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Flexing cars' muscles

Saturday, November 6, 2004

KELSO, Mo.

Images of fast cars and rich clients grace the wall of Roger Gibson's auto restoration business. One photo shows a 1967 Corvette Roadster, one of 16 ever made. Gibson restored that Corvette and sold it for $300,000 in 1990. Other photos of Gibson's work have a 1969 Dodge Charger with its owner, former Carolina Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene, and former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler with a 1969 Yenko Nova.

This wall of fame did not appear overnight. It has been over 20 years in the making for Gibson, who started working on cars while he was growing up in Cape Girardeau.

"All I knew when I was in high school is that I wanted to work on cars. It was my passion, " Gibson said. "I went to Cape Central. I squeaked by in everything except auto mechanics. I got straight A's in that."

Following his passion, Gibson worked as a car mechanic at area car dealers and received formal training for working on Porsches, which he did for six years. He also had his own garage where he would work on high-performance cars, such as Corvettes, which Gibson had started buying and fixing in the early 1970s.

By the early 1980s, the garage that Gibson had been working at on the side became his main business, and he was able to focus on high-performance, or "muscle," cars.

These muscle cars, such as Ford Mustangs, Plymouth Barracudas, Chevrolet Camaros and Corvettes, were built in the 1960s and early 1970s and featured small bodies with large engines, a lot of horsepower and high-impact colors.

What was different about these cars, Gibson said, was "the horsepower and the feeling you got driving the car."

"It was exciting in the car world then," he said. "Throughout the '70s and early '80s, the car world was pretty dull."

The car world's loss was Gibson's gain, as muscle car aficionados needed someplace to bring their vehicles and have them restored to their original glory.

At first, Gibson's clients were what he calls "car guys," people who were not necessarily wealthy but interested in cars and willing to spend a good bit of money on them. That started to change when Otis Chandler, a millionaire and big-time car enthusiast, sought out Gibson's services in 1987 after he had purchased a car Gibson restored.

In the almost 10 years he worked with Chandler, Gibson worked on 11 of his cars.

"Mr. Chandler was the kind of guy that puts you in a different league," Gibson said.

Instead of the "car guys," Gibson started hearing more from wealthy clients who were willing to pay an average of $100,000 to have a car restored and be put on a waiting list that's up to three years long.

"It's like boys and their toys. They want to collect things that make them feel good," Gibson said. "My guys collect cars. They're just bigger toys, I guess."

The more Gibson worked with these clients, the more word got around that he was the guy to go to if you wanted your car restored.

Gibson's reputation has grown to the point where he has been called "one of the premier muscle car restorers" in Popular Mechanics magazine, not to mention the various specialty car magazines that regularly feature his work on their pages and publish his advice.

"Our shop sets the standard," Gibson said. "Our restoration is top of the art."

And business only gets better.

According to Gibson, nine of his restorations have sold for world-record prices in the past year, including a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda convertible, one of nine ever made, that North Dakota real estate developer Bill Wiemann purchased for $2 million.

Currently, Gibson is in the early stages of restoring Wiemann's 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda convertible, one of 14 of its kind ever made and one of nine with an automatic transmission. Gibson estimates the car will be worth $1.3 million when fully restored.

A longtime client of Gibson's, Tim Wellborn, who runs Wellborn Forest Products in Alabama, currently has five of his cars in various states of restoration at Gibson's place. There are three rare 1971 Dodge Hemi Chargers, including the first ever built, and two 1969 Dodge Daytonas.

Restoring these rare cars takes about a year. Part of the reason for the lengthy restorations is that most of the cars are stripped down to just a metal frame so absolutely every piece of the car can be worked on by Gibson and his employees: Lanny Satterfield, Bob Lohmeier, Scott Heisserer and Aaron Eades.

Then there is Gibson's attention to detail.

"There's a lot more to it than people understand," Gibson said. "A restoration has to have an old look. It has to look like it did in the year that it was made."

That means making sure everything from paint inspection seals to the stripping on a bolt or the size of the distributor cap are consistent with the year and make of the car.

"My goal is that when the car rolls out, the guy will wonder if this is an original or if this is a restoration," Gibson said.

The biggest problem Gibson has faced while restoring the cars is finding the right parts. He solved this problem when he teamed with Frank Badalson from Richmond, Va., in 1996 to form Auto Restoration Parts Supply, which manufactures Chrysler reproduction parts and supplies.

Right now the parts are sold online and through car publications and events, but Gibson said in one to two years the parts will be available at 4,700 Chrysler dealerships worldwide.

Despite the success of the parts business, Gibson's first love remains restoring muscle cars, although he recognizes that success brings pressure.

"You've got to prove yourself for a guy who gives you a $3 million car to restore, or even a $500,000 car," Gibson said. "There's a lot of pressure to perform."

Not that he plans on a career change anytime soon.

"It is like a job every day and you do get burnt out, but to me it's better than turning wrenches on a Volkswagen," Gibson said.

kalfisi@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


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