So what exactly do you have to do to have your automotive restoration shop featured for a season on national television? I was excited to find out the answer to that question and learn more about Steve’s Restorations, which will be featured on the show American Restoration on The History Channel early next year. After just an hour at his shop, located just a few miles east of Utica, NY, I began to see that there’s something unique about Steve Hale and his business.
I was surprised to hear that his 14-year restoration career began in high-school. There probably aren’t many 16-year-olds who decide to begin restoring a classic car with their friends. There are probably even fewer who accomplish the task before they graduate — but like I said, Steve Hale isn’t your average guy.
That high school restoration project, by the way, wasn’t a classic American muscle car where spare parts would be easy to find. It was a 1960 Jaguar Mark 1. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he admitted when I asked about the complexity of restoring the British classic, but that didn’t seem to stop him from accomplishing his goal.
I believe that there truly isn’t anything that would stop this guy from accomplishing his goals. He talks about 20-hour workdays and about him and his crew working three days straight with no sleep like it’s an unavoidable annoyance in this business. But I think it’s the key to his success: hard work, a get-it-done attitude, and an unwillingness to compromise for anything less than perfect
“I really didn’t know anything about cars — I just wanted to restore a car,” he said. It took him a year and a half to get the job done right on that first project while he was at school. “I brought it to a car show and it actually won best in show.”
After graduation, things grew from there. “People were calling me left and right for body work and paint work,” he said. The phone was ringing so much, Steve decided to start the business. “I started doing body and paint work, then restoration work, then custom work came from that, and it kind of grew up into a really cool business.”
He’s not doing it alone. “I learn from the people around me,” he said. “We’ve got a real good crew here.” I’d guess that’s part of the recipe for success, especially when you’re pulling all-nighters and long days. “We’re all really good friends and everyone’s passionate about the work we do and that makes all the difference.”
Steve has worked hard to create a cool environment that people will enjoy coming to work at. Unfortunately, much of the interior of his shop was off-limits to our photographer for this article. Every corner had a unique project in it that was worked on for the show American Restoration. Steve’s is one of five shops featured starting in early 2016. “We’re in 9 of the 13 episodes,” he said. “We do some really neat projects.” The show gives viewers a look into what the top restoration shops do and how they do it.
Steve found out about the opportunity through a mailing list they had joined a few years back. “The ad said ‘Production company looking for restoration shops’ or something like that,” Steve said. They started with some Skype interviews, everything sounded great, and then they didn’t hear anything back for a year or so. That didn’t stop them from following up. “This was three years ago. We were just moving in to our space here and we even thought about doing a show of our own.” Then the TV channel called and asked if they were ready to go.
Steve is clearly proud and excited for some of his work to be seen on TV. “It’s a really cool show and has some awesome projects,” he said. While I can’t go into details about the projects at the request of the History Channel, I can tell you that many reach beyond vehicle restoration and really showcase the diversity of restorations and custom work that Steve and his team do on a regular basis. “It’s fun and it’s cool and we get to show the world what we’re doing.” Viewers should be ready for some pretty eccentric and interesting builds.
And they are doing it right. Other than some of the upholstery work, everything gets done in-house. “We try to bring everything to one spot,” Steve said. “It really helps the job come out better, and it’s easier for the customer. We take a lot of pride in doing it that way.”
He moved to his own space three years ago so that he could make all the custom changes he wanted. “The collision repair paint booth in our old shop wasn’t working for restoration because it was too small,” he said. The new space, however, is huge. “It’s about twice the size of a normal collision booth so we can paint the car with all of the body and frame, all the parts separate.” He points out a custom fabricated air management system in the ceiling and on the back wall. “We bought a high-end air make-up unit, which powers the booth.” It’s been completely designed for restoration all the way down to the special wall coating, which attracts dust particles to allow for a cleaner paint finish.
As we walked and talked, he showed me a 1968 International pickup truck from San Diego. His customer’s father had bought the truck brand new and now his customer wanted to surprise his dad by having Steve’s crew restore it to its former glory. “Every nut and bolt,” Steve said. “Every piece of the engine. It’s all restored and painted. It’ll be a perfect truck.” Apparently the truck needed some help when it arrived. “A tree had fallen on the cab. The bed was rotted right to nothing. It was in bad shape.” Restoration of an old classic can be time-consuming. “We have to find stuff from junk yards….You’re always on the phone, trying to find parts.” They sometimes have to refabricate from scratch. A project like this, to be done right, could take more than a year.
“We do a lot of out-of-state work,” Steve said. “Over here are trucks from Connecticut and Vermont.” Word of mouth has helped him build his business to where it is today. “We take a lot of pride in what we do and word spreads around. We’ve always made it a point not to just get the job done and move on to the next thing.” It’s clear that that’s the secret to his success here. “We had a three-million dollar Mercedes Gullwing in a couple of months ago for some custom paint work.” People really seem to trust Steve with their pride and joy.
The shop itself is unique, too, filled with restored vintage memorabilia. The seating, lighting, and ambiance of the showroom is right in line with the style of work Steve does. “We want our customers to walk in and see that we’re for real,” he said. “You only get one chance to make a first impression. We want them to see nice work and interesting things.” They even went to the trouble of building out part of their shop to look like a 1950s diner. “We wanted it to look cool and for people to know that they can trust us with their high end, expensive car.”
Steve also restores and collects classic coin-op machines including vintage arm wrestling games, which are on display in the shop. And he travels the country as a competitive arm wrestler. “I was at Carlisle, at a swap meet, and I found an old strength tester game,” he said. That piece grew into more coin-op restoration as well as other vintage fabrication. “We also help restore old diners, too.” The place was filled with fully-restored vintage pieces, mostly 50s and 60s, but he’s not fussy about the age of the project. “We just finished restoring a 1927 Stutz.”
Steve’s big break came in 2010 when awards and acclaim started rolling in for his unique green machine project, the 1956 Ford F-100 “Natural Disaster.” “The green machine really put us on the map,” he said. “There were only a handful of shops doing really high-end restoration and custom car building. You’re going to go to a shop that’s reputable and that’s done these cars and has a portfolio.” Steve knew they needed to do something special to stand out from the crowd. “Going green was the huge thing, but that’s not ‘hot-rod,’ that didn’t make sense, so we needed to combine the two somehow.”
They took a Ford 460 engine and converted it to run on liquid Propane, “which was zero emissions but it made over 500hp,” he said. They needed custom paint but wanted it to be environmentally friendly. “PPG was just coming out with their waterborne paint so we worked with them to make a custom paint scheme.” And they didn’t stop there. “We wanted all the trim work to stand out, too, so we decided to use copper. It’s ninety-five percent recycled and nobody ever uses copper on cars.” They did all the copper work in-house and included touches like recycled tires and a custom display with recycled soda bottle carpeting. “It made a statement: ‘Here’s what we can do.’”
They took the car on the road and made a lot of great contacts as a result, and that’s ultimately what has led to their continued growth and helped to get them to being featured on TV. And Steve also clearly loves Central New York. “One thing that I really hope that comes from the TV is that people see that it’s a positive thing happening in this community,” he said.
He wants others to succeed, too. “You’ve got to find something so that working a sixteen-hour day won’t feel like work.” Steve’s a humble guy and didn’t want to take all the credit. It’s clear that he knows his crew is a big part of the recipe for success. “Hopefully, we can inspire people to do the same thing. If you aren’t afraid to work hard and stay determined you can be successful.” And uncompromising hard work truly is the story of Steve’s Restorations.
Story By: Matt Wilson
Photography By: Thomas Sblendorio