Restoration Escalation

Over the years, the term “restoration” has had evolving meaning in the Ferrari world. Back in the 1970s, it meant new paint, clean leather, maybe a valve job or an engine rebuild, some non-original chrome work and a great detail. Today, however, it implies much more.

The assumption now is that a restored Ferrari is one worthy of a place on the lawn at Cavallino, Concorso Italiano or even Pebble Beach. As this standard and the times have changed, so have the costs, which have escalated dramatically.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a “Pebble Beach-quality” restoration was usually estimated at about 2,000–2,500 hours labor, plus parts, machining, sublet and materials. Today, the same car would be subjected to 3,000–3,500 hours, and a whole new world of peripheral expenditures would be tacked onto the bill for things like research, logistics and presentation.

This is because when a restored Ferrari is finally ready to show, a full support staff is needed. These people cover detailing upon delivery, show setup, and most importantly, prepping the owner for presentation. The car’s owner must be briefed such that he can understand the entire restoration and become familiar with every aspect of the work. Hopefully he can convince the judges of the veracity of the work, not only by knowing the answers to their questions, but by anticipating potential questionable areas before being asked.

A restoration is like a war-planning exercise, coordinating multiple teams of specialists who disassemble, store and itemize, sublet, fabricate and finish, rebuild and repair, paint and polish, retrim and re-assemble insanely expensive and usually unique pieces at a price and with a firm deadline. In the small world of concours entrants, miss your target date for Cavallino or Pebble Beach, and you lose your client.

Today, I believe there are only four large total–service restoration shops with ten or more employees in the U.S. These are Motion Products in Wisconsin, Bobby Smith in Texas, Dennison Motor Sport in Washington, and Paul Russell and Co. in Massachusetts. All are located in the suburbs or farther removed from the expenses of the big cities.

There are several smaller shops such as CAROBU Engineering and F.A.I. in Southern California, and Patrick Ottis and Perfect Reflections in the San Francisco area, or David Carte in Virginia. All had Ferraris at Concorso Italiano or Pebble Beach in August.

Sadly, there are no large restoration-only shops left in California. While California may be car-crazy, it is also one of the most litigious places on the planet and a large, high-profile shop filled with top-end Ferraris is simply a target for every lawyer fresh out of law school who believes a law degree guarantees a house at the beach and a paid-for BMW.

It costs a lot of money to keep the doors open at a restoration shop. There are many costs, such as hazardous material disposal, that have gone sky-high in the past 20 years. From painting, plating and powder coating to machining and sand blasting, all of these processes have become increasingly regulated due to the environmental implications of the materials involved. The effect on the cost of a restoration has been huge. While it once cost $10k to do the chrome on a 275 GTB, the same job is $35k today.

For a further example, in 1989 I outfitted my expanding restoration shop with a brand-new, industry-standard paint booth and the latest piston-type compressor and air drier. It cost me $30k for the booth and $15k for the compressor, installed and ready to go.

When I re-leased the same building in 1998, the new tenant had to install a new downdraft paint booth and a new rotary air compressor with a dryer system. Cost? About $225k for the booth and $50k for the rest, all to comply with newer regulations. Undoubtedly today you’re looking at an even bigger bill.

Labor costs are another factor. In the mid-1980s, a top mechanic or painter might make $50k a year, while today the same top-level technicians can expect a healthy six figures. I know some shop managers that could literally name their salary.

Think this run-up in costs is crazy? Consider the cost of insurance. All restoration shops now insist their customers carry their own insurance, as the cost to insure a facility filled with a dozen or more Ferraris, all valued at over $1m, is simply unobtainium.

There are no more barn-find 375 MMs or 250 GTOs, so today’s restoration is almost always the recycling of last decade’s Pebble Beach contender, but to an ever-higher standard. The factors driving this start with the general competitiveness of the Ferrari industry.

In the 1970s, restoring old cars, even Ferraris, usually meant hot-rodding them and chroming everything in sight. But not anymore. Today it is not enough to complete a world-class restoration, but the result must be documented, in voluminous photo albums that are used to convince skeptical judges that every detail is absolutely correct. The wrong trim, the wrong fasteners, the lack of a photo to show how something was done and you just dropped a point further away from the podium.

There are many anal-retentive trainspotters, including most of the top judges in the hobby, who take this stuff very seriously. Some judges are professional restorers themselves. These guys dedicate massive hours of research and documentation to their craft, scanning in old photos and linking up online to more clearly define the standards for concours excellence.

Cars are usually judged at concours by starting at 100 points and then subtracting points for flaws. Only Motion Products has scored 100 points at Pebble Beach, and it has done so five different times, making it the standard bearer for both top quality and research in the world of restorations.

Motion Products:
Patrick Ottis Co.: 510.849.3553
Paul Russell and Co.:
CAROBU Engineering:
Perfect Reflections:
The paradox of restoration is that the big collectors, those with multiple best-of-the-best Ferraris who can hire the very best shop and can afford the best presentation, expect to win. So the reality is such that a lesser car requires even more work and higher standards to beat the big guys at their game and bring home a trophy.

While I was able to do a quality restoration on a four-cylinder 1930 BMW cabriolet for about $35,000, and my eleven-year-old twins brought home a third-place podium finish in a mini-car class based more on “cuteness” than presentation, the highly competitive Ferrari world is a bit different.

Just as speed costs money in racing, the same applies to restoration. To gain that extra point, that extra edge, it is always extra-expensive. When you’re up against the most desirable and unique Ferraris in the world, competing against the best shops and some of the wealthiest men in the world, winning is an expensive art form.