Text by Brendan Moran and Rick Jensen, photos by Brendan Moran
Over the past several months, you’ve learned valuable lessons on how to buy a classic vehicle. Starting with pre-purchase inspections and appraisals, we’ve covered financing, insurance, and finally, shipping. At this point and with any luck, you now possess the classic ride that you’ve always wanted.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some of you may have purchased a dead-on original vehicle, or a fully restored gem. If so, your journey is over for now, and we wish you the best of luck. However, many of you might have a project car that needs some work. We realize that you guys have put countless hours into the research needed to not only find what you were looking for, but to get it appraised, financed, insured, and shipped to your doorstep. But don’t let project fatigue and new-car excitement get in the way of possibly the most important decision regarding your new baby: the shop that will restore it.
Our great land is filled with amazing restoration shops that do outstanding work–but it’s also filled with not-so-great shops that at best, can leave you light in the wallet with only a poor-quality restoration to show for it. Making matters worse, it is not always easy for enthusiasts to separate the good shops from the bad.
To gain some valuable insight on this subject, we turned to Melvin Benzaquen of Classic Restorations in Pine Island, NY. Benzaquen owns one of those amazing restoration shops–from minor enhancements to late-model performers, to a full-on restoration of 9/11 survivor and NYC Port Authority Police Officer Sgt. John McLoughlin’s 1955 Thunderbird, Classic Restorations does it all, and does it right.
As usual we had a ton of questions, so we traveled up to Pine Island to sit down with Melvin. Follow along to learn how to choose the best restoration shop for your needs.
AutoTrader Classics: Thanks for your time Melvin. What should the first step be for people looking for a restoration shop?
Melvin Benzaquen: First off, they should educate themselves about what a quality restoration is by going to car shows and seeing nice cars. Talk to their owners to get an understanding of what a quality restoration is and what it should look like.
When looking for a shop, ask for references, see if they have a website, Google them, and go on the forums of the particular make and model–because there’s usually a forum for everything. See if anyone has heard of them or had any dealings with them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a local shop either. We get cars from all over the world because of our reputation. It’s always nice to have something local, but local doesn’t guarantee anything.
Then call to see how [the shop employee or owner] handles himself on the phone. Are they people you feel like you can deal with? Personality has a lot to do with the general public: everybody likes to buy from or deal with somebody they like–it’s human nature. It’s good to identify with the owner or GM of the shop, depending on how it’s structured. They need to show interest in the vehicle, be willing to listen, and give constructive advice. I’ve heard a lot of stories where a shop owner will just say “X dollars” without even seeing the vehicle–that’s just not right. Now, it’s okay if he’s just throwing you a ballpark because you’re backing him into a corner. But I’ve heard stories where shops will go, “Give me $20,000 down and we’ll go from there.” That’s not somebody you’re going to want to deal with.
ATC: What comes next?
M.B.: If they pass the first hurdle of conversation over the phone–it goes well, they seem knowledgeable, interested, and nice–then it’s time to visit the shop. Once there, take a look at the shop conditions: is it well lit, is it managed right? Keep in mind that not every shop is a laboratory. There are some shops out there run like laboratories, and that’s not an indication of anything other than maybe some anal-ness on the owners’ parts. A working shop doesn’t have to be a laboratory, but you don’t want to see cars with nine inches of dust on them. Look for any finished cars around, look at door gaps, look at the quality of the restoration–does the paint reflect nicely? Look to see if they have a spray booth. Check to see if the cars are stored indoors or outdoors. Because whatever the conditions are is what your car is going to be subjected to. Ask if they photo document. Ask what kind of quality control they have once the project is done. And don’t forget to look at the employees. Do they look like they don’t want to say anything, or are unhappy? Genuinely happy employees can tell you a lot about a shop.
And then you want to visit again a few weeks down the road. Drop in unannounced–see if the shop has what I call an open-door policy, or if they keep it very secretive where they hide behind insurance regulations and say customers can’t come in the shop because they’re hiding their work. Have the cars moved, has anything progressed? These are all good things to look for.
ATC: If a first-timer will be buying a classic to restore it, is there a make or model that you’d recommend as a good starter?
M.B.: No, buy what you like–that’s the most important thing. Don’t buy what’s popular, buy what you like because ultimately you are the one that’s going to have to enjoy the car. My test is if you can walk out into your garage on a weekend and go, “WOW, I can’t wait to drive this car,” then you bought what you wanted. Buy what you like, buy what you can afford, and buy something that’s not too weird, unless you have the ability to afford the weirdness of it as far as upkeep or restoration.
