Bodies & Panels: Restoration Trends & Tips

Feb 4, 2010

Kenny Gollahon has noticed a change in what his customers are buying.

“Last year, our individual sheet metal sales seemed to be really strong versus the body sales,” the vice president of metal replacement body and replica body manufacturer Brookville Roadster said. “It seems like maybe the economy is taking a turn [for the better] now and we’re getting a lot more quotes for bodies.”

It’s not just the company’s bodies that are getting more interest; Brookville Roadster is also seeing an upswing in complete kit sales.

“Before it used to be that we would sell a lot of just bodies, but now the trend seems to be that [customers] want to buy a complete kit, so we build a complete chassis, re-fit the body for them, possibly fit the hood, fenders, grille, and then we deliver it to them,” Gollahon said. “All they have to do is put their motor, transmission, wire, paint and upholstery in, and they’ve built a street rod basically from scratch.”

Whether due to an improving economy, as Gollahon has observed, changing customer desires or emerging technologies, body and panel manufacturers and installers are finding new opportunities to sell product today.

What Customers Want

Muscle cars, street rods and resto-mods are hot today, according to companies interviewed for this story, so interest is high in bodies, panels and components for those types of vehicles.

“I do know, from what I’ve seen in the larger market, there’s certainly a lot more parts being made for some of the muscle car vehicles,” said Damon Lee of Speedway Motors. “We haven’t headed off in that direction just yet with our fiberglass pieces but we have been certainly expanding our product selection in other areas for those cars.”

The company, which builds fiberglass body kits, is also seeing steady interest in early Ford hot rods.

“In our portion of the street rod market, we still see the most popularity with the early Fords, pre-’35 Fords, in the fiberglass market,” Lee said. “With everybody who’s involved in street rodding and hot rodding, it seems like the early Fords are still the most-popular vehicles out there, so we haven’t seen a lot of change in that regard.”

Those customers prefer fiberglass for a variety of reasons.

“Fiberglass, while it’s unfamiliar to some, those who do get into it have found that it’s very easy to work with, very easy to tailor to your needs,” Lee said. “Sometimes it’s a preference of what you’re familiar with working on, sometimes it’s a cost preference, and then maintenance, too, you’re never going to have to worry about it rusting. A lot of people first turned to fiberglass because it was a lighter weight for racing, and while that’s less of an issue on the street, it’s still going to be a reason some people choose fiberglass pieces.”

Customers at Gateway Classic Mustang, a Mustang performance and restoration shop in Bourbon, Missouri, are favoring upgrading and restoring their resto-mods with metal panels.

“The whole vibe for this market is resto-mod, everybody wants a car that looks like an old car but rides, drives and handles like a new car with creature comforts of a new car,” owner Lonny Childress said.

To accommodate today’s more-powerful engines or larger suspension packages, Childress often has to replace old metal panels in customers’ vehicles.

“When [customers] bring an old car in, they want to put the modern suspension on or a more modern engine and transmission in it, and we start looking at the old sheet metal and point out to them where the car has been wrecked or where it’s rusty and it’s not safe anymore,” he said. “If you’ve got rusty frame rails or bent frame rails or things of that nature, we’re not going to feel comfortable hanging this upgraded suspension and putting a lot more horsepower in unless we can replace that sheet metal with something that’s going to be safe again.

“If the body of the car is not in good shape, it’s not a good idea to start putting [in] a lot of horsepower and stiffer suspension and bigger sway bars and bigger wheels and tires because you’re just going to make your weak areas even weaker.,” added Childress.

Emerging Metal Technologies

Garret’s Rod Shop, a custom car shop in Columbus, Ohio, offers both fiberglass and steel components to its customers, but has a preference for metal.

“We have that conversation when the customer comes in, ‘Do you want a steel car? Do you want a fiberglass car? If you want a steel car, you’re limited, but here’s the benefits of having a steel car and here’s the benefits of fiberglass,'” marketing rep Karl Schulman said. “We believe in all steel, steel is definitely the way to go but, right now, fiberglass you can do a lot with, you can really make some crazy shapes, and that depends on the direction the project is going to go.”

Garret’s Rod Shop’s metal fabrication shop allows it to custom-make panels and other components for customers, but the builders often install aftermarket pieces. The shop is excited about new machining processes coming to the industry.

“I know some of the Big Three have used some prototype stamping methods that they can produce sheet metal parts kind of one-off style instead of being pieced together and formed and fabricated,” Schulman said. “I think that could be a trend where the better technology, the better machining processes, people are going to be able to get stamped parts, maybe even customized stamped pieces [and] I think that you’re going to see quicker turn around on parts, especially on the customized stamp side of it.”

Schulman anticipates these innovations could greatly benefit Garret’s Rod Shop.

“I think it will allow us to be able to produce cars quicker,” he said. “If we have a design in mind of a new hood style, instead of having to go in and piece it all out and cut it up in a million pieces, you can almost have a model or an image and make it to stamp it out for you. It would be affordable and turnaround time would be a lot quicker. That’s going to give you an advantage, plus the fact that creativity, sometimes you can do more with stamped parts or with engineered parts than you can just creating things in the shop. I think that will be a big benefit for any fab shop.”

Sharing Knowledge

Whether installing fiberglass or metal bodies and panels made from old technologies or new, it’s important to talk with your customers about the benefits and features of what you’re selling them.

“We are doing our best to help teach the teacher,” said Larry Brogdin of Dynacorn International and Dynacorn Classic Bodies. “We spend a lot of time explaining [to retailers] metallurgy, welding techniques to show that the more time you spend on R&D and making a higher-quality product, the more you can share with your end user, and when the end user knows the difference, they’ll be willing to pay the difference.”

And if customers are nervous about what they’re spending on their projects, offering them a choice is a smart move.

“To get the big jobs right now, I’m really working hard and promoting to let people know that we do all sorts of repairs and fabrication on these cars,” said Dave Crouse, owner of Custom Auto, Inc., a full-service restoration shop specializing in aluminum and steel, in Loveland, Colorado. “The thing that’s keeping us going right now is having a lot of experience with a wide variety of automobiles. We even do fiberglass, a good portion of the race cars that we do have fiberglass bodies on them, so that’s an important part, also. It’s really important right now to be quite diversified so you can keep the shop busy.”