Restoration Shops Today Face Major Challenges

Unsplash/Stuart Garage

Keeping classic vehicles up and running isn’t always easy, and these days, that’s just as true for shops as it is for DIYers. I recently talked to four owners or operators of restoration shops to find out what their top business challenges are in 2024. Some of the answers I received were not a surprise. Frankly, everyone has been talking about finding qualified labor in almost every field. But some of the answers I got were eye-openers. 

Every independent restoration shop operates differently. Some shops are very well-established with a long track record, and a few have major national or worldwide concours wins under their belts. Some are more focused on their local area, building a reputation as well as a customer base. Many shops also tend to specialize in a particular field, such as engine and transmission rebuilds, paintwork, or a specific type or decade of cars. In 2024, even full-service shops tend to utilize independent rebuilders or repair shops for specific skills such as radiator repair and rebuilding, powder coating, or rebuilding clocks or radios.

Car Garage Shop Restoration paint booth
Unsplash/whereslugo

The repair, not just restoration business is also thriving at many restoration shops. Those services that might have been handled by a local service station 20 or 30 years ago—tune-ups, hose and belt replacement or air conditioning repairs—now represent part of the day-to-day work docket of many restoration shops.

Adam Hammer, owner of Hammer and Dolly Automotive Restorations LLC in Traverse City, MI, sees the value in doing many of the small jobs alongside the full restorations that they also perform. The “small work adds more volume, and helps to make sure that everyone in the shop keeps busy” says Hammer.

Hammer, a graduate of the McPherson College Automotive Restoration program, has been in business as Hammer and Dolly for 13 years, has 10 employees and offers services ranging from full restorations to maintenance. Challenges include increasing costs for parts and equipment, as well as labor. In addition to increased cost, backorders for those parts is also an ongoing issue. Hammer also mentioned environmental challenges, as some regularly used compounds such as paints and solvents are no longer sold, making substitutions, often seen as harder to work with, a necessity. As to finding qualified workers, Hammer says “find the right person with aptitude to grow the skills, and we can teach the skill.”

auto shop tool pliers vice grips clppers closeup
Unsplash/Kenny Eliason

Husband and wife Ed and Melissa Sweeny are the co-owners of Proper Noise, LTD, a restoration shop located in Mount Penn, PA that specializes in both postwar British and Brass Era cars. In business for seven years, there are six employees including the Sweeneys. They specialize in the mechanical side of a restoration, and will outsource paint as well as some other areas of restoration if needed. When asked about current challenges, Ed focused on a few areas such as the quality of parts that they source from vendors. The issue is serious enough that Sweeney has turned in-house to scanning and 3D printing parts when necessary. Another challenge? Finding correct tires post-pandemic for those cars that use odd sizes, including many of the Brass Era vehicles he works on. “No one can go into production for just a small amount of tires, making it too expensive for the supplier, it becomes impossible for them to make any money,” says Ed.  

Another problem facing all of these small shops? “It’s always hard to say no to clients, but sometimes scheduling work can be very tough.” Sweeny is talking about “job creep”, where a car comes in for brakes, for example, but, upon inspection, tie rods and shocks and more are needed, turning a few days repair into a week, or longer.

Vintage Car Shop Window
Unsplash/Kiwihug

Mechanical Arts, located in Tenants Harbor, ME, is owned by Philip Reinhardt, also a recent McPherson College graduate. In business for four years, the shop has three employees. Specializing in repairs and restorations of pre-1980s vehicles, with a sweet spot for cars of the 1930s through 1960s, Reinhardt is facing another common problem in the restoration world: Running out of space to work on client’s cars. Their 3000 square foot shop is overwhelmed with customer cars, forcing staff to “play musical cars.” Although he characterizes this as a “good problem to have” Reinhardt hopes to expand soon, with plans to more than double the size of Mechanical Arts. Reinhardt also sees the “job creep” on client cars which can make effective scheduling tough. “Maine doesn’t have a State Inspection for older cars, so a car coming in for a routine service can have a completely worn out front-end” said Reinhardt. This type of problem is especially important to owners who are new to the old car world, some of whom have grown up in an era when going 10,000 miles between services is expected.

