THE HORSE WHISPERER
IF YOU ARE SERIOUS — VERY SERIOUS — ABOUT RESTORING A VINTAGE FERRARI, GET OUT THE MAP FOR GAINESVILLE
Bob Smith’s name is so common, so utterly ordinary, it is difficult to fathom that he has anything to do with fancy, rarefied Ferraris. He has a mane of silver hair and prefers well-worn jeans. In his shirt pocket are two things: a new iPhone (“Siri doesn’t understand Texan”) and a small leather-bound notebook stamped FERRARI. The book’s pages are filled with handwritten notes about parts and measurements for the vintage exotic sports cars that are his life’s work and obsession.
Smith is a Ferrari master. He is one of the country’s top restoration craftsmen and has a clientele that includes Fortune 500 CEOs. His vehicular handiwork has won awards at the most prestigious judged car show in the country, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance — and he does it all from an obscure, yellow-stucco building that vaguely resembles a Mexican restaurant, in the sleepy Texas town of Gainesville, about an hour and a half north of Dallas.
On the afternoon we arrive at Bob Smith Coachworks, the famously good-looking ABC News anchor and correspondent David Muir has placed an order to have some parts chrome-plated. Smith started his own high-tech plating facility nearby when he couldn’t get the quality he wanted in the market. Smith is particular like that. You have to be, in this business where details count.
Smith specializes in the rarest and most fetishized Ferraris from the so-called Enzo era. These are the original racing and road cars that company founder Enzo Ferrari’s teams built by hand. Their numbers are extremely limited. Two months ago, a 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS — one of only 99 made, and owned by Dallas car-dealership tycoon Don Davis — sold at auction for just shy of $2 million. Because replacement parts for these vehicles are essentially nonexistent, Smith has made a niche of crafting components by hand. His longtime team of artisans shapes and polishes fenders, machines bolts and clamps, stitches upholstery, constructs molds for making plastic light covers, even refinishes wooden dashboard trim and steering wheels in the onsite woodshop. The typical restoration cost of a vintage Ferrari? Anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000.
Those are big numbers for a Gainesville farm boy who used his eventual machinist and upholstery training to start
a shop with $50 and a $135 box of tools. He tackled whatever people could “drag in the door” and that eventually included more and more cars. Wealthy clients in Dallas began bringing up their Cadillacs and Duesenbergs, and the vehicles in Smith’s shop continued to get more exotic and more expensive. Ferraris soon became a specialty.
Of course, they are worth every dime for enthusiasts such as Bobby Cheney, a rabid car collector in Highland Park and a longtime client, who has two Ferraris in Smith’s shop right now: a ’67 330 GTS and a ’68 275 GTB/4. “If the engine and the transaxle have the numbers on them,” Cheney says, “you can throw that thing off the Empire State Building and then take it up to Bob and he can rebuild it and retain the value of it.” To wit, rare vintage Ferraris are now as prized as fine art by billionaires everywhere from China to Russia — driving up prices accordingly. (Cheney’s holy grail is a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spyder, the same kind perched upon by Faye Dunaway in 1968’s The Thomas
Crown Affair, only 10 of which were made, with current values around $10 million per. He likes their “mystique.”) And, you should know, Cheney, like other collectors at this level, disdains red Ferraris. Though red is considered the classic Ferrari color — tracing back to its racing heritage — many connoisseurs prefer less-common hues.
As for Smith, though he restores other makes such as Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz, he fixates on vintage Ferraris because they are wholly handmade. He loves the company, too, because Enzo Ferrari “started it with nothing and built it into something” — much like Smith has done with his own business. In fact, some customers have asked him to stamp his name somewhere on the cars that he restores. “I won’t do that,” he says. “The people that know, know.”
ABOVE: Wood dashes and steering wheels are restored and sometimes crafted in-house. BELOW: Bolts of fabric and leather are kept on hand, tagged according to customer. OPPOSITE PAGE: Vintage automobile restorer Bob Smith in front of a 1960 Ferrari...
THIS hands PAGE, of craftsman clockwise Greg from Buchanan. above: The The well-worn old-school ignition switch and key in a 1959 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa. Buchanan works on the door of a 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS. OPPOSITE PAGE, clockwise from top...