THE SPE­CIAL­IST

We travel to Cal­i­for­nia to wit­ness the skills of Kevin Kay Restora­tions

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS STEPHEN ARCHER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAVID BUSH

SO I START BY ASK­ING KEVIN: ‘Why are you here?’ It’s not some deep ex­is­ten­tial question; I’m just cu­ri­ous as to the lo­ca­tion of Kevin Kay Restora­tions in Red­ding, North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. ‘Be­cause it’s not there,’ he shoots back. ‘There’ be­ing the Bay Area of Cal­i­for­nia, south of San Fran­cisco. ‘The Bay Area got too busy and the peace of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia was at­trac­tive, as is the fly fish­ing…’

We think of Cal­i­for­nia as be­ing de­fined by Los Angeles, San Fran­cisco and maybe San Diego. But this state is the sixth big­gest econ­omy in the world and nearly twice the land mass of the UK. To get to Red­ding, you fly to San Fran­cisco and head north, past the wine lands, for 230 miles. The scenery flat­tens out and then the city ap­pears in a plain ringed by snow-capped moun­tains. The at­trac­tions are easy to see, though rag­ing sum­mer heat (40°C is com­mon) would take some get­ting used to. Since mov­ing here in 1986, Kevin has grown to love the area. And for As­ton Martin own­ers across North Amer­ica, Red­ding has be­come syn­ony­mous with KKR and con­cours-win­ning restora­tions. So how did it all be­gin?

Kevin was born in Salt Lake City but spent his teenage years in the 1960s in Green­wich, Con­necti­cut. ‘As a teen, I would see a lot of the well-to-do locals driv­ing Bri­tish cars, and though I liked Amer­i­can cars, those Euro­pean cars seemed pretty cool,’ he re­calls. A ride in an MG TD height­ened his in­ter­est, and he bought his first car, a 1962 Tri­umph TR4, be­fore he even had his driver’s li­cence. In 1966, his fam­ily moved to San Jose at the south­ern end of what would be­come Sil­i­con Val­ley. As a se­nior in high school he drove an MGA and, when he went to univer­sity, a pa­rade of Bri­tish and Euro­pean sports cars fol­lowed. The itch was scratched and, after univer­sity, he worked in a for­eign (i.e. mostly Bri­tish) car parts store in San Jose, which brought him into con­tact with many Bri­tish sports car en­thu­si­asts. You can see where this is go­ing…

‘My man­ager and I even­tu­ally bought the parts busi­ness and ex­panded it to two sites. Some­what by ac­ci­dent, I got into trad­ing some cars in my spare time, and one of these was a Lo­tus Cortina that I traded for a 1957 DB2/4, my first As­ton.’ And so it be­gan, but slowly at first. He re­stored th­eas­ton him­self to a very high stan­dard. ‘When I showed the car at events, other As­ton own­ers asked me who had re­stored it and asked me to re­store their cars.’ He also placed an ad­ver­tise­ment in a Sacra­mento news­pa­per: ‘Wanted – As­ton Martins need­ing restora­tion.’

‘I got six replies and I bought all the cars in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair.’ Restor­ing those As­tons was ‘fun’, he says, and kept him busy for sev­eral years, fur­ther en­hanc­ing his rep­u­ta­tion, but the de­mand for his skills was clearly sig­nif­i­cant and it made sense to have cus­tomers pay him for his ex­per­tise – es­pe­cially as there was no ded­i­cated west coast As­ton Martin re­storer. And so, in 1989, Kevin Kay Restora­tions was born.

‘Kevin placed an ad­ver­tise­ment in a Sacra­mento news­pa­per: Wanted – As­ton Martins need­ing restora­tion’

‘Right from the start, I fo­cused on ground-up restora­tions, though in most cases the cars re­ally had to have that level of restora­tion,’ he laughs. ‘I think what has helped our rep­u­ta­tion is that we be­came known for a “no com­pro­mise on qual­ity” at­ti­tude. In some cases this may mean a job comes in over bud­get, but we would not charge the cus­tomer for the over-run. That’s the way restora­tions of­ten go. Issues and com­plex­ity take over and the loss of hours can be sig­nif­i­cant on a job but if the cus­tomer was happy then gen­er­ally we were too. Even after a seven-day week with 12 hours a day.’