Finally, Eric Peterson is the manager of Leydon Restorations in Lahaska, PA, a shop that has been in business for just over 50 years. Peterson has worked there for 16 years, and been manager for 13. Leydon is known almost exclusively for mechanical restorations, which you can expect to see (or hear) at concours lawns around the globe. Peterson has a bit different take on finding talent. With the advent of television “rebuilder” shows and pop culture expectations of the mythical 30-minute total restoration, occasionally managing expectations of potential new hires is a challenge. “The realities of the work-a-day life at a shop is much different than what some might expect. You can’t have someone who is only interested in the glitz and glamor side of  the restoration.” That said, Peterson reminds us that good people are an investment, and that he feels very fortunate to have a great crew aboard.

Vintage Car Engine chrome closeup
Unsplash/Robin Edqvist

Like other shops, Peterson laments the quality of parts that are currently available. “The quality keeps getting worse. I have one car that has had three ‘bad from new’ condensers. Few things are of the lasting quality (that we used to see). Manufacturers are just looking for the cheapest way, the least expensive supplier. Charge us more the first time if you have to, but give us a part that works!” 

Peterson also brought up a theme that ran through just about all of my discussions with restorers. Perhaps the biggest problem facing restorers in 2024 is simply finding the right specialty shop that can do the smaller jobs that used to be easier to farm out. A town that used to have three, four or five radiator shops might have one remaining. The owner is usually older, too, and often looking for someone to take over. It’s the same deal at a radio repair facility or that automobile clock repair shop. Finding someone who can reline brakes, grind cams or even make replacement keys is becoming increasingly more difficult.

The takeaways are twofold: For the consumer, understand that constraints are tightening for the shops that keep your ride on the road, so once you’ve found a good one, be patient with them. For the entrepreneurs who might be reading:  Perhaps you should set your focus on becoming a specialty supplier. Find a need and fill it. And do it soon, because the demand is strong.

***

Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Roadkill Nights Returns, Highlights Dodge’s Shift to Hurricane Inline-Six Power

Comments

    Here is what I have seen going on. Cost of car repair has gone up much in the last couple years. Part prices are up, labor cost are up and the lack of labor is making it tough to find qualified people to do the work.

    I see the struggles at the shop my buddy owns. People get upset with the prices of work and to be honest he is cheaper than most. I have told him he under charges just as his dad did. They both want to be fair but even then people complain.

    He also works on older cars as his family have had a long history of restoration work. I have told him he may be better off doing restorations and charging the prices they call for.

    But as we discussed even there the price to restore many cars is more than the value of most cars. He has a 65 barn find Corvette now that if he sold it as is he would make money but to restore it right he may break even. You have to have customers willing to invest in cars for the love of it not the investment. Other wise you are better off just buying a restored car and let someone else take the hit.

    Yes there are some cars that are worth the restoration but they are the highe rend rare models. Most people choke today at the cost of just a good paint job today.

    The shops I see really doing well are the ones that specialize in a brand or a platform from a mfg. They have built reps that make them the go to and they can charge the big money as they are the ones doing cars that bring big money.

    I know some of my customers are custom shops that do street rods and hot rods. They build cars for doctors and lawyers with money that can’t turn a wrench. They also build cars for auctions where they can supplement their income with a car sale 1-2 times a year, The auctions at AZ, Reno and Vegas bring high rollers that are not traditional buyers but with money. They will ove pay.

    Sadly too often many cars are worth more parted out anymore. Even many Ferrari and Duesenburg classics can bring more in parts than whole.

    There are many challenges out there too with regulations and more.

    There is money to be made but it take work to build a rep and skills you gain to build that rep that will bring the money to make a good living. Good marketing and making yourself know is key. Being at the right events and showing your work goes a long way too.

    Parts shortages have always been around in one way or another,.Your deal with it. Also a restoration is a project that can take a year or years.

    Dan Short of Fantom Works in VA has a series of videos out that show the challenges and the cost and time of restoration work. He is a real no BS guy and tells the truth on what they see and many other shops see. He explains the cost and where they come from in detail. It is something anyone who plans to restore should watch. He moved on from the TV show as it was getting in the way of work. He liked it but the cars and business come first. Many other tv show shops are there just for the TV is was not.

    I know in the next 20 years many are wondering where this is all going to go. We will see more changes in these years than the last 120 years in the automotive business.

    Will the love of the car still be enough to make restoration an option? I red where the other day someone pointed out if you bought a new Camaro when it came back out vs buying the GM stock with the same money when it was .75 cents a share and then sold it when it hit $45 the money you would have made, vs buying the car. Will things like Nividia stock prices make for better investments or will people take that money and then restore? Time will tell.

    That’s a long-winded response, hard to tell if you’re agreeing with him or trying to hijack the author by writing your own opinion column.

