Resurrection Man

Preston Lerner is a frequent contributor to West.

"This is basically a race car you could drive on the road," Bob Mosier says as he roars through Inglewood in a 1914 Mercer Raceabout, oblivious to the gawking bystanders. From his perch in a bucket seat facing a long nickel-plated steering column, he can see the exposed valve springs of the engine fluttering up and down like a gag set of chattering teeth. He pulls back the gigantic gear lever--it looks like it belongs on a steam locomotive--to engage second, then carves around a corner just as confidently as if he were in the Toyota Prius he uses as a daily driver. He has no trouble keeping pace with traffic. But the ignition isn't firing properly, and the fuel system is losing pressure, and the transmission is making expensive-sounding grinding noises.

"This thing really needs some work, poor guy," he says with a sigh as he swings back into his garage.

It's not clear if the poor guy in question is the car--Mosier has a profound reverence for these horseless carriages and the magnificent engineering they embody--or the Mercer's owner, who's looking at a stratospheric repair bill. A week in Mosier's shop runs a couple of grand. A month could be 12K. A no-expense-spared restoration takes about two years and $600,000. Mosier doesn't flinch when he trots out these numbers. "The guys who come looking for us know that we're expensive," he says, hustling past a supercharged Cord, a stately Pierce-Arrow and a flotilla of elegant Packards parked cheek to jowl in his shop. "We work on prestige cars, and our customers expect best effort, and whatever it costs, it costs."

Mosier is the go-to guy in Southern California for ultra-high-end collectors looking to restore, rejuvenate and repair cars valued at six, seven and, sometimes, eight figures. In recent years, he has spent most of his time servicing and prepping classic cars to participate in rallies and other road-going events that require these precious and often temperamental artifacts to maintain highway speeds for hundreds of miles. "Bob is wonderful," says the Mercer's owner, Ray Scherr of Westlake Village. "When you bring something to him, you know it's going to start, it's going to drive properly, you're not going to have any problems with it. Whenever he finishes a car for me, I just send him another one to work on."

Mosier's calling card is so-called body-off restorations of classic cars of the '20s and '30s. These entail disassembling cars until they've been reduced to nothing more than unpainted frame-rails sitting on sawhorses and then painstakingly putting the refurbished, rebuilt and, if necessary, remanufactured components back together again. "He is my first recommendation when I refer business," says David Gooding, a Santa Monica collector-car auctioneer who recently hired Mosier to work part time for his company. "I have the utmost confidence in his uncompromising ability to do the job right. What sets Bob apart is that his work meets the highest standards both cosmetically and mechanically. There are a lot of shops that can make a car look pretty, and that's an important skill. But nobody understands how these old cars are supposed to perform better than Bob."

although collectors have been restoring cars for the better part of a century, the car restoration industry, as such, didn't emerge until the late '60s. At the time, a handful of premier museums--the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, for example--had their own in-house shops. But if you wanted to restore a car, you either did the work yourself or you acted as a general contractor and took the engine to an engine builder, the body to a body man, and so on. Then Phil Hill--a Santa Monican recently retired from a racing career that had seen him crowned as America's first Formula One World Champion--hooked up with Bel-Air resident Ken Vaughn in the early 1970s to create one of the nation's first soup-to-nuts restoration shops. Mosier, a freshly minted graduate of Santa Monica High School, was Hill & Vaughn's first hire.

"Phil was the perfect mentor," Mosier says of his boyhood idol (and neighbor). "It's not enough for him to take something apart, grease it up and put it back together again. He feels compelled to understand how it works, understand the principles behind it and perceive why they designed it the way they did. I have the exact same curiosity about mechanical contraptions, and I thank God that I got to participate in those investigations with him. I couldn't have learned all I learned in the amount of time I learned it without Phil."

In 1978, at the age of 25, Mosier had amassed enough knowledge to go into business with another young Hill & Vaughn trainee, Greg Morrell. (Morrell left the business for several years, but later returned and now works for Mosier.) He started in a small commercial building in Long Beach with a ground-up restoration of a 1937 Packard. It won best of class and nearly best of show at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, which is the Super Bowl of car shows. That success led to a commission for a show-winning '31 Packard. Before long, collectors were beating a path to the door of his new-and-improved shop in Inglewood.

Customers have to know where to find him. Mosier doesn't advertise. He doesn't have a website. There's no sign outside his shop, which occupies a nondescript building in industrial obscurity near LAX. Mosier sits in an Eames office chair that rolls between a pair of Steelcase desks--he's got a thing for mid-century modern design--but there's no lavish lobby to impress visitors. Workers don't wear blue smocks and latex gloves, and Mosier himself favors baggy shorts and black Nikes that accentuate his fit physique (until recently, he raced bicycles in master competitions) and boyishly sunny disposition.

The garage itself is a standard-issue automotive workplace with a compact paint booth, a small machine shop and a chassis dynamometer similar to what you'd find in a smog-check station. At any given time, there are 12 to 14 extraordinary cars crammed into this ordinary-looking space. At the moment, the star attraction is a lustrous, low-slung 1938 2.9-liter Alfa Romeo 8C-2900B. It's being overhauled and prepared for a rally. Many people consider this prewar gem the greatest sports car of all time. Today, it's valued at $12 million.

