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Classics never go out of style

Feature   |   Posted: 07/22/2021
Posted by: Motorhead Digital

RJ CARS knows its niche, and how to work it.

By Barry Alt

Photos by Darren Ohara

Author’s note: Way back in 2008, before THE SHOP magazine merged an early predecessor with Hot Rod & Restoration magazine, Russell Jacobs, owner of RJ CARS Inc., was featured in an HR&R article discussing his first 20 years in business. Now that he’s passed the 30-year mark, we thought we’d check back in to see how far the shop’s come and the lessons learned along the way.

Russell Jacobs first opened his own restoration shop when he turned 21, after spending five years at an auto body shop developing his skills and passion for the industry.

“I started working out of an old cow barn at my mother’s family farm, and since then the company just started to evolve,”

Jacobs says of RJ CARS.

Russell Jacobs opened his own restoration shop in New York when he turned 21, after spending five years at an auto body shop developing his skills and passion for the industry.

Russell Jacobs opened his own restoration shop in New York when he turned 21, after spending five years at an auto body shop developing his skills and passion for the industry.

Being his own boss, Jacobs was able to build his business from a one-man show into the successful shop it is today. How? By focusing on delivering customer service to a clientele that appreciates restoration work done the right way—and is happy to pay for it.

Word soon spread about the shop’s skills and dedication to the craft. The company started to expand, and Jacobs needed to hire more staff to keep up with demand. Within a few years, he ultimately made the move to his own facility in Arkport, New York, in order to offer a better service to his customers.

The shop now operates with a team of six employees, which will soon grow to seven. Occupying 7,000 square feet—including two buildings with offices, seven bays, an auto body shop, a paint shop, an assembly shop and a barn for storage—it can keep multiple projects moving at each stage.

Primarily focused on auto restoration work, parts and component installation, and performance tuning, RJ CARS also offers services related to car shows such as detailing, chrome polishing, stainless steel trim repair and restoration done in-house and on location.

To fill in the gaps between projects, Jacobs also takes in auto repair, collision and auto body repair work. On the retail side, the shop sells and uses Wizards Products on its show cars and restorations.

Located in Arkport, New York, RJ CARS occupies 7,000 square feet—including two buildings with offices, seven bays, an auto body shop, a paint shop, an assembly shop and a barn for storage.

 

DOWN TO BUSINESS

With so many shops out there doing high-quality restorations, how does Jacobs make his company stand out from the competition?

“Our clients come first in everything we do,” he explains.

That means every member of the team makes sure the client they’re working with gets exactly what they signed on for—and is treated with respect and complete professionalism throughout the entire restoration process.

“A typical job always starts with getting to know the client. The more I know them, the easier it is to work alongside them and deliver what they want,” Jacobs notes.

The team at RJ CARS works on all types of classic and custom vehicles, with Mopars—including three full-blown Superbird restorations—becoming a specialty.

 

The team at RJ CARS has implemented measures refined over many years to deliver consistent service and attention to detail.

Depending on the client’s financial situation, the shop’s waiting list and the availability of parts, a full-blown project can take anywhere from one to several years to complete.An onboarding procedure ensures the customer, and their vehicle, are seamlessly brought into the system, while a project management app is used to keep track of progress. The vehicle is then processed, with parts labeled, and properly stored.

Photography plays a big role in the shop’s operation. Photos are taken at every step of the process and shared with the customer. They’re also used to document parts and progress internally on a daily basis, and become part of the shop’s marketing and promotional efforts.

Everything from shop notes to time records are tracked, digitized and collected with the project photos, which all helps with billing accuracy and inventory updates, while also providing an overall view of the big picture.

When a project is completed, clients are presented with a binder containing all the photos, information and documents relevant to their vehicle. And some of those books can be a long time coming.

Jacobs says he’s learned that good processes help you control and increase efficiency where you have control, so there’s more time available to focus on things you can’t control, like finding rare parts or dealing with unexpected issues during a project.

 

Russell Jacobs (front) has spent 30 years building RJ CARS, and hopes it will carry on for many more in the capable hands of son Matthew.

ALL SHAPES & SIZES

Every project at RJ CARS (rjcars.com) is unique, with its own demands and issues. And most of those projects come from baby boomers.

As Jacobs puts it, “their kids are gone, their house is paid for. They’re sitting there looking at their retirement account. That’s pretty boring. Looking at them you ask, ‘what are we going to do with those retirement funds? Let’s spend them and build a muscle car or classic.’”

It’s not unusual for customers to express interest in projects of the Concours-award caliber, but Jacobs finds they don’t often follow through once they get what they asked for.

“It’s funny because I build these cars and people say they want a Concours car like a Shelby, so I build it. And then the owner may never take it and show it anywhere!”

The team at RJ CARS has restored and worked on numerous top brands and classic muscle cars over the years, from a 1917 Locomobile, to a 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, to a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The most common builds are Mopars, with more than 50 complete restorations performed, Jacobs estimates.

Among them are three full-blown Superbird restoration projects, including a six-pack original, a 440 four-speed Dana original and another completely restored original. Related jobs have included Hemi builds, a special-order Petty Blue 1972 ’Cuda and a ’70 T/A Challenger dealer demonstrator owned by Jacobs himself.

McKenna, left, Russell and Matthew Jacobs know they key to success in the restoration business is performing quality work and treating the customer with respect throughout the process.

LIFE AT THE SHOP

The key to a great shop is having a talented team. Finding and keeping that talent takes keen eyes and ears to understand what motivates them.

How does management at RJ CARS find new employees? By word of mouth, sometimes from colleges (a past employee is now a teacher himself), via social media and even through email campaigns.

Jacobs tries to keep his employees interested in their work by bringing in great projects.

“My guys are here because they want to work on cool cars,” he explains.

Sometimes, however, other jobs need to be taken on to pay the bills and fill gaps between projects.

As a small company, RJ CARS provides paid holidays and paid time off, bonuses and SIMPLE IRA accounts. The group also celebrates special occasions together. It’s the little things—and a great amount of respect—that matter the most, Jacobs believes.

Cash flow and parts availability can mean delays when dealing with high-end restorations. Keeping the team busy between those projects are more run-of-the-mill jobs including collision repair, detailing and engine tune-ups.

There’s never any doubt, however, of the highest-ranking priority placed on restorations.

“You know, a lot of body shops will do a restoration, but typically that restoration is going to sit in the corner and collect dust. It’s not at their forefront. My forefront is the restoration work. My background is doing collision work” Jacobs explains.

And every once in a while, a filler project takes an interesting turn—often involving the shop’s paint booth. Among the oddball requests the shop has tackled are restorations of pedal cars, gas pumps, antique and cast iron furniture, horse buggy parts, light posts and signposts. Other fun jobs included a remote-control jet and dragsters with candy finishes.

One of the most memorable paint projects was a rally car that had traveled around the world. Since the owner was from Aruba, Jacobs had one of his vendors come in and airbrush the Aruban flag on the hood…

Please head on over to the Motorhead Digital Blog for the rest of this article.

Barry is the founder of Motorhead Digital, providing signature Marketing Maximizer™ programs specifically developed for auto restoration, performance and restyling shops. These programs are geared towards customer acquisition and conversion to keep those project bookings coming. With over 23 years of experience in digital marketing and web development, Barry’s goal is to help clients market and grow their shops through strategic marketing practices. You can reach him at (585) 766-9785balt@motorheaddigital.com or online at MotorheadDigital.com

 

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