Selecting a Restorer

by John Trifani

Originally published in the Austin-Healey Magazine

I am in the midst of having the BNI rebuilt and anticipate that it will be on the road maybe by the end of the year. In fact I go over to Stockton to James Paulk's body shop there every so often just to check up on it. The subject of rebuilding a car has thus become near and dear to me, and based on my experiences, what has been reported to me as editor of Austin-Healey Magazine and what I've heard as a member of AHCPC, I offer these ten suggestions:

1. If possible, keep the car as close to home as possible: I know that this might not be practical in many cases, but it has worked well for me. With the car nearby I can more easily and frequently check on restoration progress in person, giving me a better chance to work with James and his crew. By the same token, he is closer to me and issues that can best be resolved on the spot can be done so more easily. In short, I have been able to minimize the impact of the Rule of Diminishing Distances: In-your-face communication is inversely proportional to the distance between two communicants.

2. Check on other customers: Sounds obvious, right? Right. I really wonder how many Healey owners have sent their cars to restorers without customer checks first. Get a list of people who have had work done and get in touch with them. Ask them some very pointed questions concerning the quality of the job, the schedule kept and most importantly, the costs incurred. Bottom line: you want to know if the customer was happy and if the job was done to his satisfaction, and if not, why not.

Be prepared for an application of Trifari's First Rule of Customer Response, however: From my own personal experiences running a PR shop I can attest to the fact that people giving references only give out names of satisfied customers, relatives, close friends or people who don't owe them money.

3. Check through the club for references: Just call people. There aren't that many restoration shops out there, and you can bet somebody, somewhere has probably had an experience with the shop or person in question - or knows someone who has. It may take you a few calls to find these people, but their inputs could be invaluable. If no one has heard of your shop, or if they report there have been some problems in the past, maybe it's a good thing to look elsewhere. James came recommended to me by David Nock.

In doing all this checking, however, be prepared for the Rule of Critical Communication: Remember - the more people you talk to, the more differing opinions you'll get. A corollary to this Rule states that for best results, rely on people who know. A second corollary states that a lot of information can be as worthless as none at all.

4. Look at other people 's cars: Club meets and shows are great for kicking tires. If you like what you see, ask where the job was done. Finally, hit the Internet. A simple question like "I'm thinking about having so-and-so do a 100-pt restoration on my BJ8. Does anyone have any experience with this shop?' will elicit a wide range of responses, some actually informative. Be prepared, however, for the Internet Rule of Mouth: Many Internet subscribers have discovered a new way to talk to themselves, and there is no way to sort out trivial answers to your serious question without actually spending the time reading the material. Corollary One says you might be disappointed in what you read.

5. Visit the shop: Another simple idea. Walk around and take a look at the quality of work being done. Pay special attention to the equipment in the shop and poke around any Healeys under the knife. But don't count a restorer out if all you see are a lot of Jags, Porsches, and Chevys. Remember too the Rule of Restoration Expertise: Car repair is an art form. If he can restore a Chevy and do a good job, he can probably do a Healey just as well.

You may also want to find out is how well the shop will stand behind its work. In other words, if something goes wrong or if things are not up to the level expected, will the shop make things right in a reasonable period of time? This applies to shops close to home or out of state.

6. Get a realistic estimate: This too may sound basic, but it's always good to know what things will cost. Run that estimate past other club members. If it seems too low, expect one of three things: First, you will get a lousy job (remember you get what you pay for). Second, you may find yourself in a situation where the restoration shop buys into the job at a low price (purposely or inadvertently), hoping to make it up later on. Third, maybe the guy can do a great job for the price he quoted. Who's to know? This brings up the Rule of Realistic Pricing: Since there is no fast Rule about pricing, there are no fast rules about pricing. You're on your own.

7. Get things in writing: A contract that specifies how things will be done and the costs involved is a necessity if you don't feel you have any other guarantees. Follow the First Rule of Expectations: You can't go wrong if you're prepared for a day in court.

8. Be prepared to work with the restorer and understand his requirements. Be realistic: Understand that in any project work, delays and changes may be inevitable, and this may cost you time and money. If you can get a fixed price, fine. If not, be sure you understand up front how the shop will handle price variations. Two rules and several corollaries apply here: The Rule of Customer Responsibility states that even though owners may have other things to do in their lives like work for a living, Healey restoration demands quality time on the owner's part to insure things stay on track cost-wise. The first corollary to the rule states that costs may go up as the project progresses, and this should not come as a surprise. The Second Corollary states that if you weren't watching things and get the shaft as a result it's your own fault.

The second rule, the Ninth Rule of Restorer Survival states that people in the restoration business must make a profit or they can't feed their kids. The first Corollary to this Rule posits that the smart restorer will insure that Rule One and Rule Two don't conflict.

9. Trust your gut: Calling customers, checking the club, talking to the concours committee or using the Internet will not unfortunately, provide you with one single answer to the question of whether or not this shop is OK or not. You will get a variety of answers: some people love the guy you're thinking of having rebuild your car. Others will tell you he's a cretin who can't change the oil in a Healey, much less restore one. The answers will swing wildly, and the key is to trust your gut. If you feel the guy's OK and knows what he's doing, if you feel he'll do a good job, and if you like what you see, regardless of what anyone says, you'll probably make a good choice by selecting him for your work. If on the other hand, if all the data says "go", but you just don't feel right about things, you'll probably make a good decision if you go somewhere else.

1O. Finally, remember the Fundamental Rule of Healey Restoration: The overwhelming majority of restoration shops are manned by honest, talented individuals who really want to do a good job for a fair price.

If anybody has any additional thoughts or additions to this list, I welcome your commentary.

See you later, John Trifani

Not what you were looking for? Don't forget you can check our back issues using the AHCUSA Magazine Index.

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