How to Buy a "New Classic" EFI GM: Part 5 - Restoring

Part V: Choosing the right restoration shop

Rick Jensen Jun 12, 2014 0 Comment(s)
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Over the last four installments, GMHTP has shown you everything you need to know to buy a “new classic” EFI GM. We started by explaining how pre-purchase inspections and appraisals work. Next, we answered the numerous questions related to collector vehicle financing. And after we covered collector vehicle insurance, we gave you some tips on how to safely ship your new ride home.

This final installment involves choosing the right restoration shop for your vehicle. Yes, we realize that 1980s-1990s EFI GMs are still fairly young, and it’s still possible to find low-mile examples that are years away from needing work. With any luck, you’ll be driving your new toy—not thinking about restoring it.

But someday in the future, the time will come. When it does, you’ll realize a couple things: one, full restorations cost a lot of money. And two, finding a reputable, quality restoration shop can be really tough. So if you’re ever going to go down this road, pay close attention to the tips in this article—because choosing the right resto shop for your ride is one of the most important motoring decisions you’ll ever make.

Classic Efi Gm Cars Restoration 2/11

With many collision places and “collision/resto” garages dotting the landscape, it can be difficult to find a dedicated restoration shop that will treat your aging EFI GM right. We’ll show you how to find them. Whether your goal is a stock restoration or a flawless restomod, you’ll need to do some sleuthing—both at car shows and online—to uncover some resto shop possibilities.

Step 1: How To Find A Good Restoration Shop

It takes a good amount of information and a good amount of time to find a quality restoration shop. Thankfully, most of it can be accomplished by doing two things you love: going to car shows, and searching Internet car sites. And the more thorough you are, the better chance you have of uncovering a great shop.

Research, research, research.

Visit a few car shows, and zero in on the great-looking cars. One or more has probably been restored; if the owners are in a talkative mood, you can ask about the type of work that was done, where it was done, and if they don’t mind sharing, how much their restoration cost.

Once you’ve chatted up a few owners and gotten some references, go online and try to find the shop’s website. Verify that they only do resto work (not collision also), so they take the time to do a car right. Next, do a Google search for the shop, and search for the shop name in enthusiast forum posts. You should be able to find all kinds of feedback, hopefully good but possibly bad as well. Of course, you should always consider the source: forum posts and online feedback should only make up a portion of your overall picture of these shops—nothing beats real-life experience!

When you’re browsing forums and searching for shops online, keep travel distances in mind: chances are the shops referred to you by local car owners are nearby. However, if you stumble upon a shop that specializes in restoring your specific model (or if you want a very high-end, top-notch restoration shop), you can widen your search to cover the entire U.S. You’ll end up spending more to ship your ride to and from a distant shop, but that’s your call. (Use extreme caution, however, and put extra time in researching a shop that’s a long distance from home. It’s much easier to keep tabs on a shop that is local, over one that’s three or four states away. –Ed.)

Contact the Shops to Get a Feel for Them

Call each potential shop to discuss your project with them. Depending on how the shop works, you’ll either be speaking with the owner or the shop manager.

Pay close attention to how they interact with you, and listen to your gut: good signs are if they take the time to listen to your plan, give feedback and suggestions, and offer to take a look at the vehicle before quoting a price. Bad signs are them sounding uninterested, vague, unknowledgeable, rushing you off the phone, or giving you a price quote without even seeing the car.

Also, keep in mind that you’re discussing a late-model vehicle that may or may not have a healthy restoration or used parts market. So be sure to ask about parts availability for your particular make and model: if it can’t be easily found or isn’t currently reproduced, your restoration might get more expensive. (It’s always best to look into this first, anyway, before taking on such a project. You don’t want to be the guy who buys a rustbucket Citation X-11, only to find out that parts are impossible to find. – Ed.)

Tanner Coatings Employee 6/11

You can learn a lot at prospective shops by keeping your eyes peeled. An interested, knowledgeable manager, a tidy workspace, and friendly, hard-working employees are hallmarks of a quality restoration shop.

Visit Your Finalists

If one or more shops give you a good feeling during the phone interviews, it’s time to hit the road and pay ’em a visit. Note that if your finalist list includes far-off shops, see “How to screen long-distance shops” below.

When you get there, good questions to ask the owner or manager are:

How does the actual restoration process happen?

Is most of the work done in-house, save for specialty items (machining, tranny rebuilds, etc.)?

Does one guy/team do powertrain only, and one guy/team does body only, etc., to make sure it gets done right?

Can you give a rough time estimate for the entire project?

Does the shop photo document each resto?

What kinds of quality control procedures does the shop have in place?

While touring the place, pay close attention to three things: the condition of the shop and vehicles, and the general mood of the guys working there.

Tanner Coating Workshop 7/11

A restoration shop should be a reasonably clean and tidy place, with an assortment of cars in various states of completion. Don’t get hung up on a shop that isn’t operating room clean—it’s the finished product that counts.

Speaking of, if any completed cars are present, give them a good once-over to review the overall restoration quality. Check their panel gaps, and look at the paint reflections. If the in-progress cars are covered in lots of dust, that’s a definite red flag. And speaking of the elements, figure out how their vehicle storage works: is it outdoors or indoors? If outdoors, ask how long your car might be outside before work starts on it.

How the employees look and work can tell you a lot about the business: if they look happy or content and are intently focused on their work, and if there’s a light or fun air to the place, that’s a definite plus. Red flags? If they’re avoiding you, your questions, eye contact, trying to look busy (but not actually working), and there’s tension between the two of you, then you should walk away immediately.

