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Confessions of a body shop owner

"Body Shop Success"

By Brian Martin

       Wow, you've finally found the old truck of your dreams and you're ready to start the restoration project! You want to find someone to do the body work for you? Finding bad body men who are good businessmen (can you say "Shark?") is relatively easy. Finding good body men is hard enough. Finding good bodyworkers with the business sense to treat you fairly and well is the tricky part. In fact, it's the Holy Grail of the whole restoration process! You don't have to have an adversarial relationship with your body shop -- Here's The Stovebolt Page's resident body work Guru, Brian Martin, with a few tips.


Does it really take that long????

       Anybody know of a good body shop in (enter your city name here)?

      How do I get my body shop to work on my car?

      My car is being held for ransom!” or just simply

      Body shop Blues.

      I’m sure you have all seen topics similar to these posted in the Stovebolt Page forums. Folks, my name is MARTINSR and I was one of those dirty rotten bastards who would keep your car ten times longer than I promised.

       The tough reality is that guys who don't do their own body work or at least not all of it, are at the mercy of the body shop. It is not a nice position to be in. In fact, it can go down as one of the low points in your life. I have seen horror stories that would make your hair stand on end. A longtime customer of mine (he owned about 60 cars and usually had a few in shops around the area at all times) had a car that was held as evidence in a murder. Yep, it had blood splattered on it from one of the shop's owners who was killed by the other owner with a baseball bat!

       The following is my generalization of restoration shops that I have owned, seen or worked at. There are exceptions to the rule. Please don’t beat me up if I have rolled your shop into the mix when you are an exception. But, if you do see yourself, I suggest you get down to your neighborhood junior college and take a course or two in business. One of the great myths is that we each think our business is so unique, we can’t learn from a “regular” business class. Well after much instruction and exposure to the business side of things I can tell you, business is BUSINESS. Whether you are running a liquor store, a cat house or a body shop, they are all exactly the same. Sales are SALES, period.

       So, we can agree a body shop is a business. But being a good body man does not make you a good businessman. Restoration shops are usually owned by good body men, not good businessmen. It is very hard to make money doing restoration work. In contrast, it is very easy to make money doing regular collision work. The business man makes his money doing collision work and tells all the customers with restoration work to go to Joe’s Body shop down the street, he does the restorations. Joe loves doing what he is doing, but seldom makes much money. He is an artist, a true master at his craft. Joe sees things as what they can “become”, not what they “are”. When Joe sees a car he doesn’t see the time it will take to make it the show winner he knows it will be, he only sees it as the show winner. I really don’t believe he means to lie to you when he says it will be done in a month, he is looking through rose colored glasses, his vision is altered. Like a woman forgets the pain of giving birth, so does Joe when he gazes upon the beautiful car he has carried for nine months (or longer). And when the next rust bucket rolls in, he has forgotten about the hundreds of hours needed, he only sees a luscious rose garden.

       Like I said, few make a living at restoration or hot rod work. The biggies that you have heard of like Roy Brizio or Boyd Coddington all make money with other ventures, not the rod shop. This was very apparent the first time I visited Brizios shop. The rod shop is about 5,000 square feet sitting in the middle of a 50,000 square foot building. The rest of the building is Brizios manufacturing business. It is all non-auto related by the way. The rod shop is a hobby! I don’t doubt for a second he makes money, but it is a hobby none the less.

       So when you go looking for a shop to do your car you have to remember this -- you are most likely going to be dealing with an artist. If you think the business end of it is going to go smooth, think again. If you build yourself up and believe everything, you are in for a BIG let down. If you set yourself up for less than that you will be much better off. I suggest getting ready for MUCH, MUCH less and then you will be happy when it only takes five months instead of the ten you got ready for. If he said one month and that is what you are planning, by the time five months rolls around you are ready to kill someone.

Step One -- Finding a Shop

       The following are HUGE generalizations but I have found a few signs that may help you in picking out a shop. If nothing else they will help you understand who you are dealing with.