    Either way, I do think that restoration is making less and less sense for the enthusiast of “average” means. Cost of everything at the moment (not just parts and supplies) is so out of hand that it is a wonder that anyone can pay a shop to do a restoration at a cost where the owner can make a modest living…

    I have been restoring Porsche 356s for 30+ years. If you GIVE me a car, I can’t brake even on it today. I’ve stopped. Liberty Motorsports

    As far as Labor Goes–When I was a teen it was Common for bus owners to hire a Green” kid-train them & help with schooling –Insuring a competent/reliable work force– It needn’t cost the bus money because it frees up the experienced workers to do jobs that make more money– why have a class A mechanic/ builder/Plumber do cleanup– Why not train a future”Expert” while getting unskilled jobs done cheaper–

    I believe where he is coming from is based on years of similar experience. I have a similar background and agree with everything that he states. I found it to be a well thought out response.

    Experience, yes, he comments enough that I believe he has tons of industry experience, but I agree with John B that it could’ve been shortened. A lot of what is contained in this response is more corroboration, in my opinion than a new view to what the author provided, so I don’t see a point of a feature length article in the comments…

    Good article, spot on. I hear these exact same issues voiced constantly from my car guy friends.

    Everybody complains about high costs of labor, parts…everything, how long it takes to get stuff done on their car for even routine repairs (let alone full restorations), etc. Lack of available talent/help is, of course, numero uno on the list of problems everyone in the business grapples with daily. Unfortunately there are no quick fixes for any of this.

    As for costs, it is what it is, IMO. Most of my friends who complain about it can afford it anyway. For those who can’t, they either start doing more DIY or maybe think about pursing a cheaper hobby.

    No one wants their kids to fix cars for a living, even though it could well be a stable six-figure/year career. How many more lawyers, investment bankers and digital marketing pros do we need, anyway?

    We also live in a culture of disposable stuff so that seems to be affecting parts availability. When I hear that not that old Porsche cars are having issues I wonder what is going on because if there should be a profitable marketplace Porsche is one of them. Environmental regulations are also becoming a problem and seemingly are aimed at eliminating a car/part not helping the environment.

    I can get parts for my 62 year old Porsche with no problem. Though there is an issue with quality, my original ignition switch works fine compared to a replacement I installed a few years back. The return spring stopped working. My newer Cayenne S is a different story. it is not unusual to have to wait 4 weeks for the part to come from Germany. In both cases there are Porsche prices to be paid. How can an aluminum trim strip that I paid $ 5.00 for one week, cost $ 288.00 the next week? How can Porsche not make a profit with that business model?

    Ditto Ray, I had to recently wait ( 5 ) weeks for simplest ( IMO ) A/C hoses. Only sourced in Germany for my 2004 996. The Porsche dealer part pro shared he had Never seen that part replace ( an accident broke mine ). The good news, OEM from 2004 is durable and still performing well. Never Stop Driving.

    Agreed on the specialty shops. Try to find a locksmith to re-key a lock cylinder. Most say just get a new set off eBay. Sure, if you want garbage.

    I see a few rays of hope. Through my build of my E30, I’ve run across a pretty vibrant younger generation of car guys and gals, as well as oldsters like me (68, so I remember these cars new). Later this month, we’ll have the 21st E30 Picnic in Tacoma, which will attract tons of cars and lots of 20-something enthusiasts who weren’t even alive for decade after my ‘89 was new. So the young enthusiasts are out there. Not only that, they were able to program my standalone Megasquirt ECU, a task I could not possibly have done. It’s a very cool aspect of the E30 community.

    Even as a DIYer, with several cars ranging 36 to 15 years old, I’m already running into problems with finding certain replacement electronic parts that i can trust. Today, there are so many different cars with specialized, single model parts that i cannot imagine that the aftermarket will ever be able to fulfill even the smallest demand. For some electronics, we will be hacking other parts to make them work where they weren’t supposed to. As long as we’re willing to accept certain parts not being original, or even not working like original, maybe there’s some hope for the future.

    hyperv6, glad you got to vent all that heated air, and thanks btw for the gratuitous slap at “doctors and lawyers who can’t turn a wrench”. You might also look at them as well-heeled enthusiasts who are helping keep skills alive, older cars alive, and institutions such as McPherson College alive by providing work for their graduates. And some of us do turn wrenches, within our limits.

    Everything Dave said is absolutely true. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the financial pressures mentioned may induce more owners to train themselves to work on their own cars, at least to some extent. Folks will do extraordinary things on behalf of the cars that they love. Including learning how to turn wrenches.

