Restoring Classic Cars

Auto Restorers Paul Russell and Chuck Pierce Turn Old Mercedes Gullwings and Dodge Chargers Into Rolling Masterpieces
| By Tom Duffy | From Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

Doors swung high like a silvered-steel bird of prey, the Gullwing beckons, dares to be mastered, doubts the ability to tame it. Above all, it toys with the imagination.

Behold the austere beauty of this 1955 Mercedes 300SL. Fold yourself into the driver's seat and absorb, for one sensual moment, the feeling of being coddled by supple leather. Finger the ignition key, turn it, and then listen to the three-liter, fuel-injected engine rumble restlessly to life. Forget that the car is still sitting in Paul Russell's museum-like shop in Essex, Massachusetts, there to be restored by a man who is more artisan than auto mechanic. Imagine, instead, guiding this luminous machine around the twisting mountain roads of Monaco. Or tearing across the American West, Kerouac-like, quotidian demands receding behind, the promise of the road spooling out ahead. * Or behold instead the burly '66 Dodge Hemi Charger. Listen as it utters a different call: the hectoring taunt of the playground bully. Hunkered in a garage at Chuck Pierce's restoration shop in rural New Hampshire, the muscled-up Charger knowingly scratches at your sense of inferiority, doubts that you are its equal. The 426 Hemi engine growls from beneath the hood. Too strong for its own good, it breathes through a pair of in-line, four-barrel carburetors. Given the chance, the tires would scream their rage as this beast hurled you from stasis to 60 miles per hour in less time than it takes to reach into its maw and check the oil. If this car could speak it would say, "Come on, let's get into trouble."

Classic cars have an unerring ability to evoke a moment, personal or epochal. The owlish headlamps of a Packard, aided by a few too many Hollywood films, fairly scream "Prohibition." The blur of a Gullwing conjures up visions of European sophisticates at play, spinning along twisting roads in machines as finely tuned as their blond, blue-eyed bodies. Bugattis equal Italian royalty. Deux Chevaux? French workers. Plymouth Barracudas? Restless American youth.

Cars can awaken memories and reignite passions dulled by the passage of time. Cool-to-the-touch vinyl seats can recall a chaste kiss or the passionate first embrace with a lover. Engine vibrations or the thrush of exhaust recalls the first acquaintance with the open road.

To lay claim to such a vehicle is to reach back to a time that in other ways is all but lost. For some men--and a few women--grabbing a piece of that past can be a consuming hunger. Fortunately, there are men such as Paul Russell and Chuck Pierce who will stop at almost nothing to recreate these mechanical marvels and make those fantasies come true.

Russell's shop is tucked away on one of those winding New England roads tailored for a weekend spin in a '50s-era roadster. The low-slung building is a sort of Plymouth Plantation of the automobile world, peopled by specialists with the skills and knowledge of true artisans. There are woodworkers who bend and shape the wooden frames on pre-Second World War, coach-built cars; upholsterers whose skill would be suitable for the finest homes; and engine mechanics who work magic on the mind-numbingly complex Mercedes power plants. The real attraction, though, is the cars.

In one part of the sprawling shop sits a rare 1954 Ferrari 375-Plus with a Pininfarina body. One of five such cars ever made, it hails from the days when race cars weren't yet being built like earth-bound rockets and when ordinary Joes could relate to the drivers. In another area you'll find a Ferrari California Spider 1962. Even stripped to its shell and dulled with primer, it manages to exude a high-test elegance. A red 300SL Gullwing stationed in the main work area took first in its class at the 1996 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. It shimmers with such grace that it hardly seems real.

Perhaps the best introduction to Russell's shop, though, is the 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. Picture a caricature of a Volkswagen Beetle, with the front section stretched forward, a sinister-looking riveted center rib running the length of a car and overgrown angry-looking fenders covering the wheels. Now, to get a sense of how much it's worth, picture a Beetle full of $1,000 bills. As one of just two such cars in existence, the Atlantic (pronounced "Atlantique") is among the most expensive cars in the world. Estimated value: in excess of $12 million.

