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Advice on Selecting a Specialty Automotive Shop

Life is full of consequential choices, both personal and professional. For many of us, choosing the right shop to work on our hot rod, custom, or muscle car is near the top of the list.

Whether it’s a six-figure dream-car build or a more modest upgrading of the driveline and suspension, choosing who will do the work depends on a variety of factors. It’s rarely a simple decision – you need to spend the time to do the research.

Whether you want to do a full ground-up build, upgrade the powertrain, add a new interior, or refresh the paint, there are basic areas to examine with any potential provider. Once you’ve narrowed the field, then you need to dive into the specifics.

We were able to come up with some guidelines based on advice from shop owners and some enthusiasts who have shopped around. Let’s look at the issues to explore with all providers, then for specific work.

Cost and Budget

Regardless of the work to be done, be sure to talk costs early in the evaluation process. For example, if your first choice for upholstery work is a shop that does high-end work ($25,000 and higher) but your interior budget is under $10,000, then you need to narrow your sights. The same holds true for paint and other work.

Mike Rutter of Rutterz Rodz in Bristol, Tennessee, agrees. “That’s a given but it doesn’t always get communicated properly in the beginning,” he says. “Know going in what kind of budget you have.”

Setting a budget is critical, even if you’re not having a full build done. Even adding an LS engine and late-model automatic transmission can cost more than you think.

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“Set a realistic budget,” says Cameron Foremaster of SpeedTech Performance in St. George, Utah. “We tell people to take the cost of parts and multiply it by 1.5, and that’s about what labor will cost.”

Vini Madrigal of Vini’s Hot Rods in Alabaster, Alabama, sums up the cost factor. “You can’t build a $50,000 car for $30,000,” he says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

What about deposits and payments? Most shops won’t ask for a sizeable deposit; they prefer to bill regularly on a hours-worked and materials-used basis. Be cautious if the shop owner asks for a seemingly large deposit.

Visit the Shop

Despite what your friends might say about a particular shop, it’s important that you visit the business and meet the owner. Your relationship with the owner is crucial. If you’re not comfortable when you meet with the owner, that’s a red flag.

“There has to be a connection between the owner and the builder,” Rutter says. “It’s a huge factor.”

Madrigal agrees that finding the right match of vision and personality is important. “It makes the build process more enjoyable when both parties vibe,” Madrigal says. “Spit-balling ideas with someone who has the same style is always fun.”

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Some shops are specifically focused on certain years or eras of cars; others are well versed in a wide variety, as illustrated by this scene from Barry’s Speed Shop in California. Visiting a shop and talking with the owner are crucial in determining whether the shop is well suited for working on your particular style of vehicle.

Longtime Monterey County, California Camaro enthusiast Brian Birkeland says the time he spent with Dave Gongora of Dave Gongora’s Body and Paint in Pomona, California, confirmed his choice of the shop to repaint his award-winning ’67 Camaro convertible. “I saw his car at a Goodguys event,” Birkeland says, “He was proud but humble about the work his shop did.”

Since Birkeland’s car would be a few hundred miles away while it was painted, he visited the shop beforehand. He wanted to make sure his car would be carefully handled, that regular updates would be provided, and that a Pomona-area friend could stop by frequently to check on the progress. After a visit to the shop and a thorough tour, Birkeland decided on Gongora’s to do the work. He especially appreciated the way that Gongora explained the shop’s detailed plans to send weekly photo updates and detailed bills every two weeks.

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Camaro enthusiast Brian Birkeland did a lot of research before selecting Dave Gongora’s Body and Paint in Pomona, California, to paint his ’67 Camaro. He chose well, as the convertible has been an award winner since its restoration.

When you visit a shop, what is your first impression? Is the shop clean and organized? Are tools and parts scattered around haphazardly? If you need extensive metal work done, does the shop have an English wheel and other metal-forming equipment?

