David Grainger, who started The Guild of Automotive Restorers with Janice Stone in 1991, has accomplished a lot in 28 years. The Guild has grown into one of North America’s premier collector car restoration facilities, restoring more than 2500 classics since opening its doors nearly three decades ago. That number is a guess.
“Honestly,” Grainger says, “we stopped counting long ago.”
Today, The Guild’s 28 employees perform between 20–30 full restorations per year at Grainger’s facility in Bradford, Ontario, about 30 minutes north of Toronto. One of The Guild’s restorations took a top award at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este 2015, and the company sells about three cars each year. Grainger has also amassed a personal collection of 25 cars and 40 classic tractors.
Many know Grainger and The Guild from his hit television show Restoration Garage, which remains in production. We asked Grainger his thoughts on the collector car market and its current and future trends.
What got you into the business of the car hobby?
I was a struggling wildlife artist and needed a vehicle that I could get into the woods with, and I bought an old Land Rover for virtually nothing. Certainly the key in driving a well-owned Land Rover, especially a Series II from the early ’60s, was an educational experience because when you're broken down in the woods, you've got to learn how to fix it. And that was my teething.
I went from that into restoring military vehicles. And as I became a more successful artist, my downtime when the light failed or when I wasn't under pressure to do a show or something, I would go out and hammer and bang and smack about these old military vehicles. And I restored stuff like that for years.
Then, about 30 years ago, Janice looked at me and said, “Why don't you work on something somebody wants?” So we went to a wrecking yard, bought an old Corvette and we fixed it up. And then me being me, I just couldn't just do one of anything. And it turned into people phoning and asking me to work on their cars even when I didn't want to.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
My biggest problem has always been that I tend to want to buy cars I like, and my taste is not everybody else's taste. And that goes to extreme sometimes. I mean, I like odd and, quite often, valueless vehicles. Hindsight being 20/20, you regret decisions made along the way, but that's all part of the learning process. But just when you think you have the market figured out, it turns around. But there are certain elemental truths. One is that cars that are 30 years old will always be popular. Cars that are 40 years old, not so much because there's a wave that runs behind us where people can finally afford the car they wanted when they were 18 and then, you know, after 10 years of ownership and getting on in years they sell them. So you go from not being able to get enough for them to having a glut of them and watching the prices rise and then drop to nothing. We've seen that with 1920s cars, ’30s cars, and so on. Today, anything from the ’30s has no appeal to anybody unless they want to hot rod it. And I feel that's a shame.
What’s hot right now?
Now I have young guys in their 40s and 50s coming in wanting BMWs from the ’70s and ’80s, and we get requests constantly for cars from the ’90s. But we shy away from them because people don't understand that just doing a wiring harness and trying to track down all the electronics and everything in one of these cars can be $50,000–$70,000 before you've done anything else.
We learned that lesson doing an ’86 BMW for a young entrepreneur who wanted a brand new one. He was very patient and understanding. But I mean, at a certain point I was sitting there and I've got guys immersed in wiring. There's no wiring harnesses available. We have to make everything. And the thing was just beat. So what do you do? How do you restore something that’s full of computer chips? You don't, you know? They’re just so complex. So what are we gonna do about that? Well, I think the solution to that is going to be a trend you're already starting to see, which is restomods. We already do fewer restorations now than we do restomods.
So if you bring us a 1990 Mercedes in 15 years, it may be that the car will be unrestorable unless we put a modern pallet driveline (crate engine) and computer system in it. I think that's where we're going.
What has been your most difficult restoration?
A lot of them are bloody difficult. But the one that sticks in my mind was the Bugatti Aerolithe. The restoration of the car itself, the chassis and driveline, was bone simple. It was a just a T57 Bugatti driveline, but spending six months and God knows how much money on magnesium learning how to form it was challenging.
We also did an Alfa Romeo Special Roadster that was the Paris show car in 1946, so an incredibly historically important car. And I mean, that thing was just a pile of rubble in a container when it arrived, and it had to be scrupulously original to the original car.
Are there different market trends happening in Canada than in the United States?
The trends are the same. The two countries, as far as this kind of thing, are inextricably linked. I mean, American car culture is Canadian car culture and vice versa. Whereas, you go to Britain and their car culture is significantly different. It takes from American car culture, but it's not the same.
Is there a segment of the market you believe is undervalued?
We've seen a huge upward surge in post-war Italian cars because they’re sort of the only limited production interesting cars that were being made. I think there are still some deals to be had. Little cars like the Fiat X1/9. I mean, they haven't moved. Some people say they're not going to; I think they will. There's a limited amount of them and they're fun. I think there’s room in Fiats and the bottom of Alfas.