Russell's restoration of the Atlantic captured the 1990 Best of Show award at the Pebble Beach concours, considered to be the premier competition of its kind. He won a second Best of Show in 1993 for his meticulous restoration of a 1930 Mercedes SSK. The award is the ultimate credential for anyone in the business of restoring vintage automobiles.

The raven-skinned Atlantic is a fitting introduction to Russell himself. Like the Atlantic, Russell exudes an Old World élan and sophistication. He measures his words with the same fine tolerance that a Mercedes engineer might apply to a cylinder bore. Yet beneath his well-tailored look and the well-chosen words there is a ruggedness to him. Russell's presence says that he is as comfortable beneath a Mercedes as he is behind its wheel.

Russell quickly tired of the bang-out-the-fenders-check-the-spark-plug-gap school of car repair while working at a couple of Mercedes dealerships in the early 1970s. His attention to detail even drove his boss mad at a shop that specialized in Mercedes restorations. So he took his drive for perfection elsewhere and opened the doors of his own shop in 1978, initially specializing in the restoration of Mercedes from the 1950s, including Gullwings, of which just 1,400 were made between 1953 and 1957.

Today, the people who bring their cars to Russell need to share his zeal for perfection; there is a waiting list of six to eight months and customers can expect to leave their car for a year for a full restoration. During that time, Russell's team of specialists will strip the car down to its shell and rebuild it piece by piece.

"There isn't anyone in the world, including Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart, that comes anywhere close to his craftsmanship," says Klaus Hallig, an entrepreneur who sells film rights overseas and for whom Russell restored a 1953 Mercedes 300S roadster now worth about $250,000. "There are no shortcuts with Paul."

This work costs considerably more than tuning up the family minivan. An initial deposit of $10,000 or more is usually enough to get started. In return, Russell sends detailed statements every month or so cataloguing every bit of work done to the car. The statements might include notes from the mechanic about scoring found on the interior walls of cylinders to a body shop memo about rust removed from the inner reaches of a quarter-panel. He also includes "in-progress" photos of the restoration, which he gathers into a scrapbook once the work is complete. A full restoration of a Gullwing can take up to 2,500 to 3,000 hours and cost $250,000.

Restorations of pre-war cars such as the Mercedes SSK, once owned by an Italian count, take twice as long and cost considerably more--upwards of $500,000. The reason for the additional cost is that the coach-built cars, framed in wood and made to individual customer specifications, have to be ministered to by the exacting hands of the Russell shop's woodworkers.

Russell's customer list goes a long way toward explaining the kind of business he operates. There is the chairman of Korea-based Samsung Electronics Corp., who shipped over a Mercedes 600 limousine for a makeover several years ago. Then there is the retired entrepreneur whose 22-car collection ranges from an economical 1958 BMW Isetta to a Mercedes 540K Special Roadster once owned by Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner.

Russell's premier customer is fashion designer Ralph Lauren. He first restored a Gullwing for Lauren in 1981, the same type of vehicle that can now be seen parked in front of an ivy-encrusted mansion--also Lauren's--in print advertisements for his clothing. Lauren was impressed enough with Russell's work that he brought him six more vehicles from his collection of more than 50 cars. Among them are the Atlantic and SSK.

What does it take to restore a vehicle well enough to take a Best of Show at Pebble Beach? In search of the door latches for Lauren's SSK, Russell attacked the case like a detective. The trail led him to Germany, where he bartered for the latches in a dank garage. By poking around in darkened corners with a flashlight, he also turned up the original oil pan--a detail even the Pebble Beach judges wouldn't have noticed.

Just a few days before the final judging, Lauren said he wanted to see what the SSK looked like dressed in aluminum hubcaps that are seen in some historical photos. Deferring to Lauren's sense of taste, Russell had the hubcaps flown out to the concours from Essex overnight. Working in the kitchen of their Monterey hotel even as the help was brewing coffee and cooking eggs for the morning rush, Russell's staff hammered, drilled and sanded the caps into shape. Lauren was pleased with the effort but not the result; in the end, he decided on the original wire-spoked wheels. As for Russell, he didn't utter a word of complaint, especially when the SSK took Best of Show. "With Paul Russell," Lauren says, "it's not a job. It's his life."

Customers without instantly recognizable names get the same treatment. When Russell's woodworkers couldn't find the original tacks for the custom-fitted wooden luggage for a 1938 Mercedes 540K Cabriolet, he refused to substitute a reasonable facsimile. Instead, he had new tacks made. When another customer wanted to ship his 1955 Jaguar D-Type to England last year for a Coventry-to-LeMans road rally, Russell wouldn't hear of having him dropping the car--valued at roughly $1 million--at the dock and tossing the keys to a stevedore. Instead, he had a container brought to his shop in Massachusetts, packed the vehicle himself, and had it shipped directly to Jaguar headquarters in England, where the crate remained sealed until the owner arrived.

Rebuilding cars to their previous condition often means building a history of the car from whatever clues are available. For Lauren's 1937 Bugatti Type 57SC convertible, Russell contacted the previous owner and learned that the original owner was French. Working through the French Bugatti club, he determined from an auto registry that the car had belonged to the scion of a family that owned a textile mill in Strasbourg. Pictures obtained from the family revealed that the vehicle had an unusual illuminated license plate that had been covered during an earlier renovation and that the tail lights and fuel filler caps had been altered. Working from the photos, Russell's men restored the car to its original condition.

Customers can expect the same kind of lavish attention bestowed upon their cars. They can also call on Russell's team for help in tracking down and purchasing rare cars. Once a customer expresses an interest in a particular type of car, they can expect to be interviewed about their interest to make sure they are buying the right vehicle.

"Some people don't care whether those hose clamps are Italian or American," Russell says. "We ask them whether they want a show car that will compete on a national level or whether they want a car they can enjoy and drive, as a way of helping them define their goals and ambitions."

For those who want to show their cars, Russell will transport the vehicle and provide staff to support it at the show. Partaking in one of the growing number of road rallies? Russell's team is at your service. All the owner has to do is get himself to the event.

Russell's philosophy of automobile restoration holds that cars are a dynamic art form that can't be fully appreciated perched on a pedestal at a concours. To make the point, in 1986 several employees, clients and journalists drove two 300SL Gullwings and two 300SL Roadsters, all valued between $75,000 and $200,000 at the time, across the country from Massachusetts to Pebble Beach, a trip that some auto buffs view as insanity. "The full expression of an automobile is driving it and enjoying it," Russell explains. "To be in the driver's seat and look down the hood is a whole different perspective on the cars and kind of completes the circle."

When Russell got into the restoration business in 1973, it was possible to buy a Gullwing for $10,000. But the raging economy that inflated the price of just about everything in the mid-1980s reached the classic car market as well. By the frenzied peak of the late '80s, Gullwings were trading for upwards of $400,000. Ferrari Daytona Spyders, meanwhile, were fetching close to $1 million. Today those same vehicles are trading for, on average, about half of those prices.

With those kinds of price oscillations, Russell says that prospective classic car buyers need to do plenty of research and to learn about the market before getting involved. He recommends attending car shows and talking with members of the automobile clubs that represent owners of virtually every make of classic car to learn more. "Essentially you have to talk to enough people so that you get comfortable enough with someone whose advice you can trust," he says.

Russell wouldn't think of suggesting that he be the one you trust. In his shop, that kind of self-promotion would be as grating as an out-of-round cylinder head or a slapdash paint job. No, Russell would rather let his cars do the talking.

Perhaps that is the reason that every customer who comes and goes from his shop must pass by the Bugatti Atlantic, parked just across from the reception desk and seeming to belong at once to both the past and the future. As he guides his customers toward their dreams, the gleaming black bauble of a machine serves as a shimmering reminder that, in this corner of the automobile world at least, perfection does exist.

A few hours up the road in Lempster, New Hampshire,determined customers who pay close attention to Chuck Pierce's directions might just be lucky enough to find his shop. Few signs point the way to Lempster (pop. 1,011), located about 18 miles from the Vermont border. None direct customers to Pierce's shop, which clings to a hill in the lee of Lempster Mountain.

The business has none of the elegance of Russell's establishment. There are no receptionists, conference rooms or roped-off, multimillion-dollar antiques belonging to world-renowned fashion designers. Instead, there are three multibay garages reaching in an "L" shape from the back of Pierce's unassuming gray chalet. Just down the hill, a fourth 2,600-square-foot, metal-roofed garage is rising amid a stand of conifers. A gunmetal gray teacher's desk covered with receipts in the entryway to the new garage constitutes Pierce's office. Pluto, a loping Great Dane, prowls the property and greets the intermittent visitors nearly at eye level.

Barely visible from the road, the gaggle of garages obscures remnants of a period of automotive history that is likely never to be repeated. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, Detroit's engineers produced an array of hopped-up, muscular cars with names such as GTO, SS396, Olds 4-4-2 and, of course, Mustang. Rumbling under the hoods of most of these cars, typically, were thirsty V-8 engines built for one thing only: power. It was a time when virtually the same cars that were winning at Talladega on Sunday could be driven out of the showroom on Monday.

If Detroit's engineers were dreamers, then the engineers at Chrysler had the most outlandish of imaginations. They dropped 500-horsepower "Hemi" engines into cars with names such as Barracuda and Charger. Legend has it that they even dropped a few Hemis, named for the hemispherically shaped combustion chamber, into a station wagon or two, though Pierce admits he's never actually found such a specimen.

The fast and fanciful creations were dressed in preposterous colors: "Panther Pink," "Plum Crazy," "Top Banana," "Moulin Rouge" and "Go-Mango," to name a few. Two particular specimens, Dodge's Charger Daytona and Plymouth's Superbird, also came trimmed with a squared-off, arched trunk wing. Hurtling along in their natural habitat at speeds that made the cops crazy, they looked for all the world as though they were about to take flight.

"It was like engineers on drugs," Pierce says. "I mean who else but Chrysler would put a 500-horsepower NASCAR [Hemi] engine in a street car designed to go 200 miles per hour? Nothing like it ever came out of any other company, either American or European."

American kids who weren't off fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia were just as likely to be behind the wheel of a muscle car duking it out on the back roads of America. They were players in a carefully choreographed, supercharged ballet: cruising through town in search of an opponent, marking off quarter-mile drag strips and blowing through a couple of races before the police shut them down. The outcome, of course, was a fait accompli if someone was competing against a Dodge Dart, a Barracuda or any Chrysler product with a Hemi in it. Chryslers, with a 90-plus winning percentage on the racetracks from 1969 to 1971, quite simply were the fastest cars on the road.

The fun couldn't last forever, though. Tire technology failed to keep up with engine technology and more than a few kids wound up dead. By the early 1970s, it cost more to insure some of those husky beasts than it did to buy them. By 1972 the last few muscle cars rolled off the assembly lines of Detroit. The power wars had ended.

A quarter century later, Chuck Pierce and his team of restoration experts are trying to put bits and pieces of that era back together. Beneath a tarp in one garage, in the final stages of restoration, is the brawny '66 Hemi Charger, which still manages to look intimidating in spite of being dressed in Chryslerian lilac.

Back up the hill, tucked away in another garage, is a rare '69 Hemi Charger 500, a wingless precursor to the Daytona Charger and one of just 80 such cars ever built. "This car will do an honest 150 miles per hour with street tires," Pierce says with respectful admiration. "With proper gearing it can do a lot more than that."

Chrysler devotees hungry for the speed, glory and perhaps testosterone that these machines represent find their way to Pierce's remote locale from near and far. Customers have shipped vehicles from 37 states, as well as from Canada, Japan, England and Sweden. A Japanese businessman showed up a few years ago with a briefcase full of cash, dropping $40,000 for a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a Hemi engine and 12,000 original miles.

