Jeff Cabot has a problem most classic car restorers don’t: he’s currently working on too many 1969 Dodge Charger Daytonas to keep track of.
He had four in his shop near Hamilton, Ontario the day I stopped by – the most has been six at one time – plus a few more lined up on his multi-year waiting list.
So to stay on top of them Cabot gives each a nickname. There’s “Burntona,” the one-time victim of a garage fire; “Rolled-tona,” which rolled over into a ditch several years ago; and “Discotona,” which sports a psychedelic fade paint job and stripes, applied the day after it was first bought.
Another car – it was in primer the day I saw it – has been dubbed “Doctona,” since it was originally purchased by a doctor. But it could just as aptly be named “Firstona”—it happens to be one of the first-ever Charger Daytonas ever built, a pre-production car Chrysler used on the auto show circuit.
“Doctona” is getting “basically a repaint,” Cabot says, as opposed to a full restoration; maybe “rejuvenation” is the right word, suggests customer Todd Savage. (Savage has a Charger Daytona, too, of course, the only ‘Mod Top’ example built.)
The first-ever Dodge Charger Daytona, ‘Doctona,’ sitting in front of Todd Savage’s one-of-one Mod Top Daytona in front
of Jeff Cabot’s shop (photo courtesy Todd Savage)
The goal is to keep the car as original as possible, which works for Cabot: he and business partner Mauro Brocca specialize in restoring cars like too-rare Charger Daytonas, Hemi ’Cudas and Dodge Challenger T/As to “OE specification”—that is, to fresh-from-the-factory condition.
They have a reputation for painstakingly replicating every stamp Chrysler employees applied on the assembly line, for matching every glue smear sloppily brushed on—they’ll intentionally reproduce every unintentional paint drip, even if it’ll be covered up on the finished car.
Essentially, Cabot and Brocca’s work involves making classic ‘70s Dodges and Plymouths perfect by marring them with imperfections. And they’re among the best in the world at it.
Paint drips and glue smears
The dictionary definition of “restore” is something like, “to return something to its original condition.”
But most “restored” classic cars you see aren’t. They’re over-restored. They’re “candy” restorations. They’ve been brought back to way-better-than-original condition, with high-gloss paint on top and underneath; laser-straight, consistent panel gaps; and a build quality Detroit automakers couldn’t have dreamed of in the ’60s and ’70s.
They’re what a classic car would look like if it was hand-built using modern materials and techniques to near-supercar standards—largely because that’s what they are.
Brocca and Cabot can walk right by these cars at car shows or cruise nights on their way to wherever the “survivors” – unrestored classics with few to no replacement parts on them – happen to be.
“To Jeff and Mauro, the best cars are original cars that have never been touched,” says Savage. “They study those original cars, and then they try to replicate what they see.”
When Brocca and Cabot restore a car, they restore a car, bringing it back to original condition so it looks as if it just rolled off the factory line circa 1970.
Cabot, right, wheeling an original Hemi between an almost-finished Dodge Challenger T/A and, on the left, ‘Doctona’
(photo courtesy Todd Savage)
That means using NOS (new-original stock) panels (basically unused replacement parts, which nowadays can cost more than $5,000 a pop) when making repairs; priming the lower half of the body to simulate the bottom quarters’ entry into and exit from the factory primer dip-tank; and smearing the glue under things like trunk seals so you can still see some of the brush marks.
When Cabot sprays a car – he handles bodywork and paint while Brocca does assembly – he does it almost exactly like they did back then: he and another painter each shoot one side of the car (in original-type acrylic enamel paint), making just a quick pass over the rocker panels (because workers then hardly bothered to bend over to paint those areas).
The inevitable runs, drips and “orange peel” texture in the paint aren’t done-over or polished out—they’re left in like they would’ve been.
In sum, Cabot and Brocca have done everything they can to mimic the car’s original assembly process short of actually recreating a moving 1970s Chrysler factory line.
“It’s actually harder to make it look like you don’t care,” says Brocca. While Disco-era build tolerances were generally sloppier than they are today, Brocca and Cabot put a lot of research – reading articles, talking to former Chrysler employees and looking at survivor cars for reference – into figuring exactly where, why and how that assembly line carelessness manifested itself in the finished product.
It can be hard, too, to intentionally make certain mistakes when you’ve the skills to do it perfectly. ”You have to take all that [everything you know about the assembly process back then], put aside that you’re painting a $300,000 car, and paint it like it’s 1970,” says Cabot.
That black overspray on the top left corner of the firewall? That’s the sort of detail OE-restoration enthusiasts love—and lots of other car buffs don’t
Respect the Rainbow Corvette
The push to restore ‘70s muscle cars to OE specs can be traced back to the muscle car revival of the mid- to late ‘80s, and specifically to Missouri-based restorer Roger Gibson, says Mopar muscle car collector and expert Jim Bodanis.
Gibson’s most famous restoration was a car other builders nicknamed – at first dismissively – the “Rainbow Corvette,” because its chassis was covered in the brightly coloured original inspection marks and stamps.
