SEMA eNews Vol. 14, No. 29, July 21, 2011

Best Practices for Restoration Businesses

SEMA News—June 2011

Communication Is Always the Key

BEST PRACTICES

By Steve Campbell

 

When a supposedly accurate reproduction part fails or doesn’t fit properly, the shop owner has only a few options
Courtesy of Marc Langsam/Dynacorn Int. Inc.

The bedrock of the automotive specialty-equipment industry is the parts that are used to build, restore and modify vehicles of all types. Every segment of the industry counts on parts that are properly designed, engineered and manufactured to operate as promised. Within the restoration segment, however, those standards are complicated by the fact that the vehicles involved are anywhere from two decades to nearly a century old.

The market for vintage vehicles has exploded. As a result, original-equipment components have become harder to secure from salvage yards, collections or abandoned “barn-find” vehicles. That scarcity has enterprising manufacturing businesses building reproductions, filling the demand with components that are touted as either near-perfect replicas or replacements that offer improvements in either function or appearance. According to many restoration shop owners and managers, however, that ideal sometimes falls short.

When a supposedly accurate reproduction part fails or doesn’t fit properly, the shop owner has only a few options: exchange the part on the premise that it was an aberration; replace it with a part from a different manufacturer; or modify the part or project to make it work. In the latter instance, an installation that might normally require (and be billed for) an hour of labor could consume five hours or more to reconstruct, modify or re-engineer.

A reputable shop owner is unlikely to charge the customer for the additional time but has to pay his technicians for theirs, so he ends up eating the cost of the extra hours. That’s not only unfair, but is also avoidable if all reproduction parts manufacturers, retailers and shops follow some basic best practices.

Making It Right

Most restoration parts manufacturers do an admirable job of researching, developing and producing spot-on components, and their operations are models for the entire industry. After determining that there is a market for a given product—or, in some cases, receiving a special-order request from a customer—their first step is thorough research and development to ensure that the part meets the same specifications as the original version. That may mean acquiring at least two original-equipment samples of the part for use in prototyping—since a single sample may itself be damaged or distorted and not provide a proper template—and/or acquiring original specifications from authentic sources.

Schematics or drawings that include dimensions allow the manufacturer to check mounting points, clearances and compatibility with other parts in an assembly. And that compatibility includes ensuring that the part will work with other commonly used components for a given application. Incompatibilities, such as a suspension setup that creates fender interference when combined with a common wheel size, should be prominently noted in any ordering literature so that retailers and shops can avoid the incompatible combination.

  Manufacturers and shops involved with reproduction parts should make every effort to access original-equipment master parts books for pre-’80 vehicles
While some vehicles may meet the pure restoration criteria using a combination of original parts with reproductions, a restomod generally includes obvious alterations, such as a modern powerplant, air conditioning or a brake system.
Courtesy of American Muscle Cars Inc.
   
Manufacturers and shops involved with reproduction parts should make every effort to access original-equipment master parts books for pre-’80 vehicles; parts information on microfiche for ’80 through ’90s vehicles; and dealer parts information networks for later models. Companies such as Faxon Auto Literature (800/458-2734) offer repair, assembly and owners’ manuals, sales brochures, parts books and even paint chips for virtually all domestic and imported cars and trucks. In Faxon’s case, most of its more than one-million-volume inventory consists of original literature obtained from collectors or dealerships that have closed, but the company is also licensed by vehicle manufacturers to reproduce official repair manuals and parts books both as bound copies and as CDs or DVDs. Both manufacturers and restoration shops can benefit from acquiring original manuals since they include photos, illustrations and detailed specifications for parts and assemblies.

Manufacturers may also obtain original parts for use as templates from restoration shops themselves. Several of the shop owners who contributed information for this story said that they had loaned parts to established manufacturers to help in the development of reproductions, and at least one did so knowing that his original could not be returned but would result in the creation of a well-designed and usable reproduction part. On the other hand, another shop owner said that he had seen a reverse-engineering facility in Taiwan that prototyped a part from an original that was partially rusted away, essentially “guessing” at the form of the missing area.

