New Life for Old Cars

Part mechanic, part artist, part detective, Paul Russell restores antique automobiles to their original condition -- once he has determined what that was.




ITALY'S Bugatti family was highly successful in the arts. Carlo, the patriarch, built his reputation on his furniture designs and was also an interior designer and sculptor. One son, Rembrandt, also became a sculptor. The other son, Ettore, went into the automobile business -- and in his hands cars became fine art as well. Among the meticulously crafted luxury and racing cars Ettore produced was the Type 57 SC Atlantic, designed in 1936 by his son, Jean, to be the ultimate high-speed grand touring car (it later inspired the Chrysler Atlantic concept car). Only two Bugatti Atlantics survive. One is parked among a small collection of Bugattis at the home of the owner, in Lyme, New Hampshire. The other has been shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The car exhibited in Montreal and Cleveland currently sits in the entryway to Paul Russell and Company, an automobile-restoration firm in Essex, Massachusetts. Customers can't miss it. The roofline and bulbous fenders sweep gracefully aft, as if sketched by Picasso. And yet there is a bold opulence about the big black car. It could have gotten a part in The Godfather.

Russell and Co. restored the Atlantic in the late 1980s for its owner, the designer Ralph Lauren. In 1990 the car won Best of Show at Pebble Beach, the leading concours of classic cars, where prizes are routinely won by Russell restorations. Lauren has been bringing antique cars (he has a fleet of fifty) to Russell since 1980. Russell bills $65 an hour -- $20 less than my Saturn dealer. But don't bother to get an estimate on the '57 Chevy. For Russell, a forty-nine-year-old family man known for his integrity, whose mild manners belie his eminence in the world of classic cars, restoration is a time-consuming labor of love. Every last bolt and surface, no matter how well hidden from view, gets attention from the company's crew of five mechanics, three body men, one coachbuilder, and one upholsterer. A job can take two years, and generally costs from $250,000 to $500,000. As Paul Russell tells prospective customers, if their motives are pecuniary, they would be better off selling their cars as is.

Russell's own motives are clearly not pecuniary. The four to six restorations his company completes each year, together with the maintenance it performs on another 175 or so cars and a brokerage and advice service to help clients manage their antique-car collections, gross only about $2 million. Russell cannot afford his own services: his only classic car, a 1958 Lancia Aurelia B20 S, sits in pieces in a corner of the shop, perpetually awaiting restoration.

PAUL Russell's chosen profession would probably surprise those who knew him early on. Although he came of age at a time when the airwaves were saturated with musical paeans to Deuce Coupes, GTOs, 409s, and an elderly but lead-footed lady driver from Pasadena, he was not the least bit smitten with cars. His parents' vehicles -- "practical four-door family units," in Russell's description -- provided little inspiration. Then one day he drove an Austin Healey Sprite that belonged to a friend's father. "It went around corners like it was on rails," Russell says. "I fell in love."

Russell prizes technological elegance above all else in cars. He loves the imaginative design that allows the engine of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL to inhale more fuel and air than atmospheric pressure alone could pack into its cylinders, without relying on a turbocharger, or turbine-driven compressor, as some high-performance engines do. Visual elegance means far less to Russell. He is blind to the jaguar in a Jaguar and to the grace of the cougar in the muscular haunches and tapering abdomens of the Ferraris that repose in his shop. His daily driver is an Audi A4, a car that Russell describes as a "Porsche in sedan clothing."

Russell's predilection for technology over style is not surprising. The basement of his childhood was a workshop full of tools, where Russell spent many hours with his father, Frank, taking machines apart, analyzing them, and reassembling them. Frank Russell was a machinist who eventually became the supervisor of engineering at Bolton-Emerson, a company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that manufactured machinery for pulp-and-paper mills. Although he always regretted his lack of formal education, he took his greatest professional satisfaction in the years he spent as a machinist, because he could hold a job in his hands.

This satisfaction with hands-on work, Paul Russell says, was foremost in his own mind when he decided to drop out of college (Lowell Technological Institute, where he was studying civil engineering) in order to become a mechanic. After working for a few years, first at an independent garage and then at BMW and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, he found himself "frustrated with the low level of quality you were allowed to do working on street cars -- get the car in, do something, and get it out."He moved on to more-satisfying work in a restoration-service garage, applying his skills mostly to Mercedes. Over the next five years he struggled with whether to remain a mechanic or go into business, and took courses from the Small Business Administration. In 1978, when the owner of the garage decided to sell, Russell was ready to buy. Over the years, the business evolved into the one he runs today.

At first Russell specialized in the two kinds of Mercedes he knew and loved best: the 300 SL Gullwing (named for its doors, which open upward) and the 300 SL Roadster, a large two-seater sports car built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He has long since branched out. His clients range from private owners of a single Porsche or Ferrari to Mercedes-Benz USA. His parts department fills orders from as far away as Pakistan.

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David C. Holzman writes about science, medicine, and cars. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and Science.

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