We don’t usually lead our stories with personal anecdotes, but this one ought to give every enthusiast pause before he or she drops off a car and deposit check at a restoration or street rod shop. It happened to a friend of mine, who wanted his Chevy truck completely modified with the works – a custom body, lowered suspension and re-trimmed interior.
That trusting friend sent the truck to an out-of-state shop. After the first few deadlines on the project’s progress were missed, he starting calling the shop more frequently. The excuses were variations on age-old themes: The shop was behind finishing earlier projects; they were waiting for parts; there was turnover with the staff. Months turned into a couple of years, with no appreciable work completed.
While on a business trip near the shop, my friend dropped in to see the progress. Keep in mind, it was more than two years after he left the Chevy with the shop. What he found was pieces of his truck scattered about the property. It had been disassembled, but not a single thing had been done in regards to the modifications. Floored, my friend returned home, determined to get back the remnants of his truck. The shop owner stalled – because he’d sold off some of the original parts – and promised work would start up immediately. It didn’t. Soon after, the shop owner not only quit answering the phone, the phone was disconnected. The shop went out of business, and to this day, my friend has never seen his truck again. It’s likely the remaining parts were sold off by the unscrupulous shop owner.
Such a scenario is extreme, but unfortunately it isn’t rare. Trusting your vehicle and thousands of hard-earned dollars to a shop is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make, so it’s imperative that you do your homework to ensure you’re investing with a competent shop with a well-deserved reputation for quality, care and trustworthiness. To put it another way, the good word of a smooth-talking shop owner should never be enough to win your business.
“Just like a big medical procedure, you definitely want a second opinion,” says Nyle Wing, owner of Wing’s Auto Art, a muscle car restoration and street rod shop near Ionia, Michigan (www.wingsautoart.com). “You can’t just take the shop owner’s word for it – you’ve got to get the opinions from others who’ve had a car done at that shop.”
You can start that process at any car show. Find a car you like and ask the owner about who did the work. You want to know:
- Was the work done to the owner’s satisfaction?
- Did the shop adhere reasonably to time and budget estimates?
- Was the shop easy to work with and allowed the customer to openly inspect progress on the project, or emailed photos periodically?
- Would the owner recommend the shop or take another of his cars there?
That last question is very important. It tells you whether the owner would invest his money with the shop again. If you receive anything less than an enthusiastic response, you should find another customer who has used that shop and ask the same questions.
Once you believe you’ve found a shop, visit it and talk to the owner before you commit to the project. This may be difficult for shops located at a great distance, but you’re not simply asking someone to re-chrome a bumper; you’re going to give that person a great deal of money and ask him to rebuild your prized possession.
We learned long ago not to judge a street rod shop by its appearance. Unlike the hospital cleanliness expected of, say, a NASCAR racing team’s shop, they can range from clean, expansive and modern facilities to old barns that hold little more than a single car and an engine hoist. But no matter how the shop looks, you want to ask the owner about his methods and procedures. Questions you should ask include:
- Does the shop paint cars on-site or off-site?
- If the cars are painted off-site, is the work performed by shop employees, or is it farmed out to a different shop?
- If the cars are painted on-site, does the shop use a professional down-draft paint booth to prevent dirt and debris from settling in the paint?
- Is the upholstery work done in-house or farmed out?
You also want to interview the owner about his and his employees’ backgrounds, including how long the shop has been in business, how long the owner has been working on/building cars and how long the employees have been with the shop. Turnover can be quite high at these shops, because long hours and dirty work can take their toll. With luck, you’ll find a shop with a cohesive staff that has worked together for years. That way, the owner doesn’t have to spend extra time teaching procedures or re-doing mistakes.
The Vision Thing
Unlike some auto projects that are pretty cut and dried, such as a factory-style muscle car restoration, building a street rod involves more creative and interpretive elements. Builders have their own visions, which may vary from their customers’. For some enthusiasts, that’s not a problem – they don’t mind entrusting their car to the artistic whim of the builder. If, however, you’ve got a very specific vision for your car, you have to be clear about it from the first meeting with the shop.