While a few manufacturers design, tool and produce their reproduction parts in their own facilities, many U.S. suppliers have outsourced the manufacture of their parts offshore, making it very difficult to make corrections or changes midstream. As production runs age, equipment such as molds and stamping presses must be diligently checked and maintained to ensure consistent quality control. Tooling is obviously expensive, and deciding which parts to produce is based on market demand. While misjudging the market can badly hurt a company, producing noncompliant parts can eventually be ruinous. Once word of mouth about a bad part has poisoned a manufacturer’s reputation, shop owners are unlikely to take a chance on trusting that source again.

The most popular restoration projects— early Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers and the like—have spawned legions of reproduction components. Indeed, enough replicated parts exist for some models to build a complete vehicle without using a single OEM component. In other cases, however, manufacturers must diligently research the market to ensure that tooling up will provide a worthwhile return on investment. Surveying reputable restoration shops about what types of projects they’re currently involved with can lead to a more thorough understanding of the market and may even contribute to the development of necessary and profitable new products.

Pick the Part Correctly

Manufacturers report that incorrect orders are among the most frequent reasons for parts returns, and they counsel that retailers and shops double-check their orders for accuracy. Most large manufacturers provide catalogs with part numbers and clear descriptions, often including photos or illustrations. Part numbers that are fastened, stamped or molded onto the original can identify some parts that need to be replaced, but others may have already been swapped out with aftermarket parts that don’t include such markings. In such cases, speaking directly to a manufacturer’s representative or tech line may help avoid mistaken orders.
When contacting a manufacturer for ordering information about an individual part—whether in person, by phone or through e-mail—provide appropriate background about vehicle make, model, serial number, engine type and displacement, wheelbase measurements, color codes and any modifications that already exist. Describe the component to be ordered in detail—what it looks like, what it does, its critical dimensions and the other components it interacts with. If possible, augment the process by sending photos, illustrations or even the actual part to be replaced, when possible. If the order is placed over the phone, follow up with an e-mail to summarize the conversation and ensure that both buyer and seller agree on the details.

When Fit Is an Issue

  Some shops are comfortable with any type of restoration. Parts built using modern materials and techniques often outshine even the originals.
Some shops are comfortable with any type of restoration. Parts built using modern materials and techniques often outshine even the originals. Courtesy of Marc Langsam/Dynacorn Int. Inc.
   
In most cases, a vehicle that is being restored has already seen at least one complete lifecycle. During its history, it may have been driven more than 100,000 miles over a variety of roads and may have been involved in one or more accidents, minor or major. It will have been maintained or repaired with parts from myriad sources and by technicians of varying skill levels. Indeed, original parts and assembly practices 40 or more years ago were not nearly as exacting as they are today. No wonder, then, that even a perfectly reproduced part sometimes doesn’t fall precisely into place. Conscientious shops are cognizant of those facts and eliminate vehicle straightness, wear or previous modifications as causes of fitment problems before faulting the part itself.

When a shop eliminates all other possibilities and believes that the part has been incorrectly designed or produced, the first step should be a phone call to the manufacturer detailing the information used when ordering the part (year, make, model, etc.) as well as a complete description of the problem. It’s best to have the technician who actually experienced the problem describe it to a knowledgeable manufacturer’s representative so that there is no danger of secondhand misinterpretation.

Following the initial contact, the shop should follow up with photographs of the part showing the misalignment. There may be subsequent Q&A sessions to establish the root cause of the problem, but if the part is proven to be at fault, the manufacturer should admit responsibility and provide not only resolution, but also restitution for the shop’s unnecessary expenses. Most shop owners and restoration specialists are passionate about their work and will participate willingly in helping to correct fitment problems. Likewise, reputable manufacturers are adamant about the integrity of their operations and recognize the need to address such problems, using feedback from shops to eliminate errors. The worst reaction is to ignore or even deny that a problem exists. As a best practice, at least one manufacturer has begun to proactively seek feedback from shops about how successful they were in using the company’s parts.

Failure Is Not an Option

Premature failure of mechanical parts is another source of frustration for shops. While minor sheetmetal variations are part of the restoration landscape, breakage of close-tolerance or even nominally simple mechanical parts can be even more costly. Shop owners complain that merely replacing a defective part doesn’t account for the labor costs involved in redundant removal and installation of a component when a failure occurs.

