Many people carry with them a love of cars. Some like watching them race around a track, while others get a custom license plate or little decal for the bumper – anything to set their car apart from the rest. Others lovingly provide their car with a name. Yes, all kinds of car lovers out there make their vehicle a pastime. But then there are those who hold such a deep love and appreciation for automobiles that it becomes a lifestyle.
Russell Jacobs started buying old cars to fix up when he was 14, but didn’t really know what he was doing. During his senior year of high school, he got a part-time job working in a body shop, and although he did mostly collision work there, the shop had a few old cars which he helped restore. Now more than 20 years later, Russell, who owns RJ Cars in Arkport, has come to appreciate the beauty and potential in old cars more than ever.
“I just like seeing the finished project and really creating something beautiful,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and determination to keep the quality to a high standard.”
For Marty Pierson, cars were in his blood. Before he opened Marty’s Chop Shop in Hall, his garage was home to Weller’s Chevrolet, for which his father was a mechanic. “There’s been a Pierson in here ever since,” said Marty’s wife Patty. “Our son is also here working and he’ll take over when the time is right.”
Throughout their marriage, Patty has witnessed Marty’s love for cars firsthand. “My husband has always been into cars,” she said. “It’s his passion.” The Piersons have been married for 29 years, and the business has been around for 28 of them.
At both RJ Cars and Marty’s Chop Shop, attention to detail is of the utmost importance. When Russell Jacobs is restoring a car, it’s a complete overhaul. “We do everything from top to bottom,” said Jacobs. “We do all the mechanicals. If the client wants us to, we take the car and completely strip it – every nut, bolt, screw and clip gets taken off the car, detailed, and put back together. We strip the shell of the car, the sheet metal, to the bare bones and start from there.
“We get right down to certain colors of certain screws, and for some cars, even the original markings on the heads of the bolts have to be correct, depending on the level of restoration the customer wants,” Russell said.
Marty’s carefully thought-out design work has earned him much recognition. For example, a ’37 Lincoln he worked on toured the West Coast, being shown in such places as Sacramento and Fresno. The two-and-a-half-year project was runner-up for World’s Most Beautiful Custom.
Although he works with all kinds of cars, Russell’s specialty is Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars. “Those are the cars I am most knowledgeable about and my favorite kind of cars to work on,” said Russell. “We’ve done European cars, sports cars and stuff. We’ve done Chevys and Fords and Pontiacs, and things, but we’ve done more of the Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars than any of the others.
“I have done all the way back to horse-drawn carriages and I’ve worked on parts for buggies,” said Russell. “I think the oldest car I’ve done is a ’39 Chrysler Royal Sedan, but our main target is cars from the ’60s and ’70s.”
The cars Marty works on usually come to him in pretty rough shape. Last year, he worked on a ’55 Chevy that was the owner’s original car. “For a lot of these people, the car we restore is their original one from when they were 16,” said Patty. Marty worked on a ’63 Nova for a woman who kept her first car with her even during her move to New York from California. “She drove it here, then she put it away and bought another car,” said Patty. “Then she got it back out for us to restore.”
A short time after that restoration was finished, the car was featured at the Syracuse Nationals as one of the two cars Marty’s Chop Shop showcases every year in an indoor display. “It was a joy to see the owner sit next to her car,” said Patty. “All day long, people were walking up and talking to her and she said it was one of the best days of her life.”
Keeping customers happy and involved
A customer’s happiness is key to the success of any car business, and no one knows that better than Russell Jacobs. “I correspond with the customer quite a bit and I make my best recommendations,” he said. “I like to get a picture of what the customer wants ahead of time. If we’re going to do a car I want to know what color it’s going to be, what color the interiors will be, and what modifications they want done to the motor. I need to know whether they want an automatic or standard transmission and how much horsepower they want.
“I want to know what kind of layout they want the interior to be, so if we’re doing any sort of modifications or changing from stock, I’ve got a clear mental picture ahead of time – before we restore it for them,” Russell said.
Marty doesn’t have to worry much about trying to stay in contact with his customers – many of them just drop by. “A lot of our customers come in once a week, some come once a month, and some come every day,” said Patty. “It all depends where they’re from, but the customers definitely have a lot of involvement.”
And the occasional drop-in from someone whose car is not currently in the shop has led to great things for Marty. “One day, an older man from the Thousand Islands came in because he was hot,” said Patty. “Marty got him a stool and some water and he sat and watched Marty work for about two hours. Then, six or seven months later, he came back and asked us to find him a 1970 Lincoln and Marty built it for him.”
