I’ll Do It My Way

October 1, 2013 | By Shaun Kiddy

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This Young Restorer Kept Learning and Coming to the Same Conclusion… He Knew He’d Do His Best Work In His Own Shop.

MY NAME IS Shaun Kiddy, I am 29 years old and the owner of Kiddy’s Classics, a small restoration shop I started two years ago in Jensen Beach, Florida. After working for multiple other shops I realized that having my own business would be the best approach if I wanted to do work I could be proud of and build cars I could stand behind.

I have been interested in cars since before I could drive. I remember on my eighth birthday thinking, only eight more years and I will have my driver’s license. Even back then all I wanted to do was get behind the wheel. I grew up in a small town in northern Kentucky just south of Cincinnati. As soon as I could touch the pedals my dad used to let me drive from our house to the local post office, one block shy of US-27.

Getting Started

My first real job in the industry was working for a local shop that catered to the import scene. I showed up with a resume in hand and waited for an interview. About this time the movie “Fast and Furious” had just come out, so business was booming. They were selling bolt-on parts and stickers that were meant to somehow magically turn a Honda into a racecar. Yet the owner still couldn’t afford to bring on another employee. I wanted the job so badly that I told the owner I would be there the next day, pay or no pay.

About a year later an opportunity came up for me to work at a restoration shop here in Florida. The owners were friends of my family.

I was very fortunate to be able to jump into things the way I did. It was 2002, the economy was going up and that shop was expanding. At any one time the shop had well over 20 cars at different stages of the restoration process. I was able to bounce around a lot, soaking up information from anyone willing to teach. I spent most of my time working under the painter, and he didn’t cut me much slack. Maybe it was the years of sniffing paint fumes that left him a little moody, but he still was a wealth of good information.

I quickly became bored with sanding primer and trying to repair work that the body guys had passed off as a finished product. I figured that if I learned how to do body work it would make my job easier. Once in the body shop, it did not take long to realize that if the metal guys would do their job right, it would all be easier.

I asked if I could start working under the new lead fabricator and our first job together was to align the hood on a 1938 Chevrolet Coupe. After about 15 minutes of looking at the hood together, he told me that we needed to put a larger rubber bump stop on one side to push the hood over. I looked him straight in the face and asked him if he was serious. He replied “How long have you been doing this?” I responded “About 15 minutes, which is long enough to know you don’t know what you are talking about.” Needless to say, he wasn’t employed there much longer. He did teach me one thing though…anyone can pretend to be a professional.

Landing a Dream Job

Over the next few years I was committed to learn metal fabrication. Sadly though, every person that said they could teach me ended their lessons with a mixing board and body filler.

Then a friend I had worked with before got me a job working for a private collector. This collector’s garage was 25,000 square feet in size and fully equipped. He seemed to have two of every tool and machine you could imagine. The shop was divided into separate sections and every step of the restoration of his cars was done in-house. There was a full-time upholsterer, two full-time mechanics, one full-time engine builder, one full-time painter and me. It was every car guy’s dream, all of us there to work on his 100+ point cars.

It was not long before I had my own keys to the shop and I was working night and day.

My girlfriend was working as a traveling nurse out west, so it was just me and my dog with an unlimited supply of cars to work on. This was my first true job as a “fabricator.” I use the term fabricator lightly, looking back I was more cocky than talented but I was still driven by the idea of seeking perfection. I didn’t know how to make all the shapes but I figured I had all the tools and time to figure it out. My first big project was a 1958 Cadillac Seville. I was a bit intimidated by some of the areas I was responsible for repairing, but like any other big project you just take it one day at a time.

Seeking Challenges… and Some Training

I spent hours smashing my fingers on the English wheel trying to get my rhythm down. I finally felt comfortable enough to take on my most complicated fabrication panel to date. The front section of the rear quarter, passenger side of the 1958 Cadillac. I started at 9 a.m. on a Thursday and did not stop until 4 p.m. on Friday. I finally felt as though I had accomplished something that was worth showing.

