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Restoration Disaster: Learn From my Experience

Sometimes restorations go well. And sometimes they don’t. No matter how big the job at hand, having a written contract going into a job can pay huge dividends at the end—and ensure many fun returns.

I always buy myself a birthday present. When I turned 25, I bought myself a sports car. I grew up around British cars; when a friend mentioned he was selling his 1980 Triumph TR8, I had to have it. The year was 1984.

I loved the throaty low sound of the V8 engine, the power to accelerate up hill, the handling on mountain roads, the open-top freedom and the heritage cache as the last Triumph. I took it to the beach in summer and skiing in winter with skis poking out the back window, bought parts for it and always garaged it.

As British car mechanics became harder to find, repair issues went unresolved. When I finally found a mechanic, I stuck with him for 16 years until things went wrong—horribly wrong.

In 2008, this mechanic urged me to let him handle some bodywork and a new paint job. I thought refreshing my car would make a great 50th birthday present, and celebrate 25 years of car ownership. I trusted him to oversee the bodywork, handle assembly and ensure a quality job.

Two more birthdays went by before I could get my car back. When I did, it was riddled with rust, holes in the floorboards made the road visible, there were hardened drips of paint and clear coat, metal patches were barely spot welded in place and body fill covered questionable work. Worse, he stripped numerous parts off my car, including many that are not replaceable new or used. Sloppy, incorrect assembly ruined trim parts. Unprofessional mechanical work rendered my car unsafe.

The mechanic and his body guy hadn’t fixed any of the issues they agreed to, yet still demanded full payment. It was extortion. But I paid the money to get my car back and felt like I had no recourse. It can be impossible to collect money even with a legal judgment in court or small claims, and getting stolen parts back requires filing criminal charges to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Totally devastated by the condition of my car after all the time and money, and upset over getting taken advantage of, I put it in storage. Now the money I allocated for the project is gone, my car is in far worse condition than when I started the restoration, and some needed replacement parts are unavailable. I’m at a standstill, and so is my once-cherished car.

Here’s some hard-won advice: Photograph every inch of your car before any work ensues. Get a written estimate in advance (this is a legal requirement in most states). Have a written, signed contract detailing exactly what is to be done, what the timeframe will be, at what points quality checks are to be made before work can proceed, and expenses for parts and labor.

By law, any expenses that exceed the signed estimate/contract must be approved in advance. When there are changes in the project or costs, note them in writing as an addendum to the contract with approval. Demand regular updates with photos. If the quality is not acceptable at any step or something tells you all is not well, stop the work and pull the car immediately.

How can you find a reputable resto shop? Use a member of the British Motor Trade Association, or get a referral through a member. Work directly with a resto/body/paint shop rather than through a mechanic. Keep the project local so you can make regular quality inspections. Join your area car club and work through members so you have the advantage of peer pressure to keep mechanics and resto shops honest.

If this doesn’t work and you get ripped off, get the word out at car shows, events, in clubs and on forums so others don’t get caught. When an owner has a bad incident, it can kill their enthusiasm for the car and even lead them to abandon it. And that affects the entire hobby. (My detailed story is posted at www.triumphexperience.com.)

By Kathleen M. Mangan



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