The Lincoln that Marty built for this man was anything but your typical car. Complete with a full-sized Yamaha keyboard, karaoke machine, two coffee pots, and an electric car that matched it, the project was an absolute work of art. All the doors were welded shut and the hood came up so you could step in it, Patty said. There were even amplifiers in the trunk, a microphone on the steering wheel, and four TVs in it. “And this was 15 years ago!” said Patty.
After the man died, the car was donated to a diabetes association, and was auctioned off. “A guy contacted us out of California,” said Patty. “He had bought it. He finally tracked us down, called us, and wanted to know about everything in it. They had put new wheels on it, but after 15 years, it was still exactly the same. That was fun to see.”
Building from the ground up
The vast majority of cars that both Russell Jacobs and Marty Pierson restore are meant for the open road. “They’re show-quality cars, but they’re driven on the road without any problem,” said Patty.
“About 90 percent of the cars we do are show-worthy and drivable, too,” Russell said of his restorations. “We get some clients who really don’t plan to drive their cars – they’re just like museum-quality. With cars meant more for driving, the restoration is not as thorough. We do many levels of restorations.”
There are those in the car business who do no restorations at all – they prefer to build instead. When a deal to buy an auto company fell through at the last minute, Eric Barge decided to start his own company. EM Motors opened in Stanley in 2006, and has since manufactured the EM578 Sports Car, loosely based on a vintage Le Mans racing car.
“I designed the car around the Le Mans,” said Eric, “but changed a few things to make it ‘streetable’ and to make it safe.”
Starting with a block of clay, Eric made a one-twelfth-scale mockup of the car, which was then measured in a coordinate measurement machine. “We mapped a 3D computerized model of the car and put it into our computer-aided design (CAD) system, and then we took that 3D CAD model and sliced it into 93 cross sections,” said Eric.
As might be expected, the market for vehicles such as this is a small one. “It’s a very small niche market,” said Eric. “There are hundreds of manufacturers of unique component vehicles. We’re one of the few that builds them completely. The kit car industry is everything from buying a few pieces to splice onto your Miata to building a full-fledged racing vehicle. So, there’s a tremendous amount of variety in the kit car industry, but it is a small market.”
Although the industry may be a small one, it covers a range of customers. “We had a doctor in Miami who bought the car just because he liked the artistry aspect of it,” said Eric. “Full-fledged racing fans will also purchase the car. I have a customer who is a long-time Corvette fan and he sold his Corvette to buy one.”
For Eric, the main goal of his venture with the EM578 is to “deliver a car to somebody that performs just as well as it looks.” Many kit cars are spindly and can pack a lot of horsepower that can never be used because they lack the strength to corner, Eric said. “Having owned some sports cars in my day, I know what I want out of a car, and I know the way I want it to perform,” said Eric. “I had a Ferrari 308GTVI – I’ve had many sports cars – and this thing outperforms them all.”
Sold in two forms, the EM578 can be built to fit the customer’s needs. “We sell a rolling chassis, which is the car completely finished,” said Eric. “We put an engine and a transmission in it and we take it out on the road for a test and get it completely ready. Then, we pull the engine and the transmission back out of the car, label all the connections, and ship it to the customer, who puts his own engine and transmission in.”
EM Motors also offers the car turnkey, which is complete and ready to register. The rolling chassis start at $34,500, and the turnkey cars start at $40,800, Eric said.
When Eric displayed his car at the Rochester-area National Auto Show, people were amazed at the price. “All the people from General Motors came down,” said Eric. “They had their brand new LS7 Corvette which was $160,000. They asked me, ‘What is that, $100 grand?’ and I said ‘No, $40,000.’ They told me, ‘You’ve got to be crazy.’ It’s a lot of car for the money.”
For Eric, getting people in front of the car is key. “When we first started selling them, we sold them by word of mouth,” he said. “We sold a couple through shows and even one on eBay. When the economy went backwards, we still had interest, but the biggest problem was getting people exposed to it and getting them to commit to come here.” Eric said his eBay customer bought the car sight unseen. “I begged him to come here and look at the car, because I didn’t want to sell him something he wasn’t going to be happy with. He came and took it for a test drive. When we pulled back into the driveway, he pulled out his checkbook, wrote me a check for the full amount, and said, ‘Deliver it as soon as you can.’”
People can easily make the wrong assumptions about EM Motors. “Tucked back here on a little farm in a small shop, most people are like, ‘What’s this all about?’” said Eric. “You don’t have to have a 100,000-square-foot factory to be good. Keeping our overhead low, we’re committed to this for the duration.”
For more information on these businesses, visit their websites.
• EM Motors – www.emmotorsllc.com
• Marty’s Chop Shop – www.martyschopshop.com
• RJ Cars – www.rjcars.com
by Kimberly Price