If it all seems okay, head home. Wait a few weeks, and then make a surprise visit to see how many of the cars have moved, and how much the work has progressed. If you’re happy with the shop’s atmosphere and things seem to be progressing nicely, you may have found a winner.

How To Screen Long-Distance Shops

If you’re interested in a shop but you’re on the fence about it being too far away to visit yourself, try this: call them up and ask all of the questions from the “contact the shops” section above. If the answers sound good, tell them that you’re interested in working with them, but can’t make a look-see trip out there. Ask, “If I emailed or mailed my vehicle info along with some pictures, would you be able to give me a rough estimate of what the restoration would cost?”

If they agree, put together all of the necessary info: year/make/model, mileage, and problem areas, like body or interior damage, rust areas, inoperable parts, etc. Also let them know what type of job it’ll be: stock restoration, resto mod, custom, etc. If non-stock, include a list of the modifications you’d like to add: aftermarket brake kits, wheel/tire upgrades, engine mods, etc.

Then take some quality photos: an overall view, along with engine, interior, trunk, and undercar shots, if possible. Do a couple close-up shots of the body, from an angle, so they can see the condition of the paint and body panels. Also be sure to shoot one or two main problem areas: bad suspension, rusted-out panels, and the like.

Email or mail them to the shop, then follow up to make sure they were received. Ask them to give you a call after they’ve had time to review your car; and be patient. When you speak to them, they may need to clarify a few things so have your car info handy, and be ready for follow-up calls and emails.

There’s no way for any shop to provide a dead-on price without taking the car apart, so take the quote with a grain of salt. But with any luck, you’ll like the shop and the estimated price. Remember that you’ll have to depend on secondhand info about details like the shop cleanliness, etc., but if you’ve done a good amount of research beforehand you should be covered.

Step 2: Zero In On The Details

In a vehicle restoration there are a lot of zeros at stake—namely, the ones in your bank account. So do yourself the favor of zeroing in on as many details as possible. A reputable shop will gladly explain details like how it figures its labor and material costs; here are a few more things you should know/ask about:

Tanner Coating Employees Shop 8/11

Let the Shop Know Up Front What Type of Resto You Want:

If you want it back to dead stock, chasing OEM parts can get expensive. How original must it be? Can some aftermarket replacement parts be used?

If you want a custom or restomod-type resto, clearly explain to them what is staying stock, and what is being replaced or modified.

Know that “estimated cost” and “your actual cost” aren’t the same. A shop won’t know the exact cost until they take your ride apart. That cost will hinge on a few things:

How solid, rusted or damaged your body and chassis are, once they get it disassembled. Rust is the most labor-intensive repair.

If there is any low-quality or “botched” previous work that needs to be fixed the right way.

How complete or incomplete, parts-wise, your car is.

The availability of replacement parts for your model, and if any model-specific parts are very rare/expensive. (If the shop has done restorations on similar vehicles, they’ll have good advice for you)

Ask About the Cost Structure:

Many shops use a total time/total material cost structure, which is preferable as it gives them the time to do the job right.

When using the above total time/material structure, you can set a tentative budget based on the estimate, then have the shop contact you when you’re getting close to that number so the price doesn’t go way over without you knowing.

A flat-fee agreement isn’t recommended; it may save you a few bucks, but if you want a comprehensive restoration done right, a flat-fee deal may cut a few corners if time runs out during the resto.

Find Out About Shop Insurance:

Make sure that the shop you’re working with has adequate insurance in case of fire or other vehicle-damaging events.

While you’re at it, be sure that your classic car insurance is current, and your agreed/guaranteed value is up to current market prices.

You can look into “Vehicle Under Construction” insurance too—it is specifically for cars under construction/restoration.

Bring Up Car Storage:

If the shop is far away or you don’t have storage at home, you may be able to store your vehicle there until work starts on it. This allows you to deliver it when it suits your schedule.

Verify that communication will be a two-way street:

Your restorer should know how you want your resto to go by now. But make sure that if there’s a previously un-discussed decision to be made, the shop will contact you and let you make it.

Ask How Payment Works:

You may be able to pay weekly, monthly, in four scheduled payments during the process, or possibly even by big lump sums.

Some payment arrangements include setting up emailed, faxed, or mailed invoices, giving them a credit card number on file, or dropping off payment if the shop is local.

Be sure you agree with the shop on the payment process so there are no problems or holdups during your restoration.

A small, “save the date” deposit may be needed; however, be wary of shops that ask for large deposits up front.

Finally, if you’re considering a back-to-stock, “concours” restoration:

Restoring back to absolute stock for concours judging events can be hit and miss for many late-model GMs, as judging manuals may be subjective (or may not exist), and judges can be subjective.

If you plan to go this route, either buy an unrestored vehicle that’s as original as possible, or prepare to spend lots on your restoration.

Corvettes are fortunate to have the NCRS judging manuals, which are ultra-detailed and standardized manuals that can help you restore a Vette back to stock.

And that’s it! You now have the expertise you need to sort through the field of resto shops, and pick the best one for your ride’s revitalization.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed our “How to Buy a New Classic” series. Best of luck with your current or future EFI hotrod, and remember: you’re driving something that will one day be looked upon as our generation’s Ram Air 400s and Z/28s. So do your current and future self a favor—never sell it!

*Special thanks to Gary Tanner at Tanner Coatings in Oshkosh, NE (308-772-0199) for letting us shoot photos in his shop.

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