There are other details to consider and ways to evaluate and research a shop. Website and social media are great places to start. Are customers bragging on the work? Does the shop feature photos of customer vehicles winning awards? What is the shop’s level of security and insurance? Do the workers protect the cars in the shop? Are cars not being worked on at the moment covered? Are padded fender covers being used?

One last important question for every potential shop: How soon can the shop take on the project and what is the estimate on how long the job should take? You don’t want to have your car sitting in the back of the shop for weeks (or longer) waiting for work to begin.

Evaluating the Builder

Once your potential builder has passed the first round of questions, it’s time to move on to specifics. First, does the shop do the kind of work you want done on your particular type of vehicle? For example, if you need work done on a ’60s Camaro but the shop is full of ’30s hot rods, that might not be the right shop for you. It’s not that they couldn’t do the work, but you may be better off with a shop that’s better versed in your era or style of car. Is another shop stacked with diverse vehicles: Tri-five Chevys, ’60s muscle cars, ’30s hot rods? That might be a better prospect.

Speedtech’s Foremaster has good advice: “You have to make sure the shop is capable of producing the quality of work you are expecting.”

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Fabricator Josh LeRoy crafts a custom piece of metal at SaltWorks Fab. There’s a difference between conventional bodywork and specialized metal fabrication. If your project will require custom-fabricated parts and repair panels, it’s important for the shop you choose to have the right equipment and personnel to complete that work.

It’s also important to make sure the shop can handle the type of work your vehicle needs. Does the shop have a paint booth? If you’re just upgrading the driveline, no problem. But if the shop is restoring your ride and it will need paint, find out who will do the paint work. If it’s contracted to another shop, be sure check that shop’s work.

Basically, you need to match your needs with shop’s skillset and areas of expertise. For example, if you want a full restoration or custom build, but when you visit the shop all the cars appear to be undergoing only installation work, that’s probably not the shop for you.

If you’ve been collecting NOS parts to use on your restoration, be sure to discuss this up front with your builder. And don’t be afraid to ask who will be doing the work. How much work will be done by the owner and how much will be handed off to employees? If the employees are veterans with years of experience, you’re in good hands. You may not want your car to be a learning experience for a new employee.

Inside Considerations

If you’re restoring a car and you want a reproduction, original-style interior installed, most experienced upholstery shops can handle that work. However, if you want a custom interior, it’s important to evaluate what the shop can and cannot do.

After you’ve investigated the shop to make sure they appear capable of doing a variety of styles, ask how the trimmer and previous customers settled on a design. Did the customer leave it up to the shop? Was an illustrator used to create a concept sketch? Does the shop owner collaborate with you to rough out the design and select material types and colors? Most car owners want to be involved with the selection of textures, colors and suppliers. If you’re paying for a high-end interior, make sure you’re getting high quality materials.

Make sure the trimmer provides a detailed work order. There are details galore: carpet style and color, armrests, map pockets (if you want them), sun visors, stitching. Even cup holders. If you negotiate a basic interior but keep going back to the upholster with more add-ons because you saw something cool in a magazine, remember that you’re going to pay more.

Parting Thought

After all of your research, there is one additional thing to remember about every project: “Understand that nothing is what it starts out as,” says Thom Ophof, owner of Saltworks Fab in Sarasota, Florida. “The vehicle is almost never as good as one thinks it is and change happens. Change costs money.

“Just make sure communication is clear.”

Dave Doucette is a long-time Goodguys member with a career in newspaper, magazine and website journalism. He was one of the founding editors of USA TODAY, editor of two daily newspapers and co-owner of a magazine publishing and trade show company. He owns and operates Real Auto Media. His first car was a 1947 Ford; he has owned Camaros, Firebirds, El Caminos and a 1956 Chevy that was entered in shows from California to Florida before being sold last year. He was one of the original Goodguys Rodders Reps and served as president of two classic Chevy clubs. Doucette grew up in South Florida, avidly following the racing exploits of local hero Ollie Olsen and, of course, Don Garlits. He remembers riding his bicycle to Briggs Cunningham’s West Palm Beach factory to peak through the fence at his Sebring and LeMans racers.