We’re also getting more interest in Japanese cars, and I think that could be a savvy purchase. Someone might want to do some research now on what came out in limited numbers and what was high performance and that kind of thing and grab those before they take off like the Italian cars have.
What advice would you give someone buying their first collector car?
Don't think of it as a collector car. If you buy a collector car and you put her in the corner and you just put a cover over it, you'll never enjoy it. Buy something that arouses your passions. I mean, this is probably the answer most people give, but it’s because it's undeniably true. Don't buy something you think might appreciate. Buy something you like that might appreciate it. Because if it doesn't appreciate and you don't like it, you're going to be pissed. But if it doesn't appreciate and you had fun with it, at least you're ahead of the game.
Will this current trend toward cars of the ’80s and ’90s continue? Cars like Supras, Type R Integras, IROCs, and Grand Nationals?
Yes, but the problem with IROCs and Grand Nationals is that there’s so many of them, so we're not going to see anywhere near the strengths. I could be completely wrong, but I think in the next 20 years we're not going to see the strengths in the market that we've seen in the past. I think that cars are going out of favor, certainly, with younger people. So that 30-years-behind-us wave of interest is going to falter somewhat. I can see the market diminishing. The American Car Culture is sort of dying off now, and it's being replaced with other kinds of high-tech cultures. I think there’ll always be an interest. But as the years go on, you won't have the guys wanting to go to cruise nights and, you know, play ’50s and ’60s music and that kind of thing.
I think there'll be groups of younger people with Japanese cars and stuff like that. I don't think that culture is going to be strong. And I think the market itself is probably going to more revolve on cars as the art pieces of the 20th century, which you can see happening now. It’s not 1935 Oldsmobiles, it’s 1935 Bugattis, Delahayes, and Hispanos. It’s the cars that were created as art in very limited amounts by undeniable craftsmen and artisans that are going to be the ones that stay with us and have longevity.
Again, how do you restore a 1999 anything if you don’t have access to original parts? And the trouble with original electronic parts is that they also rot on the shelf. So you can finally source the part but it still doesn’t work. I think these are going to be challenges people aren’t really going to be bothered surmounting as a whole. I think that this huge Leviathan that has been classic and antique cars over the last 40–50 years is going to become sharp pointed and smaller.
Will this trend in pickups and SUVs continue?
Yes, I think there's an interest in those because people are generally interested in what they drive and we’ve seen a huge growth of interest in trucks. Twenty-five years ago, I had a really cool 1936 Hudson Terraplane pickup. I’d ask customers if they want it, and they’d say it’s for gardeners. That's reversed now. There's a really strong interest in pickups because people are driving pickup trucks and SUVs, and they're not considered worker's vehicles anymore.
What’s the future of the American muscle car market?
I don't think there's going to be any growth. I think that the market for cars from the 1940s–60s is going to be about new engines and modernization. New sound systems. People don't want to hear a scratchy AM radio anymore. They want satellite. They don't want to take a quarter mile to brake from 60 miles an hour. They want all-around high-efficiency disc brakes. And they want a good reliable engine, and they don't want to be getting six miles to the gallon. So I think modern, efficient drivelines going into these cars is what we're going to see, just to make them more usable. That's what I see now. People don’t have the patience for a ’57 Chevy with a six-banger in it.
What do you see happening in the Corvette market now or in the near future?
I think Corvettes might be a good bet. And I'm not talking about ’74s and ’75s, which are like the worst cars ever made. And that’s saying something when you talk about GM. But with the strength of the last incarnation of the Corvette, which is just my favorite Corvette ever built. This last one is a spectacular car. It is what Corvette should've been for the last 50 years. And I think with the new mid-engine one coming out, it’s probably going to be a home run. That's something they've been threatening since the ’70s.
I think there's going to be prolonged and sustained interest in Corvettes because of the health of the modern Corvette line—because that generally spawns interest in the past. But when you start getting into like the ’70s Corvettes and that kind of thing, again, there are so many of them and they're such poor cars.
What’s the future of Restoration Garage?
We signed papers for season six, and I think we're probably two weeks away from being greenlit. So we'll see. I mean, you know, it's never greenlit till it's greenlit, but things are looking very good. And I have two other very significant projects. I'm sort of on the back burner right now by different production companies. One production company is very, very well known in England and another I'm developing some ideas with is based in the U.S. So we'll see how that all fares out. And, of course, we're moving into Youtube and social media marketing and social media entertainment systems as well.