Some builders may push back on your color choice, wheel choice, etc., but in the end, even these stubborn shop owners understand it’s your car and your money. But while you understandably want the car the way you envision it, don’t dismiss the builder’s recommendations or counsel. His experience with other cars can be very helpful when it comes to selecting materials and components, as well as advice when it comes knowing what fits and what doesn’t with certain combinations.
Finally, if you’re dead-set on a vision for your car and want it replicated exactly, seek out a professional artist to produced design illustrations that leave no question about the form, color and custom details you want. And don’t forget the interior sketches.
In our experience, many street rod shops don’t double as engine-building shops. They may paint and/or detail an engine and install it in the vehicle, but many simply don’t build the engines in-house. That leaves you a couple of options: have the street rod shop order a ready-built crate engine to install or have a custom-built engine built elsewhere and delivered to the shop. The same goes for the transmission.
If your project includes an electronically fuel injected engine and/or electronically controlled transmission, you’ll likely need the assistance of a professional tuner – which the street rod shop may not have on staff. If the shop regularly works with such combinations, the owner may have an outside tuner he uses, but you may have to bring either a tuner to the shop or the semi-finished car to a tuner to ensure it is wired, started and tuned correctly.
Of course, nobody wants to spend more than is necessary. Builder Nyle Wing advises that those contemplating a full-tilt, body-off-type resto or custom car build should be prepared for a sizeable bill. The cost boils down to time, because that’s what the shop is charging for. A body-on paint job and no additional work may take a few weeks, but the painstaking disassembly, reconditioning and reassembly procedures that comprise a show-winning build take hundreds or thousands of hours to complete.
“To do a car to the first-class quality most people want these days can involve more than 2,000 labor hours, with maybe a year or more in the shop,” says Wing. “Anybody who says they can do it for, say, half that is cutting corners or not giving the full treatment to your car.”
Most shops charge anywhere from $60 to $85 per hour – or more – and that doesn’t include the cost of parts. Do the math. It adds up, and the shop will want payment installments as the work progresses.
In his experience with customers, Wings says there are other considerations that first-timers should weigh before handing over the keys and a sizeable chunk of their savings to a street rod shop. The four biggies include:
1. Decide whether you want a show car or a driver
“I hear it all the time from new customers who initially tell us they want a nice car, but not necessarily a trailer-queen show car – then they change their mind halfway through the process and it costs them even more, because we have redo things,” says Wing. His advice: Be honest with yourself before you drop the car off at the shop.
“For a driver-quality car, we can simply powder-coat a lot of the chassis and suspension parts, rather than priming and painting them to show quality. It takes less time, so it costs less,” he says. “The really expensive part comes if you later decide that you want to win a Best in Show trophy, because we’ve already done the job one way and then we go back and do it another.”
2. Be prepared for surprises
A 60-year-old car or truck can hold many secrets beneath its skin – everything from previous accident repairs to rust that was unseen prior to disassembly and rotted wood framing in very old cars. Wing says he warns his customers to expect the unexpected as the car is torn down.
“Many rusted-out parts of a car are located in areas that are difficult to see until the car is disassembled,” he says. “In fact, many cars thought of as rust-free can hide some nasty surprises. A good shop will take that into account on their estimate, but we are constantly surprised at the things we find that weren’t planned for.”
3. Find your own parts
The more time the shop spends searching for original kidney bean Halibrands or a vintage S.C.o.T. supercharger, the more it’s going to cost you. Let the shop spend its time block-sanding the body and boxing the frame, while you spend your lunch hour online scanning for the elusive vintage speed parts you want on the car. When it comes to used parts, you are the ultimate judge on whether a part’s condition is satisfactory, so don’t leave it up to the shop.
