Hidden High-End Shop
Located off the beaten path on a winding country road with no signage, Classic Car Motoring in Birmingham, Ala., is easy to miss. But owner Jeff Baggett wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have always gone for a different kind of customer. We don’t go for the customer that’s coming here for ease of location,” Baggett says. “We want the one that’s concerned with quality of work.”
That’s why, tucked among trees at the end of a long driveway 300 yards off the road, sits a 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility, overflowing with high-end cars—Mercedes, Porsches, Rolls Royces, among others.
But the real jewel isn’t the high-end vehicles that come in and out of the shop each day; it’s the shop itself, an immaculate, detail-obsessed facility that boasts the only all-glass paint booth in the U.S., a mixing room that could double as a science lab, and a customer waiting area that rivals an executive’s boardroom.
“We’re not the average collision shop,” Baggett says.
Although atypical, Baggett’s strategy has worked, producing a shop with a loyal customer base—customers have been known to drive from Florida, Tennessee and even California to have their vehicles repaired—and a long-standing relationship with the local Mercedes Benz factory and suppliers.
A Unique Find
Given Classic Car’s name, it’s no surprise Baggett is an antique car fanatic. He and his father, John, started restoring antique cars in the late 1970s. They started with a 1927 Rolls Royce, which racked up more than 30 awards before the duo sold it to a museum in Tokyo. After that, Baggett had made up his mind to start his own restoration business and opened it in his current location in 1978.
Over time, he began doing more and more collision work before he decided to drop the restoration segment of the business altogether. That’s not to say that restoration work didn’t influence his bodywork; Baggett says the shop has never put a used or aftermarket part on a vehicle since he’s been in business.
“Our labor rate is about seven dollars an hour higher than what the insurance standard usually is,” says Chris Baggett, Jeff’s son, and now the general manager at Classic Car.
Even after transitioning the business to collision repair, Baggett didn’t consider moving from his secluded location.
“We’ve never had a sign, we’re off the beaten path, and we’re 29 miles to the closest dealer we do work for,” he says.
Rather than view the location as a disadvantage, Baggett says he sees it as a call to arms for exceptional customer service.
“Whenever we have a company meeting, I always tell my staff, pay attention to the details,” he says. “When you drive out of this driveway, notice there’s no sign. The only reason we got the customer is the quality of the work we did and the way we took care of that customer.”
Baggett says spending time with the customer and educating them about the repair process is the key to the repeat customers that are the foundation to their business. In fact, Baggett says nearly 100 percent of the shop’s clientele are repeat customers, especially since the shop does not belong to any DRP programs.
“Repeat is our business,” he says. “That’s something that’s a lost art in every industry. People always say, why don’t you put a sign up? I say, if a sign gets me business, then I need to get out of the business. It’s just not the customer that I’m looking for. We have a different clientele.”
Among the efforts he’s undertaken to keep those repeat customers are:
Drive-in estimating bays at the local Mercedes dealership. Every Tuesday, Chris heads over to the local Mercedes dealership, a 25-minute drive from the shop, to offer estimates on the drive-through service. “We also offer our enclosed tow truck to pick those cars up and bring the cars back to the dealerships,” Chris says. “They’re familiar with the dealer already, so a lot of times they have the work done while the car is already there for service.”
Free detailing. After the repairs, the car is detailed for free. If the vehicle needs to be taken back to the dealership, it is brought back in the shop’s enclosed tow truck, which ensures the car is spotless upon arrival.
Free wash-and-wax. Forty-five days after the repairs are completed, the shop offers a complimentary wash and wax on the vehicle. “It gives us a chance to get the customer back in the shop and offer them any other services,” Chris says.
Flower deliveries. Baggett has been known to send flowers to customers who have been involved in large wrecks or their first car accident. “We try to send our condolences,” Chris says.
A Facility Like No Other
What really seals the deal for new customers, Baggett says, is a tour of the shop.
“We base our work on the ‘shock-and-wow’ factor,” he says.
“We walk them through the shop, and every time they say, ‘Where do you do the work at?’”
The tour starts with the lobby, where a 1968 Mercedes SL that Baggett restored sits on a turntable in one corner. On the other side of the room is a gleaming black conference room, an extension of the customer waiting area. The room features shiny black tile, black leather seats, a 70-inch flat screen TV and sleek leather seats.
“We use it for meetings, if somebody from Mitchell comes in, for example,” Baggett says. “But it’s also for customers who want to do work in there.”
One wall of the room is covered with certifications, awards and letters from customers, which Baggett says reinforces the shop’s clout to customers. Later this year, Baggett plans to overhaul the reception area, opening up the space and creating a modern reception desk out of old car parts.
On the shop floor is Baggett’s pride and joy: an all-glass SAICO paint booth, one of only seven in the world. The booth, which was shipped in from Italy, features chrome-plated airlines and door handles, and a recently installed lift, so the painter can more easily access different parts of the vehicle. The biggest bonus, however, is the easy maintenance.
“We found out that the maintenance is so much easier because you can clean the glass,” Baggett says. “Whereas with a regular paint booth, you have to repaint it because you’ve got overspray everywhere, we can clean it with four-inch wide razor blades and steel wool.” Baggett says he frequently brings customers down to watch their cars being painted, noting “it’s a showpiece.”
Next to the paint booth is the 23-foot-by-26-foot mixing room, which he calls the “color lab.” Baggett designed and built it himself. The mixing room contains a large stainless steel worktable, black-and-white tile floor, separate air conditioning, and fume-extraction systems. Baggett says the mixing room allows the painter to easily organize and access the necessary materials, so time isn’t wasted walking in and out of the room or locating materials.
The key, Baggett says, is making sure the facility always stays clean. The shop has a floor polisher that is used weekly to put a shine on the concrete floor, and Baggett has SOPs in place to make sure the spaces are always kept clean. In addition, Baggett set up a storage room with barcoded items and a barcode reader, to cut down on the amount of materials being taken in and out. As a result, he only has to put in monthly orders for paint and other supplies.
A Nod from the OEMs
Baggett’s efforts to maintain a spotless facility have not only paid off with customers, he’s also gained the attention of OEMs. In 1996, when the Tuscaloosa Mercedes Benz plant was being built, Baggett received a call from a Mercedes executive, who had heard about the shop’s work with the local Mercedes dealerships, asking if Baggett could paint seven bare-bodied show cars to be displayed in Detroit, New York and Geneva. Baggett and his staff worked around the clock to get the cars done in time. The executives were so impressed with the shop’s work that they continued to ask the shop to handle paintwork, as well as maintain the vehicles displayed in the Mercedes museum in town.
“What they’ll do is they’ll ship us the new 2015 model year bumpers, for example, that need to be approved in Germany and we’ll do a show finish and fix mold parts,” Baggett says. “We fix all the flaws and they ship those to Germany for approval.”
Their work for Mercedes led to paintwork for Honda, BMW and other local suppliers. What’s more, their relationship with Mercedes meant that when Mercedes introduced their certification program, Classic Car was the first shop on the list to complete the program. The shop is still the only certified Mercedes repair shop in the state of Alabama, and works closely with three area Mercedes dealerships. Besides the on-site estimates, Baggett says the shop also handles many jobs to fix mistakes made at other repair shops.
“You can’t take away from the fact that it’s been wrecked,” Baggett says. “But it’s how you educate that customer. That’s how you get that repeat business.”