The $15K Side Market Lights

I was recently asked why it should cost $7,000 to paint a garden-variety Ferrari 308 when a Mercedes 450SL can be resprayed for under $2,500. Before I answer, let me say that I was in the body and paint business from 1972 to 1996, specializing in Ferraris, and painting the occasional Mercedes, Porsche or Lamborghini.

In those twenty-four years, my company painted over 500 Ferraris and employed over fifty different painters and painter’s helpers. All hours were tracked and each employee had to fill out a daily time card detailing what work was done and which materials were used. We used this information to analyze each job for efficiency after its completion.

To give an idea of the complications involved in painting a Ferrari, let’s compare a Ferrari 308 GTS to a Mercedes 450SL, both classic convertibles of the ’70s and ’80s. We’ll assume both cars are painted a solid color on an undamaged and non-rusted body, with aged and sun-cracked paint. Let’s further assume that both cars have been badly “keyed” and must be totally repainted, and that both cars are covered by insurance.

Porsches and Mercedes are examples of the finest of German mass-produced craftsmanship. All body parts are stamped out of expensive metal dies and are produced in mass quantities. They fit together perfectly, are totally interchangeable, and are made to be assembled in quantity.

In comparison, Ferraris are built in limited production. The parts are stamped out over less refined dies and are fitted and assembled by hand. All body panels are welded in place, making removal, replacement or close-tolerance fitting much more difficult.

To remove the chrome and trim from a Mercedes takes only a few hours for an experienced body man. A Ferrari requires a full day for the same procedure. For example, to remove the door handles and lock assemblies on a Mercedes requires a Phillips screwdriver and less than a minute per door. To remove the door handles and lock assemblies on a Ferrari requires removing the door panels and disassembling the door, equaling the better part of a day’s work for both doors. Total disassembly time for the Mercedes: 2 hours. For the Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

Chemically stripping the Mercedes is easy. Simply mask the door, grille and taillight openings, pour on the stripper, and wait thirty minutes. Off comes the paint to reveal a perfect body built to the highest standards. The Mercedes can be stripped and be in bare metal before the painter’s helper goes to lunch.

The Ferrari is much more difficult to strip chemically, as the hood and deck lid must be removed. Simply removing the louvers and screens from the rear deck lid requires hours of work. Because of the complicated curve in the rear panel area around the taillights and license-plate light, the side indentations in the body and the windshield molding, stripping the Ferrari takes a minimum of a full day. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

Once stripped, the traces of remaining paint on the Mercedes can be lightly sanded after the tape is removed from the door, trunk and hood openings. These areas are sanded to bare metal, and in approximately four hours the Mercedes is ready to mask and prime. No such luck with the Ferrari. The many areas the stripper could not reach, such as inside the headlight opening, the upper edge of the recessed body center line, and the area around the taillights must all be laboriously sanded by hand to remove the last coats of factory paint and factory primer/filler. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

Now for the first coat of primer. Thanks to its perfect body panels, the Mercedes requires a standard, easy-to-sand primer. The Mercedes can be masked in only a few hours, put in the booth, solvent washed, the lower surfaces masked and then primered in only half a day. Because of its exposed welds and seams, the Ferrari must be primered with a much thicker and more filling epoxy primer, blocked at least once and possibly twice for best results.

The Ferrari is much more difficult to mask because of its headlight openings, complicated grille opening, taillight areas, etc. It is also more difficult to solvent wash because of its curvaceous body. Since the Ferrari sits lower to the ground, it’s more difficult to mask the lower areas so that the wheel wells, bottom of the spoiler, and suspension and frame are not oversprayed.

When masked and in place, the Ferrari can now be primered. Several coats are needed and must be allowed to “flash” so the solvents in the paint can evaporate between coats, equaling another half-day procedure. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 12 hours.

After the primer has cured, both cars can be mist-coated with a guide coat to show the low and high spots where the primer is sanded. The large flat panels on the Mercedes can be scuffed with a jitterbug sander, the corners and edges hand sanded, scuffed with Scotch-Brite and prepared for paint.