ATC: Say someone wanted to find a project car–could they consult with a shop prior to buying it?
M.B.: We offer pre-purchase inspections, and the best advice I can give anybody looking for a so-called project car is to make sure it’s complete. Something somebody took apart in their garage and didn’t know how to put it back together, or they lost interest in it, is going to be a nightmare to put back together even if you’re very familiar with the car. And not only that, but many times project cars purchased through the Internet or a friend are usually missing the most expensive and hard-to-find parts, which can make it much more expensive. There’s a lot you can tell even from a distance just through pictures. If you’re buying a disassembled, abandoned project car, look how he took the car apart. Is he handing you a bucket of nuts and bolts, or is he handing you Ziploc bags that are individually labeled? How was the project performed? If the guy was meticulous in dismantling the car and labeling everything, there’s a very good chance that one, you can go through everything and make sure it’s complete, and two, you’ll probably have a very good project to put back together. If the thing is in boxes, unlabeled, and strewn about, there’s a good chance that there’s probably something not there that you really do need.
ATC: If somebody contacts you long distance, and they’re trying to get somewhat of a ballpark figure of what you charge, how do you handle it?
M.B.: I get these inquires every day. I tell people to take one overall picture of the car, and pictures of any problem areas. I generally know what they look like but it still gives me an idea of what I’m looking at. Based on my experience with that particular make and model, and their known history of the vehicle, I ask where are they going with the car. Whether they want it back to original, concours, restomod, street rod; whatever it is they want, I can then start narrowing down through a series of emails or telephone conversations of what they want, and give them a ballpark that way. The only way to truly have a close ballpark is to have the car physically here, strip it down to bare metal, and see what it needs, but a lot of people aren’t willing to do that.
ATC: What would you recommend to people who started the restoration themselves and got in over their heads?
M.B.: Usually if they come here, they’ve gotten over their head and they’ve finally realized it! From an experienced shop owner’s perspective, the problem is as soon as I touch anything on the car, I basically own it as far as responsibility goes. If they’re working on the body and they’re reading out of a book on how to apply Bondo, generally speaking I’m going to start over. If a motor came in clacking and I changed the lifters to make it quiet, and two weeks later it blows up, the only thing the owner is going to think is that I touched his motor. It puts me in an interesting predicament because I have to be able to assess what the guy did, and whether he did it properly or not. But generally speaking, if someone is doing their own restoration and gotten in over their head, there’s a good possibility that things haven’t been done right to begin with. And that doesn’t mean people can’t do it, because I’ve seen a ton of amateur restorations that are just mind-blowing because they were done with love and the time was taken to do it right. We also do partials–we’ve taken cars where they’ve gotten 90 percent of it done, and I will be able to undo some screw-ups and be able to progress it from there or get them over the hump.
ATC: Do you have an example?
M.B.: We had a guy come in with a 1980 or 1981 Trans Am Turbo that he had taken the turbo engine out of and put a LS1 in. He got completely over his head with wiring and just couldn’t figure out how to make the engine or instruments work. We took it in and had it running and everything working in two weeks. I think that if you’re at the point where you can’t see the forest through the trees then you need to go find help before you really start screwing things up.
ATC: How do you estimate the cost of the job?
M.B.: Generally speaking, we give what we call a ballpark figure. This is based on how complete or incomplete and how solid or rotted the car is, the availability of reproduction or used parts, and our experience with that particular type of car. It’s impossible to give an exact estimate because you don’t know what you’re getting into. Shops should really be working on a time and material expense structure. If they’re giving you a flat rate, generally shortcuts are made because not every car is a grandma-owned, never driven in the winter, complete car.
ATC: What are some hidden costs, or costs that people may not think about?
M.B.: Usually the biggest expense is in the labor, which is usually because of what we call “butcher work” that somebody has not done the proper repair in the past either due to an accident or rust. Because the car looks fine with the paint on it, when you strip it off and you find all sorts of rust that’s usually your biggest surprise or hidden cost. Rust is your single most labor-intensive repair on a vehicle in restoration. The more rust, the more expense because you basically have to keep cutting until you hit good metal and then you’re back to the problem of whether or not the car has substantial reproduction parts available for it, or an availability of used parts. But rust is your single most expensive. As far as parts go they vary widely. If you are missing mirrors, not many people would think they would be expensive, one-off pieces. But some parts–some stupid molding or some rare accessory that the car was supposed to have–could be.
