As usual, the so-called experts had it all wrong. In the midst of the musclecar explosion of recent years, industry insiders were quick to provide a variety of theories as to what was driving up the prices of classic Detroit iron. The supposed perpetrators ranged from an abundance of performance parts and a healthy economy to televised car auctions and hot rodding shows. Much of that stuff has evaporated as of late, but the value of musclecars and the passion that drives it hasn't flinched.
An often overlooked segment of the market that made it all possible are the restoration parts suppliers such as Classic Industries. After all, you can't sell a '69 Z/28 for six-figures if you don't have the parts to restore it with. For nearly 30 years, Classic Industries has been serving the Bow Tie faithful with just about every conceivable part necessary to restore your ride. Tapping into the company's vast pool of knowledge, we recently talked with General Manager Mark Vogt to get an inside look at what it takes to run one of the largest restoration parts manufacturers in the industry. He told us all about how replacement sheetmetal is made and offered some great advice on how to tackle just about any restoration project.
Classic Industries has evolved into a powerhouse for Chevy restoration parts, but getting to where it is today required copious foresight and an innovative business plan. Jeff Leonard founded Classic Industries in the early '80s, and its headquarters were in Palm Springs, California. The company originally specialized in replacement carpet kits for Camaros. At the time, musclecar restoration parts were still readily available from dealerships. Nonetheless, hot rodders often had a hard time getting their hands on them. "Dealers didn't want to mess around with selling a bunch of $20 parts over the phone and deal with the hassle of shipping," explains Vogt. "Fortunately, we found a local dealer that was willing to work with us since we had the ability to buy such a tremendous volume of parts. That enabled us to expand our product line and offer hard-to-find parts through our mail-order catalog. From there, we scoured all conceivable parts outlets throughout the country looking for anything that was still available to add to our inventory." With the success of its Camaro product line, Classic Industries began offering parts for Firebirds, Novas, Impalas, and pickups as well. Through the years, as the supply of original GM parts dried up, Classic Industries responded by manufacturing its own reproduction sheetmetal and trim in house. After several moves, the company eventually relocated to its current 80,000-square-foot facility in Huntington Beach, California.
Classic Industries manufacturers parts that are officially licensed by GM, but how does this licensing arrangement work? After a part is designed, whether it's a fender or a grille, it must be submitted to GM for approval. "Even after GM puts its rubber stamp on a part, if a customer makes a complaint to GM, that information will be relayed back to us," says Vogt. "However, that's rarely an issue because in order to maintain our reputation, we're very picky when it comes to accuracy and quality control. For instance, I have people ask me all the time if we can dull down the color of our wood tone. We tell them no, because our priority is to make it look like it did when it was brand-new, not to match the faded wood trim in someone's car."
"When designing new reproduction components, such as body panels and grilles, a significant amount of research and engineering goes into the design. Our goal is to accurately replicate parts to ensure precise fitment. Since we're one of GM's largest distributors, we have first right of refusal to original GM tooling when it becomes available. Likewise, we also have access to GM's original blueprints. These original items are extremely hard to find, but that's not really a bad thing. Today, sheetmetal is laser cut and robotically welded. Original tooling, on the other hand, is extremely complicated. The machines are three times the size of an average office desk and rely on ancient vacuum actuation. While it's impressive to look at, no one can even figure out how to use original tooling, which is why it's easier to reproduce parts instead. We start by getting an N.O.S. sample of a part, or sometimes even dissembling a car, and replicate it as accurately as possible."
With the economy in the tank, musclecars are expensive enough to where most hot rodders can't afford '69 Camaros and SS 454 '70 Chevelles. With so much direct interaction with hot rodders, Classic Industries is in a unique position to recognize more affordable platforms, which are increasing in popularity. "People consider them late-models, but third-gen Camaros are already 25 years old, and more people are starting to build them as parts become easier to find," says Vogt. "Later full-size chassis, like the '66-68 Impala, are also picking up in addition to '73 and later trucks. For people with a bit more money to spend, many are realizing the benefits of reproduction first-gen Camaro bodies over original bodies that will require tons of metalwork."
