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The Best Restoration I Ever Saw

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Junior Conway's Shoebox Ford. (Photo by Steve Coonan, courtesy The Rodder's Journal)I’m asked from time to time what’s the best restoration I ever saw. But it’s not easy to answer because I’ve seen a lot of nice cars all over California.  

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A restoration, to a builder, starts way before the car is built. It starts before you have a customer; before you figure out were the money is coming from; before all the subs who are going to touch the project. It really starts with the person. So every time I’m asked what’s the best restoration I ever saw, I reply, “Who is the best restorer?”

Pantera Problems

About 30 years ago, I was just starting my restoration business, and one of the customers I was doing a lot of work for was Gary Hall from parts supplier Hall Pantera. Gary knew all the problems that a Pantera had and wanted me to know as fast as possible how to fix these problems. The Pantera had a pretty bad reputation in the high-performance car market, but Gary single-handedly went on to resurrect the Pantera to a real supercar in the 1980s. Gary was a great contractor in the building of cars, and I was grateful to have met him and to have worked on hundreds of  Panteras for him and his customers.

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Gary had been in the car business for many years before me, and one of the things he did so well was introduce me to people who he respected in the business, one of whom was Junior Conway. At the time, I was 21 and had my hands full of problems I had never seen before on Panteras, specifically where a Pantera cracks and how to fix it; how to flat-board an entire car; how to block sand the corners of a roof and the raised kick-up section near the quarter window. I remember struggling with these issues, and the big deal was that on any given day, I had 10 to 20 cars in progress for Gary. This workload would last 10 or more years.  

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My Mentors

When Gary introduced me to Junior Conway, I don’t know if he had said a thing about me to him, but one thing I do know is that Junior stopped in his tracks and showed me detail after detail what he did to restore cars.

It was so overwhelming – from leading and metal finishing to the type of paint to the polishing. I saw all the awards Junior achieved for this work in his office and was amazed at the kind of cars he was working on.

As Gary and I were leaving his shop, Junior said, “If you ever run into a problem and need help or advice, call me.” And I remember thinking how special an offer that was because Junior had nothing to gain in teaching me.   

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When Gary and I met again, he asked if I had learned anything from Junior, and the answer was yes! I went on to tell him that Junior was an incredibly nice guy and that I couldn’t believe that he shared so much with me. It seemed as if Junior had shared the kind of top-secret things that he would only share with employees. Gary, in his coarse but meaningful way, said, “Tom, Junior has forgotten more than you will ever know.”

Gary is gone now, but it sure is nice to remember the real guy and great teacher that he was in this trade.

Shoebox Ford

Throughout the years, I occasionally visited Junior to talk about business or to just look at his work. This is when I saw the best restoration I had ever seen.

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I walked in and couldn’t wait to see what Junior was working on. He was polishing the inside of the drip rails on a Shoebox Ford he had just painted. I don’t think I had ever even noticed a shoebox Ford in my life before, but this car was special.

The car was candy apple red, and even though it wasn’t finished, you could see that every detail was being addressed. I remember the doors were on the car and opened, the door panels were still off and even the inside of  the doors with all the raised metal ribs were color sanded and polished. I asked Junior how he got a buffer into those areas, and he said he didn’t – the entire car, including the inside of the doors and jambs, was polished by hand.

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“What?” I said. “Is this car lacquer, because there’s no sign of any orange peel.” (By that time, lacquer paint had been outlawed for use in our business). Junior confirmed that and said he didn’t do this car in lacquer because of the legal problems of spraying it in California. Instead, it was a urethane paint job. I asked the obvious question of why he didn’t buff this urethane paint with a buffer. “I hand rub everything,” he said. The hours just piled up as I thought about how long that would take.

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I remember looking very closely at this car, and one of the things that caught my eye was that the car didn’t look like it had any material on it. It looked like the car had a perfect metal body and then it was painted. I remember wondering how he got the doors to fit so well to the front fenders and the rear quarters. This really is what made this car such an awesome restoration. There were no rough areas in the jambs, no sign of plastic filler and no sign of even primer. The car looked like it had been dipped in a candy apple paint inside and out.

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Living Legend

If you look up the name Junior Conway, you’ll find a living legend. This man was restoring cars and winning awards before I was born in 1959. His prices are expensive, but worth the cost for those who can afford this type of work. After seeing Junior’s work during my time in the trade, I realized the kind of work I wanted to strive to do – work that, after it’s done, doesn’t look like you did anything: that’s just the car and it was made perfect. Junior has dedicated his life to this trade, and you can see it in every Ferrari or other type of car he does. I guess the reason I liked the work on the shoebox Ford is because it was the kind of car that was nothing special to me until Junior restored it.

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Tom Horvath is a restoration expert best known for his SYSTEM ONE products used in “Jay Leno’s Garage.” He is now the manufacturer of Clearcoat Solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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