Bringing classic cars back to the dealership

Jenny King
autonews.com

A potentially lucrative opportunity for the service department

Servicing cars more than 30 years old might seem a losing proposition for most dealerships.

Who wants to take valuable time to train technicians in carburetor repair? Or to keep a vehicle in a service bay for days, waiting for unusual parts?

Yet brands such as BMW, Porsche and Chevrolet, and some of their franchised dealerships, are finding value in maintaining and repairing classic vehicles. Mark Rogers, a 20 Group consultant with the National Automobile Dealers Association, estimated that as many as 1,800 U.S. franchised dealerships service classic cars.

Automakers and dealers note the growing number of high-dollar classic and collectible cars. Unless their owners are mechanically gifted, these vehicles will need professional service to keep them running.

In 2015, Hennessy Porsche North Atlanta in Roswell, Ga., became one of just five factory-designated Porsche Classic dealerships in the United States, said Jeff Corey, the store’s service director.

Hennessy invested in special tools (he declined to say how much) and set aside two service bays to fix classic Porsches, defined as 1998 models and older. He sent two technicians and two service advisers to California for extensive training.

When the dealership was remodeled last year, Hennessy included a Classic Center in its second-floor showroom, where visitors can view vintage Porsches.

“We’ll do 15 to 20 cars a year,” Corey said. “The average repair bill is $3,000, though we’ve done a couple at $20,000 and rebuilt the whole engine of a 964 for $42,000.”

Classic service is by appointment only. Hennessy Porsche asks customers to bring the vehicles in for review ahead of time.

“The oldest Porsche we’ve worked on was a 1963 356,” Corey said.

There are plenty of valid reasons for dealerships to shy away from working on older cars. Stocking and storing parts for such vehicles, training service employees and tying up service bays for extended repairs can be costly.

“Dealers are too busy selling and servicing new cars,” said NADA’s Rogers. “It is not financially feasible to dedicate the time and space” to classics service, he said.

Most buyers of mass-market vehicles don’t develop emotional ties to them, Rogers added. Classic service makes greater sense for luxury cars that are more than 20 years old, produced by European brands that stress their heritage, he said.

Harry Hollenberg, a partner in the Concord, Mass., automotive consulting firm Carlisle & Co., said a classic car in a service bay may not have the same halo effect as one on a dealership lot.

Even a dealership that specializes in fixing classic vehicles may see no more than four of them a year, Hollenberg said. And service technicians may have trouble pinpointing problems with classic vehicles.

“There is so much turnover among technicians now that it would be hard to locate one with a knowledge of older models,” Hollenberg said.

BMW of Ann Arbor in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been a BMW Certified Classic Center since 2014. It averages about one special repair a month, said the dealership’s service director, Mark Wade.

But that’s OK, Wade added, because the classic center’s prestige attracts other parts and service customers among owners of older BMWs.

“We do get plenty of early-to-mid-’90s cars, but those customers aren’t looking to restore their vehicles, usually,” he said. “They’re more concerned with the mechanical breakdown or driveability issues.”

The oldest BMW the dealership has serviced was a 2002 tii from the 1972 model year, he said.

Another time, Wade said, his service department faced the challenge of restoring a gray-market 1985 BMW M6 to factory condition. Tracking down parts for a car that was not produced for the U.S. was tough, he noted.

“But it’s a labor of love for us and the owners,” Wade said.

Wade remains optimistic about the growth of the dealership’s classics repair business.

“I would imagine the volume will increase once those cars from the ’90s hit the 30-year mark and the value starts to increase,” Wade said. “We would like to see more.”

Buds Chevrolet-Buick in St. Marys, Ohio, provides service to owners of Corvettes from the C4 (1984-96), C5 (1997-2004) and C6 (2005-13) generations.

Work on such classic Corvettes is sporadic — perhaps 15 a year, said the service adviser and shop foreman, Troy Jones.​

Yet the small-town dealership burnishes its reputation with a Corvette show each May.

This year’s event, Jones said, attracted the owners of more than 600 Corvettes.

Such enthusiasm can spread to repairs. Once, Jones recalled, technicians took five hours to replace a faulty heating core on a 1980 Corvette. It would have taken longer, he said — had the customer not brought the replacement part with him.

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