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Classic car bodywork takes a magician's touch

Bill Echols, of St. Charles, Ill., polishes the

Bill Echols, of St. Charles, Ill., polishes the fender of his 2000 Pontiac Trans Am Firehawk at the Hot Rod Power Tour stop in Nashville, Tenn. (June 7, 2005) Credit: AP

There aren’t many parts of a collector car that I can’t remove, replace, or rebuild. That includes the engine, suspension, electrical system, brake system, fuel system, or just about anything else that you can think of.

I can do this for two reasons. First, I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and except for different shapes and sizes, a part is just a part. If you study any part long enough, you’ll see how it works, or why it doesn’t work. Second, I’m not afraid to do it, my philosophy being that if it’s already broken, what do I have to lose? I can always pay someone who really knows what they’re doing to fix it if I make it worse. 

The one exception is an automatic transmission. I’m not sure exactly why, but from an early age I was taught that if I tinkered with an automatic transmission, the world could conceivably come to an end.

So I don’t. But that’s by choice.

However, the one thing that I’ve never been able to master is bodywork. I’ve watched professionals do it. I’ve read books about it. I’ve tried it. And I just can’t do it.

I’m often asked why it is so expensive to restore a collector car. And furthermore, why is it exponentially more expensive to restore it to “concours quality”? The answer is simple. Bodywork. I’m not talking about pounding out a dent. I’m talking about restoring a rusted, mangled panel because a reproduction panel is not available, or because maintaining the original panel is of paramount importance.

There’s a reason many people consider bodywork to be an “art.” These craftspeople are artists. In fact, to me it’s more than an art. It’s just plain magic. Who else but a magician can “see” imperfections with their eyes closed by running the palm of their hand along the panel? Who else but a magician can “shrink” and “stretch” metal into a desired shape? Who else but a magician can make a hole disappear in metal? And who else but a magician can envision exactly what the finished product will look like. If we had cars three hundred years ago, these “magicians” may very well have been burned at the stake.

The supply of these magicians is very low, and the demand for their skills is very high. That is why the waiting list to get a classic car into a well-known restoration shop can be months, or even years. No matter what you might be speaking of, low supply and high demand usually results in a high price, and the cost of having one of these magicians work on your car is no exception.

Most collector cars undergo restorations to “show-quality,” whatever that definition might mean to you and your restorer. The quality of the workmanship varies tremendously, as does the finished product, even though it might be defined as “show quality.” But there is very little wiggle room when you want a car restored to “concours quality.”

“Concours” quality by definition is as close to perfection as one can achieve. Getting to this level of perfection requires one or more magicians, lots of time, and an open checkbook.

Depending on its condition, most production cars, regardless of year, make, or model, can be restored to a nice “driver quality” standard for $25,000 - $50,000. Take that up a notch to something that is capable of winning local shows, and the cost can easily rise to $75,000. But mention “concours quality” and the cost will just begin at $100,000, and can go up to $500,000 or even more.

It takes a magician a long time to perfect a trick, whether that trick is making a rusted hole in a panel disappear, or making a new fender appear out of a flat sheet of aluminum. Either way, time is money.

Lots of money.

Patching a hole in a fender, and then preparing that fender to be painted might take a body shop a day. But for a car that is being restored to “concours quality” standards, patching that same hole in a way that the repair is invisible from both the inside and the outside, and then preparing the fender for paint can easily take 50 hours.

Multiply this by the number of panels on a car and you can see how it adds up. Don’t forget that on a car that’s being restored to “concours quality” standards, the panels that you can’t see have to be just as perfect as the panels that you can see. This includes floor pans, firewalls, trunk pans and more.

When it comes to restoring a classic car, doing things right is expensive. There are many people who have had a classic car restored. But there are far fewer who have gone on to have a second one restored. They have discovered that it’s far less expensive to let someone else pay for the restoration, and then buy the car at a fraction of the cost of the restoration. In other words, let someone else’s money disappear. I suppose that is also magic.  

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