11 September 2006

Managing Your Project From a Distance

Many owners of classic cars entrust their prized possession to a professional restorer. When choosing a restorer, owners have to consider things such as cost, convenience, the level of restoration and, above all, the time it will take to complete. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of horror-stories about restorations that took years more to complete than originally promised and cost many thousands of dollars more than estimated. It might even be safe to say that more owners’ experiences fall into this category than those whose experiences were pleasant. The reason this happens so often is that the owners didn’t manage the project. Here’s why this is so important…

There are generally two types of restoration shops from which to choose: (1) large, well-known (translation: expensive) shops with a staff of specialists; and (2) small, one- or two-person shops that usually specialize in a narrow range of marques.

The large shops with solid reputations are usually run like a business. They keep very accurate records of the project, bill monthly, guarantee their work and keep to a schedule –you pay for the overhead that this requires. Private shops are usually run by talented craftsmen whose labor rates are considerably lower. The majority of owners end up choosing the latter shops. They fail to understand that these restorers are closer in nature to “artists,” not businessmen.

A Little History Lesson

During the Renaissance, Europe was awash in artists. There were painters, sculptors, woodworkers, architects, actors, singers and all sorts of craftsmen everywhere. These men (sorry, women weren’t allowed) apprenticed at a young age and spent years learning their craft. They were supported by wealthy aristocrats - sometimes for their entire lives - thus creating in them a sense of entitlement.

From that time to the present the majority of artists- of all kinds - have failed to understand the difference between a job and a hobby. The modern restorer is in many respects a painter, sculptor and shaper of a thing of beauty in addition to being a mechanic, welder and electrician. When you engage an individual restorer you are essentially acting as a patron of his particular art. The mindset of most of these people is one of exercising painstaking detail on a project with no real interest in how long it takes or how much it costs. They will, in good faith, agree to a price and a time limit, but in their minds those restrictions are of relatively little importance.

This isn’t meant in any way to be insulting toward individual restorers. Rather, it’s meant to help you understand the way artisans and craftsmen think. Some are very good businessmen, but most aren’t.

How To Handle The Artist

It’s almost certain that the location of the restoration shop will be a considerable distance from where you live, so here are some guidelines that might help cut way down on the frustration:

  • As long as you stay aware that you are engaging a creative individual to restore your car, you can exercise reasonable control over his activities. Of course you must generate a contract that spells out precisely what work will be done, estimates of material and labor costs and an outside time limit that carries some financial incentive, but don’t assume he views the document the way you do. You view the agreement as a business engagement but most likely he views it as a “sponsorship.”
  • It’s very likely that the restorer is working on other people’s cars at the same time as yours. Try getting the names and phone numbers of a few and call them to discuss problems they’ve had. If you all work together you can keep the projects on track.
  • It’s often up to you to track costs, so insist on monthly invoices and detailed explanations. Don’t accept line items like “rebuild engine - $4300.” Pester the restorer to break down such tasks (pistons, rings, bearings - $245, grind crank - $95, etc.)
  • Insist on photos of the progress of the work. If necessary, buy him some disposable cameras and insist on him sending filled ones to you monthly with his invoice. No photos, no payment.
  • Call him at least once a month, just to say hello. Discuss how the project is proceeding and share in his frustrations and challenges. You need to be part of his “team.”
  • Plan at least one visit each 6 months. A regular visit will maintain momentum, turn up major problems or incorrectly done work (or not done at all!) and generally let the restorer know you are monitoring the whole process.

Don’t be afraid to retake possession of your car if things go sour. On the other hand, if you follow the steps above it’s not likely that will happen.

Les Jackson is an engineer and syndicated automotive writer whose “Ask Dr. Crankshaft” articles appear weekly in a 256 newspapers and associated websites. He has been published in Car & Driver, Modern Maturity, Auto Week, Road & Track and scores of specialty and industry magazines. He tests and reviews approximately 100 new vehicles each year. He is Co-Host of “All About Cars,” a weekly radio show on the USA and Cable Radio networks, and Editor in Chief of Second Chance Garage, the internet’s first auto restoration website. A true “hands-on” individual, he has personally restored 16 classic cars over the past 30 years, performing all the work himself. Les is past-president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a recognized expert on automotive engineering, safety and the industry as a whole.

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