I was now looking for more challenges; the world of fabrication had sucked me in. The idea of being able to make something into whatever you wanted meant that nothing was impossible.

However, I still lacked a good foundation. I was mostly self-taught and I knew there was much more to learn. I wanted to apprentice under someone with real talent and, fortunately, I was able to convince the collector that I needed more training.

I began searching for workshops I could take to expand my knowledge base and I was soon flying out west to learn from one of the best. I learned more in two weeks than I had learned in the past five years. When I came back I took full advantage of the resources I had at hand and continued to practice and challenge myself.

Ironically, this class also led me to see the limitations of working for a private collector. A downside is having the fate of your career resting in the health and hands of one man. Another downside is that the only chance of your work being noticed was once a year during his open house show.

Here’s
Here’s Shaun with some of the projects in his shop.

This
This 1974 Volkswagen Thing is a salvage yard project that Shaun will be restoring for himself.

Another Good Opportunity

Then one day I called to check on an order for tools I had placed with the same fabricator I had taken lessons from out west. Much to my surprise I was told that he was looking to hire and I was offered a job over the phone. Quick to jump on this new opportunity, I was ready to say yes. The only thing stopping me was my girlfriend, (now my wife). She had just moved back to Florida from California. She had spent the last nine months out west and took a job back here in Florida so we could be closer to each other. She had three months left on her contract and we already were looking at apartments in the area. Still, the job out west was a dream job for me. I could finally learn under someone with real talent.

But I wasn’t willing to leave my girlfriend behind. Either she would come with me or I was going to stay in Florida. I know to some guys that sounds crazy, but she’s the type of woman who will come into my shop and ask, “What can I do to help?” You don’t find this type of woman every day. Thankfully, she agreed to come with me and I took the job

I learned more and saw more than I ever could have imagined. Working under someone at that skill level is humbling. The best part was participating in his workshops. It was not so much just the owner’s talent and following along with him. It was also the students that came and the questions they would ask and get answered.

Finding Treasures in a Salvage Yard

While in California I was told of a little junkyard deep in the woods. This place was heaven to me. I could spend hours there just walking around and taking in that musty, rusty old car smell. This place even had Model T parts to be picked through.

Every time I went there, I felt the growing itch that every car guy gets when he is ready to build something. Meanwhile, I was able to snag a few good things from there, including an old belt-driven shear and a punch press that I use in my own shop today. After all, I couldn’t let them just sit there. And my wife actually helped me take those big cast iron machines apart, piece by piece, in the cold and rain, so we could fit them inside her brand-new SUV. (I told you she was a keeper.)

When
When the paint and plastic body filler were removed, this fender looked much worse than had been anticipated.

It
It took a good deal of body work to get the results that can be seen on the right.

Before long, that itch for a project grew out of control; I needed something to get my hands dirty on. I went back to my hidden treasure yard in hopes of picking up one of the three ’55 Chevy trucks that were there.

Had I not taken another stroll through the yard, I would have bought one of them. But when I saw the little ’74 VW Thing, I had to have it. She was wrecked but I wanted her.

I continued to work under the fabricator out west for two years. But by then the economy was continually dropping and the business was struggling. The stress over everything made the owner a very difficult man to deal with on a daily basis. I watched as dozens of employees came and went. Like that freshly painted car you bought and thought was perfect, the rust bubbles of the job started to come through.

Eastbound and Looking for Work

The
The passenger-side rear quarter on this VW Beetle was beyond salvaging and needed to be replaced.

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It was time to move back to the East Coast. Anyway, my wife and I were both ready to move back home to be closer to our families, and it was time to settle down. I had gained a solid foundation, but was in need of more hands-on experience. I still had dreams of having my own shop and there was more I wanted to learn.

