My New Side Hustle: Hostage Negotiator for Captured Parts

Rob Siegel

In late April, Larry Webster, he who brought me on briefly at Road & Track eleven years ago and then here at Hagerty, contacted me and asked for my help. It began with, “How far are you from Groton?” a question I can’t say I’ve ever been asked before.

The story was that the turn signal assembly (the housing and stalks) for Webster’s Ferrari Dino was being rebuilt by Unobtainium Supply Co., a one-man operation in Groton, Massachusetts, but it had been there for a year without completion. “I’ve talked to him every week for the past six, and it’s been a constant ‘one more step, about a day,’ but I’m starting to think it’s never going to get done,” Webster texted. “I might need you to do a rescue.”

The deeper story is that Webster has been restoring his 1975 Dino 308 GT4 (see part I and part II) for the past three years, and many things have gone wrong or gone long or gone over budget along the way. In addition, there were issues over and above the normal project delays, things like specialists passing away with Webster’s parts still in their possession. The project is nearing the point of the car being whole, so he really wants the turn signal assembly back, but he was beginning to fear that dark fate might strike a third time: He wondered if there was some personal situation, such as a poor turn of health, preventing the gentleman from getting the work done on the assembly. This is a fine line to walk. While you don’t want to be “that guy” who’s a pest in the middle of someone else’s hardship (as the saying goes, be kind—you never know what battles people are fighting), you’d also hate to lose an, um, unobtanium part if things went south.

“The turn signal assembly can be bought,” Webster texted, “but not the housing that is the bulk of the steering column. He is rebuilding #37 in this diagram (the stalks and switches). I can buy a new one which looks not original. That’s the situation I’m in. I would leave #37 with him, as it is useless to me and maybe one day he’ll finish. What I desperately need is #16, the cover.”

Hack Mechanic Negotiating Hostage Parts catalogue
Courtesy Eurospares

In subsequent texts, more frustration came out. “I’ve talked to him every week for the past six. Dude who owns the shop [Verell] is nice and his heart is in the right place, [but] I have no idea if he even knows the status of my switches, even though he’s said for a month ‘Just one more day to finish.’ 75% [of the time] when I call, I get voicemail. When he answers, he’s been great. I spoke with him Tuesday. He [says he’s] recovering from a cold and he’d email me the final estimate on Wednesday. No dice. I emailed back that I want to send somebody by to pick up my parts. No response. I’d appreciate someone simply knocking on the door and putting eyes to what is going on.”

Groton is a pleasant 50-minute drive for me, so I told Webster I was glad to hop in one of the fun cars and shoot out there and see what was what. He texted me “Operation: Save My Parts is now engaged!” along with a representative photo of the piece I needed to rescue.

Hack Mechanic Negotiating Hostage Parts Dino
Having received this photo of a similar cover, I hoped it didn’t mean I was supposed to break in, rummage through this guy’s shop, find something that looked like this, grab it, and run.Rob Siegel

So on a lovely day a few days after “OSMP” had officially commenced, I drove out to Groton in my white ’73 BMW 2002. The Ferrari sign on the garage indicated that I was clearly in the right place, but unfortunately, my door-knocking at both the garage and the front door went unanswered. I did run into a neighbor, who offered that Verell’s wife’s car was in the driveway but his wasn’t. I tactfully posed the question, “But he’s usually here, right?” and didn’t hear anything back that sounded like a personal crisis. I went into town, grabbed a bite to eat, came back, still no second car, still no one answering the door, though I did see what looked like a content well-cared-for cat through the side glass. I left a note in the mailbox, reported back to Webster, and headed home.

Hack Mechanic Negotiating Hostage Parts Ferrari garage
This certainly appeared to be Unobtainium Supply.Rob Siegel

A week later, Webster texted me saying he’d still heard nothing from Verell, and was considering flying out to do an in-person intervention, or at least a friendly stalking.

“Let me try again,” I said. “Really, it’s no hardship for me to take another one of my cars through the twisties on the way back out to Groton.”

So I did, this time letting my ’79 Euro 635CSi enjoy the countryside (like I said, no hardship). And this time, to my surprise, Verell answered the door. I was suddenly face-to-face with a stocky late-70s-looking stone-faced gentleman in overalls. I explained who I was and why I was there, and said as non-confrontationally as possible that Larry Webster had asked me to collect the turn signal assembly for him in whatever condition it was in.

