Performance Business, Jun. 2004

Kent Bain just did not want to sit behind a desk all day. Son of actor Conrad Bain (TV series Maude and Different Strokes), Bain grew up in the bustle of New York City, and ended up in Connecticut as a college student.

After attending the University of Bridgeport, where he studied industrial design, Bain toured General Motors looking for work, but was disillusioned by the corporate culture there. In 1977, he founded Automotive Restorations, Inc., in Stratford, Connecticut. “Back then, my shop just catered to a few hobbyists,” Bain recalled. “I never expected to be doing this for such a long time,” he added. The growth in popularity of classic cars since the late 1970’s has kept Bain and his 27 employees at Auto restorations quite busy.

“You can be a single-skill specialist in this business, with a focus on just one marque (brand), or a specific portion of the restoration process such as engine, electrical, body or interiors,” Bain detailed. “We now have enough diversity of skills within our staff that we have become the general contractor. There is no need for our customers to worry about shipping their car from place to place. We handle just about every stage of the restoration in-house, with the exception of chroming (environmental regulations) and specialized machining.”

Connecticut is home to Sikorsky helicopters, so Bain has found five or six highly skilled machine shops in the area that have become a tremendous resource to his business.

Going the Extra Mile

Bain has grown Automotive Restorations based on the outstanding craftsmanship and high level of service he provides to his clients, many of whom are high profile personalities from Fairfield County Connecticut or the greater New York City area, a little more than an hour away. “If they are out driving around on a Saturday night and their classic car breaks down, we go out and pick it up for them,” said Bain. Auto Restorations will store, maintain and detail cars as well as providing the restoration services, so their clients can simply drive and enjoy. The primary facility is about 12,000 square3 feet in size, and there is a body shop and warehouse building in a neighboring town that occupies an additional 25,000 square feet. Auto Restorations offers complete mechanical services, including engine repair, rebuilding, and detailing, as well as the diagnosis and repair of brakes, suspension, transmission, and rear axle components. Their fabrication capabilities include Rolls Royce and Aston Martin trained panel beaters who can construct complete sheet metal bodies, panels, bumpers and trim. One of the more benign services that Automotive Restorations provides is to rehabilitate daily driver cars as an alternative to the purchase of a new vehicle. “People will bring in a 15-year-old BMW, and we will go through it from top to bottom, give it fresh paint and send them out the door for another 150,000 miles of reliable service,” explained Bain. The upholstery shop is another great source of pride for Bain, who offers his clients complete interior restoration to original factory specification. From custom made convertible tops to the artful repair of horsehair seating surfaces and button tufted panels, Auto Restorations handles everything. Bain has even allotted space for a wood shop, where craftsmen assemble complete wood car body frames, interior trim components, and perform Woodie restoration of all types.

Bain explained that about 760 percent of his business comes from the northeast quadrant, generally New England, New York City and out as far as Pitts burgh, PA. The remaining 30 percent finds it way all over the US and Europe. Although Automotive Restorations used to handle quite a few pre-World War II-era projects, Bain explained that most of those clients are on with retirement now, and it is the post-war cars that are now most prominent.

“The people who are about 35 to 55 years old are typically the ones who are willing to spend the time and money on a classic ar,” said Bain.

The Need for Speed

The craze over vintage race cars and their popularity with his client base helped motivate Bain to open yet another facility, a 10,000-square-foot shop called Vintage Racing Services, Inc.

“The two businesses work very well together,” reported Bain, who makes the five minute drive from one shop to the other several times daily.

Vintage Racing Services specializes in the restoration and maintenance of vintage race cars which, unlike other precious antiques, are driven hard on the vintage racing circuit. In addition to technical work on the cars, Bain delivers additional value to his clients by transporting the cars to and from the various events, and his technicians act as a track support team. “The owners of these cars basically just show up [to] drive the race course,” Bain explained. “We handle everything else, making the event as enjoyable as possible for our clients,” he added. “We even own and maintain a handful of race cars that we can rent out,” Bain added. “That’s mostly for things like birthday gifts,” related Bain. “A buy just want to see what it’s like out on the track. He can just show up to the event; we have everything ready and waiting for him,” noted Bain.

Showroom? It’s the Skills!

Bain points out that although Automotive Restoration does have a showroom and the capacity to sell cars, the focus is clearly on the high caliber of skills required to restore and maintain their customer’s vehicles. Most of his clients find him through word of mouth referral, however. Bain does advertise in specialty publi8cations such as Hemmings Motor News and the various motor club and vintage racing magazines. Bain noted that the relatively small overall size of the restoration community does add to the challenge of operating such businesses, because there is no industry research organization, no statistics to help gauge trends and plan for the future.

“The market has expanded greatly since I began, with numerous shows and events driving interest,” commented Bain. Automotive Restoration’s shop and parking lot is filled with examples of classic automobiles from nearly every country that operates an automotive factory. “Cars represent a given era better than anything else, at least since the dawn of the motor age,” Bain expressed.

inside the shop, there are Cadillac’s and Lamborghinis living in harmony with a tan VW Squareback and a 1950’s Chevy hot rod. There are race cars, touring cars, muscle cars, and both aluminum and fiberglass cars, all given a second chance to devour the open road thanks to the watchful eye of Kent Bain.