Restoring Vintage Autos More about Passion than Parts
Aug 29, 2019 09:53AM
By Vanessa Orr
For some people, a car is just a way to get from one place to another. But for others, it’s a vehicle to transport them to another place and time.
Ronald Libengood, owner of Fort Pitt Classic Cars, understands just how important these automobiles can be.
“A lot of the cars that we restore have been in families for years,” he explained. “The father or mother may have passed on and left their antique or classic car as part of their estate, and the family wants to restore the car to its original glory in honor of that person. We understand how involved the owners are in the emotions of that car, and we want to help preserve those memories.”
Libengood started his business 10 years ago after retiring from what he calls his “former life” as an international homeland security consultant.
“Cars have always been of great interest to me, so instead of spending time fishing, I thought I’d start a little car restoration business,” laughed Libengood, who restored his first car in 1965.
Today, that “little” business employs 18 people and consists of three buildings totaling more than 30,000 sq. ft. “We have the capability to restore anything from the 1900s to cars made in 2019,” said Libengood, adding that the shop works on all brands and models of automobile. “American, foreign—it doesn’t matter. We have the experience to be flexible.”
Every Day is Different
Depending on what the customer wants, Fort Pitt can do everything from a state inspection to a total upgrade on a vehicle, as well as store the car for the winter or an entire year. At the time of this article, they had 18 cars in process—the oldest being a 1949 Ford pickup. They recently completed a 1931 Cadillac which won first place at a national judging event.
“I think one of my favorite days was when we just finished the restoration on a 1915 Model T, and then the same techs moved onto a clutch repair for a newer Lamborghini Gallardo,” said General Manager Colin Kleer. “I can’t choose a favorite car—we’ve worked on a lot of Corvettes, a very special 1935 Auburn, GTOs, Ford Thunderbirds, Ford Galaxies, Mercedes, Volvos—they’re all classics.”
No matter what a customer brings in, Fort Pitt is prepared. “We have such a diverse staff that they have experience in just about everything,” said Kleer, who has written a book on restoration that is carried by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. “We do upholstery, painting, body work, safety upgrades, glass and mechanicals; the only thing we don’t do is engine machine work. There’s pretty much nothing that can’t get done in-house.”
And while you might think that finding parts—say, for a 1935 Auburn or a 1964 Ford Galaxy—might be a problem, Fort Pitt can find what customers need.
“We have a really good network for parts,” said Kleer. “We worked on a late 1960s Rolls Royce that was so big and expensive that it never became popular in the U.S., but we were able to find parts for it from the U.K in less than a week. We also used a contact in Europe for parts to service a 1960 Bentley that was formerly owned by actress Vivian Leigh.”
Fort Pitt has customers sprinkled throughout the United States, though about 75 percent of its clientele is from the Tri-state area. In addition to servicing and restoring cars, they also accept cars to sell on consignment.
“Our sales side extends to Europe and Australia, because the Internet gives us an international presence,” said Libengood.
According to Kleer, their customers are as diverse as the vehicles they drive.
“We work with numerous car collectors, but we also work with Average Joes who just want a car that they’ll really enjoy,” he explained. “We work with a number of people who are doing father/son projects but realize that they aren’t fully capable of completing the restoration, so they come to us.
“We do things differently than other shops because we will incorporate their plans into the restoration so that they can stay involved,” he added.
Restoring cars can be expensive, so Fort Pitt staff also understands if the work can’t all be done at one time.
“Many of our customers do not have the funds to do a complete restoration in one sitting, so we will work out a financial plan to have their car restored over a period of time,” said Kleer. “It can take months or even years.”
Technicians first do a complete assessment on the car, and then create a plan. The first order of business is to make sure that the car is in a safe, drivable condition. Phase two includes making the car more enjoyable to drive, and the third phase involves making it more beautiful, perhaps with a new paint job.
“A lot of older cars have manual steering and brakes, and we upgrade the vehicles to power steering and disc brakes to make driving it more of a pleasure,” said Libengood, adding that upgrades can include adding air-conditioning and sound systems.
While their current interest is in vintage or classic cars, Libengood sees the shop expanding to include more involvement with electric cars as they grow in popularity. “I believe it’s the future for the industry and for us,” he said, adding that his staff already has the knowledge and capabilities to do the work.
“The biggest thing to understand about us is that even though we’re a big restoration shop and very professional, at heart, we’re all hobbyists,” said Kleer. “We’re doing this for the passion, and for the cars themselves. We’re preserving history. It’s not just a business to anyone here.”