Classic car restoration demands communication with auto shop

Christopher Manwarning from Greenport, left, Ricardo Guerra from

Christopher Manwarning from Greenport, left, Ricardo Guerra from East Hampton and Esteban Garcia from East Quogue repair a car at H.P Ward Career and Technical Center BOCES in Riverhead. (May 14, 2013) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Classic car owner: I just inherited this 1970 Buick Skylark from my father. I want it restored to show quality.

Restoration shop owner: OK.

Two years later…


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Classic car owner: I’ve already paid you $125,000, the quality of the workmanship is poor, you’ve had my car for two years, it’s only a rolling chassis.

Restoration shop owner: OK.

Classic car owner: I’m going to sue you.

Restoration shop owner: OK. You still owe me $15,000 and I’m putting a lien on your car.

I see this on a regular basis, and I find it very frustrating because in most cases it could have all been avoided by addressing even the most basic of issues in a simple contract. Considering the amount of money that you are about to spend, it would be wise to have an attorney draft a contract that defines the quality of workmanship, the duration of the restoration, and a payment schedule. If you don’t want to go to the expense of paying an attorney, do it yourself. It’s better than nothing.

In the case of a full restoration, or even a high quality paint job, many reputable shops will be hesitant to sign a contract, or even give an estimate until your car has been stripped and the scope of work is clear. This is perfectly reasonable on their part, so negotiate a price to get the car to this stage, and STOP! Then negotiate a price for the entire job.

This is where you must do your due diligence, or the outcome, good or bad, will be your responsibility. If it turns out good, you’re a hero. If it turns out bad, well, you and the shop owner will be pointing fingers at each other. And his finger will be on the upper hand.

The first and most important thing to do is to determine the quality of the workmanship that you expect, and then determine if the shop is capable of doing it. If so, define it in writing. I can’t begin to tell you how many times a shop owner has prevailed in court because a car owner said “I want my car to be show quality.” Terms like “show quality” can mean anything from a quick “scuff and shoot” paint job to a “concours quality restoration.” The extent of the restoration will often depend on how much the car owner wants to spend. So sometimes it’s easier to give the shop owner a budget and let them itemize the work that they will perform.

The next thing to do is agree on how long the restoration will take. This is the easy part. The shop owner will give you a time frame and you will either agree or you won’t. Sometimes this is negotiable and sometimes it’s not. 

Finally, reduce to writing exactly how and when you will pay the shop owner. In theory you were quoted a price for the job when the car was stripped. Some shop owners bill by the hour, and they will send an invoice once a week or once a month. As long as you keep paying, they keep working. I don’t like this method because this shifts the responsibility for managing the restoration from the shop owner to the customer. All too often a car owner will find that they have paid the restoration shop the entire amount that the restoration was to cost, only to find that a small amount of work has been done. The problem is now the car owner's, and so is the potential expense of remedying the problem. 

In my opinion, a much better way to structure the contract is to pay the shop owner as certain stages of the restoration are completed. Depending on the extent of the restoration, these stages can be as simple or as complicated as you like. This gives the shop owner an incentive to work on your car and complete each stage on schedule. But it also puts the responsibility on you to make sure that each stage is completed to your satisfaction before releasing funds. 

Realistic expectations are the most important thing that both the restoration shop and the car owner bring to the negotiating table at the inception of a restoration. The shop owner should have the expectation that they will have an unhappy customer who will tell horrible stories to all of their friends if the shop owner does not live up to the contract. They might even get sued. 
The car owner should have the expectation that restoration shops are made up of people, and things do not always go exactly as planned. The project may take a little longer than expected. It might even go a little over budget. Trust me. As long as the restoration is completed to your satisfaction, you’ll forget about the little things.    

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