The ink was barely dry on “When Restorations Go Bad” (March 2016, p. 42) when Legal Files received an email from George Medynski: “Nice article. But call me anytime if you want the other side of the story.”
I’m always happy to start a quest with a thrown gauntlet, so I gave Medynski a call.
Medynski is the founder and owner of Tuxedo Motor Sport in Tuxedo, NY. His shop specializes in English car restoration, and it was the first U.S. distributor for Moss Motors. While acknowledging that the shops described in the previous column seemed culpable, Medynski was quite clear that his biggest problem these days is customers with unrealistic expectations.
Medynski gave an example of a recent restoration of a 1966 Pontiac Grand Prix. The customer’s father owned the car for many years, but it had sat in the garage for decades until the father’s death.
The customer was attached to the car because he learned to drive in it. He brought it in, explaining that he wanted a “rotisserie restoration.”
Medynski blanched at the thought, reasoning that he could order any part he wanted for a ’66 GTO out of a catalog, but a Grand Prix?
“Are you sure about that? You’re talking probably $100,000 for the project,” Medynski said.
Turned out that wasn’t exactly what the customer had in mind, so Medynski suggested that he get the car running, sort it out, do some partial disassembly and see exactly what it needed and what the options might be.
When the customer returned for the report, he was blown away by Medynski’s progress bill for $6,000. In spite of everything Medynski had told him before, he had clung to the hope that the car would be in better shape than it was. Eventually, they agreed on a different scope of restoration that cost about $23,000, and the customer had a very nice driver/club concours Grand Prix.
“People just don’t get it. They watch TV, and in two half-hour episodes a week apart, a car is completely restored and out the door,” Medynski said. “That’s not reality!”
Not only do customers often misunderstand what the work entails, they often have a big disconnect between their desires and budget.
“Every time you ask them about something, they want it done, and done to the highest level,” Medynski said. “But when it comes time to pay for it, that’s another story.”
Medynski doesn’t think his customers are dishonest, or trying to squeeze him. They just don’t understand.
“I’ve never had any problems with customers who have actually fixed something themselves,” Medynski said. “But many people today don’t seem to know which end of a screwdriver to hold. I hate to say it, but some people just shouldn’t have an old car.”
Paul Russell, of Paul Russell and Company, agrees that customers often have unreasonable expectations.
“Over the years, we’ve learned that the best thing we can do is fully understand the customer’s objectives at the start of the project,” Russell said.
Russell gave an example of a customer who brought in his late father’s 300SL that had sat in the garage for decades until the father died.
Russell has done a lot of 300SLs and knew well what was going to be needed, but first asked the customer, “What are you going to do with the car after it is restored?”
The quick answer was, “Sell it!”
Russell explained that if profit was the goal, the smartest thing to do would be to sell the car as-is. Considering all the uncertainties, it’s really hard to get back the money you put into the restoration process.
Medynski agreed. His first steps in every restoration project are to thoroughly inspect the car and then have a serious talk with the customer. His goals are for both of them to fully understand both the true condition of what they are starting with and what they want the end result to be.
Medynski and Russell both decline to give estimates, citing the unpredictability of the work that will be needed.
When pushed, both quickly likened a restoration project to hiring a lawyer to handle a complex project — well, so much for me taking the high road here — touché!
“Every car is different,” Medynski said. “Every customer’s expectations are different.”
Russell said that no two cars (or restorations) are the same. “Every car is going to have a different amount of rust and different issues. You can’t predict the cost very accurately. Take a 300SL, for example. You take the transmission apart and you find it needs new gears. That’s not a $500 swing — that’s a $12,000 swing.”
Russell doesn’t give estimates, but gives what he calls “orders of magnitude” based upon his experiences with what similar projects have cost. Medynski will, if you insist, give ranges of cost. But, he says, “The best thing is for the customer to stay engaged in the project and to understand what is being done. Either visit the shop periodically, or have a trusted local do so. We also try to have a lot of talks and reality checks along the way to minimize surprises.”
Nothing is easy or cheap
No doubt about it — restorations are expensive. But why? Russell offers a little saying they have in their shop: “All the easy cars are done.” Today’s restoration cars are often yesterday’s parts cars, which means they need more.
Parts are much harder to source. Russell said that he often has no choice but to use a broken part as a model to manufacture a new part from scratch. If the part is missing, it’s harder.
“Say you’re doing a very old, very rare car and it is missing its cylinder head,” Russell said. “There aren’t any available for purchase anywhere, so you have to make one. About the only way you can make one is to find someone who has the same car and convince him to let you take the head off his engine to use as a guide.”
Services are harder to source as well. Medynski laments that the last machine shop in the Tuxedo area is closing.
“They aren’t getting enough engine work because people are just buying crate motors instead of rebuilding the ones they have. Machine shops are disappearing everywhere.”
Advice for the owner
All of these are interesting points. Taking them together with the previous column, we can look at several things the owner should do before and during a restoration project:
Thoroughly check out the shop before committing. Talk to previous and current customers to gauge the shop’s reputation for quality work, timeliness, billing practices and so on.
Spend a lot of time talking with the shop about the project before the work starts. Make sure both of you are visualizing the same finished product. Make sure you understand what the shop is really going to have to do in order to achieve that result.
Be very assertive about cost. You’re not going to get a fixed cost (if you do, Medynski suggests running, not walking, away from the shop), or even a close estimate, but you can realistically get a usable cost range. Most important, make sure you understand what the variables are, and what kinds of things can come up in the process that can push the cost out of the expected range.
After the car has been disassembled, it’s time for another in-person conference. At this point, the shop should be able to give you better specifics about what needs to be done, what unexpected problems have arisen, and what all of that means for the cost ranges you’ve been working with. Be ready to re-evaluate the project at this point — now that you know what you are looking at, maybe the restoration standard should be changed.
Visit the shop periodically to check on progress and to reassess. Did work take longer than expected, and why? Are there new issues to deal with? Most important, keep talking about cost. Does the expected cost range have to change? If you are concerned about timing, keep asking about expected completion time.
Sorry about ending on a negative note, but at the first sign of trouble, stop the project. If the shop is not making good progress, busts the budget and you don’t understand why, or doesn’t seem to be doing good work, pay for the work that has been done and get your car out of there. Once things go bad, they usually keep getting worse. ♦
John Draneas is an attorney in Oregon. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. He can be reached through www.draneaslaw.com.