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.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: 24 Hours of Le Mans postponed until August 2021


    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.

    on the other side: I totally restored a 1970 camaro for a guy ( junk yard hulk to start with) when it was done he drove it some, put in in a Leaky fallen down garage, never even put a car cover on it ! They have NO “Respect” for what it takes. Makes me angry when any putz with a pocket full of cash can own one and be so “proud” when they never touched anything on the car to restore it !

    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….

    Repairing cars require skill. bodywork and paint, require equal skill, more labor, and much more patience, than I would argue even assembling the most complex engine or gear box. The aesthetic line on a fender or wide flat panel can make or break a paint job long before the paint is ever applied. Hammer and dolly work, wet sanding, all paint prep labor is what make a paint job. Heat shrinking metal, cutting out rust areas, replacing with good metal, proper welding, and then refinishing. All this requires time and those people need to be paid for that time. A good paint job is only as good as the metal it is applied on.

    Over the years me and my brother restored several cars in private. It is a lot of work if you want to do it right. So I have respect for all these people who do this for a living often coming from the love for cars. Yes often it is a lot of money but they are not expensive. It is not only time. It is also tools rent energie etc. If you think it is too expensive…??? Do it yourself !!!!! Or buy a new car because you not worth having a classic.

    Here here! As a restorer I had a guy drop by in an early 911, enquiring about getting it restored, and what that might take. I was standing next to a TR4 chassis being built back up, painted, running gear in – ‘if we take it to this level, and do everything, you’re probably looking at 150’
    911 guy – ‘is that hours?’ ….no, that’s thousands (Canadian, 10yrs ago) – he went a bit pale, didn’t say a word, turned around and hopped in his car and drove off.
    The plethora of crappy tv shows depicting a resto as quick and easy is serving no one.

    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

    You are correct, those “overnight” TV restorations maybe fun to watch but they have ruined it for most in the “classic car” business, even trying to buy an old project vehicle to restore is difficult because the seller thinks its worth a fortune.

    I worked 45 years as a mechanic low pay,long hours,blood sweat and tears.Most people look down on that type of work.I’ve also restored many cars and Leno’s right people have no idea the hours and labour that go into restoring a car.That’s why I can’t bear to sell mine when I think of the effort it took.

    This is all so true. Not just in reference to cars but to all of life’s works. The unrealistic and lack of understanding most people now have about manual labor or time required to accomplish a real goal not only amazes me but tells me most have never really put any real sweat equality in the anything in life.

    Jay, you are spot on with your comments. I have a nearly 100-year-old non-Ford car that I bought 53 years ago. I took it completely apart to restore it until Uncle Sam came a knocking. I got married and had a family and the car sat apart for almost 50 years until I retired. With countless enjoyable hours it is nearly restored now.

    If I had a Pound for every time someone had said to me at a car show “Oh yeah, I don’t work on the car myself, I just don’t have the skills”……..well, how do they think anyone ever gets ‘the skills’. It’s not rocket science, you just have to do a bit of self-education, and then get stuck in. I start by assuming that I can do something unless it’s proved otherwise. If you have to pay someone else to do it for you, then just look at the expense as a justifiable tax on your lack of self-belief!

    Jay, first off sorry about your mishap with the fire. If we wrench long enough we all have our stories that’s for sure. Been wrenching for over 55 years. Never had a car I did not do something to improve it. Love what you had a say and sharing your passion on your show. Love your garage and all the beautiful cars. I have built and cherished many cars over the years. My last build was a 1964 Studebaker Avanti supercharged 4 speed that belonged to my best friend in HS that died of cancer at 26 years old. Very emotional build for sure and lots of $$$$$$. Thanks again for sharing and all you do for our passion for the classic cars.

    I got the car gene from my dad. He used to read Automobile Quarterly to me. I passed it on to my son, He’s 27 now, and is a graduate of MacPherson college’s autos program. I joke that to find a good mechanic for my old cars, I had to give birth to one and raise him.

    He, and his peers, with whom I got to spend time, know the cost and effort needed to restore and maintain vintage cars. Many drive them as dailies. Many are gifted restorers. They would love to go into the business. Some have tried. Most of those are no longer in the business because it is not financially viable and they work outside the industry, or at the peripheral of it.

    Why? It’s not because they lack the desire. Alot of it is because of the mentality you express. The “I want it now” idea – and the concept that those who can produce a nice car are not craftsmen…artists, even. The industry seldom provides these young men and women with a working wage, so they leave the industry to take a position that offers them this. There is also the push to cut corners in order to make a profit, which is no crime, but it drives away those trained to do things the right way.

    Young people are interested in vintage cars, and they have the passion and desire to take the time and put in the hard work, but segments of the classic car industry no longer value these things. Craftsmen are not always time and cost efficient.

    That goes back to the initial premise. Old cars aren’t easy, and neither is being a young person who wants to work on them. They ARE out there. Most work on their own cars and friend’s cars in their spare time.

    Heal quickly, Mr. Leno. The old car world is cheering you on.

    It’s hard to get anyone to work anymore, even paying cash.So many of younger generation will do r&r of plastic body parts because of a deer hit, but not the foggiest idea about dents or rust. Jay I’ve tried to visit w/ you, but can’t get through all the security and yet you say this woman called you. How? !’ve been messing w/ old cars and cycles for 65 years and have established the largest and most diversified museum in Montana. Google Miracle of America Museum and also see our U Tube videos.

    Amen Jay, I’m fairly new to classic cars but have done a few repairs in my day. Tough work and admire all who do it. Worth every penny when the gig is beyond me.

Leave a Reply

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