Elevating automotive restoration to high art

Ralph Lauren’s 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic is shown winning the 1990 Pebble Beach Best-in-Show. This May, the car swept the four top awards at the Villa d’Este Concorso on Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy.
Ralph Lauren’s 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic is shown winning the 1990 Pebble Beach Best-in-Show. This May, the car swept the four top awards at the Villa d’Este Concorso on Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy.
Steve Burton/Courtesy of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

ESSEX—Seen from the street, Paul Russell and Company appears decidedly unprepossessing. And that’s just the way the owners want it. After all, when you’re restoring the Picassos, Monets, and van Goghs of the automotive world, you don’t want the curious looking over your shoulder, stealing your secrets, and spilling the news to the world.

Inside, that level of work is what is happening. Paul Russell and Company’s crew of automotive craftsmen—“Passionately dedicated to the restoration of fine automobiles since 1978”—do museum-quality work, returning some of the world’s rarest and most expensive vehicles to original condition.

Since the firm’s clients began showing Russell restorations in Concours d’Elegance events, 20 of their cars have won 37 best-in-show awards, including the 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo Roadster at Pebble Beach last year.

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Russell and Company started out as Gullwing Service Company, specializing in pre- and post-war (WWII) European sports cars, notably the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupes and roadsters.

“Mercedes still represents about 60 percent of our work, but you see a lot of Ferrari models, too,” says Alex Finigan, classic cars sales manager and one of Gullwing’s four original employees.

Fashion designer Ralph Lauren, an antique car enthusiast, discovered the Gullwing Service Co. in 1983. Twenty-two years later, he permitted 16 of his restored cars to be displayed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in an exhibition titled “Speed, Style and Beauty.” In 2011, more of Lauren’s cars were on display at the Louvre as “L’Art de L’Automobile.”

“Because we’re around these cars all the time, we sometimes get jaded,” says Finigan, “but it took our breath away to see the cars at the MFA, surrounded by big-screen videos and period photography.”

Mercedes-Benz produced only 1,400 Gullwings, including just 29 with all-aluminum bodies. Today, a steel-bodied Gullwing can fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million and an aluminum example has sold for $4.5 million. During a shop tour, we spotted a 1950s SL in well-used condition with different-colored fenders and blotches of bodywork.

“Awaiting a restoration?” we asked.

“No,” was the reply. “It’s the owner’s daily driver,” Finigan explains. “He just gave it a full mechanical overhaul. It might not look impressive, but it’s worth about $400,000 as it is.”

Though the super-rich may be accustomed to instant gratification, that’s not the case at Russell and Company unless the car is merely in for routine servicing. There’s currently a three-year waiting list for a complete restoration, a process that, once started, can take well over a year.

“The high-end sales market is on fire,” says Finigan. “These days, it can be easier to sell a $5 million car than a $5,000 car.”

Instead of names such as Mustang, Firebird, or Charger, Russell’s restoration projects have names such as Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Castagna and Bugatti T575C Atlantic.

A full restoration doesn’t come cheaply.

“Our shop rate is $100 per hour, which is less than your local Mercedes-Benz dealership,” says Finigan. However, a body-off restoration can run in the $450,000 range for a post-war sports car. That includes roughly 3,000 hours, materials, and subcontracting, most notably re-chroming.

“The cost of chrome plating has gotten prohibitively expensive,” says Finigan. And, because of environmental concerns, “we anticipate that you might not be able to even do that work in Massachusetts in another 10 or 15 years.” And, for pre-war cars, if a part can’t be fixed, Russell’s people will fabricate a replacement.

When a car arrives for restoration, it is assigned a crew chief who coordinates all the work. “Hundreds of pictures are taken along with voluminous notes,” says Finigan.

Then the vehicle is disassembled. A long row of shelves holds parts in an organized fashion—think library stacks.

The body is put on a jig (large rotisserie) that’s adjusted so the body is mounted at the exact same points where it attaches to the chassis. Meanwhile, the chassis is stripped and repainted while the engine, transmission, brakes, and other systems are rebuilt.

“It’s all very organized,” Finigan says.

Finding the right people to do the work is a challenge. “Your average line mechanic at a dealership doesn’t transition to our business,” he says. “We take people in on 90-day trials, but many don’t make it past 30 days.”

Members of the upholstery and metal fabricating shops are graduates of British apprenticeship programs. “We don’t have any of these programs in the United States,” says Finigan. “These are craftsmen who now are in their 40s with 30 years of experience.”

The company is finding homegrown talent at places like McPherson College in Kansas, which offers a degree in automotive restoration. Paul Russell serves on the program’s advisory board, presents an annual award for student excellence, and has held a major fundraising event.

“We generally take one or two students as summer interns after their junior year,” says Finigan. “Four or five graduates now are on our staff, holding positions in our mechanical, body, and research departments.”

They’re making use of what can be called a different type of fine arts degree.