ATC: Regarding concours-type restorations, where would owners find the knowledge of what is truly a stock restoration? Is there an Internet site or books that you’d recommend?
M.B.: That’s kind of hit or miss depending on the vehicle. Corvettes are probably the absolute best vehicle to buy for concours judging because the NCRS–which publishes everything for every generation of Corvette–has judging manuals. That way you know it’s a standardized test so there’s no wiggle room. Some of the more exotic cars such as the Duesenbergs get into a whole different level like Pebble Beach. But generally speaking, you can Google whatever your make or model is and generally speaking, there are some guides out there depending on the car. The problem with concours judging is the subjectivity of judges, and their interpretation of what is original or what is correct, may or may not actually be right–and without any kind of standardized judging manual to back it up you’re kind of fighting a moving target.
The best thing is to buy an original, un-restored car, which is probably one of the hardest things to do and is the only way to guarantee a 100 percent authentic car. There are numerous restoration guides out there; some of them have flaws and some don’t. It depends on what you’re after. If you’re after buying a car and going on the judging concours circuit, then don’t buy a project. If you buy a car that’s already been judged, you’re going to pay for it. If you’re doing a project, you’re going to run into numerous pitfalls because it is a moving target with a lot of vehicles. There’s no Pontiac GTO or Chevy Camaro standardized society of judging with manuals anywhere near the degree of what the NCRS has.
ATC: Is there typically a charge for research into the vehicle, your time tracking down the proper parts, or identifying those parts?
M.B.: We don’t charge like a lawyer, we don’t charge for phone time. We do charge a markup on our parts. That’s generally covered under that but we don’t charge looking for a part–that’s just part of the service.
ATC: Is there ever a situation where the restorer should contact the customer as far as decision-making, or should a restorer make decisions for the customer?
M.B.: As a restorer, if you have a good relationship with your customer, then you should already know what they want and how to achieve it. As a rule, I always involve the customer, and especially if there’s a decision to be made that involves two options and neither one is wrong, I let the customer make the decisions. I do that for a couple of reasons: one, it does involve the customer and they like that. Two, it protects the restorer because if the guy doesn’t like it down the road, if you made the decision unilaterally then it’s on the owner to fix it. If he made the decision then he’s either got to live with it or pay you to fix it. You should always involve the customer as much as possible.
ATC: Does insurance ever pay for restoration work?
M.B.: Insurance only pays for repairs to a vehicle. For example, we have a 1976 280Z that’s here for an insurance job. The car was rear-ended. The rear body panel had to be removed, and upon removal we found rust. The insurance company isn’t going to pay for the rust part of it. The customer was presented with the opportunity to do the proper repair to the vehicle by addressing the rust problem. Since the car is here that’s the responsibility of the restorer to communicate that to the customer. A collision shop probably wouldn’t even look. They would repair the part that was allowed by the insurance company, and move on. An insurer’s only responsibility–whether it’s classic insurance or regular automobile insurance–is to put the vehicle back in pre-accident condition. If there’s something found as a result of the accident they are responsible for that, but if something was found but was a pre-existing condition they aren’t responsible for it. So if you think about it, whether it’s an accident or if paint falls on the car or some environmental thing happens to the car, you’re not really restoring it, you’re repairing it. There’s a difference. Restoring means to basically go through everything and renew it. Repairing means to fix what is not right with the vehicle, whether it’s a part that doesn’t work, or it was damaged as a result of an accident.
ATC: What about using a combination collision/restoration shop?
M.B.: This is really important…you don’t want a collision shop that’s going to work on the car only when they have the time. This is because a body man–whether he’s working for a collision shop or restoration shop–is really kind of an artist. If Peter or Paul or Rick [Thanks Mel!–Ed.] or whoever worked on the car before only on their own time, they’re not going to give a crap, and it’ll never be a quality job. It’s just going to be something to do until the next wreck gets dragged in. The way we run our shop is one guy starts it body-wise, one guy starts it mechanical-wise, and they finish it. That’s the way to make sure the job is done right, because inevitably if Peter starts it and Paul finishes it, he’s not going to like what Peter did and either want to completely redo it or just say I don’t care because I didn’t start this whole thing and it’s not going to look great.
