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HomeCar CultureHow to Avoid a Restoration Nightmare

How to Avoid a Restoration Nightmare

If you're going to do it, do it right

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The other morning I got a call from a client who had to rescue his very rare Maserati Ghibli SS convertible from a restoration shop. More than three years ago he had sent them the car, and over that time had paid the shop more than $300,000 for the restoration. Initially he heard from them somewhat regularly, usually about another payment needed. About 19 months later, and no updates for quite awhile, he became concerned. He called me and asked if I could help.

After I made many calls to the shop owner I finally got him on the phone. The pictures he sent me of the car in process scared me, especially due to the amount of time he had the car and how much money the client had spent. It seemed as if little had been done to the car in the three years and definitely not $300,000 worth of work was done.

I needed to get the car out of that shop and as quickly as possible. I immediately connected the car owner with my friend, and restorer, John Saccameno from Sport & Specialty restorations. He agreed to get in his shop truck to drive over to the shop himself. John was let in by an assistant, and then saw this rare and valuable Maserati convertible in pieces. John knows cars well and has done many award wining restorations, and what he saw was a complete mess. The car was in pieces with a terrible paint job that was done over existing body rust that has not been fixed. The parts taken off were in boxes with many missing and supposedly in other locations. John called the owner immediately explaining what he saw and the loaded the car with all its parts onto his trailer. He then called the other shops involved to locate the parts off site, picked them up in two other states and headed back to his own shop in Illinois.

After getting the car to his shop he quickly realized that despite the money spent, the little work that was done was terrible. He informed the owner that his rare Ghibli was in such a state that the only solution was to start all over with a restoration, which he is now doing at Sport & Specialty.

You need to know that this is not an isolated incident. In fact I have four other stories from the last three months that are the same, and none of those owners were out less than $100k with no real work completed to justify the money they had spent.

If you are in some of the same Facebook groups and on mailing lists as me, then you might have heard about some other experiences like this. Especially on social media you see restoration shops whose owners are being sued, with even some of those owners ending up in jail, for various fraud and theft charges. These cases involving incarceration are by far the most extreme of what can happen when you take your car to the wrong shop for restoration, but they do occur.

How do these things happen and how do these shops stay in business for years? After talking about this very topic for the last few days with friends in the restoration business, as well as with some of my biggest insurance clients, I think I have the answer. My best guess is that when, say, a well known billionaire car collector takes his Ferrari to a shop for restoration and encounters the same thing as my friend with the Maserati, the money he basically set on fire can just be easily written off as a simple accounting error. On top of that, no one wants to look like a fool in the collector car hobby or have people know they were taken advantage of, so the owner decides to just not talk about it. As a result, the shop stays in business until someone gets angry enough to take them down by pressing charges and suing the shop. This does not happen much and I am betting that there are some shops that are getting away with this continuously.

This is one of the most important takeaways of the story. There are quite a few great restoration shops out there. The sad fact is that the bad shops taint the entire restoration shop world and that’s unfair. It would also help if the owners of cars followed the steps I’ll be outlining below, then they would never have been in the situation. Having someone you know tell you how good the work at a specific shop is does not mean that that is a good shop. You need to do your homework for your restoration.

First, let me define what a restoration is and is not. Restoring a car means rebuilding the car to the exact condition it was when it left the assembly line. This includes every single system in that car is rebuilt, replaced, or restored and it’s a very expensive proposition. Unfortunately the type of car doesn’t really increase or decrease the price, because it’s the TIME involved that is costly. It takes about the same amount of man hours to restore a 1965 Ford Mustang as it does for an Aston Martin DB5.

Next, quality of restorations do not vary. If what you are looking for is a nice driver level car, then stop reading the rest of this story and simply buy a nice driver example of the car you want. There is no such thing as a “driver level” restoration. When people say that what they really mean is a paint job with some interior and mechanical work. That car is not a restored car. A restored car, according to Paul Russell owner of Paul Russell and Company, is when the car is completely dissembled and every system is redone.

You need to know in advance that car restoration is not for the faint hearted, and it is never — I repeat — never inexpensive. There are no bargains on restorations, only bad restorations or good restorations.

Before You Start: Ask yourself these questions.

Why are you restoring the specific car? Can you buy an example of that exact year and model that is freshly restored by a competent shop. If so then buy that car. If the car is special either due to its history or just has some sentimental value to you then go for it. Also if you like the process of restoring cars and the value of the car at the end of a restoration is not an issue then go ahead.

Can really afford to restore a car? I would say that in 2024 dollars a proper restoration of any car, even that aforementioned 1965 Mustang, is likely to cost at a minimum $100,000 and could cost twice that amount. If you are getting a restoration for less I would be concerned.

