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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    Mr Leno, I hope you recover fully — I have been “seared” minimally making rescues form a coupla fiery incidents thru the years — I’ve even been “freeze burned” by a damaged CO2 fire extinguisher I was utilizing to put down a van fire. My “Beulah” I built from a wrecked 55 Ford wagon I found sittin in a vacant lot in “OB” [ Ocean Beach ] in San Diego in 1967 She had nearly 800,000 miles on her when she was “killed” in August of 2011! She was REbuilt FOR me in 2014 — but was never again able to BE safe to use to “Play ON the Freeway” She is scheduled to BE “installed” IN the San Diego Automotive Museum here in Balboa Park in 2023 I’m honored! It’s BEEN a “Long and Winding ROAD”and SO MANY memories. http://www.sandiegohighwayman.org

    Good perspective. Get better Jay, and prayers for a good recovery. I hope your recent circumstance shows people what hard work is, and that sometimes it takes doing things yourself to appreciate the guys that make a living doing it.

    Jay, is spot-on! I’ve been working on cars since I was a teen (40 plus years now) and have all the scars to prove it! As a society, we are a product of the microwave phenomenon. Hot lunch in a minute & 30 seconds and we think that is too much wait time.. Thus began the trend of instant gratification that is snowballing further even as I type this. Amazon will deliver it in the same day in many cases and soon that will too long. Few seem capable of appreciating real craftsmanship, which most of the time is NOT perfect but at least the attempt was made. Speaking of cars that I’ve busted my knuckles on, I won’t sell anything to someone who doesn’t know how and hasn’t turned their own wrenches to build a car. Someone I know appreciates the car, work, effort, and sacrifice and will treat with deserved respect. Every time I have sold to the person with money as a first consideration, (and witnessed this with plenty of friends too) the car invariably ends up absolutely wrecked within a short amount of time. I’d rather give it to someone deserving, who will preserve and improve along the way..

    I spent 20 years in the auto body industry. 7 years with my own shop. Everything you state is why I got out of it. If you are doing a restoration well you are not only arguing price but taking your time to educate the customer too as to why it costs what it does. I just got tired of it. I was grinding welds inside the trunk of a Z28 getting burned and got out and said, I am done. If I ever get back into it it will be on my own cars and that’s it. So often the people who have the money to have the cars done right are disrespectful to what it takes to achieve that. I miss some aspects but most I don’t.

    Mr Leno, I have been burned, and advise you to be careful of pain meds. You will have to adjust when you stop taking them. Also, pain can cause super high blood pressure, so ya gotta balance that. I am not a doctor, but I was a mechanic, forty-seven years. Your friend in Waldo, Shannon

    I bought a 1966 ShelbyGT360 in 1973. This was right before the muscle car collecting hobby took off The Gt 350 had been a daily driver including New York winters for the 1st owner My intentent was to “fix it up” and wring out out on the streets of my home town Typically life got in the way and after and engine rebuild worked stopped but I never sold it Well the earth turned a zillion times and at age 68 and almost retired I decided to completely restore the car After some nights lying in bed soul searching I admitted to myself that this was probably not a great idea for someone of my age Never the less I forged ahead and with the combined effort of restoration professionals coupled with 7 years of hard hard work the project was completed I was 76 years old and exhausted but I did it Jay is right you never will have full appreciation of the hard work and effort needed to restore a car not the hours and cost involved until you do it my advise don’t wait until you are retired Pat B

    I was 60 +years in the motor industry starting as an apprentice in 1963 aged 15. I was paid £3 guineas a week.47-hour week buy your own tools and decent handwash. Loved it!! I went on “day release” for 5 years. I could go on. Times have changed we expect immediate gratification as a result of the media in its various forms. We have no time for life . Restoring cars is time-consuming, costly and hard work . All these virtues are in short supply these days

    A very timely article: restoring, upcycling, repairing has never been more important. I’m not just referring to collector’s vehicles worth a fortune (lovely though they are) but also to the almost dead everyday skills needed to fix everyday items – that broken saucepan handle, that rusty lawn mower, that leaking washing machine. I fix and restore classic cars for a living, but not for the rich, for the normal people who actually use their vehicles. I charge a very low hourly rate and often don’t make money on a job – I know I need to put my prices up substantially but finding customers who can afford it (who often want swanky workshops to visit) is another matter. Best wishes to all the craftspeople out there, Nick at Nagara automotive.

    Me and my best friend Roger completely understand and if you think it hard to find one now, wait 5 years from now

    I’ve been lucky and have restored a number of cars. Done lot of work myself but have hired the best to do what I’m not capable of. One of my cars (I owned for 37 years) a 1959 Troy took 8 years to restore because I kept running out of money. But when done it was worth doing right. It was sold in 2017 and the fella that bought it is now reproducing it (7fifteenmotorworks.com). It makes me feel proud that I took my time and did it right. I’m really happy because my son-in law took delivery of a new one a month ago.

    hello out there to all you who bust your behind to deliver a vehicle . for those who think they know what it takes, spend a day in a shop and see what goes on . my motto is “built NOT bought” . jack dempsky

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