Gary's Rods and Restorations

Goal Oriented & Fulfilling Dreams at Gary’s Rods and Restorations

For Gary George, owner of Gary’s Rods and Restorations in Watsonville, California, his high school automotive dreams were easily defined. He knew what he wanted to do with his work life.

“I always wanted to be a custom painter – candies and stuff like that,” he says.

Gary's Rods and Restorations

Gary's Rods and Restorations

The journey from high school dreams to a shop of his own didn’t happen overnight, but the experiences and skills acquired along the way prepared him to make the leap 12 years ago. After graduation, Gary worked for a local shop, beginning as a painter’s helper and then painter. A stint with noted racer and classic car specialist Bruce Canepa added to Gary’s skill set. “Bruce really refined me, getting me to the detail-oriented side,” Gary says.

Next stop: A local Ford dealership where Gary spent 26 years in the paint and body operation, eventually managing the department. During those years, Gary picked up extra work helping restore Ferraris for Ferrari of Los Gatos. Another side job involved finishing a street rod project with a friend. That experience set the stage for a career course change.

“That got me thinking that this is what I want to do,” Gary says. “I want to build hot rods.”

Decision made, Gary found a 6,000 sq. ft. shop in Watsonville and opened the doors on Jan. 1, 2012, with three cars and three guys. A couple of full builds followed and 12 years later Gary’s Rods and Restorations has grown to more than 10,000 sq. ft. filled with diverse projects.

Full Service – Almost

Apart from upholstery work, Gary’s Rods has the staff and tools to do everything else necessary to complete full-build projects. Customers like this, he says, because their vehicles don’t need to be shipped to different shops for different parts of the build.

Even with the “we can do it all” capabilities, other factors often affect the ability of busy shops to stay on schedule. Supply chain issues, for example, persist even though the worst of the Covid-caused delays are in the past. Another factor, Gary says, is industry wide: finding and keeping good employees.

“Everyone’s looking for good help,” he says. In competitive markets like the Bay Area, that often means losing employees to other shops and struggling to find qualified replacements.

Managing the Schedule

Gary is not alone managing an 18-month to two-year waiting list for full-build projects. That’s the good news, because the team can focus on completing current projects without having to worry about where the next project comes from. Customers are patient, Gary says, because they know what they want and that means they’re willing to wait.

Customers expanding the scope of what they want done once the vehicle is in the shop is another issue that can affect scheduling. For example, Gary says, it’s not unusual for a car to come in for basic upgrades – an LS engine swap and better disc brakes, for example – and then the customer decides to add custom wheels, an aftermarket chassis, or new paint. A one-month job becomes a six-month project, pushing the schedule back.

Gary's Rods and Restorations

Gary has another strategy to keep projects on schedule. He assigns each portion of the job to the member of the team who is most skilled in that area. That means one person doesn’t build the whole car, he says. The best body people do the bodywork; the best wiring person does that, and so forth.

Managing Expectations

When Gary meets with prospective customers, he asks them to create a priority list of what they want for the build, from highest to lowest priority. That exercise helps create a workable budget with the customer and helps determine what to eliminate if that becomes necessary.

“We can’t start something, blow the car apart, then have the customer say he’s out of money,” Gary says.

Gary's Rods and Restorations

This approach requires communicating with customers on a regular basis to balance the realities of an expensive build as well as documenting the progress along the way. “We timeclock everything, we document everything,” Gary says. “As I do the billing, we include detail on what we’ve done.”

Trends and Growth

While Gary’s Rods is busy with popular builds – vintage trucks, restomods, Corvettes, ’60s muscle cars – more customers are bringing in older vehicles for engine, chassis, or other creature-comfort upgrades. There has also been an increase of what Gary calls sentimental builds.

“People gravitate to what they had in high school, or their parents’ car,” he says. “Customers want cars to look like they are, but they want them to drive like new cars. Fuel injection, disc brakes, A/C, power windows. All the creature comforts.”

One potential growth area Gary sees is performing routine maintenance chores or relatively easy upgrades, if he could find qualified mechanics. Owners who want to replace a clutch or switch from a carburetor to fuel injection and don’t have the skills, time, or space to do that themselves are looking for a shop that can do smaller project work on older cars.

“Shops that work on new cars don’t want to touch old cars, so there’s an opportunity there,” Gary says. “We turn away more work than we bring in. There’s a tremendous amount of service work out there, but we can’t do it because of a lack of qualified mechanics.”

Gary's Rods and Restorations

One income source that has grown is doing body and paint work for other shops. Since Gary has the skilled specialists and in-house paint facilities, he can schedule outside jobs to fill the time when he’s not painting for his full-build customers.

What’s in the Future?

Gary says he wants to keep doing what works, but that he might add an upholstery department, which would help with scheduling and quality control.

“It’s a family run business [his wife and two sons work there] with some excellent employees,” he says. “I’m following my passion, but that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games, like the TV shows. This has always been a goal for me, just to be part of it is all I need.”

Gary's Rods and Restorations

Gary’s Rods and Restorations

Watsonville, California


On-Site Photos by Michael Christensen

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.