Aston martin DB Mk3 owner visiting his car during the restoration process at Sport and Specialty

Are you willing to be involved in the process? Restoring a car requires the owner of the car to be involved in the process. I would advise going to the shop to see the car in progress at least monthly. If you are unable, or unwilling, to do this I would not consider having any car restored. You have to be a part of the process or chances are you won’t be happy with the outcome.

Picking a Shop: Research restoration shops

The next step in the process is how to pick a shop to restore your car. This part can be a lot of fun! If you have a British car, start researching shops that specialize in British cars. It is fine if they take on other projects, but see where their focus is and their expertise lies. Make a list of 3-5 different shops that sound like they do great work. Go to a lot of car shows or concours events, and if you see a car like yours at the show that is in excellent condition, find out what shop did the work. Ask that owner if they know other people who had cars restored at that shop and connect with them. Great shops like Sport & Specialty and Paul Russell and Company have a great reputation due to the work they have done and are proud of that work. Go see some of their work.

After you have narrowed down your list, it’s time for a visit. Call ahead for an appointment and then visit each shop on your list to see how they work. Think of this as the shop’s job screening interview. You will be employing them, so treat it as such. Talk to the owner and asked to be introduced to the workers. Is the shop clean? Is it well organized? Ask how each shop updates the client on the progress. Ask if they do monthly progress reports with photos included. In addition ask how each shop bills. If the shop bills monthly on a time and materials basis, you are likely at a well run shop. If the shop you are visiting wants an up front deposit, simply say thank you and leave, as the best shops will not require this.

Finally, ask the shop if they will give you references from prior restoration clients. If possible get contact information for newer as well as older clients. After you get this information contact those clients to ask about their experience. If you can, go and see a few of the cars they had restored in person to get an idea of what the quality of their work is. If it passes inspection, then you have a good shop. A caveat to this that may sound a bit weird is that if during the interview process one of the owners is unhappy with the shop, do not make this a reason to avoid the shop. Find out, if you can, what they did not like. If the answer is that it cost too much, ask them how the car turned out. If they love the quality of the work, then you still probably have the right shop and the unhappy client was likely one that did not understand the costs of restoration of a car. Remember, as stated above, restorations are expensive.

The Work Begins: The Restoration itself

After choosing the shop, meet with them to get your car into their schedule. If it is a good shop there will be a waiting list, so be ready for them to tell you that they cannot get to your car immediately. Every truly great shop has a waiting list. Discuss the timing with them and ask for a date that you can bring the car to them. When that is scheduled, you are on your way!

If it’s a good shop they are not likely to give you a set schedule until the car has been taken apart. This is information the owner and the workers at the shop will not have until they get the car apart and evaluated. After they have done this, they should give you a rough timeline for the work with an estimated completion date. Keep in mind that with old cars things can go wrong. Sometimes new parts don’t fit properly, parts are delayed, and machine shops are just as busy at the restoration shops are, so schedules can be pushed a bit. This is pretty normal, but you should go in expecting this.

While the car is being restored, let the owner know that you will be visiting as the work progresses. When you go to the shop bring doughnuts or offer to buy the workers lunch. This lets them know you care about your car and care about the work they are doing. You are basically the CEO of the project and people like to be treated well, so when you are thoughtful it pays dividends. While there ask the owner and the technicians how things are going. You will learn so much about your car by doing this and in the process build your relationship with that car.

At the end of the restoration when you pick up the car, I would consider giving each member of the staff who worked on it a cash bonus. In addition thank them for their work and point out the things that you like about the work.

I know this story is a bit long, but if the people who have had bad experiences followed this process, they would not have the issues that unfolded. The keys to this entire process are research and involvement. If you do all of these things you are going to love the car the shop delivers, and you will be well on your way to winning a few awards at concours events.