In 1995, Mark Wiens and Kevin Baker joined KKR. Mark, some­what un­usu­ally, was not a ‘car nut’ but had huge me­chan­i­cal skill and is now the shop fore­man. Kevin B, on the other hand, is a su­perb painter, whose work has been on the top step at Peb­ble Beach. The busi­ness has grown fur­ther over the past few years and now has 15 em­ploy­ees. Wal­ter Boehringer joined in 2012 and took a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in the com­pany in ad­di­tion to be­com­ing gen­eral man­ager. As Wal­ter ex­plains: ‘I had been a friend and neigh­bour of Kevin for years, had grown up around clas­sic cars with an un­cle show­ing and judg­ing cars at Peb­ble Beach, and al­ways had a pas­sion for what he did. When I sold my own hand-tool man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness in 2010, the tim­ing was right for me to step in with Kevin and take an ac­tive role in the busi­ness.’

Where do you find the staff, I ask Wal­ter. ‘Hir­ing peo­ple with ex­pe­ri­ence on As­ton Martins is not easy. Most of­ten peo­ple come to us through word of mouth. With a self­s­tart­ing at­ti­tude, en­thu­si­asm, ap­ti­tude and right men­tal­ity, we can de­velop peo­ple and make them into valu­able team mem­bers and re­stor­ers. Our core team have been here a long time and new peo­ple are trained here by them.’

With the busi­ness be­ing in a rel­a­tively re­mote lo­ca­tion, it is not sur­pris­ing that al­most all of its skills are in-house and under the same roof. Only trim­ming is con­tracted-out to a lo­cal trim­mer who clearly not only has great skill but over the years has ac­quired an in-depth knowl­edge of the idio­syn­cra­sies of As­ton Martin trim­ming.

What is sur­pris­ing is the scale of the fa­cil­ity. Where UK work­shops are of­ten quite cramped, this has a real sense of space, with large, ded­i­cated work­shops for the var­i­ous as­pects of KKR’S work. The largest area is the ser­vic­ing and assem­bly area, though since there are few truly lo­cal cus­tomers more cars are be­ing re­stored than ser­viced. The main work­shop also con­tains ex­ten­sive racks, where ev­ery part taken off a car is neatly stored await­ing its own restora­tion prior to the time of re-fit.

Look­ing at a tatty pair of DB4 seats with split leather it seems a shame that they have to be re-trimmed, given all the char­ac­ter and sto­ries that the orig­i­nal ma­te­rial could tell. ‘Where we can keep orig­i­nal ma­te­rial and the owner wishes to do so, then we cer­tainly will do so,’ says Wal­ter, ‘but all too of­ten some­thing that looks like it can be saved ends up be­ing too de­cayed to be of use. We un­der­stand the ar­gu­ment for preser­va­tion along­side restora­tion, but preser­va­tion can be very dif­fi­cult and most usu­ally im­pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially with soft ma­te­ri­als.’

The paint shop is state-of-the-art, with two high-tech booths that con­sti­tute one of KKR’S big­gest in­vest­ments.

‘Al­most all of the skills are in-house and under the same roof. Only trim­ming is con­tracted-out’

‘The stan­dards ex­pected of paint to­day are in­cred­i­bly high and we have to be able to sat­isfy that de­mand. The irony is that we have been one of the com­pa­nies to drive that stan­dard up, so we kind of made a rod for our own back!’ laughs Kevin. The whole process from bare metal to com­ple­tion can take up to 900 man-hours, and witnessing the gru­elling body prepa­ra­tion first-hand, it’s easy to see how the hours ac­cu­mu­late. ‘Cus­tomers love com­ing here, just to un­der­stand how we do our work. In the case of one or two, they want to roll their sleeves up and help!’

