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Turning Passion Into Profit

In an enterprise that typically results in a major profit drain, one southeast Texas shop has bucked the trend and, in fact, turned a passion into profit.

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Writer Charlie Barone has been working in and around the body shop business for the last 35 years, having owned and managed several collision repair shops. He's an ASE Master Certified technician, a licensed damage appraiser and has been writing technical, management and opinion pieces since 1993.

The owner of this 1934 Ford that Customs and Collision restored drives it around town whenever he gets the chance.The customer asked for a car with a This 1975 Corvette received a full-blown custom paint job and LS3 motor, and features a custom show tube exhaust and Chip Foose Wheels.It’s that last bit, i.e. profit, which seems so elusive for body shop owners who do these kinds of projects. Traditionally, while a body shop is best equipped to do restorations of old cars and trucks, most in the business tend to steer clear of the long-term projects. Everyone reading this must have at some point pulled an old car into their shop at the behest of a customer – and lived to regret it.

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The problem is a body shop business is accountable for getting the maximum income for every square foot of production space. An old car sitting under a tarp for weeks on end makes that hard to accomplish. However, one shop in Texas seems to take on these projects and come out the other side with a profit. After six and a half years at it, they seem to have struck good balance between short-term insurance work, full-blown custom paint work and restoration.

Producing Income

A shop owner who has been through financial analysis and/or training has had it driven into his or her skull that every square foot of production space has to be producing income. If it’s not, the real estate isn’t paying for itself. And that’s the main problem with restorations and custom work –  they tend to collect dust.

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But John Hardin, partner at Customs and Collision in Dickinson, Texas, has committed to making restorations work for his shop. The shop is located in a southeast suburb of Houston near the gulf coast and has 7,000 square feet of production space. The shop isn’t unusual in terms of its equipment (crossdraft spraybooth and frame machine), but they have installed and make use of a waterborne color system.

And any painter knows how difficult it is to match the colors on the older iron. The formulas are often not in a database on a paint system, which makes it a hit-or-miss proposition.

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Hardin came about a solution to this problem by using his paint supplier and their spectrophotometer.

“They’ll go in and shoot a Prophet on it and give us a formula,” Hardin said. “We may have to tweak it a bit, but it works out very well, the high metallics in particular.”

Their shop also is set up and will do specialty collision repairs.

For example, they have a ’67 Corvette in their shop that was hit in the front.

“Not all the old hot rod jobs are completes,” Hardin remarked.

Part of the profitability equation in that part of Eastern Texas with respect to doing restorations is the comparatively low prevailing rate of $40/hour, which won’t buy the kind of craftsmanship required to make repairs on older cars. Customs and Collision reports getting just north of $60 per hour.

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While they’re doing work on antique cars, they’re not using finishes from that era, i.e. lacquer. It’s all being done with waterborne basecoat and urethane clear.

“Right now, we’re seeing a ratio of 40 percent collision, 40 percent restoration work and 20 percent custom paint work. Even with the economy being what it is, our restoration work is fairly stable,” Hardin said.

Healthy Backlog

Hardin’s shop is enjoying a backlog of six months, which in any business today is enviable. At the moment, he’s working on a frame-off restoration of a ’63 Ranchero, a ’72 El Camino SS and a ’67 Corvette Sting Ray.

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“We always have an array of Corvettes and Camaros in the shop,” he said.

Customs and Collision tends to avoid mechanical work and has a relationship with a mechanical shop in front of their location in Dickinson. One will refer their type of specialty to the other – that is, they do what they know best.

Several custom cars get trailered around to shows, but the vast majority of their customers own what are known as “drivers,” which will expose them to damage, either from the elements or the odd errant motorist. And if you’re a fan of old cars, driving them in nice weather is what it’s all about.

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“Last year, we did a ’34 Ford that the owner drives to shows and around town,” said Hardin. “It was a frame- off job that we finished the underside, the frame was powder coated – he drives it everywhere he wants to go.”

Internet Presence

While Hardin’s business is centered on old cars and they’re fluent in the older build technology and processes, they’re up to speed in terms of marketing their business on the Web. They have two websites, www.ccccustoms.com and another page to highlight their custom paint work, www.paintbyjohn.com. The paint site has examples of their work, which are not all cars and trucks. You’ll find the odd surfboard, metal sculpture and photos of Mark Conley (the original owner) plying his trade with an airbrush.

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“We [currently] have a ‘make an owner’s dream come true kind of job,’” said Hardin. “The guy came in here with a vision and said he wanted a car with a wow factor. It’s a black ’67 Camaro with silver racing stripes and pearl white ghost flames. Our first restoration was a black ’40 Ford convertible – a nice driver car, it shows real well.”

A ’75 Corvette was treated to a full-blown custom paint, a motor swap on a one-owner car. They pulled the body off the frame, installed an LS3 motor, which is a durable small block Chevy with 6 bolt main bearings. The ’Vette features a custom show tube exhaust and Chip Foose wheels.

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Hardin admitted that a ’75 Corvette is not what anyone would call a sought-after collector car, but the owners bought it new and were evidently emotionally attached to it. And tapping into that emotion and enthusiasm for old cars is a proven source for business. In fact, anyone who goes to old car shows will attest to the fact that the hobby hasn’t shown any appreciable downturn, even in the difficult economic storms which have affected every other business struggling for survival today. It’s almost a recession-proof enterprise.

While younger folks are still enthusiasts of old cars, those with the bank accounts and wherewithal to buy, restore and rebuild the old iron are at or near retirement age. Many of them are driving cars they lusted after in their youth, or in some cases are showing the actual cars they had in their younger days.

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“Right now we’ve got a ’63 Ranchero on a rotisserie getting ready to go back on the ground with a 302 small block, rack-and-pinion steering and the usual street rod equipment,” said Hardin. “We painted the Corvette in a candy blue, with the bumper [covers] molded in, four-into-one show tubes and Chip Foose wheels.”

Hardin’s been a partner with Mark Conley for six years at this shop, although Conley’s been in the business since 1978.

Learning Curve

“In order to turn a profit, you’ve got to be working on these cars and collecting on them as you go. We went through a learning curve of having a shop full of these kinds of jobs, like anybody else. We bring these cars in and we don’t let any dust collect on them. But we try to get right on them and stay steadily working until they’re completed. We work to certain milestones and take draws on a
regular basis.”

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Not being located on a busy throughway, Customs and Collision has to depend on a well-earned reputation.

“Our customers have taken a boatload of trophies home,” said Hardin. “The last time I counted, we had 30 to 35 awards for our customers’ cars. At one local show last year, we had 13 customers’ cars there, and 11 of them took trophies.”

In addition to a solid customer base, area collision shops that are not set up for restorations will refer their customers’ older muscle cars and classics to Customs and Collision.

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“We sponsor one of the largest car clubs in the area, which is a great resource for our business,” Hardin added.

Having a presence at the car shows to Customs and Collision is like having a DRP to a regular body shop…but far more fun. They can show off their product and have a good time all at once. And enjoying what you do while getting paid well for it is a good formula for anyone – in any kind of business.


Charlie Barone has over 36 years of experience in collision repair. He’s an ASE Master Certified technician and a licensed damage appraiser, and has been writing since 1993. He can be reached at [email protected]

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