1. More than one car sitting in the shop covered with dust may be a bad sign. If you have been around body shops much you know that dust build up is like the rings in a tree -- you can tell by the layers and colors how many YEARS it has been sitting. Cars being used for storage of misc. boxes and things is also a bad sign. My brother used to joke that I should bolt a vise on the fender of the car, at least I could get some use out of it! Coyly ask “Cool car, is that yours?” if he says “Naw, it’s a customers” -- BAD SIGN. If there are ten stalls in the shop and six have dust covered cars in them, RUN. I shouldn’t have to tell you this one, but if there are guys hanging around with beers in their hands, RUN.

2. How many stalls does he have? I have found that the real restoration/rod shops seem to have only room to have three or four cars at a time. If you only had room to work on three cars, you are going to be damn certain they get out so you can have room for the next. One of the most successful custom shops I have ever seen was a little four-stall shop in Pittsburgh, California. It is the famous (well at least on the west coast) DeRosa and Son Customs. Frank has been around since the fifties making show winning cars. He and his son, Frank Jr., do the same today and do it FAST. They run a neat, little and clean shop. If you have seen the 2001 DuPont calendar, then you have seen the “Cadster” -- they did it. It was only in the shop for a few weeks. (By the way, it doesn’t have DuPont primers on it like the calendar says, Martin Senour primer was used.) So to sum up: just a few stalls is good. Lots of dust-covered cars in lots of stalls -- BAD SIGN.

3. Does he look at your car like they do at the McPaint shops? You know, all jobs all colors the same price? If he doesn’t take a good long look at the car taking notes, he has no clue what he is doing. He is looking at the car with those rose colored glasses. Every single panel should be examined and noted for the amount of hours needed. If he just looks over the car without doing this he is surely going to be WAY off. If he is way off on how much he is charging you, what incentive does he have to work on it?

4. Case the joint. Let’s say you have a shop you would like to bring your vehicle to. Turn into a stalker and keep an eye on the shop. You know for months you are going to need a body shop. Watch the shops for months. Drive by during business hours and see if they are actually open. Many of these guys (remember they are not good businessmen) take their open sign as sort of a guide line. If the sign says 8 am to 5 pm, but it is more like 9:15 am to 2 pm and then 4:25 pm to 7 pm -- BAD SIGN! They can’t get your car done like that. See if any cars leave. If you go by there and see the same cars sitting there all the time, but many little jobs going in and out, BAD SIGN. I have to tell you, those little moneymaking collision jobs are dang hard to turn away. If I had a million-hour job sitting there and it was the 28th of the month, I am going to set it aside for the $800.00 job I can do in two days to pay the rent.

5. Ask to see the shop. If they don’t allow you to walk around and check the place out, BAD SIGN. Look at the paint department. Does he have a booth? Are there open cans and other junk laying all over? Are there many different brands of paint? This is usually an indicator that he buys anything he can get his hands on and is a BAD SIGN that he is a “junior chemist” -- the guy who mixes products and doesn’t follow tech sheets.

Step Two -- Arranging the Work

      Once you've decided on a shop, here's how you should proceed with getting an estimate, arranging the work and working out how the payment will occur.

1. Start with the money part.

      Always talk money first. Here's how -- Get a price/estimate for the whole job to get an idea of the total cost, but tell him you want to do only ONE of the things on your car at a time. Arrange to pay him for one step at a time -- Not because you don’t trust him (even if you don't), of course, but because YOU are bad with money or are working under a budget and that YOU don’t want to leave him hanging after the car is done with no money to pick it up. Explaining it to him like this makes it seem like he is in control and made the decision. This is the ONLY way you should do it, believe me.

      Don’t EVER give him a deposit and leave the car (at least not more than a tiny amount of the estimate, say 5%). This will darn near guarantee your car will be sitting for weeks or MONTHS! Meanwhile, he uses that money to buy parts for a high-profit collision job or simply pay a long-standing bill which then leaves your car or truck sitting there with no incentive for him to work on it.

2. Schedule the work.

      Once you've agreed how you pay for the work, negotiate the time it will take for each step.

