Back from the Grave

May 3, 2011

An aftermarket sheet metal replacement business with the unlikely name of GRAVEROBBERS is as deadly serious as its moniker.

The Cumming, Ga.,-based company hangs body panels on projects in a never-ending quest to bring muscle cars and classic vehicles “from the grave, back to the street”.

“At GRAVEROBBERS we’ve built ‘space frames’-jigs-that the vehicle is bolted to, that accepts the OEM mounting points,” says Wayne Wolfe, sales and marketing manager. “Once the vehicle is mounted on the jig, when panels are cut and replaced, nothing moves.”

That’s important, he explains, because the original integrity of the vehicle remains intact. It’s a far cry from less-sophisticated methods of body panel replacement using blocks, bricks and wood shims in an attempt to keep the vehicle straight.

“When a vehicle is cut, it’s bound to move, changing critical dimensions,” Wolfe notes. “If the vehicle is not securely mounted at the start of the operation, you’re not going to have accurate replacement metal installation when the job is done.”

Looks That Kill

Jeff Kipfmueller, GRAVEROBBERS president, states that those in the restoration business know when a vehicle “is a bit off.”  To the trained eye, some cars simply don’t look right.

“It’s the difference between a jewel and a junker,” he says.

Therefore, GRAVEROBBERS takes this first step to a correct restoration of a vehicle very seriously.

Technicians first locate the frame rails and body panels to virtually simulate the OEM’s original process. From there the body is spot-welded or stitch-welded and epoxy-primed, making it stronger and more rust-resistant than when it came from the factory.

The “real good cars” bring “real good money” at the auctions, Kipfmueller says, crediting the staff that checks cars in for knowing exactly what they’re looking at. The cars with “issues” will bring less money, and end up in the secondary market.

Therefore, a dimensionally straight initial install of sheet metal is the basis for the balance of the restoration.

“We double-check everything to make certain the vehicle is right before it’s delivered,” he says.

Originally from Frankenmuth, Mich., Kipfmueller worked for a number of automotive restoration groups, the latest being Goodmark, makers of a complete line of sheet metal.

Now at GRAVEROBBERS, “we do muscle cars-Camaros, Mustangs, Chevelles, Novas, Buicks, Fairlanes and the like,” he says.  “We’ve done a few trucks, (even a Hummer), but muscle cars are the most desirable. We bring the vehicles in, mount them on the jig and take every precaution to provide a great starting point toward a stellar restoration.”

Grave Condition

Launched in 2008, GRAVEROBBERS is the result of Kipfmueller’s passion for vehicle restorations.

Working with two installers/fabricators, Craig Wooke and Berlin Lopez, the company has established a reputation with a modest advertising campaign and plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations.

Getting customers into the shop has not been an issue.

“We do a lot of advertising locally,” says Wolfe, “and the Internet is real important as well. A lot of advertising is done on Craigslist and via various clubs. We haven’t settled on a full-blown advertising campaign, partly because we stay quite busy. We don’t want to overgrow.”

Being able to pull customers from a large metropolitan area such as Atlanta has surely helped. And the circle is growing.

“We’ve had clients from all over-”Michigan, Illinois, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee. This is definitely not just a local business,” adds Kipfmueller.

A top-shelf installation philosophy means GRAVEROBBERS (graverobberssheetmetal.com) also pays close attention to its pricing. Prices are determined from years of expertise and a lot of experience.

“The typical shop might get $85 an hour or so,” says Wolfe. “But the difficulty of replacing a floor in a trunk will not be as time-consuming as replacing a quarter panel. From experience, we know the hours involved of a given job and we bill the job accordingly.”

Every shop knows the pain of getting into a job, only to discover it will take longer than anticipated. GRAVEROBBERS does everything it can to avoid such scenarios.

“We know what’s difficult from experience and we know cost of materials. The ticket to pricing is experience-years of experience doing these kinds of installs. We are not the cheapest, but the end result is above and beyond the typical.”

Start to Finish

The magic happens in GRAVEROBBERS’ 8,500-square-foot facility.

“We make sure that when a customer comes in, we go over the vehicle with a fine-tooth comb, making sure the work that’s needed will be done. The goal is to get the vehicle to the point that it’s ready for paint and finish,” Kipfmueller says.

Like many shops over the past couple of years, GRAVEROBBERS has soldiered through difficult times, particularly with the recent sagging economy.

“The economy has been a difficulty for us,” says Kipfmueller. “There seems to be fewer vehicle starts, similar to the starts of new home builds.

“Another never-ending difficulty,” he adds, “is that a lot of these cars do not offer much to work with. The ‘rusty grim reaper’ is our nemesis-and time is not on our side.”

As an example, “we had a Firebird that was not much more than a cowl, a pair of door jambs and a real rough floorboard. The result was a real nice, but difficult, restoration.”

Yet the future is bright for GRAVEROBBERS, as currently the shop is very busy.

“Our next step is to do a bit more mechanical (work),” Wolfe adds. “(We’re looking to) install suspension components and exhaust, where applicable. Early Mustang mini-tubs are coming soon, allowing another option for those vehicle owners.”

GRAVEROBBERS deals with Barnett Performance/BCI, Summit Racing, JEGS, Hotchkis, BMR, Mustangs Unlimited, Quick Fuel Technologies, Heartthrob Exhaust and Goodmark.

“We can tailor the build around the customer’s needs and direction,” Kipfmueller says.

All in all, the company with the scary name has come a long way in just three years.

“We’ve already learned a lot. Each job is different, but in the end, making the customer happy is the most important thing,” Wolfe notes. “Paying attention to detail and double-checking everything as the vehicle goes back together is key.”

The jig process is not rocket science, but it’s the foundation of a sound build. Having someone who connects with customers, understands their needs and can communicate and gives a solid quote rounds out the GRAVEROBBERS experience.

“Jeff really rises to the top in that regard,” Wolfe adds.

In the end, the company goes to work on each project with the goal of improving fit, finish and dimensions of each car to as good as, or better than, when the body left the factory years ago.

When accomplished, each car increases in value, and at the end of the total vehicle restoration, customer satisfaction is the result.

For GRAVEROBBERS, it’s Job No. 1. “We’re dead serious about that!”