Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Philosophy of Car Restoration




Yesterday I posted some pictures of newly painted parts that are part of a Land Rover restoration we’re doing.  I captioned them “better than new,” and one of my readers asked if that was really the right goal of restoration.  Shouldn’t we follow the vision of the designers, he asked?

When we tackle a rusty old Land Rover Defender or Series truck, we are working with something that was originally a roughly finished utility vehicle made to a low standard of finish for use by military forces, farmers, and rural residents.

Today those vehicles are valuable, and often owned by very affluent people who are demographically very far removed from Land Rover’s original target market.  Land Rovers were built to be working off-road vehicles that would wear out in time, and be scrapped.  Today’s collectors have a very different expectation.  They don’t usually “work” their Rovers though they may attend club events.  Rather than expecting them to wear out and be scrapped, many collectors expect a level of quality they can cherish for a lifetime.

Where the original buyers bought for function and value, collectors buy for sentiment and sometimes-potential financial gain.  Most of the people who are drawn to Land Rovers discovered them years ago, perhaps on a farm, or at a camp in the wilderness.  Others – like me - saw Land Rovers in Wild Kingdom or National Geographic and dreamed.

When I grew up one of the things I became was an automobile service manager.  I watched people use Land Rovers to work power line projects and go where no other car could, and we fixed them when they sustained damage.   I saw the compromises Land Rover chose to make the vehicles affordable, and I saw how they subsequently fell apart in the field.  I learned how engineering oversights and errors could leave a person stranded, alone in the middle of nowhere.  I saw how New England winters turned bare metal undercarriages to cheesecake, and I wondered what might be done about that.

When I began overseeing restoration work I saw how cars are put together, and I began to understand the tradeoffs designers and engineers had to make to deliver a combination of cost, performance and durability.  One of the first things I learned was that cost is one of the most important design goals of every car engineer.  If a dollar could be saved by leaving a hidden metal part unpainted, Land Rover was very likely to do it.

Other carmakers – like Rolls-Royce – had bigger budgets and made fewer of those compromises.  They had their own issues, to be sure, but initial finish was not usually among them.

People would say thing like, “I want my Rover to look just as it did when new,” and at first I took them literally.  However, when we saw the results it became clear my clients did not really want the rough fit and finish of the original, even though it was true to their words and the way Rover had done it.  When they said, “like when it was new,” they were actually envisioning an idealized “new” where it was hand built, hand fitted, and near perfect.  That is quite far from what the factory did.

The more of these jobs I did the more I realized that our clients put a lot more emphasis on finish quality than any factory ever had.  That meant all parts needed to be painted or finished even if they never had been before.  

As we acquired more experience our philosophy of restoration diverged farther and farther from the manufacturer’s philosophy of car building.    Every step down that road made our clients happier.  We acquired the ability to restore cars so that they looked great and drove better than they did when new.

We built a reputation as a shop that built vehicles to perform, as well as look great.  Too many restorers see their job as cosmetics-only, and we could never agree with that point of view.  If I had a choice I’d take a fine running car that had some cosmetic imperfections over a beautiful trailer queen any day.

When we do cosmetic work, we always consider how it will perform in addition to how it will look.  If we weld up a custom bumper, we ask if it will hold the weight of the car on a floor jack.  When we paint something we ask if the finish will hold up when our clients use the vehicle.  Often that leads us to use more rugged techniques like powder coating.

When someone comes to us and says, "I want to drive my Land Rover on the beach," we think long and hard about how we can minimize corrosion in that hostile environment.  Every part we successfully protect today is a part that won’t have to be chiseled off, ten years down the road.

Here's one of our projects, from beneath.  It's not the perspective most people see, but it looks good and more important it will be durable.




Then there’s the matter of customization.  As much as some people like originality, I like tasteful custom work because it’s an opportunity to express our creative skills.  We love building custom bumpers, hidden winch mounts, or special racks and carriers.  Those things are like custom cabinets in a fine home – you can look at them forever and know they were made just for you, and not bought from a parts catalog.

Obviously the word customization can mean many things, all the way to the Batmobile or the George Barris custom rods of the sixties.    If you have something far out in mind, make sure the restorers share your vision.  Otherwise you run the risk of being like that sailor who passed out in the tattoo parlor . . .

We’ve also learned how much time quality work takes.  We know a full restoration can easily consume a thousand of hours of labor.  Some complex cars can take far more.  Jobs like these can take a year, maybe more to complete.  But the results will be worth the wait.

If you’re thinking of restoring a car – Land Rover or otherwise, I urge you to talk to the shop.  Learn their philosophy and make sure it’s in line with what you want.  Remember attitudes can vary with car lines.  I’d approach a 1954 Rolls Royce with a very different mindset than the one I’d apply to a 1978 Land Rover pickup.  Some people want to work on one line only but I’m happy to take a variety.  There’s room in the restoration world for all of us.

One final piece of advice – pay attention to how the shop manager communicates with you.  Ask whomever you will be dealing with to explain some aspect of their trade and listen close.  Do you get the sense they really understand the theory behind what’s proposed to do?  If you have doubts – watch out!  Some of the biggest mistakes I see come from well intentioned ignorance.  Another thing to watch for is specialized knowledge.  If you care about originality the shop should know what is and isn’t correct for your year and model.

Ask how they will update you on progress.  We send updates with images and text every week.  People may roll their eyes at endless images of wheel bearings and pistons but they sure know what we are doing, every step of the way.  We may send a client a thousand images in the course of a job.  We want our clients to be fully informed so there are no surprises when they see their finished car.



Best wishes for the holidays
John Elder Robison

JE Robison Service
Springfield, MA, USA





1 comment:

Lonnie Summerall said...

You're right, John. Most people expect their cars to look a whole lot better when they sign up for a car restoration process. One way to guarantee this is to use powder coating. This process can protect every part of the car, giving the best results in the long run.

Lonnie Summerall