      Let’s say you have patch panels to do on the front fenders. You agree that he will have them done at the end of the week, and that they will cost $200.00. He has something to work for and he knows he will get the money so he actually does it. You go see him on Friday see the work done and give him the $200.00. Then you pick another thing to do. Just as if you were doing these things at home, break them down into bite sized pieces so he can swallow them. If you go in there and find that he hasn’t done it or he has done poor work, you can then say “I am sorry to yank your chain, I don’t have any more money, I just lost my job” and take the car, no body owes a thing. If he does not want to do this, you really need to start rethinking your choice of a shop. Either this, or variation of this, should be fine with him. If it is not, something is wrong.

      If he really wanted to make money, he would be doing this. The first restoration job I ever did where I really felt I made money was done just this way. It was a little ’58 bug eye Sprite. I had decided that something had to be done or I would fall into the same trap as before with a car sitting forever. One of the first shops I ever worked at was a full on restoration shop. It broke the rule and was pretty big, with four full time employees. Every car had a time card assigned to it. When you worked on the car, you punched in. Then each month (these were HUGE frame off restorations on 30’s and 40’s vintage Fords) the owner would receive a bill with the times worked. If they couldn’t pay, the car left, period. The guy made money and I finally got smart (after about 12 years in business) and followed his lead. I put a sign on this Bug Eye and would post the hours I spent on it. I told the guy to come by each week. Now, when the guy came in and saw only two hours were spent, he was not very happy. That was a heck of an incentive for me right there I will tell you that! It worked great, I actually got paid for every minute I worked, unlike most restoration projects. And he actually got the car back in close to what I said. It was still late, but not ten times as late as I had done before.

3. Supervise the work.

      Throughout the process, you should develop and maintain a very close relationship with the shop and visit often. If these visits make the guy edgy, you really need to find another shop. If you have the attitude that you are genuinely interested in how this work is done, not how he will do YOUR car but just in general, you will find that he will be much more likely to “show off” his talents than if you go in there like an untrusting customer.

      Another thing I highly recommend is to take plenty of photos of the car, really detailed photos, before you even take him the vehicle. Leave him with copies when you drop the car off, letting him know you have copies as well. Don't do this with an overbearing or threatening attitude ( “I am doing this so I can prove you lied to me”) but with more of an enthusiastic attitude like “I can’t wait to see how different it is and you can have these 'before' shots to show future customers.” Which is true ... it's just not the only reason you are doing it.

      If he is doing a full-on restoration for you, I HIGHLY recommend chrome and interior parts be taken home after he removes them so they don’t get stolen or damaged.

      Along with these photos you want a VERY detailed work order. Run like the wind if he has no work order. Also run if he has a work order that says “fix dents and rust” as the repairs are being done. RUN, I say. Need an excuse to be so detailed? Blame it on "The Wife." It's just another job to him. It's your pride and joy. But it's the checkbook to her -- You need to have a fully detailed work order, not for legal reasons (wink, wink) but for your own records to show the wife where all the money went. The “wife” is a great "excuse" to get things done that most of us guys not only understand, but downright sympathize with! You need to come look to see what is done because the wife wants to see. Bring her in there, she has an excuse, she knows nothing right? So bring her in to see what magic this guy is doing to your car so she can understand why it costs so much. Bring a friend when you drop the car off, be sure he hears everything that is said. Let him or her help you make the decision on leaving it there. Sometimes YOU too can be looking through rose-colored glasses. If someone else says they have a bad feeling, LISTEN to them!

4. Summary.

      There are few horrors that compare with returning to a shop to find the place locked tight and the mail is piling up on the floor where the carrier has dropped it through the slot. I have seen it, it really happens. The good news is it is rare. To avoid it, just just take your time, follow the guidelines I've laid out above to find a shop where you feel comfortable and you should enjoy a rewarding restoration process. The basis of this article was a posting I made in the forums and I appreciate the comments from readers and the kind words from everyone. I know this article has saved a few guys from the heartache that a bad shop can cause. As long as it has done that, I am happy. But to learn that it was used in a school room, that is overwhelming! Kimberly, thank you so much for the honor.


      Good luck with your body work!


Stovebolter Number: 597
Occupation: Auto body and painter
Interests: Anything that moves human beings

      Thanks to Roger Kemp (1949 Chevy 1/2-ton) for the artwork from his website -- Kemps Chev Spares in New Zealand ~~ Editor

v. Aug 05

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