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Michigan father, son restore old cars at auto shop

November 18, 2018

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Garfield Auto Service Center performs the usual oil changes, brake service and engine repairs that most garages offer. But it also cranks out four or five classic car restorations each year, vehicles so pristine they look like they just rolled off the factory floor.

Jeff Koch, 47, and his father, Jack Koch, 73, are proud of the quality of their work.

They restored a 1957 BMW Isetta that currently is on display in the Washington D.C. headquarters of the BMW Group. A classic Porsche they restored now decorates the offices of an architect in Berlin, Germany. They’ve also restored a 1917 LaFrance fire truck and a Packard, among other vehicles. Right now in their garage, there’s another Isetta nearing completion, a 12-cylinder 1967 Jaguar E-type partway through the restoration process and an MGA in pieces.

The duo performs their restoration magic in Traverse City.

Jeff Koch actually does most of the work these days, along with his employees. Jack Koch, though retired, still stops in at the shop a few days a month during summer. He left last week to winter in Florida.

The restoration work began as a way for the Kochs to keep themselves and their employees busy during lulls in the repair business.

“When you’re one of the repair shops, you’re gonna have down time,” Jack Koch told the Traverse City Record-Eagle .

Garfield Auto employs three mechanics and two body shop workers.

Jack Koch has a long history as a local entrepreneur. He owned and operated “Captain Jack’s” bar near the Holiday Inn in Traverse City, now the West Bay Beach hotel. He sold dump trucks and school buses for a local car dealer.

“I always heard: ‘If one job doesn’t work, you get two jobs,’” he said.

About 20 years ago, he bought a Meinke Muffler franchise. A few years later, he dropped the franchise and set up shop as an independent.

His son, Jeff Koch, went through his own change of career. He taught social studies and history in Flagstaff, Arizona for 12 years. Then he bounced back to Traverse City.

“It was the water, to be honest,” Jeff Koch said. “I thought the mountains could replace the water — but they couldn’t.”

That was years ago. Since then, Jack Koch has mostly retired and Jeff Koch now runs Garfield Auto.

Jeff Koch got interested in restoring BMW motorcycles from the 1930s and ’40s. He recently peeled back a cloth covering the beautifully refinished frame of a 1936 BMW cycle that he bought in Europe and had shipped back to the states. The motorcycle’s engine, he said, has been in Colorado for two years as an engine expert there is painstakingly searching out parts.

Motorcycle work led to the car restorations.

“It started with the Isettas,” Jack Koch said.

BMW manufactured Isettas in the postwar years when gasoline was expensive and European budgets slim. The Isetta is a tiny bubble of a car that can seat two. The only door is the entire front of the car. The engine is small, not unlike a motorcycle engine. The vehicle is a cross between a motorcycle and a full-size car, said Jack Koch. The Kochs still tend to concentrate their restoration projects on the smaller side.

“Mostly small European stuff,” Jack Koch said.

But Jeff Koch currently is finishing up a larger project — a classic Toyota Land Cruiser. He drove the vehicle all last summer, with the bolt-on hardtop removed.

“I’ve got three kids. I can pile everybody in this,” he said.

When the Land Cruiser is finished, he plans to sell it, even though he calls it his dream vehicle. He drove a beat-up Land Cruiser when he was young, and has loved the classic model since. The example he’s finishing now is what he considers near perfection. But business is business, and when it’s complete, it will go up for sale.

Just a few feet away on the other side of the garage, a late-model sedan was in for some routine maintenance. Old and new vehicles live side-by-side in harmony at the shop.

The day-to-day mechanical work still provides the meat and potatoes of Garfield Auto’s business. But the restorations provide a steady income stream, plus some valuable word-of-mouth publicity.

Jeff Koch doesn’t envision the restoration work ever taking over from day-to-day mechanical work. But his eyes shine when he talks about the Land Cruiser, the classic BMW motorcycle or the other projects he and his father already have completed.

He and his father both enjoy bringing classic cars back to life. But they both also know the value of routine, repeat business.

“It’s easier to keep the customers you have,” said Jack Koch, “rather than go out and get new ones.”

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com

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