One large work­shop is ded­i­cated to body re­pairs and fab­ri­ca­tion. A right-hand-drive DB6 is be­ing worked on, the team hav­ing dis­cov­ered pop-riv­eted patches in the door-skins under co­pi­ous amounts of filler. As Wal­ter ex­plains: ‘Cars come to us from all over and we of­ten have to put right pre­vi­ous poor work­man­ship. This can be a real night­mare be­cause a bad re­pair is usu­ally far harder to work on than a car that has just been ne­glected.’

The en­gine re­pair and re­build shop is, as one would ex­pect, im­mac­u­lately clean. Look­ing at a fully re­built DB4 en­gine is al­ways a joy, but what strikes me par­tic­u­larly is the orig­i­nal­ity of all the fin­ishes and fix­ings. Use of modern fin­ishes and modern metal fas­ten­ings is not as ap­par­ent as it is with some re­stored en­gines, and plat­ing is also ex­e­cuted con­sci­en­tiously with the cor­rect fin­ishes. Where it was dull nickel, it’s re-plated in dull nickel. The ef­fect of this at­ten­tion to de­tail is to cre­ate an en­gine that looks per­fect but in no way over-re­stored. In­deed, pretty much how it would have looked when it left the fac­tory.

KKR’S spares depart­ment is im­pres­sive, with many parts un­ob­tain­able else­where – usu­ally be­cause the eco­nomics of mak­ing them don’t work that well! As Wal­ter says: ‘It’s im­por­tant that cus­tomers can get parts eas­ily through us. Of­ten they want hard-to-find parts, we do ev­ery­thing we can to help them and they seem to ap­pre­ci­ate that. Of course, most parts come from Eng­land.’

As­ton Martins have be­come the back­bone of KKR’S work, with ap­proach­ing 200 hav­ing been re­stored to one level or an­other over the last three decades. A re­mark­able 20 per cent of all DB MKIII Drop­heads have passed through these work­shops. Cus­tomers are, as Kevin puts it, ‘al­most uni­ver­sally nice, in­ter­ested and easy to work with’. Re­mark­ably, they never have a con­tract with a cus­tomer. ‘In the early days we never did, so why should we now? There has to be trust in the com­plex and some­times un­pre­dictable process of restor­ing an im­por­tant car, and hav­ing trust is much more im­por­tant than a con­tract.’

KKR’S rep­u­ta­tion is well-founded and cus­tomers to­day come from all over Amer­ica. So, what has changed over the years? ‘Where ten or fif­teen years ago the restora­tions were mostly for shows, now the cars are used far more on ral­lies and tours,’ says Kevin. ‘Gen­er­ally peo­ple are us­ing their As­tons more. Where the buyer as spec­u­la­tor was once a com­mon thing, nowa­days peo­ple are buyin­gas­tons for long-term plea­sure as well as per­haps an in­vest­ment, and even when they buy as an in­vest­ment they are of­ten think­ing of the car stay­ing in the fam­ily for a long time.

‘Peo­ple also ap­pre­ci­ate the cars more for what they are now. They may have a few mod­est up­grades, but they also re­spect how the car should be.’

And the se­cret to KKR’S suc­cess? ‘We have very high stan­dards here and we want cus­tomers to be re­ally happy with their cars,’ says Kevin. ‘No mat­ter what the restora­tion costs, they are happy. It’s hard work but that is why we ex­pend so much en­ergy on the cars. We give them back their car and they are al­ways happy. Al­ways.’

V

Right Founder Kevin Kay (on the left) with busi­ness part­ner and KKR gen­eral man­ager Wal­ter Boehringer

Clockwise from above Body prep, paint­ing and fin­ish­ing can take up to 900 man-hours per car; Db-era As­tons have be­come the back­bone of KKR’S busi­ness; re­assem­bling a clas­sic straight-six in the en­gine shop; and that 14-strong work­force in full

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