The terse response from Verell’s craggy New England face was, “He’s going to have to pay me first.”

“Um, just a minute,” I said. Figuring that being an intermediary might be more productive than simply dialing party #1 and handing my cell phone to party #2, I went out to the privacy of my car, called Webster, and said that I’d just had a face-to-face with Verell.

“No way!” Webster said. He was thrilled that I’d actually made contact.

Then I explained the “He’ll have to pay me first” part.

“I’ve tried to pay him several times,” he said with some degree of frustration. “I’ve asked for an invoice. I’ve offered half now and half when done. Whatever the delay is isn’t because of payment.”

Webster then repeated Plan B from our initial conversation: “See if you can just get the housing back. If he wants to keep working on the switch, that’s fine.”

I went back inside and proposed this to Verell. He softened a bit. “Well,” he said, “it’s not that simple. There’s a wiring harness that’s still attached to the housing. I have it pulled out just enough to work on the switch. It’s extra work to detach the harness from the housing. Besides,” he said, “I’m almost done. It’ll be done tonight, tomorrow at the latest.”

This was all cordial and to-the-point. I’m a sucker for cordial and to-the-point. I’m also a big fan of “it’s not that simple.” Tell me anything in a reasoned, experienced voice and I’ll believe it. And yet, Webster had sent the part to the guy a year ago, and had given me some pretty specific instructions regarding coming back with some physical goods. It was an awkward position to be in as a middleman.

“I don’t know any of the details of the housing and the switch,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want to cause you extra work.”

Then I joked, “Anything Ferrari-related is way above my pay grade anyway.” Verell’s stone face relaxed a bit.

Then I offered—truthfully: “I actually write for Larry’s magazine, so I owe him several favors. And, I don’t know if you know, but a lot has gone wrong with him putting this car back together. I’m just trying to help him out with this one small part of it.” This wasn’t any sort of a strategy, but afterwards I recalled reading that a technique for dealing with people in charge of their fiefdoms is to candidly explain your need and ask for their help, because deep down, people want to help, but they want you to ask and want to be acknowledged as helping.

“How about this,” I said. “Can you look me in the eye and tell me that it’ll be done in the next few days?”

Verell sighed, then looked me in the eye. “It’ll be done in the next few days, maybe even tonight or tomorrow,” he said. Then he added, “It’s the only thing I’m working on right now.”

“That’ll be a good thing for me to tell Larry,” I said. He smiled. I thanked him, we shook hands, I went back to the car, and reported all this to Webster with the recommendation that he give the gentleman a few more days.

A few evenings later, when I was eating dinner with my wife, I got a text from Webster. It said:

“WOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! I just got a bill from Verell, which I paid. He said he’ll ship it tomorrow. You could definitely be a hostage negotiator!”

Still, the fat turn signal assembly hadn’t sung yet. I recalled the scene in the movie Proof of Life where hostage rescuer Russell Crowe tells Meg Ryan and David Morse “Don’t you DARE celebrate until the wheels of the plane touch down in the United States.”

Five days later, Larry texted me: “Yayssssss! Thank you Rob!” With it was a photo that was not only proof of life, but proof of release.

Hack Mechanic Negotiating Hostage Parts dino steering controls
Sweet success.Rob Siegel

So there you have it. My new third act in life. Rob Siegel: Hack unobtainium parts hostage negotiator. I’m certain there must be a few BMW 2002tii Kugelfischer mechanical-injection pumps out there in need of my services.


Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website,

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    Sounds like this guy must be a relative of the machine shop owner I tried using some years ago. He had a good reputation from what little I could find out and a nice tidy shop. Then….’By the end of the day’ … ‘First thing in the morning’…’ ‘Right after lunch’… ‘Early tomorrow’. The only up side was he was only about ten minutes away. The guy I use now is an over an hour ride on a p.o.s. heavily congested road that I normally avoid like the plaque but its more than well worth the trip.

    Rob well done, you can skip the 10 reciting of the rosary today and as a bonus you just did a flavor for the boss. 😉😉😉

    This is exactly why I hesitate to take work on for others unless I’m physically going to them. I have this same level of procrastination. So either bring it to my garage and help, or I come to you. Dropping stuff and promising to get to it just kicks my ADHD in to relax mode.

