ALABAMA AUTOMOTIVE REPORT
Birmingham, Ala. – From the moment you enter the long, winding driveway of Classic Car Motoring, you are immediately aware that this is a body shop like no other. The business is tucked in an out-of-the-way location at the end of a country road in Gardendale, with absolutely no signage for identification. However, the parking lot, crowded with Mercedes and Porsches, lets visitors know that they have, indeed, arrived at the right place.
“We base our work on the ‘shock and awe’ concept. People walk into our shop and say, ‘I can’t believe this place is out here in the woods,'” said owner Jeff Baggett. “We want our business to be clean, contemporary, and beautiful, and we want the quality of our vehicles to amaze our customers. We want them to go to their friends and say, ‘you aren’t going to believe this place – you must go see it and take your cars to them.'”
A Mercedes M-Class used in the movie “Jurassic Park” sits in a place of prominence in the lobby of the shop, signifying Baggett’s special relationship with the Mercedes plant in Vance. The reception area, like the rest of the building, is spacious and modern. The left side of the front office is completely covered with framed awards, specialty training certificates, and letters of appreciation from satisfied customers. Against the right wall is a full array of classic-car accessories including specialty wheels, High Performance Wheel cleaners and Show Car Glaze. Continuing the contemporary décor of the business, Baggett and his wife, Diane, who serves as the shop’s bookkeeper, each have glass-enclosed offices with sleek glass desks supported by glass pedestals.
According to Baggett, his love of luxury automobiles began when he and his father, John, worked together to restore a 1927 Rolls Royce. “We worked on the restoration for two years, and after is was completed, we took the car to car shows all over the country. It was awarded a number of huge trophies, including one for the Best Antique Car in the United States, before we finally sold it to a museum in Tokyo,” he said. “The bug bit hard after that experience. That was when I decided to start my own antique-car repair shop and restoration business.”
That decision didn’t sit well the elder Baggett, who owned a John Deere tractor franchise and wanted his son to work with him. Although his father told him he “would never make any money” in his specialty, Baggett continued with his plans, opening a small antique-car repair facility, approximately one-third the size of the present business, on the family acreage.
Baggett sought perfection from the very beginning. He developed a very discerning clientele by concentrating on classic cars and high-end vehicles such as Mercedes, Bentleys, Ferraris, Porsches, and BMW’s. Dodge Vipers and Corvettes are the only American made cars they repair. “What has built our business is the fact that we are different. That goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to quality. We use nothing but new parts here – I have never used a used part in a repair,” he said.
His business really took off once he began doing work for the Mercedes plant. Classic Car Motoring is one of the only 35 certified Mercedes-repair facilities in the United States. “Our connection with Mercedes has been phenomenal. Before they had even broken ground on the new plant, one of the executives called me from Germany to discuss my repair business. We had to communicate through a translator because he didn’t even speak English,” he said. “Then, once the plant got started, they asked me to do some prototype paint work on some of their vehicles. The public had never seen these cars so the whole operation was very high security. We had to use an enclosed carrier to transport the cars so no one would see them.”
The business became a port for Mercedes – they would receive shipments of bare-metal car bodies from Germany at their warehouse, and after they had painted them they would send them to the plant to be assembled. The shop was also retained for a number of years to maintain all the display vehicles at the Mercedes Visitors Center.
In order to perform specialized repairs, Baggett has installed a number of specialty features in his shop. “The average body shop has three frame machines – we have six. We also have three Car-Aligners, and one dedicated Mercedes-Benz repair bench,” he said. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the body shop is the showy, glass Saico paint booth, one of the only seven in the world. “I have the only paint booth of this kind in the United States. I saw a picture of the booth, which was located in Italy at a Ferrari factory, in a magazine and wanted to purchase one. Initially, when I called the paint booth manufacturer, I was turned down. The negotiation took several months, but finally they agreed to custom-build the booth for me, and when it arrived we showed it in New Orleans at an industry show. I have been very pleased with it – glass booths are easy to clean and look beautiful. As a matter of fact, I like the booth so well that now I am going to install three all-glass paint prep stations.”
In addition to specializing in high-end vehicles, he also has a unique philosophy about his business. “We want the customer that everyone else doesn’t want,” he said. “Let’s say you are a picky person, the kind who has an immaculate house and a spotless garage. Generally, that is the kind of person that is a body shop’s worst nightmare. If I can repair that guy’s car to his complete satisfaction, when he goes on to tell other people about our shop, they will take him at his word. Money cannot buy a complement like that. And that is what makes this business work.”
He also offers high praise for his dedicated employees.
“I have been lucky enough to hire people who have the same outlook on life as I do, people who take extreme pride in their work,” he said.
He admitted that when he loses an employee, it can be hard to hire a replacement. “I have a two-week trial program for new hires, to give both of us time to find out if they don’t fit in with the way we do things.”
When asked what he believes is the biggest problem facing the industry today, he replied, “The lack of quality of customer service. This applies to other businesses as well – the world simply isn’t customer-service minded anymore. Here, we strive to give our customers service to an unprecedented level. My customers come from all over – Florida, Texas, even California. One of my out-of-state customers even took vacation time, drove here, and stayed in a hotel while we repaired their Mercedes.”
After his initial misgivings, Baggett’s father finally realized that his son had made the right decision concerning his body shop. “Even though he really wanted me to work with him, he knew I had to follow my own path, and I know he was very proud of me. Every single day he would come into my shop at 5:30 to see me, and he would often bring customers with him,” he recalled. “He had three necklaces custom-made with the letters ‘RR,’ one for himself, my mother, and me, after we restored the Rolls-Royce. He had his catch welded together and wore his every day. I never thought that much about my necklace until he passed away. Now, my necklace is also welded together and I wear it everyday, too, and I often find myself rubbing the letters and thinking about my father.
“I know I am a hard person because I am a perfectionist,” he continued. “My father told me the only thing you can leave behind is your integrity. I try to follow his words every day, and in doing so, I have earned the respect of people in the industry.
“I make my stand on the highest quality repairs possible and I won’t back down. We’re not perfect and we do make mistakes on occasion – for example we didn’t make the delivery date we recently quoted to a customer because the repair took a little longer than we had anticipated – but I would rather apologize on a delivery date than apologize on the quality of the repair.