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Andy Reid
Andy Reid
Andy Reid's first car, purchased at age 15, was a 1968 Fiat 124 coupe. His second, obtained by spending his college savings fund, was a 1966 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2. Since then, he has owned more than 150 cars—none of them normal or reasonable—as well as numerous classic motorcycles and scooters. A veteran of film, television, advertising and helping to launch a few Internet-based companies, Reid was a columnist for Classic Motorsports magazine for 12 years and has written for several other publications. He is considered an expert in European sports and luxury cars and is a respected concours judge. He lives in Canton, Connecticut.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this excellent introduction to restorations. Last fall I bought a very pretty 1964 Corvette Stingray convertible from a classic car dealer. I am happy with the car a it is a driver, and rides like an old corvette should. It has had a few modern mechanical upgrades (disk); I can respectfully bring it to local weeknight car & coffee gatherings and a weekend car show and open the engine bonnet and feel good about what I am showing but its not going to win any prizes. I know that now. I wish I had found your article before my purchase. I am a bit mor educated now & I am looking at some 1957 Thunderbirds. My paths have led me to Amos Minter. He has been very generous with sharing his knowledge about thunderbirds and seems to fit into the category of restoration shops as Sport & Specialty and Paul Russel’s. Your article has validated my conversations with Amos. His is easy to ask a neophytes questions and offer some sage advice about budgeting to buy one of his various priced cars from a daily driver to the vehicle that needs to be kept in a bubble. While I have very little experience with automobiles, I am a sailor. I have personally restored my1964 22-foot sloop from the keel up to the top of the mast. It took me with some of the worked done in professional boat yards, riggers, and sail makers it took 3 years to complete. I been told that I cant launch her and she should be put in a bottle. So your article rings true to me. This coming Tuesday, 05142024, I will be launching a new boat that I have had costumed built. It is a 104-Year-old design and was built in the same fashion as her 103 year old ancestor. I have a penchant for quality things, unfortunately my pockets are not deep enough to satisfy my eyes.

  2. Interesting article. I recently had a bare meal respray done on my 1978 Ferrari Dino 308GT4 plus and engine out top end rebuild.

    I know that doesn’t count as a full restoration and that was not what I wanted. I wanted to be able to continue driving my car regularly and in the manner it was designed for, while keeping it looking good and rust free, and the engine running well and smoke free!

    I used a 3 man bodyshop here in the UK part owned by a Ferrari friend of mine and staffed by three Portuguese from Madeira, all very old school perfectionists. I had seen work they had done on other friends cars. The engine went to anotehr local Ferrari Indie who were already looking after my car before I bought it 10 years ago.

    The bodyshop is just 30 mins drive from me and I visited weekly for the 3 1/2 months it was there and RTHE GUYS me regular pics showing progress.

    Of course a lot more needed doing than anticipated and it did go well over budget, but it will now well outlast my ownership and was all i nall a good experience.

    Meanwhile a couple of friends are doing full restorations of similar cars with everything srtripped and rfeplated where needed, most of the work being done by themselves. One has already spent 8 years and the other 3 1/2 and hopes to finish in 6 months. That is not what I wanted. I wanted my car back on the road ASAP so that, aged, 74 I can have as much time as possib le enjoying driving it while I am still able. Trips to theNetherlands in 2 weeks and an annual trip France in 6 weeks all lined up.

  3. Your article rings so true. I had exte sive work done on a ’67 Mustang by a reputable shop several years ago. I had great communication with the owner and his team. Regular monthly visits followed by progress pic’s and detailed information about the progress s d stage evaluations.
    The cost never matches the monetary value, but the feel of driving a well sorted out car is almost religious.
    The problem I see is the proliferation of car shows depicting various shops restoring vehicles. Through the miracle of time lapse photogrsphy, presto change, the car is fully restored in one episode and price is rarely mentioned. The crew all have a jockular persona and everyone walks away happy.
    Unfortunately, real life is far from car”vana”, and people need to take off the rose colored glasses to see how the world of car restoration really works.

  4. Your article is a real eye opener, its very informative and thought provoking. I own a 74′ Chevy El Camino I’ve had it for about 30 years. about 15 years ago. I thought about getting some work done on it. Granted like your article everyone has a different idea about what a total restoration is. True the TV shows showing ground up restorations are entertaining, but they don’t offer any insight as to price or real time building of a car. I took my car to a shop that was well known at the car shows and even advertised in some magazines. But I’ve come to find out that like your article, a lot can be determined about a shop by your initial meeting with the shop owners. I had planned to have a few things done at first, if i was happy with it we would proceed further with more involved work. We talked about getting some engine diagnostics and rebuilding with upgrades. I turned over the car, 2weeks later the shop called, I was horrified to learn that somehow during their “Diagnostics” my engine exploded. I was not given any reasons why, or any real explanations, i was told for X amount of dollars I could get a engine rebuilt for the car. Needless to say I loaded my car up took it home where it spent the next 5 years covered up in the garage. I just couldn’t believe the degree of incompetence and indifference that was shown. 2 years ago I started my interpretation of a restoration, visited a few shops to get work done I knew was above my experience level, I’m learning a lot through this process, thank God for internet videos, Real shops and car enthusiasts’ that I’ve met and talked to. There’s a lot of knowledge out there at car shows and reputable shops that can be had just by asking questions. My El Camino is coming along well, I’m learning about Parts availability, costs, and patience! When I’m done it wont be a show winner, but it will be something that with the help of many good people I will truly be proud of. Thanks again for this very enlightening article.

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