New Old Stock
Some people insist on going broke buying N.O.S. sheetmetal, but reproduction parts often come pretty darn close in terms of quality. If you're debating on whether or not N.O.S. parts are worth the premium, Vogt suggests first assessing your long-term goals. "If you're building an all-original stock show car and have the money for N.O.S. parts, by all means buy them. On the other hand, it makes little sense to splurge on N.O.S. parts if you're building a typical cruiser that isn't extraordinarily valuable. That said, as long as you have a good body guy, you can't tell the difference between N.O.S. and reproduction sheetmetal, and there are tons of $100,000 show cars that use repop parts. Also keep in mind that N.O.S. parts don't guarantee a perfect fit since many musclecars are at least 40 years old, and there's no telling what bodywork they've already had done to them over the years."
Interior restoration kits are pretty straightforward to install, but many people get stumped when it comes time to put new upholstery on their seats. Although the job can be tedious, Vogt offers these handy tips for getting it done in your own garage. "Vinyl is just plastic, so the best advice is to put the seat covers in sun for a while to get the vinyl warm and pliable. If you try to do it in the dead of winter in Michigan, it won't turn out nearly as good as if you wait until the middle of summer when it's 80 degrees outside. Disassemble and recover the seats one at a time so you'll remember exactly how they came apart, and test-fit everything and make sure the seams line up before hog-ringing the covers down. Remember that restorations take three to four years, not one, so take your time and know your limitations."
"With the thousands of parts that we stock, efficiently streamlining the logistics of order fulfillment is critical in ensuring that our customers receive the right parts in a timely manner. About 10 years ago, we relied on a DOS-based invoicing system custom written for our company, but we've come a long way since then. With our current system, our computers and phone system share information to simplify the ordering process. When a customer calls into our sales department, the computer automatically looks up their phone number and pulls up the account number and the billing and shipping info that goes along with it to assist our reps in placing an order. The computer system then sends a paper invoice to our warehouse and can instruct our employees exactly where to find each part. After every item on the pick list has been grabbed, the barcode on every part is scanned before it's boxed up to verify that the order is correct. For orders that ship in multiple boxes, it lets us log exactly which parts are in each box."
Everyone knows to put some gas treatment in the tank and disconnect the battery when storing a car, but some other important steps that should be taken are often overlooked. Vogt suggests storing a car with a full tank of gas, since a full tank has less air space for condensation to build up in. Likewise, the carburetor should be drained to prevent internal fuel passages from gumming up. As for battery prep, it depends on the length of storage. "If your car's going to be stored for six months of less, hook the battery up to a trickle charger," Vogt explains. "For storage durations over six months, remove the battery to prevent acid leakage that can damage rubber bushings and hoses. Store the battery on wooden blocks or on jackstands long-term to prevent discharging. Finally, start the motor and run fluids through it every once in a while."
Classic Industries has developed a profound online presence with videos, blogs, and online shopping. The company is currently revamping these media to bring customers a more interactive experience. "Our new website will allow real-time inventory and tracking so customers can keep an eye on their order from start to finish," says Vogt. "We also plan on posting a series of how-to videos that offer tips on things like disc brake conversions and carpet replacement. You can also get a closer look at our facility and project cars on our YouTube and StreetFire websites."
"You can make the argument that crudeness is part of the charm of musclecars, but these days people have grown accustomed to riding in quiet and comfortable cars. Products like Lizardskin and Hushmat are extremely effective in reducing interior road noise and enable building more civilized musclecars. They make all the difference in the world, and the reduction in noise even makes the car feel more solid overall. The key is to cover as large an area as you can with them. If you've taken a door apart to add a new skin or replace a window, use that opportunity to cover the entire inside of the door with either of these products. Lizardskin is great for getting to hard-to-reach places like inside the quarters and behind the window regulators. Take your time and roll it out with a laminate roller. On the underside of the car and inside the wheelwells, Rhino Lining truck bed liners also works great. Whoever welded on your new sheetmetal probably didn't seam-seal it like GM did, so it does an excellent job of sealing out water and hiding welding imperfections."
