David Lillywhite
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Concours People: the restorer

9th June 2020

Don McLellan, president of RM Auto Restoration, has overseen more Pebble Beach winners than anyone else in his 30 years in the business

The restoration bar has been raised steadily through the years. Back when [general manager] Ernie Morreau and I started and took our first cars to Pebble Beach, people were trying to restore cars to make them flashier than they ever were – wild colours, exotic leathers that weren’t right, all that sort of jazz. Now it’s back to originality, using absolutely correct materials, colours, even fasteners.

Judging stringency has multiplied over time. The cars have been getting better and better in quality worldwide, and now it’s the only way to separate first and second. Judges as well as car owners have driven this shift to really authentic restorations; nobody takes a painting or sculpture and jazzes it up, they try to restore it to exact originality. Well, cars are now following that same plan.

The biggest challenges are to undo some of that stuff. Most of the time we’re not doing the first restoration on a car, we’re doing the fourth or fifth. To undo some of that damage from the past is the challenge, and it takes a lot of research. That’s why we’re really strong at this company because we’re in conjunction with RM Sotheby’s, so being at the headquarters here we’ve got the research department and the reference library. We’re lucky to have that on site, but it goes both ways; we’re able to help them [the auction side] with research on cars, and they can help us.

Don at Pebble Beach

We still use the majority of the old techniques in our restorations. We use the English wheel and a Pettingell power hammer when we need to make body panels, we still use standard lathes and mills when we need to make parts or restore parts, but there are new ways to make little parts – sometimes you can 3D scan them or use CAD to make a 3D model. We’ve made parts by drawing them in CAD and producing them on a CNC mill, for example. We use laser lines when we’re setting up a body – the laser draws a red line across the body and we’re able to measure inconsistencies in the body with total accuracy.

It’s easy to overdo it, though – you can easily get carried away and make a car too perfect. It’s a bit of a balancing act, because everybody in the concours world wants a car to be as beautiful as possible but you also have to leave some of that character in it. We’re working on Ferraris now that have one door ¼in or ¾in longer than the other door. We don’t fix that, we leave that. Two guys building the new car from day one… and one would be going down the left side and one down the right side, and they might not see eye to eye.

Engine bays were typically way over-restored in the past. People would chrome parts that shouldn’t be chromed, they would use the wrong fasteners, the sidewalls of the engine bay would be made way too good. We spend a lot of time getting the engine bay right.

When the cars are judged, sometimes things crop up – the judges might see something they think is wrong, and they’ll question it. They’ll have done their homework but they can’t know everything, particularly if it’s a one-off car. So we’ll perhaps be able to show them a picture in the presentation folder that proves it’s correct. That’s happened a few times. 

If you’re going to buy a car for a concours restoration, we always say you should buy the very best car available, with the best history, and vet it really thoroughly before you even turn the first screw. Have it researched professionally if you can, be sure to build a complete history.

That will help you decide where you’re going to take it as well. Some events are more focused on sports cars for example. So you have to build the whole story first, and research the colours, the materials, the leather, and find out if, say, the bumpers were changed at some point in the car’s life, or if the bodywork holding the headlamps has been modified. And then you decide if you’re going to take it back to how the car was on day one or if you’re going to leave it. 

That bit gets skipped a lot. We get cars brought here that are three-quarters finished but the owner wasn’t happy, so it’s been brought to us to finish. And we ask those questions and often the owner thought that it was all fine – but if you’d taken a car to an event like that, it would have been slaughtered in the judging. Vet your car as thoroughly as you possibly can before you do anything else.

RM Auto Restoration is based in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, Canada. See www.rmautorestoration.com for more information.

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