I’ve known Brian Joseph for years through the concours circuit, where he is regarded as a serious, hardworking man who helps keep the wheels on Michigan’s annual Concours d’Elegance of America. In meetings, Joseph is buttoned down and all business. That is the Brian Joseph I expected to find when I walked up to a nondescript concrete building in a suburban Detroit industrial park that houses his restoration business, Classic & Exotic Service.
Instead of the stern taskmaster, though, I find a relaxed, ebullient Brian Joseph inside. In the privacy of the shop where he has spent decades honing his craft, he’s expansive, eager to share the joy that he and his crew of 25 get from their work on some of the greatest Full Classic and Brass Era cars anywhere.
Joseph motions toward an exquisite cream-colored Duesenberg Murphy roadster modified by Bohman & Schwartz and first owned by Mae West. “I always wanted to go after the high end,” he says, “and there is nothing higher than a Duesenberg.” He reckons that his shop has either worked on or supplied parts for 80 percent of the surviving 378 (out of 481) Model Js.
Joseph has come a long way since 1977, when he could fit only a single 21-foot Duesenberg or Cadillac V-16 into his 300-square-foot space in a leaky, decrepit building in Troy, Michigan.
On this day, 20 to 25 cars worth some $25 million—with nameplates like Bentley, Cord, Delahaye, Rolls-Royce, and Stutz—fill 30,000 square feet in two buildings. My head spins as I take it allin, particularly the Duesenbergs. Five sit on the painted concrete floor or on lifts. The faint aromas of fresh paint, clean oil, and fine leather permeate the high-ceilinged space, which is filled with scores of red toolboxes and workbenches with tools and parts neatly laid out. Although not operating-room sterile, Joseph’s bustling place is clean and clutter-free, with no crowding around cars or workstations.
In addition to the restoration work, Joseph’s crew produces more than 4000 different parts. “We used to do everything on manual machines,” he says, “but now we use CNC lathes and mills, laser cutting and scanning, and 3D printing, which ensures that parts are more accurate and fit better. It’s fun to make stuff and solve problems.”
Classic & Exotic Service always fabricated parts as needed, but 30 years ago it changed from one part at a time to small runs when a client with 10 Duesenbergs requested multiple stamped-and-cast parts for each car. Joseph responded with perfect reproductions of original components. Over the past decade, the parts business has grown to make up a tenth of the company’s activity, for both internal use and sales to other restorers.
New parts, including every Duesenberg gasket, plus all the unique nuts and bolts, now fill five 20-foot shelving units. “There are 120 pieces in a Duesenberg Model SJ carburetor,” Joseph says. “We make them all.”
Joseph studied archeology at Wayne State University, and as a restorer, he uses that training to determine how a car was originally constructed. “When we take a car apart and clean everything,” Joseph explains, “we can tell the original finish and see how it was applied.” Meticulous to a fault, his team photographs and documents everything, so they can duplicate the way the car was first built.
Although Joseph is best known for American luxury cars from the late 1920s and ’30s, he’s worked on plenty of Brass Era and coach-built Europeans as well. But it’s the mighty Duesenberg that keeps the lights on. “The Duesenberg business has exploded over the past 10 to 15 years,” Joseph says. “Top collectors all want at least one.” Chalk it up to its symbolism of an American golden age, or its role in the wider culture, but Joseph is right: Every major collector I know either already has a Duesenberg or has one on the list.
If Joseph was a one-man classic-car-restoration band four decades ago, today he’s the conductor of a major orchestra, overseeing every facet of a project. “The most difficult project, though, is hiring,” he says. “There are no apprentice programs, so I just hire people by accident and by feel.”
He must have the right feel, because Classic & Exotic Service comes highly recommended, and class and best-of-show honors at concours around the country attest to Joseph’s work.
He smiles at a massive V-12 Packard and the Duesenberg beside it. “I want to work on what you see here,” he says. “I don’t work on cars I don’t love.”