So You Want to Start a Restoration Shop? - BodyShop Business

So You Want to Start a Restoration Shop?

"Restoration Shop" is a new column written by restoration expert Tom Horvath, best known for his SYSTEM ONE products used in "Jay Leno's Garage." He is now the manufacturer of Clearcoat Solutions.

Me and Dad back in the day. Dad taught me how to finish what I started and to never quit.I remember that question coming from my dad as if it were yesterday. Growing up in the trade, my earliest memory was of Dad was him managing what looked at the time to be a huge body shop at a Ford dealership in Aurora, Ohio. I remember the premiere of the Ford Mustang. It was a big celebration with real mustang ponies in the coral and lots of free toys for us kids.

When I became a teenager, my dad started his own body shop in Ravenna, Ohio. I couldn’t wait to go to work there. What would be my first job?

It never starts out like you think! Sorting nuts and bolts, using a DA until my hands went numb, sandblasting rust outside the shop on hot summer days. When would I be able to paint? That wouldn’t happen for many years.

My dad was a great teacher; hard at times, but a really good teacher. He taught me how to finish what I started and to never quit.

My dad’s shop was a production shop specializing in quick in-and-out production work. A customer’s car could be refinished, painted, reassembled, detailed and delivered all within a week for $600.

One day, Mr. Wheeler, one of the wealthiest men in town, came by to see my dad with his 1969 Buick Electra 225. Mr. Wheeler wanted the car completely taken apart and painted with 30 coats of hand-rubbed black lacquer. What’s that, right? We finished the car and it looked so good you could see your reflection in every angle of the car. I guess that’s where I got the bug.

That bug would take me to Southern California, where I started my own shop and ran it for almost 30 years. I restored thousands of cars and won many first place paint awards, including a first place at Pebble Beach.

At the peak of my career, I was doing crash repair and major restoration work on exotic cars. Although bringing a crashed car to pre-accident condition was satisfying, the satisfaction was minimal compared to finishing a car to be presented and judged in competition. An adrenaline rush would overcome me every time.

Preparing for these projects would take many hours, and every employee knew how critical every stage of the project was. Sometimes the preparation would last so long that I would go days on end without seeing my family, and asked my employees to do the same.

After every project, I would ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” and tell myself, “Never again!”

Then the day of the show would come, and I would fret over our preparation. Could we have worked harder? Did we do our best? Did we miss something? But when we won first place, the pain of putting it all together would grow so dim that I couldn’t wait for the next project.

These projects had no money cap. The California market was growing at an exponential rate, and every project was bigger and more intense than the year before.

Although it seemed there was more money to be made in collision than restoration, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I was able to work on some of the most awesome cars in the world, meet some great people and learn what it meant to successfully finish a project. I will never forget when Dad asked me, “You want to start a restoration shop?” Looking back, I’m glad my response was “Yes!”

Horvath can be reached at [email protected].


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