In car lovers, the Alfa inspires an almost intolerable urge to genuflect at this totem of automotive excellence. But Mosier and his guys have spent most of their adult lives working on outrageously expensive and exotic pieces of rolling sculpture, and to them, at a certain level, a car is a car is a car. As Jeff Donahue--one of Mosier's four full-time employees--puts it: "Doing the brakes on a Packard is a dirty job, and when you're doing it for the 50th time, it's not very much fun."

Ground-up restorations are the projects that energize Mosier and his guys. On average, they finish about one a year in addition to their service business. They recently started work on what appears to be a junkyard relic. When it's restored, the exceedingly rare 1937 Bugatti Type 57SC should be worth nearly $5 million. Mosier figures the makeover will require 6,000 to 8,000 man-hours during more than two years of work. The tab should run between $500,000 and $600,000, but that's just an estimate. "We bill time and material," he explains. "The best I can do is tell you what my last three or four jobs cost and show you all the billings or put you in touch with my clients. Then I make you the solemn promise that yours will cost more."

Restoring a car begins with deconstructing it into its constituent parts and meticulously cataloging what can be preserved and what has to be replaced. While taking copious notes on several legal pads, Morrell already has found plenty of evidence of cost-saving shortcuts taken by previous restorers--for example, an interior dome light that was covered with headliner rather than repaired. Obviously, you can't order prewar Bugatti parts from your local Pep Boys. Modern versions of certain classic car components are available (at great cost) from niche manufacturers who design them for this market. But much of the restored Bugatti will be scratch-built by Mosier and company. "We have to make every frigging thing that goes on these cars--which I actually like," he says. "I enjoy the obscure, weird, esoteric historical stuff. Restoring muscle cars all day would be as dull as dishwater."

Authenticity is a hallmark of a Mosier restoration. If the car originally came with a crude casting painted in utilitarian equipment black, he won't machine it to take off the rough edges and cover it with a high-sheen lacquer. On the Bugatti, most of the wood body is in amazingly good shape and can, therefore, be retained. But Mosier is a firm believer in upgrading internal engine components, not to enhance performance but to improve durability. "We'll make new pistons," he says, "make new rods, a new crank, new valves, new springs, new retainers, a new cam. I'm philosophically opposed to making a new engine casting. But these engines are so valuable that you cannot have a catastrophic failure."

Mosier subcontracts specialized crafts such as upholstery and chrome-plating. But the vast majority of the work is done in-house by a team of five men with different strengths but largely interchangeable skills. "Today one guy is making wood for the Bugatti, and the next he's forming a hood panel, and the day after that he's wiring the car," Mosier says. "You need guys who can do lots of different things so that nobody comes up short of work. You get up to anything more than 12 to 14 guys, and suddenly you have specialists. You've got a guy who does only upholstery and a guy who does only wiring and a guy who does nothing but engine overhauls. Well, the engine overhaul is only 20% of the job. So now, you need to start taking in '65 Mustangs for engine overhauls just to keep him busy."

Mosier is the only guy in the shop with the full range of skills necessary to do an entire restoration on his own. He keeps his hand in partly because it helps the bottom line. (Not only does he generate revenue on the shop floor, but if a job starts to spiral out of control, he can always "eat time"--that is, not bill the customer for his labor--to keep costs down.) But mostly, he continues to assemble engines and rebuild differentials and paint wire wheels and run the cars on the dyno because this, not the schmoozing with customers, is what he enjoys most.

"Bob is a hard-core car guy from childhood, and you need that to succeed in this business," says Paul Russell, an East Coast restorer who's done two Pebble Beach best-of-show winners for Ralph Lauren. "Frankly, this business is too hard and too labor-intensive if you don't have a passion for the work. If you just wanted to make money, you'd own a Dairy Queen or something."

It's time for lunch. This is an excuse for Mosier to exercise the 1922 Lincoln that he owns with his wife, Noreen. It's mechanically robust but cosmetically mediocre, a beater by collector car standards. He'd much rather have the lovely 1911 Simplex that he restored for the late Otis Chandler. But the Lincoln offers many of the same Brass Era virtues at one-tenth the price. "It has everything that you need in an automobile and not one thing that you don't," he says as he steers his American land yacht between a sea of Japanese dinghies on Manchester Avenue. "I really, really love that simplicity, and it's an early enough car that they haven't started compromising the metallurgy and cheapening the manufacturing."

When Mosier returns to the parking lot, he finds the driver of a late-model Lincoln Town Car gazing longingly at his antique. "That's really something," the limo driver says. "You ever think about restoring it?"

Mosier flashes a giant grin. "No. I like it just the way it is."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

RESTORE

Martin Craft

Age: 45

Hometown: Marina del Rey

Daily driver: 2003 Land Rover Discovery sport utility vehicle

Favorite project: 1953 Alfa Romeo Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica concept car

Why I do it: "I've spent my whole life around cars. When I was a kid, I can remember being out with my father on a dirt road repairing a Triumph or whatever old sports car he happened to have at the time. You have to have a certain Zen-like patience in this business. I'm OCD, for sure. I think we're all a little obsessive-compulsive."

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For photos of Bob Mosier's restored cars, go to latimes.com/restorers

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