More than the polished parts and hard to find pieces, the special interest vehicles people collect embody the character of each owner. “Cars We Love & Who We Are” profiles individual special interest vehicles and the proud owner committed to its preservation.
Cars We Love & Who We Are #34
Previously readers became acquainted with classic car restoration virtuoso Mike Gassman through stories he told about others. It would be a disservice to you dear reader if I neglected to share with you Mike’s own story.
Descending once again through Rockfish Gap to the floor of the Shenandoah Valley and Waynesboro, Virginia, I weave through some back roads that hug a railroad siding. In making a right turn away from the tracks a row of low clean white adjoining structures come into view. They feature a spotless showroom recalling the modest (compared to today’s massive highway automotive cathedral) masonry structures with huge window panes typical of mid-20th century family owned dealerships. Eye candy for any passerby, the showroom features a tightly organized array of pristine restored 50’s and 60s vintage British sports cars. Their meticulous curation offers a hint of the passion for perfection that drives the robust beating heart of Mike Gassman’s restoration business, Gassman Automotive.
The story begins on a mountain top in Afton Virginia.
Read the car, not the book and other words of wisdom that pave a path to Pebble Beach
She opened her front door wearing a wedding dress. It is 1977. High atop Afton Mountain in Western Virginia a woman Mike recalls as Martha stands smiling down from the open doorway. Her wedding day preparation had been interrupted by a knock at the door. A boy of maybe thirteen years had come to inquire about a forlorn 1969 Triumph TR6 moldering out in the field by Martha’s house. Featuring a rose bush violating a structural integrity that could not cast a decent shadow, the TR6 could best be described as a heap. With his father visible in a car waiting on the country road, the boy asked if she wanted to sell it. “Yes I do,” responded the bride-to-be with a kind forthright demeanor exhibited by adults suddenly aware of their role in a teaching moment. “How much do you want?” the boy asked. “How much do you have?” asked Martha. “Forty five dollars,” offered the boy with the air of a question. “That is perfect. That is exactly what I want for it,” responded Martha and in so doing gave the young boy a wedding day gift that would continue to give for the rest of his life. Martha had sold thirteen year-old Mike Gassman his first car. Watching from the road, Mike’s dad witnessed a plan he had set in motion taking shape.
Mike says, “My 13th birthday present from my dad was a copy of a contract. And it stated, I Mike Gassman for the next two years, will devote every night and every weekend to restoring a car that I pay for and on which I do all the work. In return, my dad will stand next to me for two years and teach me how to restore a car. He will never physically touch it with his fingers, but he will teach me.” In looking back Mike calls it the most invaluable, the most incredible gift any young man could ever receive. Mike eagerly signed it. All of which quickly led to Mike knocking on Martha’s front door. In short order a tow truck dragged the “heap” to Mike’s house and the “fun” began.
With Mike’s dad conducting a comprehensive “hands off” restoration education, Mike dove in and never looked back. Mike says, “My dad showed me how to do a block and tackle. I pulled the body off the car. I sandblasted it. You could throw a rock through this car. It was so rusted. I made all the panels. I brazed them all in. I did all the bodywork and I painted the car one piece at a time over the next two years.” Mike’s dad had exceptional restoration skills and taught his son old school lessons about laying down lacquer paint. He went so far as to teach Mike leading techniques. Mike says, “His many years working with toxic lead is probably one of the reasons he is not here today.”
Mike finished the car at the age of 15 years and 7 months. He says, “In Virginia you had to be 15 years and 8 months old to get a learner’s permit.” Mike would sit in his TR6 for a month waiting for that day.
Mike says, “I did every single aspect of that car between the ages of 13 and 15.” Standing in his showroom, now, Mike concludes by turning my attention to a pristine light beige TR6. Mike continues, “And here it is 45-years later. Unrestored since I finished it.”
Mike says, “It was my only car in college. It probably has 25,000 miles on it.” It retains the same paint he applied 45-years ago. With deserved pride Mike says, “It has taken multiple first place trophies.”
Over his 40-plus years in auto restoration Mike has developed a philosophy that informs all the automotive work he performs. Mike says, “I am as passionate about this work now as I ever was if not more so. I love this stuff. It is not just iron.” He believes that the culture and character defining the subjects of his passion will never happen again. For him, the 60s and early 70s stands as the greatest time for cars ever. He freely admits one could spend $500,000 on restoring a TR6 and it still would not be as quick as a new Nissan Sentra. Mike says, “That’s not the point. With my cars when you walk out of a Walmart you don’t have to figure out which one is yours.” He believes that anybody can buy a Miata that can outperform these half century old sports cars. However, Mike says, “Sadly, the new cars have no soul.”
Mike welcomes customers that want perfection. He builds to the desires of individuals that always wanted a certain car and finally have achieved a point where they can afford the best one. Mike says, “I have nothing here that anybody needs, nothing. What I strive to offer is a whole lot of what people want.”
Mike, and his experienced and gifted Gassman Automotive crew, over many years, have honed the ability to perform a superior restoration for those looking for the best. As well, he takes pride in focusing those same abilities on servicing customer cars ranging from bug-eye Sprites to Maseratis.
