3 September 2007

Fin Car Fixer-Upper Finds Fame

After a ’57 De Soto that he spent a year restoring sold for a record $285,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction in January 2007, Jerry Kopecky gained “fin-car fame.” His new restoration shop — called Kopecky’s Klassics — is becoming nationally known as a place to have ’57-’60 Mopars rejuvenated.

“We really like the flashy ‘57, ‘58 and ’59 Chryslers, De Sotos, Dodges and Plymouths,” says Kopecky. “We also do a few of the ’55-’56 models and a few ‘60s. We’ll do other cars if a customer wants to, but we’re finding it smarter to specialize – we talked to a lot of people at Barrett-Jackson and we could see that a lot of today’s collectors are going towards Chrysler’s ‘Forward-Look’ models. “

According to Kopecky, his shop is “all about high-end, body-off-frame, every-last-nut-and-bolt Mopar restorations.” He talks about working on one car a year to take to Barrett-Jackson or another upscale auction for resale. He prefers to do only full restorations where everything looks factory-fresh when it’s done.

Jerry recommends that his customers restore ragtops. “It costs about the same to restore a coupe or a convertible,” he points out. “But, the open car is almost always more valuable after it is completed, so why not do a convertible?”

Though the shop is just over one year old, Kopecky is starting his 15th year in the auto-repair industry. His father Dave did restoration work back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Jerry followed him into the car-repair industry. He did body work and frame straightening. He started doing restorations in 1989 when he refurbished a two-tone pink ’59 Dodge Coronet for the late Jess Ruffalo. After Ruffalo died recently, Kopecky purchased the Coronet from his family.

Ruffalo had a large collection of ‘50s and ‘60s cars in Plainfield, Wis. His cars have been featured in many books and on Dennis Gauge’s “My Classic Car” cable TV program. Kopecky did complete restorations on seven of Ruffalo’s cars.

“Jess was the one who turned us on to this Mopar movement,” notes Kopecky. “The fact that we restored cars for him and that he set a record price with the De Soto we did for him was critical in lining up prospective customers for future restoration work. Now that he’s gone, we’re ‘looking down the barrel’ when it comes to filling some slots in the future schedule.”

Currently, Kopecky is working on a 1958 De Soto Firesweep convertible, owned by Ruffalo, that was in the middle of the restoration process when the former trucking company owner passed away. The Ruffalo family decided to have the car completed. This rare ragtop has a 350-cid four-barrel V-8 and will be a like-new machine when Kopecky is done with it.

Currently the De Soto sits in his Iola, Wis., shop in pieces. The frame has been totally refinished and fitted with new front and rear suspensions and all-new brake lines and other components. The drive train is completely apart and being restored the same way. The work is carried out with precision and accuracy. Nothing is being left to chance. When the car is put back together, it will be a perfect example of a 1958 De Soto Firesweep convertible and look just the way it did when it left the factory.

The body of the car is also in pieces, with the main body section mounted on a rotisserie so that it can be properly restored on both sides. Over $8,000 worth of welding has been done to get the body rebuilt to factory specs. In order to replace a few body panels that couldn’t be properly restored, Kopecky located a shop in Michigan that custom fabricates reproduction panels with all the “factory” beads and supporting ribs rolled into the metal.

“We work on a time and materials basis,” says Kopecky. “These cars take a lot of time and hard-to-find materials to restore. There isn’t a catalog to order parts from. Often we have to restore the parts, too, which is nearly double the work. This is an expensive part of an expensive hobby and we don’t want to mislead anyone. We find that we have to be up front with the customer, even if we lose the job, because that’s better than getting stuck in the middle.”

Kopecky works in a shop next to his home and he does the bulk of the restoration himself. “We have lower overhead than some shops, so we can control our costs somewhat,” he says. However, since he realizes that customer work doesn’t come through the doors every day, Kopecky is also buying cars to restore and take to auction himself. “I just bought a Chrysler 300F hardtop from a man in Anchorage, Alaska,” he told us. “I’d rather be doing a convertible, but if we don’t resell this car as is, we’ll restore it and go for the gold ourselves. This time we’re thinking about RM Auctions, because they’ve been doing the TV thing and seem to put on a pretty good show.”

Jerry Kopecky can be reached at (715) 445-4791 or write to him at N6871 State Road 49, Iola, WI 54945.

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