Once you have seen the quality of work that is possible, you set your standards pretty high. With that in mind, I started calling around looking for jobs in the town we were moving to in Florida. But the year was 2010, and if you called a shop and asked if they were hiring, they wouldn’t even ask you any questions — they would just say no and hang up.

So I changed my tactics and re-called the shops in town. This time I asked for an email address where I could send my resume along with photos of my work. In less than 24 hours I had two solid offers. I took what sounded to be the best one, flew to Florida and started work right away.

I had left almost all of my tools in California, but after working at this new shop for only a few weeks, I knew it was not a place where I wanted to stay. I never even rolled my toolbox in their door. I only brought in what I could carry out at night. I tried to soak up any information I could, but it was a struggle for me to even come into work. I felt like I was taking steps backward. This shop built cars like a production body shop would, not a restoration shop. I quickly realized that if restoration was what I wanted to do with my life then it was time to go out on my own and make a name for myself.

In My Own Shop

I had been gathering tools and equipment for years and was very fortunate to be offered the perfect location for a shop at a price I could afford. Sometimes the car gods smile down on you and you realize you are on the right path.

The shop was small, but a great place to start. Furthermore, it’s located right behind J.B. Bugs, a well-known aircooled VW shop here in Florida. It was perfect and my business plan was simple. I only wanted to do quality work and nothing short of that would leave the shop. I didn’t want to be just another “plastic surgeon” slinging mud over rust holes. I wanted to be that shop known for still using lead, still hand fabricating from raw sheet metal and still providing quality and customer service.

However, this all becomes difficult when everyone sees shows on TV where they restore cars for $3000 in under a week. You explain to the customers the reality of what quality work and materials actually cost and your market for customers who can afford that quickly decreases. But the wait was well worth it. My first full restoration came in and I quickly put my years of education to work. It was a VW Beetle, but she may as well have been a Porsche from my point of view. I finally had a car I could build from the ground up, and show off what I was capable of doing.

The car looked to be fairly solid, but you never know what you are going to find once you get into the project. As always, upon stripping the paint off the car I found that she was in much worse shape than I initially thought. The fenders where heavily coated with plastic body filler and undercoated. This hid the lunar landscape created by blow after blow of pick hammers. The passenger rear-quarter seemed to be held together by the water-soaked foam on the inside. I was still a little nervous about a few things. Every car brings its own set of challenges. I always remember what I was told out west. “Don’t over think it, metal working is simple. If it’s high you knock it down; if it’s low you bring it up.” It is obviously more complicated than that, but once you start looking at problems in that light, things just seem to fall into place.

Since the start of the VW Beetle project, a steady stream of quality-seeking customers have filled my shop. We are now in the process of rebuilding a 1967 International Scout 800, essentially from scratch as these rust buckets don’t leave you much to work with.

We just started the body on a Single Cab VW bus owned by the 901 Porsche race shop in Stuart, Florida. This Bus is not your ordinary VW. The 901 shop custom fabricated the drivetrain. It is powered by a 3.6-liter 911 motor with fully integrated 911 suspension. Designed to run on the track, it has a full roll cage and they tell me the top speed is over 150 mph! We are also in the process of finishing up the body of a 911 race car that will soon be tearing up the road tracks in Europe.

Living a Personal Dream

I had known all my life I wanted to own a shop, but I was always scared to jump in thinking I don’t know everything I need to know.

As I grew older, however, I realized that no one knows it all. Just admit your areas of ignorance, learn from your mistakes, learn from those willing to teach and continue to move forward.

Little did I know at the time that working for yourself left you with little to no time to work on your own projects. My garage at my house has become a shrine to personal projects waiting to be completed. It’s all right though, I wake up every day and do the work I want to do, for customers who want it done right. I come home every night sore and dirty and I can’t wait to go back in and do it all over.

It is a life some dream of and yet many will never understand. It’s the life of a true gearhead.

Resource

Kiddy’s Classics

3495 Candice Ave.

Jensen Beach, FL 34957

; kiddysclassics.com