A lot of work remained uncompleted, and what was done was awful. Nothing fit, shapes were wrong, new metal was simply laid over old metal, and crude welds scarred the body. The quality of the work and repairs were so bad that the only words that came to mind would not be uttered in even casual conversation. Despite Sean’s insistence that he repair our car, we knew he was incapable of performing the required work and in fact, he had never possessed the skills to do so.
Here are a few photos of us stripping the body filler and the “repairs” that we found underneath the nearly 5 gallons of the stuff that had been slathered on the front end of our car. We will spare you the photo of the large cardboard box containing the gallons of body filler that we removed, it’s just too painful to look at.
It is now over a year later and our 1900 sits in the shop in virtually the same condition it was before we delivered it to Sean almost 3 years ago. Barely one quarter of the money we paid was refunded, and that happened only after persistent badgering on our part. While Sean admitted he’d failed to meet even the lowest standards of repairs to our car, he was unwilling to do right by us. We continue to seek legal avenues toward recovering some of our money, but it is unlikely we’ll be successful in that endeavor.
And so our beloved 1900 sits, awaiting the attention and love of someone worthy of her trust. What have we learned from all of this? What good can come from this horrible and heartbreaking experience? Quite a lot actually. We now understand that we were fooled by what we wanted to believe rather than what was rather obvious. We’d been blinded by a good story, a romantic history, and the dropped names of a few celebrities. If we’d taken time to ask for references, to speak to previous customers, we’d likely have spared ourselves a lot of pain and suffering. Following then, is a short list of recommended best practices that we will follow with any in any future business relationships that we enter in to regarding automotive restoration.
1. Create a detailed statement of work, with key milestones, and dates of completion.
2. Provide photos of similar kinds of work that reflect the desired objectives, fit, and finish.
3. Agree upon a final completion date, and only pay in full once the work has been completed in its entirety.
4. Include language that stipulates that an attorneys’ fees provision, so that should you be unlucky enough to have to take legal action, those costs are included in a settlement.
5. Utilize an attorney to help draft an agreement which contains legally sound and rigorous language relating to all of the above.
The lessons we learned from this are as painful and costly as they are valuable. We have not yet given up recovering more of our money, but we’re not optimistic. And what about our friend Sean? He’s still out there, still in business, still calling himself an artist, restorer, craftsman, and practitioner of time honored methods of automotive repair. We can only hope that whomever he’s managed to convince of his ability has very low expectations.
Stay on the throttle!