Steve Torp says the restoration business is appealing than in the past, but collision repair is still his company’s bread-and-butter.Marshall Frost, a technician at the shop for 30 years, works on a Ford hybrid on the shop’s Car-O-liner bench.Technician Dean Kaneshiro removes a bumper from a Toyota Camry.Chan Saephanh pulls a glass on a Toyota.

Passion for resto, thirst for car count

Classic Auto Body tools up for late-model bread-and-butter repairs with a history in restoration

Berkeley, Calif.—Steve Torp still recalls when someone decades ago called him to say there was an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that listed his business, Classic Auto Body in Berkeley. Surprised, Torp found the ad, which had been placed in the newspaper by Consumers Checkbook, an independent non-profit organization that publishes findings of its consumer surveys about local service providers.

“I really didn’t know anything about it, but I started investigating, and unlike other services, where the more you advertise the better your ratings, this you can’t buy,” Torp said. “We’re still listed way up there and have maintained that. It’s great. I have people coming out of San Francisco just because of that. And anyone who lives here knows coming across the [Bay Bridge from San Francisco] isn’t fun at any time.”

After 30 years in business, Torp said almost half of the 60-70 cars the shop fixes each month come in based on consumer reviews on Consumers Checkbook, Yelp or the Berkeley Parents Network, along with referrals from local dealers, mechanical shops and previous happy customers.

“Some of our work also comes through CCC Open Shop, and we’re a direct repair for a couple of companies, which probably is about half of our business.”

Torp’s introduction to the industry was as a delivery driver for an automotive paint jobber in San Francisco in the 1970s. He then was hired as an estimator for a Porsche and Audi dealer, despite not having previously ever written an estimate.

“It was baptism by fire because the guys were on commission, so if I missed anything, I heard about it right away,” Torp said. “I later ended up managing the shop for a short period of time.”

He moved on to an independent shop but then, in 1988, purchased Classic Auto Body with his brother, Chris, who just recently retired. The 12,000-square-foot building had long been a body shop, dating back to the 1960s when it was Griswold’s Restoration Shop, owned by an Alfa Romeo dealer.

“He restored some very historic cars in here, and a number of the people who worked for him are still in the neighborhood with their own businesses,” Torp said.

Torp and his brother maintained some of that history. The company’s corporate name is 356 Restoration Inc., and Torp’s current personal project is building a 356 with Porsche 911 running gear, a 5-speed gear box, 4-wheel independent suspension and a “pumped-up motor, though nothing too radical.” He’s long raced vintage 356 Porsches, and is on the board of a vintage racing group.

“So we’re known for that and have a history,” Torp said. “We dabbled in restorations and would love to be a restoration shop, but that’s a difficult way to go. We’ve gotten to the point where I will only take in one project car at a time. Running 60 to 70 cars through here a month is how we make our money.”

The shop is well-equipped for late model collision repair, with a drive-through downdraft Garmat paint booth, Snap-on and asTech vehicle scanning tools, a couple of BendPak 2-post lifts, the Spies Hecker paint line purchased through California Color Source, a Chief EZ-Liner II rack, and a Car-O-Liner bench rack with the EVO anchoring system and Vision X3 measuring system.

“I’ve inquired about another Car-O-Liner to augment what we have, but I go back and forth about getting that to replace the Chief rack,” Torp said. “It’s an extra-wide rack, which makes it easy when we need to get a truck on there, and we can put the measuring system on the Chief.”

The shop has maintained its I-CAR Gold Class Professionals designation, and although Torp said it’s been nice to be able to do some of that training online, he sees the value in the live courses.

“We’re lucky because they have a really nice facility for the I-CAR classes at Contra Costa College, and Kurt Money has been teaching there forever,” Torp said. “He’s a really great guy, a technician, and really knowledgeable. It’s great to go to a live class there that Kurt is teaching.”

When he reflects back on more than three decades in the industry, Torp said he’s amazed by the change, particularly in vehicle technology, the challenge of finding technicians, and the mega-MSOs. Even the restoration business has changed dramatically. He points to a restored vehicle in his shop, noting that 25 years ago it was probably worth $30,000, but today is probably worth $130,000, and owners of such vehicles don’t think twice of spending $30,000 or more on them.

“The industry is night and day compared to when I got in this,” Torp said. “It was mostly car guys in those days. Now there’s all the boardroom stuff that’s taking place with big business purchasing everything they can get their hands on. I’ve said many times recently, that in the last five years, the industry has changed more than it did in the prior 25 years.”

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At a glance

• Current owners: Since 1988

• Shop size: 12,000 square feet

• Employee count: 10

• Car count: 60-70 cars per month

• Paint line: Spies Hecker

• Estimating: CCC ONE

• Gold Class: For 8 years

• Memberships: California Autobody Association, Classic Sports Racing Group, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.