Body Panel Manufacturing
Classic Industries builds its own reproduction sheetmetal in-house and utilizes state-of-the-art technology to R&D body panels accurately and quickly. Vogt says that the most common method of creating new tooling is by reverse-engineering an existing N.O.S. panel. Thanks to modern technology, the entire process can be completed in a week. "With something like a door skin, we first digitize it with a laser scanner or a touch probe, which creates a 3D image in our computers," he explains. "Then we take a block of foam and cut a recess into it with CNC machine to shape it just like the door. That foam piece is then put in a steel casing and packed with sand. Next, metal is poured into the casing, which vaporizes the foam and leaves you with the new tooling."
Classic Industries has built several high-profile in-house project cars, which have been featured in various magazines. Of course there's the obvious benefit of media exposure, but Vogt says that the process of building a car ultimately benefits the company's customers. "You always learn a lot when building things hands-on, and by doing so we're often able to pass on information to manufacturers we work with on how to improve parts fitment," he says. "Project cars also give us new ideas on the types of products we can add to our product line. We had our upholstery man make leather covers the emulated a Camaro pattern for some Scat seats we installed in one of our trucks. He also made a matching set out of vinyl for the factory rear seats. We liked the way that they looked so much and got such a great response to them, that we're probably going to end up mass-producing them for our next catalog.
Most people recognize Classic Industries as a restoration parts supplier, but might not be aware that it also carries a full line of performance parts from Edelbrock, Holley, GM Performance Parts, Comp Cams, MSD, and others. "Our goal is to be a one-stop shop for all of our customers' needs," says Vogt. "Performance parts manufacturers have done a great job with their pricing structures, which allows us to be very competitive with our pricing. Plus, with the shipping breaks and additional volume discounts we offer, customers are starting to take advantage of the opportunity to buy all of their restoration and performance parts from one vendor. So while we don't carry all of the performance parts out there, we do have the most popular ones."
Inspecting For Rust
In an age when it's getting harder to find rust-free cars, even in hotbeds like California and Arizona, it's more important than ever to thoroughly inspect a potential project car before buying it. Checking the floors, trunk pan, and lower quarters and fenders is pretty standard practice, but Vogt informs us that it's the places you can't readily see with the naked eye that can really come back to bite you. "It's always better to spend more money on a nicer car up front because it will always be cheaper in the long run, especially if you build it yourself," he says. "Don't fall in love with a car before you know what it is, or get tempted to jump on something right away just because you think it's a good deal. At only $250 at Home Depot, a boroscope is one of the best investments you can make. It's great for looking in places where you can't see, like under the cowl and inside the quarters."
Patching Vs. Replacing
With the abundance of replacement sheetmetal these days, it's often a better idea, according to Vogt, to replace an entire body panel rather than trying to patch up and salvage an original panel regardless of the amount of rust present. "I believe in replacing everything at the spot welds because it saves you time in the long run and gives you a cleaner end product," he states. "Just drill or grind out the spots welds, and as long as the chassis is straight the new panel will go right back on. It's much easier than trying to get patch panel seams to match with the rest of a fender or quarter. Also, when you remove entire panels like the quarters, it gives you a great opportunity to check the trunk and wheelwells for rust. Just don't take off too much at metal at the same time, or it will be very difficult to get back on."
"Whether it's on the phone, at shows, on message boards, or through email, Classic Industries is always listening to our customers to add items to our catalogs in order to better serve their needs. One of the biggest complaints we've had over the years is that it's too much of a pain to assemble first-gen Camaro center consoles. As a result, we've put together our own in-house assembly department that now sends out parts like these in completely finished form. We've also come out with a new line of Impala grilles, and with the growing popularity of '74-79 Novas, we're now making reproduction plastic trim parts to replace original pieces that have become sun-baked over time. Likewise, we're also looking into expanding our line of exterior trim pieces, since the factory parts have pitted and worn out a long time ago."