    Here’s a comment not mentioned yet. The proliferation of supposed “classic car dealers”. These businesses have drastically increased the cost of classic cars; anything from perfectly restored vehicles to a half rusted out “survivor car”. When looking for an older car, I always shop with actual owners looking to sell. You can gain invaluable insight into any repairs, restoration, vehicle history and condition. Most owners/sellers are openly honest, unlike many of the dealers. You’ll also save a lot of $ by buying privately. These “classic car” dealers will often buy cars at auction, then try to resell them for well over what they’ve worth. It’s far more difficult getting your money back when the time comes to sell if you purchased your car from any of these dealers. I’ve seen one dealer advertise and boast of its cars being “hand picked”. One car I looked at in their online ad looked so bad I could only imagine what an in person inspection would reveal. And while auctions are entertaining, buying a classic car at an auction will likely be an expensive proposition, as sellers and buyers fees will account for around 20% of the vehicle’s cost. And similar to purchasing at a “classic car” dealer, you’ll likely receive little information on the car’s repairs, restoration, history and condition. And forget about taking the car for a road test or sometimes even starting it! Keeping the car hobby affordable and interesting is best done through the actual owners of these vehicles. Unfortunately, capitalism has permeated the hobby to the extent of driving away many enthusiasts.

    These guys are selling garage queens. A shop in Silicon Valley that worked on my 45 years family owned 68 Camaro convertible did similar bad work. looked pretty, but wasn’t sorted out very well. Now I am personally redoing it so it will be right.

    I’m new to the classic car club. I have enjoyed Hagerty’s articles which encourage participation.
    They could be a great resource. Maybe they could develop a reference list of suppliers and specialty repair shops by region. It would be a great resource.
    By the way, I’m a retired doc who was dropping transmissions and doing most mechanical things as a teenager. I had stopped most repairs when the cars became mechanically and electrically complex. I’m back at it working on my 1960 FJ 25 & my ‘89 Suburban.

    The information provided in this article is very true. Finding a body shop that will do a perfect job at a reasonable price is both hard to find or next to impossible to locate. Furthermore, what you want in a shop is honesty and integrity which is required for an owner to be put at ease.

    Although, Hagerty is a U.S. based magazine with fantastic and informative articles 1 thing I don’t see is much on anything representing the Canadian involvement in this classic car industry.

    One Canadian company which prides itself on restoring vehicles to their perfect condition is Legendary Motorcar Company which is located in Halton Hills in Ontario Canada. Seeing their restoration projects the outstanding perfection this company performs is totally off the charts. Peter Klute the owner has a great eye to fit, finish and perfection. But, with perfection comes at a price. If an individual has a budget more times than not the budget will be exceeded. Inflation has taken over the world in everything that is required to live a normal life.

    I live in Northern Ontario (3 hrs north of Toronto) so finding a good shop in our area is very, very hard. At times you may have to go to a bigger metropolitan centre to get bodywork done which just adds to the costs.Getting good workers (employees) that has the passion of the Classic Car industry is also hard to find.

    Insurance companies too (I was an insurance adjuster for 27 years) find it hard dealing with repairing a damaged vehicle by trying to find out the actual cost to repair (which usually goes over) and finding the proper replacement parts which are hard to source as some of the parts required can be found in the U.S. This can be the determining factor in writing the vehicle off.

    As a classic car owner (1970 Chevelle SS) I make sure that my vehicle is properly insured (with Hagerty) to it’s proper value so that in the event of a total loss I’m well compensated. Except you don’t have your vehicle anymore. You’ve still lost a prized vehicle that you have enjoyed for many years.

    If I can make a suggestion to the editor of this magazine, could you have more Canadian content in future articles? There are many Canadian car enthusiasts that receive this wonderful magazine so, why not put a little Canadian content every so often?

    i attend to agree with Hammer there should be a little more canadian content as i also am a member of hagerty ins. with my 68 chevelle ss and 84 chev siverado. thanks.

    When I wrote my article I made sure to double space for a new paragraph. However, when it was published it came out without any breaks.

    How can we comment properly with paragraphs etc so it doesn’t come out looking like a manifesto lol?

    I’m not happy with the quality of repopped parts and off shore misfits at horrendous prices. It’s a challenge to properly finish a classic car with the crap we have to work with. I would happily pay more for something that is top quality, fits and works first time! Come on folks! Work with us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *