The Nut Behind the Wheel: Spring 1995

Sometimes it’s hard taking your own advice. But here’s an example when it really paid off. I wrote this article on the day I delivered my 1955 BN1 Austin-Healey to the paint shop a few months ago for the final body work and respray. Respray ain’t the half of it, however. Allow me to reminisce a little.

Way back in 1983, I started the restoration on my very crisp BN1 right after the house fire that singed it a little more than somewhat. Do you remember seeing it on the trailer as a running, rolling chassis at Healey West in Monterey in 1985? Did you see my son Timothy and I aboard in the same running, rolling chassis, circling the track at Laguna Seca that same weekend…in the midst of all the ashes and smoke from a local brush fire? How’s that for a trial by fire, for a machine that has truly risen from the ashes? Maybe Phoenix wouldn’t be a bad name for it after all!

Fast forward several years and several Healey restorations later. You see, I just got stuck trying to align that last door and wing seam. And that’s where I gave up. Well, at a local Austin-Healey Association club event, I got to talking with one of our members about how he had gotten stuck on his restoration and suggested that he get professional help rather than doing nothing (which was what I certainly was doing!)

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I decided my advice to others was just as applicable to myself. Enter one of our quality restoration shops in my local area. I delivered the car to the shop one weekend, and picked it up two weekends later, all metal work on that last seam and pillar post completed. The shop owner handed me my homemade wing patch panel and told me to keep it as a souvenir. Maybe I should chrome it and keep it as a reminder that there ain’t one of us that can’t use professional help sometimes!

Now there are a couple of things I would like to point out about the previous paragraph. First of all, the work done was what I had requested. Second, the price was what was quoted. And finally, it was completed within the timeframe predicted. Is my BN1 unique or is this the way this particular shop treats all of his customers? You judge for yourself. (By the way, that’s a compliment about the shop, in case you missed it!)

So there I was, returning from the shop with the Healey on the trailer behind the ever-faithful “Big Brown Cruiser,” and as I drove up to my driveway, I noticed that a very large limb had broken off one of our very large pine trees on our parkway. Well, that ruined the rest of my Saturday. I had already made the commitment to deliver the car to the paint and body shop Monday morning. Fortunately, I was still able, despite the tree debris, to get all the little remaining tasks finished on the BN1 so it could keep its Monday morning appointment with my local paint and body shop.

So what’s 11 years worth of experience in restoring a car worth? Not much. But I always like to share. So this one’s for you.

Probably absolutely the worst thing you could ever tell someone is to tell them to use your project as a “fill-in job.” That never works, in my experience. The cost will still be the same because the amount of labor does not change that is required to accomplish a given task. That labor will be charged at prevailing rates. When was the last time you heard a body shop owner tell his men that this is a fill-in job and they have to work for less because it’s so? What a fill-in job means is that no scheduled completion need be given. For whose benefit is that?

Certainly not your own!

Together with fill-in jobs go horror stores. You know the ones. About the Healey that burned up in a shop fire. Or about the Healey that was parted out or lost when the shop went out of business. And so on. People change. Things change. Had a schedule been negotiated, and the owner followed up on the project, and wasn’t afraid of removing his vehicle from the shop when the promises were not forthcoming, then many of the “legends of horror” would not have happened. After all, no one cares more about your car than you do. It’s just another job to the body shop or restoration shop. Setting reasonable expectations on the front end of a business agreement will never discourage either you or the professionals that work on your car.

What are some of the other things that worked out well for me? Not to shine this one on too much, but I left the chrome plating for last. I decided it didn’t make any sense to spend a lot of money and time re-plating anything until just before it was due to go back on the car. Chrome plate will just deteriorate in time anyway, and 11 years is a lot of time. Why pay to have the same part plated twice? And by the way, prices haven’t gone up all that much in 11 years. Good decision, Ron!

One thing I could have done better was to select, label, and sort all the chrome bits and organize them in a box or location. While I do know what goes where, I haven’t sorted out the “best of the best” yet. So, more hours will now be needed just when I’ve got those vital juices flowing again. The good news about this approach, however, is that a lot more quality reproduction parts are available now that were very scarce 11 years ago. It pays to check this out as some of the chrome repro parts are less expensive than having used originals replated. Shop around. But take your original with you if that’s what you are into. And check the faithfulness of the repro carefully if concourse and/or originality is your thing.

What I am happy about is that I’ve got the whole car assembled as close to original as I can make it. I relied on the shop manual, the factory parts list, numerous drawings and pictures I made during disassembly, and I’ve kept all the original, fire-scarred panels for reference for what screw holes go where.

And, I’ve looked at bunches of other Healeys over the last 11 years, looking for those answers to those really nitty-gritty questions that some of us lie awake nights pondering. Just kidding! So, the very kind of advice I would give anyone, I even take myself!

As for my prediction that the car would be a long way toward done at this time, well. I’m realistic. It will probably take the best part of the winter to finish the assembly as the interior and all the trim items that need to be re-attached. All these “fiddly bits” take time and I’m realistic, what with the four letter word “work” and family obligations. Not to mention attending every Healey event I can and assembling the new-to-me 1969 Mk4 Sprite with 19,000 original miles that another friend found for me recently. (Of course it was a basket case!)

When it takes several weeks’ elapsed time to organize the parts and install just one grille twice until I got it right, you get the drift of my meaning. Special thanks go to one of our club members who helped out with the right stuff in this particular task. So, in the fullness of time, as they say, my BN1 will be ready for this summer’s Healey events. To paraphrase one of our club members, “If it ain’t ready, I ain’t gonna go.” And nothing short of a catastrophe will keep me away from next year’s CHW ’95 and Healey West!

—Ron Phillips

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