4. Don’t expect to make money on the car
One of the biggest things to come to grips with is you will likely never recoup your restoration investment on a full-boat built. Unless you’re restoring a Boss 429, COPO Camaro or Hemi ’Cuda that’s been sitting in your garage since 1971, the cost of buying the car and treating it to a full rebuild will approach or eclipse its maximum market value.
“If you go into the project thinking you’ll make money, you’ll probably be disappointed,” says Wing. “The simple truth is most cars aren’t worth what a full build costs.”
In other words, do the project because it’s your dream car, not because you’ll make a small fortune on it. You won’t.
With that all said – and that four-wheeled diamond in the rough in your garage – it’s up to you to find the right shop to build your car. Good luck – and don’t forget to send us the before and after photos!
A show-stopping street rod doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a clear vision and a builder with painstaking attention to detail to get the job done. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t come cheap.
If you’re considering having a shop build your car, consider your car show visits as research. Inspect the cars for their quality and pay close attention to those which match the level of detail you want in your vehicle.
When you’ve found a car that matches the level you want in your project, interview the owner about where the work was done and his experience with the shop that did it.
It can be difficult to find shops that do more than the basic restoration-type work, such as custom metal work. The chopped top on this big Buick has a seamless appearance and isn’t something the typical body shop down the street will tackle. You need to find an auto body artisan who has the experience – and can back it up with references from previous customers.
Paintwork is one of the most important parts of a major project, and there’s more to it than simply laying down the color and buffing it to a mirror-like finish. If custom colors or graphics, such as the flames on this Mercury, are part of your plan, seek a shop that is well-regarded in that area. There are plenty of great painters who simply can’t lay out a good-looking set of flames.
When discussing paint with the shop owner, ask to inspect the paint booth if that work is done on the premises. It should be tidy, with a clean floor and plenty of light. A down draft ventilation system is ideal to help prevent debris from settling in the wet paint.
It’s important for the customer to be clear with the shop about the vision for the project vehicle – from the big items, including colors, wheels and interior materials, to the small ones. They all add up, and you want your money to produce the product you really want.
A shop should welcome your inspection of current projects during the decision-making process, as well as periodic inspections during your project’s construction. Of course, the technicians don’t need your supervision, but a spirit of openness during the project is an indicator of a good, trustworthy shop.
Chassis work is as crucial to a successful car build as the body work. If your project will see serious chassis modifications, such as the pro street conversion seen here, ask the shop owner about his experience with it. As with custom paint versus a conventional paint job, serious chassis modifications are much more involved than installing a bolt-on lowering kit. Make sure the shop has the skills and experience to do it right.
Although the outward appearance of a shop doesn’t always indicate the quality of their work, you want to gauge the overall cleanliness and orderly appearance of the work area. Parts strewn around without identification tags are not a good sign. This shop is tidy, with a large parts cart and storage area assigned to each project vehicle.
Don’t be surprised if the street rod shops you investigate don’t build their own engines. That’s generally fine for most enthusiasts, who either order a crate engine or have a specialist build a high-performance engine.
If you’re going with electronic fuel injection and an electronically controlled late-model transmission, you’ll need the services of someone who’s handy with a laptop. Many shops farm out that specialized work, but don’t be afraid to nominate your own tuner.
You’ll save a few dollars and help ensure the vehicle is done the way you want if you source as many of the parts as possible. If the shop does it, you’ll be charged for time involved.
A journey of a thousand miles (or $100,000) begins with the first step, and that’s the tear-down of the project vehicle. Don’t be surprised when that vintage tin returns some unexpected surprises, such as previous repair.
Rust is the most common “X” factor when a car is torn down. Depending on the extent of the damage, the time involved in repairing it could significantly alter the time/cost estimate for the project. You should expect some rust repair in all old cars, even those from dry climates.
When chosen carefully, your relationship with a street rod shop should reward you with a car the matches your vision for it, and with the price and quality level you expected. Share your experience with other enthusiasts, whether good or bad, so that they can make a more informed decision for their project.