One man who has had a significant impact on shaping Mike’s philosophy would be Paul Russell. Internationally respected as a master restorer Paul presides over one of the world’s most respected restoration shops. Mike greatly admires Paul for the superior work, professionalism and generosity he has experienced in dealing with the man and the staff of Paul’s globally revered Paul Russell and Company. Mike says, “While Gassman Automotive was performing a total restoration on the first 1952 Ferrari 212 Inter Geneva Coupe by Vignale, Paul was restoring the sister car at the same time. It afforded me a priceless opportunity to share information with a master.” Two things that Paul told Mike made a profound impression.
Paul emphasized that in properly dealing with an important automobile restoration “read the car, not the book.” What did he mean by this? Mike says, “To me it meant, if there’s a hole in a fender, is it jagged. Did somebody drill it. If it was stamped, why do you think it was there? What would make sense? Why would you put a hole there? Ask, are there any other cars that have a hole there before you weld it shut? That was incredibly valuable advice, especially when doing a prototype like the 212, one of only six examples. Finding a hole could lead you down a road of inquiry searching for answers to why is it there and what’s missing? That was very helpful.”
Secondly, and what Mike considers the most valuable advice came when Paul shared the following as recalled by Mike, “Pretend that whatever you are working on whether it is a wiper motor or a complex quarter panel, it should be treated like it is the only thing you are taking to Pebble Beach where it will be presented on a mirrored table to represent the sum of your abilities.” Mike says, “If you take that advice to heart you have no choice but to build a 100-point car but without that mindset it is impossible to build a 100-point car.” Which raises the question, how did Mike get into the concours winning restoration business?
With a wife and two young children, the year 1990 found Mike working to make ends meet selling cars for a Nissan Subaru dealer during the day and working on Triumphs at his house from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning. Mike says, “The new car market had fallen apart. I was getting paid $50 for every car I could sell. With this 24/7 grind I had reached my limit.”
So Mike took the little bit of money that they had saved and bought the first building, all 1500 square feet of it. He was all in. Over the next decade he developed a restoration shop focused primarily on British sports cars. Gassman Automotive differentiated and distinguished itself with its rare ability to perform everything in-house. Mike says, “We do all of our own motors, transmissions, overdrives, wiring, body fabrication, paintwork, upholstery and assembly. As well, Mike in prior years had exhibited great foresight that would prove to serve him well.
Through the 1980’s, with Triumph and MG going belly up, Mike bought out the NOS parts inventory of many shuttering British car dealerships. At the same time he aggressively prowled the swap meets at Carlisle, Hershey and any other event offering the possibility of NOS parts. Mike says, “Over the years I have made hundreds of trips bringing back trailer loads of NOS British car parts.”
Focused with his determination to be a go-to place for those seeking superior quality, Gassman Automotive started to get noticed. People realized Mike and his shop meant business. Attention came their way even as they restored lower-end cars at first. Gassman Automotive became recognized for producing the high-end restorations of cars such as TR6s and MGBs. They gained a recognition for quality panel beating and their dexterity with aluminum.
Interestingly at that point while Jaguar and Healey restoration work seemed a step above his client base, the quality of the work coming out of his shop stood at a Ferrari level. It was just a matter of time.
It occurred when a client sent Mike a TR250 for a full restoration. At the same time the TR250 owner sent another of his Triumphs which had been subjected to a very expensive restoration by another restorer to the National show. At the event the Triumph restored by the other shop received a sound beating at the hands of a participating car that Mike had restored. Learning his lesson the client sent his losing car back to Mike to “fix it.” Mike says, “We did our job to our standard and sent it back. He took it to the Nationals and won first place as well as a Vintage Triumph Register National “Best of Show.” A few years later in around 2010 the same client returned with a new project that would be the breakout opportunity for Mike and Gassman Automotive.
The client had purchased a 1952 Ferrari, the first of six prototype 212 Inter Geneva Coupes by Vignale and wanted Mike to restore it. Mike says, “I flew to Indiana to look at it. I’ll admit it was extremely intimidating to me. So many pieces were missing or broken. Worse there was never a spare part made for that car. Everything would have to be handmade. Of course, I said yes.” It would be Mike’s first “right at a million dollar” restoration. After two years the finished Ferrari went to Cavallino where it received a Platinum Award. It then went to Pebble Beach followed by a trip to Arizona for the 2014 Gooding Auction in Scottsdale.
Mike, pointing out for those that do not appreciate the significance of an invitation to Pebble Beach, says, “Even the “worst” car at Pebble beach rates as an incredible automobile. There are no “also-rans.”
The Gooding catalogue promoting the 2014 auction described the Gassman Automotive restored Ferrari 212 as follows:
- A Spectacular Example of Italian Custom Coachwork
- The First of Six Such Vignale- Bodied Coupes
- Displayed at the 1954 San Remo Concours d’Elegance
- Fascinating, Well-Documented Provenance
- Exquisite Restoration to Original Appearance
- Retains Original, Matching-Numbers Engine
- FCA Platinum Award Winner at the 2013 Cavallino Classic
- Displayed at the 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
Mike says, “At the time it set a world’s record for that car by selling for a total of $1,787,500.”
The masterful craftsmanship that distinguished that rare Vignale-bodied Coupe put Mike and Gassman Automotive of little Waynesboro, Virginia on the international map of people with whom you could trust your Pebble Beach worthy car’s restoration.
Mike says he hopes Martha would be pleased.