Imagine your 1931 Pierce-Arrow cracks its water pump one sunny morning in the electric, autonomous future. You coast into a fix-it shop where a host of modern plastic commuter capsules are having their software stroked by young techs holding nothing but tablets. It appears to be a hopeless situation unless you can reach your Pierce-Arrow guy on a weekend. But now imagine one of the techs goes online, gets the specs for the needed part off an internet database, plugs them into a black box strung with cables and wires, and sends you off to Starbucks with instructions to return in a couple hours, by which time the car will be fixed. This could happen. Indeed, 3D parts printing is already occurring.
It seems like only yesterday that car hobbyists were full of dread about the inability to find high-quality replacement parts or young craftspeople to make, maintain, and install them. Junkyards had been picked clean, the scaremongers said. New-old-stock (NOS) parts were guarded as buried treasure. Components for rarer cars and one-offs had transmuted into unobtainium. Millennials seemed to care more about iPhones and Instagram than Impalas and Iso Grifos. Hell, most of them didn’t even want to learn to drive!
But as is so often the case with institutional pessimism and the bloviations of get-off-my-lawn types, the obituaries turned out to be premature, and the restoration and hot-rod industries are enjoying an unexpected bump. The impetus for this renaissance, ironically, is the same technology that supposedly drove Generation Y away from cars in the first place.
Even as computers have transformed the world, the soulless nature of modern life has prompted growing numbers of millennials to turn to the so-called manual arts and enroll in technical schools and academic programs geared toward careers in the old-car and hot-rod industries. Meanwhile, digital technologies ranging from computer numerical controlled (CNC) mills to 3D printing have been a godsend to the people who build, maintain, and restore collectible cars.
“It’s easier to find parts today than it was five or ten years ago,” says Joe Cavaglieri, who runs an ultra-high-end restoration shop in Van Nuys, California. “I don’t think there’s anything you can’t make anymore. And more and more, it’s going to have to be that way.”
Still, the holy grail is original equipment, preferably in mint condition. There are few things in life that jazz a restoration maven more than finding new-old-stock (NOS) parts. But even on those rare occasions when they can be located, they’re not easy to secure. “It took me two years to make a deal,” Cavaglieri says of a set of NOS Speedline wheels he needed for the restoration of Porsche 935, chassis 001.
Next in the pecking order after new parts are old ones that can be reconditioned to original-equipment (OE) spec. Not that long ago, parts could be plucked out of salvage yards without too much trouble. “Back then, even entire parts cars were available,” says Les Lienerth, a parts and projects specialist at Muscle Car Restorations, a large shop in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
Now? Not so much. But the growing need for hard-to-find components has been a boon for suppliers. “The aftermarket has figured it out,” says Muscle Car Restorations General Manager Ben Peotter. “Every month, we get a whole new series of parts, and the quality is getting better all the time.”
Of course, muscle cars were cranked out by the millions, but it’s hard to make a financial case for mass-producing components for rarer cars. When Paul Vorbach ran into a problem with a trunk lid emblem while restoring a Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster, he had the damaged piece scanned into a CAD program and re-created by a 3D printer. Vorbach was so impressed by the result that he quit the restoration business and opened Hahn-Vorbach 3D Works in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
Since then, Vorbach has reproduced items ranging from a 1939 Salmson S4-61 intake manifold to Porsche 911 velocity stacks to a custom radiator cap featuring a skull’s head clothed in a top hat. “I tend to stay away from parts that undergo a lot of stress—suspension pieces or something like that,” he says. “But it’s getting to the point where we can do anything.”
Then again, technology isn’t magic, and human error is a concern whether you’re using a computerized mill or a hammer and dolly. Eric Peterson, general manager of Leydon Restorations in Lahaska, Pennsylvania, recognizes the advantages of digitally archiving parts and using 3D printing to make molds for tooling. He has horror stories about remanufactured components with misaligned holes and improperly matched pieces. “We often have to do additional machining or heat-treat the material before we can use the parts,” he says.
Even when a part is dead-nuts perfect—as when Peterson uses Formula 1 suppliers for cost-is-no-object restorations—they’re worthless unless they’re installed by craftspeople who know what they’re doing. For most of the past century, the skills needed to build, restore, and maintain cars have been passed down from generation to generation.
No cohort in living memory has displayed less passion for automobiles than the millennials born in the 1980s and ’90s, many of whom don’t have the attention span or patience required to work on collectible cars. “This generation has grown up with so many stimuli,” Cavaglieri says, “that it’s hard for them to work in a shop and not see the checkered flag [on a restoration] for three years.
But millennials have embraced a do-it-yourself ethic that can manifest as car geekdom. About 150 students are enrolled in the prestigious four-year automotive restoration program at McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas—Jay Leno is a benefactor. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco now offers an associate’s degree in automotive restoration. There has also been an uptick in technical programs offered through trade schools.
Altogether, the number of postsecondary degree and certificate programs has doubled since 2016, with about 500 students enrolled nationwide, according to Diane Fitzgerald, president of the RPM Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization supporting the restoration industry. Extracurricular high school car clubs are also trending upward. “We’ve busted the myth that the next generations aren’t interested in cars, especially old cars,” she says. “ There’s a renaissance today, with a cultural movement in favor of time-honored working with hands while thinking with brains.”
Rick Morchesky, 26, earned a Jay Leno–endowed scholarship before graduating from McPherson. He’s spent the last year and a half shaping metal for a 1934 Ford ve-window coupe at the Walden Speed Shop in Pomona, California. “I like coming to work, taking a flat sheet of metal, and turning nothing into something,” he says.
Fabrication seems to be the discipline that appeals most to the young bucks, and a lot of them are gravitating to hot-rod projects. “I think it’s the glamorization of television,” Morchesky says. “We grew up watching Jesse James and all the fabricator shows.”
It seems few millennials are working in the lower-profile subspecialties. Young upholsterers and engine builders are rare. But supply inevitably expands to meet demand, especially if a few old-timers are willing to show an eager young kid the ropes. If collectors want to keep their cars running, there will likely be craftspeople and parts available. All it takes is money.