10 December 2007

Stuck in the '70s

When I saw his cars in Milwaukee’s “Masterpiece of Style & Speed Show” the past two years, I realized that Ross Obermeyer was a talented automobile restorer. What I didn’t know was that I had actually passed by his shop hundreds of times since moving to Wisconsin back in the ‘70s. I also didn’t know that he was stuck in that era — the ‘70s that is — at least as far as his pricing goes.

“Forty-two dollars,” says Ross Obermeyer. “That’s our current hourly shop rate.” Ross operates Obermeyer’s “41” Auto Body in Allenton, Wisconsin. “What can I say, we have low overhead,” bubbles Ross through a sheepish smile. “But even at that, we will probably have to go up in the near future.”

Although Ross and his son Dave modestly describe the business as an “auto body shop,” the vehicles you’ll find inside are not there for dent or collision work. Take, for instance, the 1952 Cunningham Vignale Coupe that’s undergoing a complete, top-to-bottom makeover. You don’t see a Cunnigham every day!

Also at Obermeyer’s is a ’40 Mercury convertible that’s in for a total restoration as well. And “total” means that the Obermeyers will handle the complete project — from body work to paint to engine rebuilding. The body of the ’40 Mercury has been completely disassembled and many of its new panels were fabricated right in Allenton.

In another part of the building is a 1953 Mercury station wagon with simulated wood-grain trim. “We are not doing a total restoration on that car,” Ross admits. “That’s because the owner is a long-time customer and friend who lives close by. He likes to do what he can do on his own car. He does some of the work in our shop and we do what he can’t do himself.”

Although his hourly shop rate is much lower than what some new-car dealers charge today, Ross warns that a low rate doesn’t equate to cheap work. “It takes lots of hours to do a car and it’s expensive,” Ross explains. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting into when they bring a car to be restored. The amount of work and the cost of it adds up phenomenally.”

Ross recalls that he started working on cars at Davis Ford in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, in the mid-‘60s, before he was drafted into the military. Later, he was body shop manager at a Milwaukee Chevrolet dealership that was owned by Pontiac racing legend Jim Wangers. “I didn’t enjoy that job,” he remembers. “It was high stress every day.”

Ross went on his own back in 1973 (there’s that “Back in the ‘70s” thing again). It was five years later when I moved to Wisconsin. Each time I drove south out of Fond du Lac, I would see the shop along State Highway 41. It always had old cars and ambulances around it.

You can see Obermeyer’s “41” Auto Body from Highway 41, but you can’t get to it from there. You have to exit at Allenton and back track to near the highway. The only old car parked around the place these days is a burgundy Mercury Cougar. As for the ambulances, Ross once rented space to a company that equipped emergency vehicles, so there were always some around.

Today, Ross and Dave and part-timers like their friend Bill take up all the room in the shop with their restoration jobs. In addition to total redos of the Cunnigham and ’40 Mercury and their contribution to the Monterey station wagon’s revival, the crew tackles jobs like painting the ’65 Ford shop truck, rebuilding the Cunningham’s Chrysler Hemi engine or even overhauling a motor from an extremely rare 1936 Czechoslovakian Tatra.

Ross likes flathead Ford (and Mercury) projects the best. “That’s the first thing I ever worked on,” he says. “This is a fun business — and a fun hobby. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop restoring cars. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the heck out of it.”

Ross thinks that car collectors should “try to learn to do as much as they can for themselves.” When a customer can’t do something at home, he can bring it here and we do it,” says Ross. “We charge on a Time and Materials basis and bill customers once a month. But we gotta make sure they’re happy. I can’t sleep at night if a customer thinks he’s been over-charged.”


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