Leno: Appreciation for hard work is fading, and old cars aren’t easy

Gabe Augustine

Once I had a gentleman on The Tonight Show who had climbed Mount Everest, which is an amazing feat that is nearly impossible for most people under the best of circumstances. But this guy was also blind. Imagine being 29,000 feet up, grabbing at snow, not knowing if it’s night or day, with the wind howling and every breath a challenge, and you can’t see anything. Anyway, he was a nice gentleman and an incredible athlete who afterward had been doing motivational speaking. I asked him how it was going and he sort of grimaced. He said the frustrating part was the meet-and-greet after, when at least one person in every audience would come up and say, “Yeah, I was going to climb Mount Everest, but, you know, the kids have soccer and work is crazy and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Like it was so easy except, you know, soccer practice. Here this fellow had trained his whole life to do something that maybe one out of 10 million people can do, had endured incredible hardship, and had even overcome the fact that he was blind, and people were so dismissive of it.

Maybe it’s because life has gotten pretty soft and we don’t make anything for ourselves anymore, but we’re losing respect for other people’s accomplishments and hard work, for what the human hand can do instead of just the human brain. I hear this all the time from guys who have their cars restored and who have never turned a wrench in their lives: All mechanics are crooks, they’ll overcharge you at every turn. They’ll moan about the high cost of a paint job, for example, not realizing that the paint is $600 a quart and somebody has to spend hours sanding it and finishing it because a good finish doesn’t come out of a rattle-can of Rust-Oleum.

Sunbeam Tiger Hagerty Employee Restoration project car front on lift
Gabe Augustine

Our appreciation or understanding of other people’s hard work is fading, and that rankles me. The last time I pulled a transmission out of something here at the garage, it took hours and my hands were bleeding and covered in grease, and I thought, “Some guy only makes a couple hundred bucks for doing that?” That’s why I don’t usually question a quote for something we need to get done outside the garage. Good work doesn’t seem expensive when you think about how much actual effort goes into it, and that someone needs to be able to make a living doing it or else nobody will do it. Besides, I have yet to meet anyone who is getting rich by sandblasting rusty parts or re-chroming bumpers. They’re not overcharging—in fact, they’re probably undercharging.

Well, nowadays we watch these shows where they restore a car in a weekend, literally, and it seems so easy. The sparks are flying and guys are trying to ram a big-screen TV into the dash, and after a couple of commercial breaks and some pounding music, the car is done. It gives people an unrealistic picture of what it takes to restore a car—the thousands of hours, many of which are never billed. Just the amount of research a restorer has to do, figuring out how things go together and what is supposed to be original, is huge.

These days, Amazon will drop a package on your doorstep the same day you order it, so we’re also losing touch with how long things take in the real world. A very famous country western star called me not long ago and said, “It’s my husband’s birthday, he’s always wanted a 1953 Ford F-100, a red one, and I want to get one for his birthday. Can you get me one?” I said I couldn’t promise it would be red, but I would look around. Then I asked when his birthday is. She said, “Thursday.” I said, “This is Tuesday! I’m not going to find a car in two days. It takes awhile!” She didn’t get it.

Next time you’re walking a car show, before you judge some guy because his paint isn’t perfect, think about how much of the work you do yourself. Unlike everything else we buy these days, there’s nothing quick, easy, or cheap about old cars. And while few of us will ever climb Mount Everest, restoring a classic car is enough of a mountain for most people. Give them some credit.

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    I get it. I too restore old cars. I do it for love because you will never get enough money out of it and in the end you will probably lose more than you made. I saw a pick up I built a few years ago. Still out there running away. Made me feel good al over.

    I hear you …. I do not really restore them but I do build hotrods and racecars. We have run a few of our builds at the Bonneville Salt Flats and over the years, set a dozen or more speed records – with many at speeds over 200 mph. The know-it-alls have regularly chimed in with poorly thought out comments about that being “such an easy thing” to do. My comeback is “You should do it yourself sometime and show me where I am going wrong”. None of them ever will though because, as things end the day these interactions take place, they all have not yet made any mistakes in building the car that will never be built.

    Anyway, Mr. Leno, thanx for sharing what a lot of us doers out here also know!

    My son & I are lowly sandblasters . A dying art for sure. But Leno is right , most think we are too expensive. Except the company we strip 2.5 million dollar Porsche’s for. They are happy they found us , no matter the cost….

    I drove old cars because they were all we could afford. No one wanted a pre-war sled with one taillight and one wiper. I would wake up in the morning and hit every junkyard on San Fernando road and scrounge for parts before the old cars were crushed, that would burn the woodys, more straightforward than trying to dismantle them. I called Adlen Brothers Wrecking and they delivered a 1966 corvette 327 to my door across from the Safari Inn. I could go to Wannamaker rents and rent a hoist for six bucks and all was good. Got the two-speed power glide for free. I was buying Panel trucks and vintage cars, 55 fords, tr 250 pickups, and 40 coupes and Corvairs for peanuts as the guys were going into service to fight in Viet Nam. I had no tools. Maybe a vice grips, a hammer, borrowed floor jacks, and unbridled youth energy. I am not sure but I think you brought a car you found in the recycler ads and were very proud you could sleep in it. I still have my 39 GMC carryall and a 1937 Cord and a Harley Panhead but in the last twenty years there is something missing, maybe I am getting old and slow and inflation and bill tempts me to let them go. I have a wonderful library with hundreds of prewar literature and photos that young people just would not understand as old is two coats of paint. I did enough hard work and crippled myself but what a ride it has been. I’m still going till they plant me.

    Mr Leno,
    thank you for stating the obvious, that as you noted most are oblivious to. I have worked a mechanic for 25 + years, restored many cars, the best saying I have heard , in a similar vein, was “you aren’t paying for the tools, your are paying for the years it took me to know how to use them”. I like the fact that some people enjoy “the whole” of their cars, but get disappointed when they are willfully ignorant the the amazing amount of effort and knowledge required to create something as simple as a door latch .
    again thanks , and I wish you a speedy recovery

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