Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, Jan. 2007
Kent Bain’s Automotive Restorations & Vintage Racing Services rode the ‘70s car boom to success.
Spending time at Automotive Restorations & Vintage Racing Services in Stratford, Connecticut, you’d never know by the laid-back, jovial atmosphere in the s hop that there was a man at the helm who makes a hummingbird look lazy. What you’ll see is a whole bunch of really competent guys, going about the business of maintaining and restoring just about anything that can fit into the shop, while Kent Bain has kept up his hyperkinetic, engaging, outgoing style for almost 30 years.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve seen firsthand some of AR’s work, in the 1966 Glas GT featured in February 2006 (and for April in the 2007 Sports & Exotic Calendar). When we photographed it, we immediately noticed the quality of the paintwork, and we assumed we’d find a bevy of concours winners had come from the shop. But when we looked into it, that wasn’t where Kent’s focus was. Sure, cars from AR are lurking around the major show fields, consistently picking up medals. But why aren’t they best in class, best in show winners, more often? Because it’s not what he believes in. “Our focus is cars that people use for fun,” he said. It’s a problem we’ve run into all to regularly ourselves: “I see too many cars come in that look perfect, but just don’t work right. So here, you get the correct experience for the car when we’re finished – we’re not aimed at the Pebble Beach crowd.”
The primary business at Automotive Restorations isn’t restoration at all, despite the obvious signs of ongoing major restorations all over the shop. It’s what Kent calls “proactive maintenance and service” of collector cars, and dozens are in various stages of maintenance, rebuilding or restoration at five locations throughout the state, serviced by 40 employees. When we visited in October, it was a hive of activity, as fair-weather summer cars came in for their end-of-season service and winter storage prep. As the snow flies, restorations will start to take precedence until the first signs of spring appear again.
Kent, son of TV actor Conrad Bain, fled New York to Connecticut for industrial design studies at the University of Bridgeport (although he kept his big city roots alive, driving a cab in the city to finance his education). Afterwards, he contemplated a career in the corporate design world, specifically at General Motors, but he found corporate culture far to strait-laced for the early 1970s, and a poor place to express his creativity. Instead, he bummed around as only an industrial designer can, working on furniture, manufactured goods, and Planter’s Peanuts packaging. He says he wanted to design cars, but when that didn’t pan out, “I had to pursue my passion somehow.”
He’d already been restoring and racing his own cars when he decided to start a business living in a low-rent district in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the five-car garage that came along with his house. One night, Kent and two future business partners were talking over their plans in a steakhouse, when a gentleman at another table leaned over. He was the owner of a 1933 Rolls-Royce shooting brake and in the market for a restorer. It was the start of AR and, in a way, typifies both their customers and the cars they service. The customer just wanted someone who knew what they were doing. The car was unusual, and they certainly didn’t end up being a Rolls-Royce-only operation.
In fact, when we parked outside, there was a line of cars on the street, including a crusty Jaguar E-Type, an M.G. TD and a Bentley Turbo, all in for routine maintenance. There was a least one Rolls, across the street in a lot (they’re all jigsawed indoors every night), next to a Pontiac Firebird, a Buick Woodie, and a Touring-bodied Aston-Martin. Inside, a Triumph was sitting next to a Tucker, tucked under a 1940 Chevrolet on a lift, with a Jaguar MK X saloon in the next spot, perpendicular to a TR3A in mid-restoration. Near the doors were an MGA and a Mercedes 450 SL, both in for service. By the windows, a nearly perfect Plymouth Fury convertible parked nose in next to an Aston Martin DB6 with its innards exposed, and a dialogue in masking tape on the windshield:
“No E-brake! Don’t put in gear!’
“Don’t use battery or hook up jumper!!”
“Don’t put across street”
Don’t jack rear end!!”
And the plaintive question, “Nigel, what’d you do to it?”
Automotive Restorations also does a healthy business in putting cars and people together for the first time. Kent explains that with the countless decades of experience and knowledge accumulated by the staff, they can do more than just inspect a car, they can look at the marque and its history, research the ownership and past use of a particular car, and predict what might go wrong with it down the line. Many customers bring in their beloved collector cars with six-figure mileage, and AR will, while not restoring it, refresh it from bumper to bumper, give it a coat of paint and send it out the door for another 15 years. Kent pulled out a 21-page inspection report for us. “What you have to remember, is that most of these things have long exceeded their design and engineering service life,” he said. Venturing in a realm of which their designers never dreamed is their specialty. “That’s were the experience comes in,” he said. “Years of knowledge of what is going to fail, and when.”
Kent mentions the 1929 Minerva coupe we saw in storage. “Sometimes we find things that really tell us the history of a car.” In the Minerva, the cowl has an open vent, and during its years of storage in a barn, swallows moved in, and built nests – out of bronze wool “We found it all over the electrical system, making little bridges.”
Automotive Restorations has also succeeded by rolling with the times. “Our focus is no on one car, but the customer, and the fact that people’s interests change.” That means that in the late 1980s, Italian exotics were coming out of the woodwork but in recent years, he’s been tackling more muscle cars and hot rods, too. “We know 1970s CM well, and we must have done over 150 flathead Fords.” That philosophy led to the development of the other major part of the operation, Vintage Racing Services, Inc., when customers started to wonder how their Astons, Ferraris or Camaros might fare on track.
Currently located adjacent to an ex-Army jet engine plant, VRS does everything that AR does, but for race cars. In addition, they’ll provide an entire arrive-and-drive season of support for you, either in your own car, or in one of their rentals, which include about a dozen production-based cars, three sports racers and three open-wheel formula cars. The rentals are mostly a sideline for VRS, however, and Kent’s own experience in sports car racing before he launched AR helped inform the business. “I had an Austin-Healey that I raced years ago,” he told Victory Lane. “I’d show up and one thing would break, then another financial disaster . . . and now I can’t get home . . . It was fun, but frustrating.”
There are still more sidelines: Over in Westchester County, just north of New York, Kent and AR helped to start the Collectors Car Garage, a “country club for car people,” which operates as a garage you never see, especially for cars used in rallies or overseas events, as well as overseas collectors keeping their U.S. cars in storage.
If that’s not enough, VRS has acted as the U.S. agent for Elva Racing Components, LTD, as well as stocking a variety of specialized Lotus spares and performance parts.
Back in a special bay at the main office in Stratford, yet another operation is taking shape, and an entire custom car is slowly taking shape, aluminum hand-formed over styling bucks and on the English wheel. If your car breaks down an hour away, they’ll come to get it. If it breaks down in Saskatchewan, they’ll fly there. They were supporting a customer’s car on a rally in Prague when we visited, and if he hadn’t had a car, they’d have rented him one.
If you think this sounds like a lot of irons in the fire, you’re right, and sometime this winter, their five Connecticut locations will move under one roof, into a new, 42,000 square foot building. It’s all in keeping with their idea, to make it as easy as possible to own an old car.
You won’t see most of the cars from Automotive Restorations on the show field at Pebble Beach, but on the same weekend, you’ll find them at the Monterey Historics races (three in 2006). “We tend to have customers who drive their cars,” he said. “I want to keep the drudgery of owning a classic car low, and the entertainment high, while still offering everything concrete you have to do,” he said. “Awards are wonderful, but we’re focused on the enjoyment of it all.”