“He was the first guy to put all that stuff back during a resto, and that sort of pissed everyone else off,” says Bodanis. “Now they’ve got to get into these crazy details, whereas before they were just doing ‘candy’ restorations with nice paint.”
“Roger said, ‘This is the only way the car can have its original character,’” quotes Bodanis, and he’s of the same opinion. When he commissioned Gibson to restore a heavily-optioned 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda several years ago, he told him he wanted it “stupid-accurate.”
“There was a paint drip going down the firewall from the blackout on the cowl, and I told Roger, ‘Put it back.’ He said, ‘You want it back?’ I said, ‘If there was a factory boo-boo, I want the factory boo-boo.’”
A 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda similar to the one Roger Gibson restored for Jim Bodanis. This car was originally an auto show circuit demo car, and was thus optioned out with basically everything
Unseen levels of accuracy
It’s detail-obsessed customers like Bodanis that keep detail-obsessed restorers like Gibson, Brocca and Cabot in business. (Cabot and Brocca are currently working on several cars for Bodanis, including the aforementioned ‘Doctona’ and ‘Discotona.’) But he represents part of a very small minority.
“There’s a lot of cars getting restored, but there’s not that many people that want them to this level. A lot of people want a shiny paint job, they don’t want to see orange peel,” he says.
Other collectors can’t wrap their heads around paying for work that, while necessary to making the car a true OE restoration, will be covered up (by interior panels, etc.) once the car is finished, adds Savage.
“For most restorers today, it’s hard to justify that to the client,” he says. “How do you explain, ‘I’m going to bill you 150 to 200 hours to do the dip-tank primer effect on your car, it’s going to cost you several thousand dollars, and it’ll never be seen,’ right?”
“Mind if I smoke? I’m down to two bad habits.
You know what the other one is.”
—Mopar collector Jim Bodanis during our tour of his garage
Overall cost and effort also keeps many from getting into the OE restoration hobby.
“I can’t point fingers [at collectors with non-OE restorations], because it requires a lot of time, money, research, money, finding the parts, money—money, money, money,” says Bodanis. (A 1,000-hour restoration by Brocca and Cabot can run six figures; some cars require 2,000 hours.)
But “a true car guy doesn’t care about the money,” counters Savage. “It’s not about the money, it’s about doing it right.”
“There’s nothing wrong with doing that [a non-OE restoration] to a car. Just don’t do it to a low-production $400,000 or $500,000 car that really should be done properly.”
Jim Bodanis’ survivor Dodge Challenger R/T is the sort of car Brocca and Cabot use as a reference. It still has the baggies
with the original elastic bands around the seatbelts
‘Til all the parts run out
It takes a certain mindset, a highly specialized set of skills and a knack for research, preparation and planning to carry out an authentic OE classic car restoration: Cabot and Brocca, quite luckily, have all three.
“These car are already restored in my head: I’m just executing it,” Cabot says of his process. “I’m four, five, six steps ahead restoring a car, ’cause that’s how you had to be when [I was] doing collision [repair work].”
Both restorers started by turning their classic car interests into side businesses, working on the sort of shiny, ‘candy’ show car builds that Cabot will no longer touch (Brocca occasionally does some work with other shops on non-OE projects).
(Pictured right: the Plymouth Duster that Cabot counts as his first show-car build, restored in his parents’ garage.)
A chance meeting through a client-friend roughly 13 years ago started them working together on top-of-class award-winners with full painted chassis that looked as good underneath as on top.
The switch from those cars to strict, super-accurate original-type restos happened swiftly and suddenly. “One day Jeff just said, ‘Let’s change it up,’” recalls Brocca.
It was just a shift in attitude, Cabot explains. “My goal now is to become the best restorer there is, to make the cars as accurate as humanly possible,” he says. “I just can’t fix the ordinary stuff anymore. I can’t get up for it.”
But part of his decision to get into OE restoration also lay in the challenges it posed, challenges that have become both more and less difficult as the hobby’s evolved.
“It’s a lot easier to restore a car today than it was in the ‘90s,” says Brocca, thanks to the reams of research that has since been collected, and the improved tracking of original parts and availability of reproduction ones.
There are, however, also fewer original parts generally, and fewer survivor cars to use as guides to factory assembly methods. “These cars were really only designed to last probably five to seven years,” says Brocca. “They weren’t built to last 40-plus years and be jewelry.”
‘Rolled-tona,’ the Dodge Charger Daytona that several years ago flipped over into a ditch (photo courtesy Todd Savage)
It’s that, plus a flagging interest from the under-30 crowd, that will eventually spell the end of the OE restoration niche of the classic car hobby. “There’s not too many guys like Jeff and Mauro left. It’s them, Roger and maybe two other guys [in the Mopar OE restoration hobby] that are pushing the envelope on every car, but it’s just getting harder and harder to get parts,” says Bodanis.
But until their parts stockpiles dry up completely, Brocca and Cabot plan to keep upping the accuracy-ante, cementing their reputation as two of the best OE Mopar restorers in the world, and working through their multi-year waiting list—which will hopefully have fewer winged B-bodies on it in the future, chuckles Brocca. “I just don’t want to see another Daytona.”