In 1996, six Swedes on what amounted to a Mopar field trip came to visit. With Pierce at the helm of his nine-passenger Plymouth Sport Suburban Brougham, the Swedes tooled around rural New Hampshire touring American junkyards, a point of endless fascination. When they left, they took along a 1970 Barracuda and a pair of Chrysler Imperials hailing from 1960 and 1957.

Devotion, of course, has its price. The typical restoration takes between 500 and 750 hours, with each hour of labor coming to $30. The total cost works out to between $15,000 and $40,000.

In some cases, the cars will be worth that much or more when they are done. Take the '70 Charger R/T tucked in the corner of one of Pierce's garages. As one of just 347 such cars ever made--65 or so that haven't met their maker yet--it will probably be worth significantly more than the $30,000 restoration cost. But how to explain the $40,000 one customer is spending to restore a '73 Barracuda that had rusted beyond recognition and was more valuable as scrap? Born after the power wars ended and without the oversized engines or performance axle packages of their predecessors, '73 'Cudas have value only to their owners.

"It should have been crushed," Pierce says, recounting how he tried to persuade the guy to buy another vehicle in better shape. "He bought it in '75 and after driving it for a couple of years let it sit out in his backyard uncovered. Now suddenly it has sentimental value."

Pierce's interest in Chryslers is genetic more than sentimental. His father, Sonny, was a small-town New England cop whose passion for law and order was rivaled by a taste for street-legal hot rods. While the municipal paycheck barely covered the cost of groceries and clothes for five kids, there always seemed to be something left over for a new car.

Chargers, Imperials, Barracudas--one husky street machine or another always seemed to be idling in the driveway. In 1969, Pierce looked out the window and beheld a '70 Charger Daytona, complete with trademark wing. But since his father spent most of the time in his cruiser--a V-8 Dodge Monaco--Chuck had easy access to the Charger. "I accumulated so many tickets that after a couple of years he took it away from me," the younger Pierce says.

Out on his own, Pierce flopped from an apartment to a friend's house to home and back out again and launched a career as an electrician. But he always had two or three street machines. After a rebellious flirtation with Fords and Chevys that never seemed to be able to keep up on the outlaw dragstrips of backwoods New Hampshire, Pierce came home to Chrysler.

A couple of restoration jobs he did for himself picked up awards at regional car shows. They also picked up queries from admirers wondering who did the work. At first, he began doing a few jobs on the side. But as the classic car market heated up in the 1980s, he junked the electrician career and went into business full-time, working out of the original three-bay garage still in use behind his house.

The average muscle car restoration shop is just that: one guy with a passion for cars, working out of his garage. Drop the car off and call him in a year. Maybe he'll have gotten around to it. Or maybe not.

Pierce took the process to another level. He built a machine he calls a rotisserie, which allows him to rotate the shell of a car 360 degrees so that it can be painted underneath. He tore cars all the way down to the skeleton and built them back up again. His exacting restorations began winning trophies for his customers.

Timing helped, too. A few months after he went into business, the car collecting frenzy hit the pages of The Wall Street Journal, where a writer identified muscle cars as a great investment. "Back in 1990, I figured I'd be a millionaire by '92," Pierce says. "I was making a lot more money doing this part-time than I was working full-time as an electrician."

The floor fell out of the classic car market a couple years later and cars with Hemi engines that were once trading for upwards of $75,000 are back down to the $30,000 to $50,000 range. So Pierce isn't a millionaire yet. But he does have a two-year waiting list; he turns away an average of one project a week.

With the market still flat, the pretenders who got into the game when it was hot have gone away. After all, they can double their money in the stock market every three years and not have to worry if their investment is rusting in the backyard.

That's just fine with Pierce. The way he figures it, that leaves the game to the Chrysler purists: people who remember the feel of being taunted by a Charger fast enough to propel them into next week. People tough enough to hold on for the ride hoping that it might make them a local legend, if only for a night.

Tom Duffy covers New England as a correspondent for People magazine.

(Paul Russell can be reached at 978/768-6919; Chuck Pierce can be contacted at 603/863-5761.)