It’s a rare person who can build a hot rod or custom car without any outside help. Sooner or later, most people have to farm out part of the work. When that time comes, the big question is who do you trust? How to you separate the pros from the posers? Signs and business cards are cheap, but the proof is in their reputation and workmanship.
Two keys to finding a good shop are inspecting lots of previous work and talking to past customers. If at all possible, look at cars under construction as well as finished cars. Don’t settle for scrapbook photos. Photos can and do hide many flaws.
When it comes to previous customers, try to find some who had work done a few years ago. A custom paint job might look spectacular a month after it was painted, but what does it look like at five years? Did the paint hold up? Did any poorly-done bodywork show through?
Do it Yourself or Seek Professional Help?
You’re the best judge of your skills, and there’s great satisfaction in doing your own work. The only way you’ll improve is with practice, but there are many cases where you need to swallow your pride and get professional help. Whether you do it or involve pros also depends on your expectations for the finished car. Tolerance levels for a rat rod are much more liberal than a show car.
A key determinant for deciding between you or a pro is how specialized the project is. If you’re building a “1-800 car” (i.e. built with mail-order parts) the professional work (design, welding, chassis jigs, etc.) was already done by the manufacturer. Your work is mostly assembly and detailing.
If you want a unique car, specialized design and fabrication work will be required. The wilder the project, the greater the need for professional help. Custom chassis and bodywork requires specialized tools that are too costly for a single project. Pro shops amortize these expensive tools over many years and many jobs.
Almost anyone can weld with a little practice, but it takes years of training and experience to perform precision welding and chassis fabrication. Not only is the required skill level high, so are the safety standards. Safety is the one area on which you should never skimp.
An ugly paint job might bruise your ego, but an ugly crash in an unsafe car can kill you. People like to think of hot rods and custom cars as purely fun and therefore exempt from harm, but tell that to the rubber-necker who just sideswiped you at 60 mph.
Hot rods favor high-performance engines that place added stress on chassis components, so perfect welds are imperative. The chassis is the primary structural component of a street rod.
Shops that build racecars for sanctioned racing are good choices, because they have to meet stringent safety standards. Welders who have worked on racecars are well versed in safety issues. Any time you’re rebuilding an older hot rod you should, at minimum, have the previous welding and fabrication work checked by a contemporary welding shop. Some early rods were crudely built with “buzz boxes” (arc welders) or acetylene torches.
A professional chassis shop should have special jigs and precision welding tables to ensure accuracy. For a car to track properly, all of its suspension geometry has to be perfect.
Custom paint and bodywork represent a melding of art and science. When seeking a pro shop, you want one that excels at both. Art is subjective, and the science and technical skills part is often hidden. That’s why it’s good to inspect work in progress.
Even though you can do much paint prep work yourself, a shop might not be willing to guarantee the paint job unless they do all the work. Inquire before you get too involved in a bodywork project. You can save money by stripping a car and doing much of the labor- and time-intensive initial prep work.
A good paint shop should have a high quality spray booth. The bodywork area will naturally be rather messy, but the paint booth should be spotless.
Radical bodywork such as top chopping and sectioning are jobs for the pros. When inspecting a chopped top, pay close attention to how the lines flow, how the rear of the roof meets the deck lid, and how the glass fits. Cracked glass is a sure sign of poor fabrication.
Color sanding and buffing are a specialized subset of custom painting. A talented detailer can make the difference between a mediocre paint job and a show winner. Final buffing should be left to highly experienced pros.
Modern crate motors are one of the best deals in hot rodding. The precision machine work is already done, making these engines virtually “plug and play.” If you want more horsepower, you’ll need professional machine work. Racers are good sources for recommended shops. Results are paramount for racers, so they gravitate toward the best engine builders.
Any complex induction systems, such as turbochargers, superchargers, or elaborate fuel injection, are best handled by pros.
The great availability of upholstery kits makes it pretty easy for the do-it-yourself crowd to restore popular cars and trucks. The factory does the difficult sewing.
Custom upholstery is another matter. Special commercial sewing machines are needed to handle heavy materials. Precision design and layout work is required for a beautiful interior.
When checking out upholstery shops, look at the uniformity of their work. Stitches, piping, pleats, and upper and lower cushion alignment should be perfect. Pay special attention to curved areas, because the underlying padding as well as the stitching needs to be perfect for a show-quality job.
Headliners are quite difficult for amateurs. Pros know how to achieve taut, wrinkle-free installations.
When having professional upholstery work done, be very clear about the quality of materials that will be used. Are all surfaces leather, or just the seating surfaces? Are the hides matching or random? Are pleats hand-stuffed or sewn? Know the differences and pay accordingly.
Who is Actually Doing the Work?
The name on the sign isn’t always the name of the person working on your car. Shops obviously have employees, but what matters to you is the caliber of work produced. The craftsmanship and management skills of the shop owner are both important. A hands-on owner/operator is preferable to a figurehead.
The larger a shop gets, the more distant the founding talent gets from the actual day-to-day tasks. They end up being business managers instead of fabricators, painters, or upholsterers. A well-documented example of this situation was the TV show American Hot Rod. The late Boyd Coddington was the “name” that people paid for, but he rarely turned a wrench.
Ask if a shop farms out or sublets any tasks (some specialty operations such as media blasting must be farmed out). You want to know where your car is going and who is working on it.
