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Words of Caution for Classic Car Restorations

Have a resto project in your shop? Have fun, but follow these do’s and don’ts to avoid running afoul of the law

A recent news story hints at a bigger problem. Knowing that many shop owners are also classic car enthusiasts, it will provide a warning. For those with shops, you’ll want to watch for this in your place of business lest you fall fowl of the law by something being done by an employee or others. It’s as big an issue for mechanical as collision shops.

Recently, in north central Wisconsin, a collision and restoration shop was the subject of investigation, search and subsequent criminal charges. Apparently the shop owner and employees would find a classic car to restore, buy it, alter it then resell it. 

Also of interest is that Fords do not tie engine, etc., casting numbers back to a specific VIN except for Boss 302 models according to my research. However, the casting number had best not be one after the car was built! In the case noted, the car was a 1970 Boss 429 Mustang. However, without making this short article pages long, other makers do tie casting numbers to VIN codes.

After much research pouring over car magazines, reviewing materials by Hemmings and Hagerty and more, it is obvious we have two kinds of classical buyers:

  1. People like me. I have a 1968 Pontiac LeMans. Every bolt and needed part was replaced as part of its rebirth. I was more worried about drivability and the fun I had re-doing it with my two sons. In the end, the block is original (though machined and a new engine kit installed) as are the tranny and the rest.  Even has drum brakes from the factory. But, the interior was all replaced/recovered and more. The new paint is the original color. Today I have a fun old car to take for rides and shows. The ever popular 10 footer.
  2. Investor enthusiasts. You know, the folks on the live winter auctions that will spend more on a car than the value of my house. These are cars no longer on or going to see the streets. The trailer queens. These people will pay MUCH more for a true number’s matching vehicle.

In our example, the restorer rebuilt the Mustang with rebuilt or newer parts. The crime? He altered the part numbers to fit the car by removing and/or altering the serial or casting numbers. In other words, rebuild the 429 with a salvage or new engine and block, redo the numbers and later advertise the car as a “numbers matching” car, asking much more than a simple restoration would bring.

What does all of this mean to you? First, as a “car guy”, do your research on anything you are looking to buy for yourself. Create a small binder or file with the appropriate numbering and markings that you want to look for on the vehicle. It may well be lopsided, but that’s OK. At least you know what you are buying and spending an appropriate amount. Then, have fun.

As a shop owner there are a number of very serious issues to discuss. Misrepresenting or altering a vehicle for someone may very well prove to be an expensive, and likely criminal, enterprise. And could be you aren’t even aware it’s happening.

Let’s say someone brings an older car to your mechanical shop for repair or maintenance. With the customer in tow, make a list of the items that appear to have been changed. Disc brake conversions, electronic ignition changes, cooling modifications or whatever. Also note any damage to the exterior or interior. Then have them sign off and include a photo or two (your phone will be fine).

Taking this one simple step avoids the “he said she said” regarding anything that may or didn’t happen in your care. It also pays to keep these vehicles inside if at all possible to avoid theft or harm. And, if at any time a person wants you to alter a casting or serial number, just say no. You really don’t want this customer anyway. Simply list on the invoice the parts, brands or sources and any commentary. Personally, I am a big believer that this extra care and time is worthy of a fee, whatever you call it.

Sad to say, but the other thing you’ll have to keep an eye on are employees. See what’s coming in the shop. What kind of parts and what they fit. As if you need to allocate your time when it’s so scarce now. But, it’s the world we live in today.

Be especially watchful of any “employee parts” orders. If a part that you process isn’t for a customer job, you’ll need to know why. Is the employee moonlighting on you or working on an old car or racing car? And, stay in communication with your part’s suppliers. Talk to them. Unfortunately it would not be the first time an employee and counterperson are helping each other out. 

Lastly, on behalf of your worker’s compensation insurance carrier, your liability insurance carrier, the police and your own pocketbook, do not give a key to an employee to work on off hours in your shop. No doubt they may well be honest, decent people, but we live in a world that now has to prepare for the small group that may cause us harm.

While we may shake our heads at the folks who spend $100,000 to have their perfect, numbers matching vehicles, we must look at the service providers in our own ranks perpetrating this kind of grift and theft. 

Hard to swallow, but it’s fact. And, we must protect ourselves. Here’s to a better tomorrow when we can all get back to a handshake and person’s word being all that is needed.

At a young age, industry veteran Tom Langer started detailing cars for his family’s dealerships, which then led to work in the jobber and warehouse business, along with a machine shop and auto body shop. He held a variety of positions with an auto parts manufacturer for 10 years, and remained in the industry working with shops, warehouses and manufacturers in research and more. 

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