Our labor-intensive Ferrari must be block sanded by hand. The many low spots must be scuffed and filled with blue glaze filler, allowed to dry, and then blocked. Because the epoxy primer and blue glaze filler will sand at different rates, small irregularities will occur and the entire car will then have to be re-primered. 100-grit sandpaper is used to “first cut” the primer and 150-grit sandpaper is used for the final blocking. Total (first) primer-blocking time for our Ferrari is probably two days. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 16 hours.

The Ferrari now needs to be re-primered to eliminate more of the many waves and ripples in the body. One more half day plus re-mask and a few hours for a re-primer. It’s now time to block again. Mercedes: 0 hours. Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

In the interim, our subject Mercedes has been re-masked, blown out, and repainted.

Final prep and paint time for the Mercedes is less than eight hours.

Our Ferrari must now be unmasked. The adjacent panels must now be covered and protected, guide coated and sanded again.

Because the Ferrari is still primered with a very heavy fill epoxy primer, it’s best to start on the second coat with a sandpaper of 180 grit, block and find all the problem areas, then lightly re-guide coat and re-block with 400-grit paper. A final, very light water sanding with 600-grit paper will remove any sanding marks. It’s now time to let the water evaporate from the primers overnight and be ready for paint tomorrow. Mercedes: 0 hours. Ferrari: 8 hours.

Now primered and ready to go, it’s time for one last re-mask of the Ferrari. Back in the booth, a solvent wash, and then re-mask the lower surfaces. A good painter might be able to have everything done in four hours. Finally, it’s time for paint. Mercedes: 0 hours. Ferrari: 4 hours.

After a lunch break, it’s back in the booth to mix the paint and spray our featured Ferrari. The curvaceous body is difficult to paint. The area around the taillights, entire body center-line indentation, the rear window and top buttresses, and the scoops, which bring air into the engine compartment, are a challenge for any painter. Total paint for the Ferrari is a full eight-hour day.

Both cars may require slight de-nubbing, color sanding and buffing to remove minor orange peel. The Mercedes, with its large flat surfaces, is much easier to water sand, to knock off any dust or minor orange peel and buff. It can be done in half a day. The Ferrari requires much more careful attention since there are a lot of sharp edges and corners to catch the buffer and damage new paint jobs. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

Finally it’s time for assembly. The Mercedes can be reassembled in four hours. The Ferrari can’t. A full day minimum is required. The hood and deck lids have to be refitted and aligned. The door handles and door locks have to be replaced. Headlights have to be refitted. They must go up and down without hitting or touching, or it’s back to the paint booth. Mercedes: 4 hours. Ferrari: 8-plus hours.

Our featured Mercedes is now done. It’s time for a final wipe down, wash, and detail before delivery, about two hours.

Our Ferrari needs the bottom of the spoiler re-undercoated. Also, the black contrast paint under the hood and around the engine lid needs to be masked and touched up. The entire car must be bagged in plastic to protect it from overspray. A final wash and detail, and it’s ready for delivery. Mercedes: 2 hours. Ferrari: 8 hours.

The Mercedes “real time” paint job is a modest 28 hours, much of it basic work that can be done by an assistant. At a shop rate of $45 an hour for 28 hours, the Mercedes labor total is about $1,250. Figure an additional $18 an hour for 28 hours (about $500) for materials and the Mercedes paint job, at $1,750, is mildly profitable. Since most insurance companies pay 40 hours to paint a Mercedes, plus $600 or more for materials, painting a Mercedes is indeed usually profitable.

Our labor-intensive Ferrari required 112 hours of very experienced labor, since any mistake will require many hours to repair. At $45 an hour, we need about $5,000 for labor and another $2,000 for materials for a total of about $7,000 to do the job and make a modest profit.

If the Ferrari to be painted is a Dino, we can add about 50% to the labor and materials. For a Daytona we have to double the bill. Been there, done that. I know the drill.

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