    Rob – This is a close second to another story you wrote recently, where you said you broke your rule about working on other people’s cars (and because you broke your own rule, you got an offer to drive a genuine 427 Cobra). I mean, in this case, while you didn’t actually WORK on someone else’s car, becoming a middleman trying to get a part back is – well let’s just say it’s splitting hairs pretty thinly to claim that the one action is far removed from the other, okay?
    But to-be-perfectly-honest, not many of us would refuse when the boss (to whom you already felt a little obligated) calls for a favor, would say, “Sorry, you must have the wrong number” and hang up…
    So, you worked on someone else’s car and now have the favor of an offer to pilot a Cobra, and you helped someone else on their car project, and presumably that means he feels he owes you a favor. Theoretically, you violated your rule twice and have rewards coming – twice. Time to think about changing your rules? 😁

    I just got a 1995 Polaris jetski back with a rebuilt engine that I left at a not dissimilar shop in 2010. I had given up after a zillion calls (voice mail not set up) and owner never there when I visit-it’s up North by the cabin. Shockingly a week ago I got a call that a new engine was in, it was all finished and was tested driving between ice floes early this spring in NW WI. I thought he was calling me to scrap it. Knock me over with a feather!! Was some similar ‘hostage negotiation’ attempted. Next time I’m calling Rob! It would be a 1200 mile drive vs your 50 lol.

    The drive from Newton to Groton in a classic BMW this time of year was probably quite special. Next time take me with you!!

    I told Larry he should have kept that Mustang. Stress level is less and you can actually find parts plentiful and maybe even drive it. But it is going to be a beautiful car when itis done and hopefully he has many memories (good ones) driving it.

    Glad it finally worked out. Delays – or worse, stonewalling repair/rebuild/restoration work, seems to be getting worse over the last few years. Yeah, pandemic, supply chain, whatever, but years later those excuses are sounding a bit lame. But reading between the lines, if that was the only thing the guy was working on, maybe his other/previous customers have moved on to a more timely source…

    Something I learned as a young lawyer- it’s much harder to tell a man to f*ck off face to face, tan over the phone, or in a letter (much less a text or email. There’s deep psychology there. Your presence is an invasion of turf. Many years ago, I needed documents from opposing counsel, which were clearly not forthcoming. So, one day, about 4 pm. I walked into his office and asked for him.
    “He’s Busy” said his receptionist.
    “I’m not” I replied, poured myself some of his coffee, grabbed a ‘People’ magazine, and picked out a chair in the middle of the waiting room.
    As I recall, it took about an hour and a half, but I got my audience. And the documents.

    You are so right Scott. I call it “calling them out on the carpet” and it usually gets results. The last one I had to deal with was a chrome shop almost 2 hours away with his over promised delays. The last call that I got to talk with him, that only half the parts were done, I said I will be there on a week from tomorrow to pick my stuff up – done or not and will pay accordingly. When I got there, surprisingly it was all done!

    Wow, I’d really like to think that a brotherhood actually existed amongst “classic car” owners and repair shops that work on them. But I find just the opposite.
    I own a 46 year young Mopar. I ask around to other owners if the have a favorite repair shop for their ride.
    And an immediate cold sholder , or act like I’m speaking piglatin. Then go from shop to shop inquiring on possible repairs.
    And again it’s lead balloons.
    Actually starting to think my money is no good.
    Had 1 shop ask if it has an OBD plug.
    ? WHAT.
    Thinking maybe better to crush .
    Than waste the rest of my life hopeing I can find that 1 person or shop that realizes
    how rare this vehicle is.
    And NO. It’s not a Duster. Since no one can see beyond 1975.

    Truth be told, I’ll bet those innards inside that steering column are a Fiat–or an Alfa or Lancia–part from a car that was contemporary to the Ferrari. Proprietary parts like that are often used in several different cars, but interchanges are often difficult to track down. After all, would Ferrari want to admit that they used a (gasp!) Fiat part in their car?

    Probably not, but when I owned my two Fiats, I did my best to convince everyone that they had Ferrari parts. Guess that ploy didn’t work going either way, though – no one took the bait.

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