Subletting isn’t necessarily bad, because hot rod shops can be thought of as general contractors, like homebuilders. You could line up the individual subs, but a general contractor makes the job smoother and hassle-free for you. There’s a definite value to these organizational chores, and the final price is often no more than if you did all the legwork. You can also get individual quotes to see if you’re getting a fair deal.
When you’re choosing a shop, your relationship is about more than just their work ethic – you’re also involved in a financial relationship. Unfortunately, some incredibly talented craftsmen are terrible businessmen. In severe cases, customers have had their unfinished cars seized when a shop didn’t meet its financial obligations.
Shops with a solid history are less likely to run into financial problems. A shop that has recently expanded or undertaken an ambitious marketing program (e.g. a major mail-order or branding project) could be financially overextended. A large operation with too few customer cars could also be bleeding red ink. Given the current economic instability and nervous creditors, it doesn’t hurt to inquire about a shop’s financial stability.
Written guarantees and shops with a solid reputation for standing behind their work are a giant plus. Problems happen (especially with custom painting), and it’s good to know that a shop will rectify them without getting into litigation.
Custom cars involve considerable time and money. Letting a car out of your immediate control presents potential pitfalls. The best defense is to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Specialty insurance companies will write policies for cars that are under construction. You want to be covered in case of a shop fire or theft. Never assume that a shop has adequate insurance (although they should). It’s better to be over-insured than not covered at all.
Robbing Chevy to Pay Ford
A common problem with any contracted work is what we call the balance of trade. You need to keep the cash “carrot” slightly ahead of the shop. Starting deposits are common for long-term projects, but you’ll get better progress if you pay as you go. You can’t expect them to cover all the costs, but paying just slightly ahead of the completed work keeps a shop motivated.
A problem that we’ve seen too many times is where deposits are used to pay for other projects. Cash flow can be a problem for some shops, so they’re always scrambling to keep up. If you give too big of a deposit, that money may be spent on other expenses. Then, when it comes time to work on your car, much of the money has already been spent. That may encourage a shop to rush your project in an attempt to maintain cash flow.
Busy is Best
Although you may be in a hurry to get work done, a busy shop with a waiting list is a good thing. Smaller jobs shouldn’t require long waits, but a complete buildup might involve a yearlong wait. Street rodders are very particular about who builds their cars, so they’re willing to wait for the best craftsmen.
A small-to-moderate size shop with a waiting list is a sign that the principal people work on most projects. Larger shops have a greater chance that entry level or transient employees are doing much of the work. If the shop rate is $85/hour and a minimum wage kid is doing much of the work, that’s not a good deal for you.
Referrals are very helpful in choosing a shop, but not all referrals are alike. We like to think of referrals as sports judging – throw out the high and low scores. Work as individualized as custom car building can result in missed communications and unmet or unrealistic expectations. That can lead to unhappy customers, and those people can be extremely vocal and negative. You want to weed out the trash talkers and find objective criticism.
On the other side of the positive/negative spectrum, be wary of shills. If the praise is overly enthusiastic, look for underlying motives, such as personal friendship or sponsored show cars. Unless they’re total idiots, a shop will only provide referrals to happy customers. That’s why the more people you can talk to independently, the more accurate the feedback will be.
Car shows, meets, and club events are excellent sources of shop referrals. Custom car owners love to talk about their cars. It doesn’t take much prodding to get them to open up about the shops that worked on them. Happy owners will gladly show you examples of excellence, but unhappy owners might not be as quick to point out flaws on their cars. Referrals are as much about finding good shops as avoiding bad ones.
Street rod shops invest huge sums in specialized equipment such as lathes, milling machines, English hammers, TIG welders, and plasma cutters. This photo at Divers Street Rods shows the 2008 Riddler Award winner (in the background) under construction.
Top professional shops take extra care to maintain chassis and body panel alignment during fabrication. A special body brace was built to support this hot rod convertible during construction.
Chassis fixtures and frame tables are specialized tools that amateurs don’t have, but they are necessary to properly construct a custom chassis.
When safety is involved, such as building a complex roll cage, it’s best to leave those jobs to qualified professionals.
Custom bodywork such as chopping a top or sectioning a car is beyond the skill levels of most do-it-yourself builders. Getting the proportions right is critical for a good chopped top.
Show signs can provide leads for professional shops, because car owners seldom credit shops that did poor work.
Aesthetics are important when choosing a custom flame painter, but prep work is also important. Notice how this street rod was taped all the way to the floor to prevent overspray getting on areas not being painted.
Color sanding and buffing can make the difference between an OK paint job and a spectacular one. A powerful buffer can do more harm than good, so it’s a job best left to the pros.
Flow is a key element of successful graphics and flames. Look closely at the gracefulness of curves and the uniformity of tapered areas. Also, check how graphics flow through gaps like doors and hoods.
Complex induction systems such as custom turbochargers are best left to experienced tuners. The sewer pipe size plumbing on this Camaro was professionally fabricated.
Reproduction upholstery kits and door panels are pre-sewn, so you can install them at home.
When evaluating custom upholstery, pay close attention to curved areas such as the tops of cushions and where the upholstery rolls over the front edge of the seat.
Lowered suspensions are almost mandatory on custom cars and trucks. Properly engineered and installed air suspension systems should keep the wheels vertical when fully lowered. Wheels and tires should be evenly spaced within the wheel wells.