In some cases, suppliers obtain components from multiple manufacturers and then create a complete assembly for resale. They may even modify the basic parts to create a more appealing or ostensibly better-working final product. In such cases, the final supplier is responsible to the shop for the effectiveness of the assembly, just as the shop will be responsible to the client for the finished car.

  This car, had been damaged on the driver’s side and was repaired improperly. Using it as a template for reproduction parts could result in parts that are ill fitting or even impossible to use
Reverse engineering without meticulous research may complicate the restoration process. This car, photographed in Taiwan, had been damaged on the driver’s side and was repaired improperly. Using it as a template for reproduction parts could result in parts that are ill fitting or even impossible to use. Courtesy of Classic Automotive Restoration Specialists
   
Once a component is found to be untrustworthy, savvy shop owners advise their clients to steer clear of them or even refuse to warrant work if the client insists on using the problem part. But shop owners also need to be diligent about inspecting the parts they intend to use in a
timely manner.

Shops sometimes order a complete set of parts for a given project but don’t open them until they reach the appropriate stage of the build. Thus, it may be months or even a year down the road before they discover that a part is defective either when it comes out of the package or from premature failure during use. Some manufacturers will not accept returns when that much time has passed, even if the part was never installed. That’s why it’s best for shops to unpack, inspect and even trial-fit parts as soon as possible after receipt. Responsible suppliers and manufacturers will replace defective products, but they may be hesitant to do so if an inordinate amount of time has passed since the shop took possession of the merchandise.

Pure Restoration vs. Restomod

A pure restoration is an exact duplication of how a vehicle was originally manufactured for sale. A restomod (restoration + modification) uses assembly techniques or parts for improvements in either performance or appearance that were not authentic to the car from the factory. Some vehicles may meet the pure restoration criteria using a combination of original parts with reproductions that even a knowledgeable observer might not detect. A restomod generally includes obvious alterations, such as a modern powerplant, air conditioning or brake system. At the far end of the spectrum are all-out hot rods, on which virtually every system has been obviously and radically altered.

Some shops are comfortable with any type of restoration and are willing to tackle the difficulties of tracking down parts that fit a customer’s desire for even a numbers-matching concours d’elegance project. But parts built using modern materials and techniques often outshine original equipment and may tempt a shop owner to steer a client toward them.

It is the shop’s responsibility to learn what the customer wants out of the project and then decide whether it can reasonably deliver that vehicle. Interview the customer about his or her plans for the completed car. Thoroughly explain the options, ranging from pure restoration to hot rod. Assemble a binder of build sheets and photos that show the details of previously completed projects to help explain what can be done and the relative expense of different build types. But do so in plain English. As one restoration expert said, it doesn’t help to make yourself look smart by referencing “roll angle” or “bumpsteer” when the customer will more likely understand “leaning” or “tracking straight and steady.” And make sure to point out modifications that can’t be undone when discussing the options. Some owners won’t want the frame or body to be permanently changed while others will
encourage it.

Working Together

 
The market for vintage vehicles has exploded, and enterprising manufacturing businesses are building reproduction parts and assemblies to fill the demand for components that are near-perfect replicas or replacements that offer improvements in either function or appearance. Courtesy of Marc Langsam/Dynacorn International Inc.
   
The more manufacturers, retailers and shop owners understand each other’s needs, the better they can meet the needs of end users—the enthusiasts whose dreams and desires fuel the industry. It is crucial for manufacturers to listen to shop recommendations and comments—including complaints—and respond responsibly.

It is just as critical for shop owners to learn about manufacturers and their parts and to work with them to solve problems when they arise. Manufacturers don’t generally interact with consumers but depend upon retailers and shops for input about improvements as well as potential markets for parts.

Trade and car shows where manufacturers exhibit are great venues for one-on-one interaction. Shop owners should make a point to talk with manufacturers whose parts they use or whose products show promise. And when personnel at restoration businesses—manufacturer, retailer or shop—hear of an educational opportunity, such as a seminar or roundtable devoted to the industry, make every effort to attend. In the end, communication is the best practice of all.

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