I can’t say this for all of them, but for a majority: a collision shop is only going to repair your car, not restore it. They are more than likely going to put your car back together as if it was in an accident. They will very quickly use high-build primers, not do their final sandings, probably put all of the exterior trim on, and then tape it off and paint it. Their mentality is to get it in and get it out. A restoration shop does not have that mentality. That’s the difference.
ATC: How is payment customarily handled?
M.B.: For us, customarily what we do is every Friday we close out the billing week and we email, fax, or mail our customers invoices. We have local customers that either drop off a check or give us a credit card number to use, but that’s generally a weekly basis. It’s easier to have a customer pay for a job on weekly basis than it is for them to pay a lump sum at the end. We have people come and give us a third or a quarter at a time. I had a barber that we did a Model A Ford for who would bring me a hundred $1 bills in Ziploc bags because that was his tip money. Some people get bonuses at the end of the year, some of the Wall Street guys we deal with pay in a lump sum.
ATC: Do shops ask for deposits?
M.B.: If a shop asks for a large deposit, that’s a big red flag. I see it all the time, it’s not unlike the Madoff Ponzi scheme: if the shop takes a large deposit up front it usually means he’s under-capitalized, which can be a problem to get your restoration done. Or it’s a worst-case situation where he’s using your deposit to finish Paul’s restoration and then he has to get some other victim in there to leave a large deposit to start your restoration. I’ve seen cars in shops for seven, 10, 15 years because the owners are too busy and they just keep pumping money in. Generally the only deposits we ever take is when we’re booking for a job down the road, because right now we book for six to 18 months out depending on what the job is, and I take a $500 deposit for a date which is refunded into their first invoice once we start work on the car. I don’t believe in taking big deposits. I don’t see why there’s even a reason to take a big deposit unless you’re under-capitalized.
ATC: What about the car’s storage?
M.B.: For people who have storage situations where they can’t keep it at home–paying for a storage facility or whatever the case may be, we store the car for free until we start it. We don’t take a deposit; we’ve got your car. For the people that don’t have a storage situation and are willing to wait until we can get to them, we take a deposit just to hold the date just so that we know on our book that we’ve got it coming up. So when that date is near, we call and say, “We’re ready for your car next week, are you ready?”
ATC: How much work should be done in-house?
M.B.: As much as possible, this is very important. If anybody has ever had a house done and you don’t have a general contractor–instead there’s one guy putting up the drywall, another guy doing the wiring, another guy doing the installation–if something goes wrong they all point the finger at each other and who’s left holding the bag? The homeowner.
Overall, they should have a mechanic, body man, and interior person, and you should be able to get 90 percent of the car done in one facility. And the shop should offer the services of handling everything else. For instance, we do everything in-house except for machine shop work, automatic transmissions, and chroming, which can cause environmental issues with the chemicals.
ATC: What about insurance?
M.B.: It’s very important that you make sure that the shop is insured, but also that you insure your car as well. Classic insurance is not that expensive. I bring this up because even if the shop is insured, lets say for $1 million, if it totally burns down and there are 15 cars in there, neither you nor the shop have control of the insurance company and what they’re going to pay. There may be a $500,000 Hemi ’Cuda convertible sitting in the guy’s shop and that guy may get $500,000, and the other 10 guys are left fighting for the rest. If you have classic insurance on your car, then at least that can pick up the slack and you’re covered. And there are companies that offer insurance while the car is under restoration, as well.
ATC: Do you have a favorite restoration that you did, something you’re really proud of?
M.B.: I love every car that comes in here, but some of my more favorite ones would be a 1929 Stutz Model M–an absolutely beautiful, stunning, gorgeous car. We have a 1949 DeSoto Woody wagon that I’m absolutely in love with and I’m not a wagon guy. It’s a celebrity-owned car and the guy has given me quite a bit of license to do what I want with it. His basic requirement was he wanted it to look totally stock, but drive like a modern car. His line was, “I want to be able to pull up to a light and have a rice burner pull up next to me, and he has to go home to tell daddy that a block of wood blew him into the weeds.”
My favorite part of my job? At the end of a project I drive them home, I qualify them, I make sure they’re roadworthy and they’re going to hold together so the customer is happy.
Special thanks to Melvin Benzaquen and Ericka DeKruger for their assistance with this article.
39 TRANSPORT LANE
PINE ISLAND, NY 10969