Painstaking repairs bring classics back to life in artisan's auto shop

December 19, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Correspondent

FALLSTON -- The planishing hammer clattered, raining 600 rapid-fire strokes a minute on the thin sheet steel Lee Hatzignatiou guided under its blows, gradually shaping the graceful fender of a luxury sports car.

His Fallston shop holds an honor roll of such classic cars: Maseratis, Ferraris, Alfa-Romeos, Mercedes-Benzes, Triumphs, Bentleys.

Each is in some stage of disrepair and disassembly and awaits the 54-year-old artisan's skill to restore it to pristine condition.

This is not hammering out a few fender dings or straightening a bumper; it can mean virtually rebuilding the car -- by hand -- the way it was made in the factory.

"I can make any part for a car," Mr. Hatzignatiou said, gesturing to the machine and wood shops off the main shop floor. "These cars are one of a kind, made by hand and that's the way you restore them."

While a Hatzignatiou restoration costs dearly, for those who can afford to own such cars he's probably a bargain. "The minimum bottom line is $60,000," he said. "It takes hundreds of hours to do this."

The most expensive job, at $105,000, was a 1937 Bentley shipped to Fallston from England for restoration. "That car was ,, sold for $1 million afterward," said Mr. Hatzignatiou, a native of the Greek island of Lesbos.

Reclining on blocks is the shell of a 1961 Maserati two-seater that was struck by lightning in Connecticut.

"The body is aluminum over a steel frame," Mr. Hatzignatiou said. "The whole front end melted and fused. I had to fabricate a new hood, new grill, new fenders. It took more than three months. The owner is having the engine rebuilt in California, $25,000. He's talking nearly $100,000 in repairs, but the car is worth anywhere from $180,000 to $240,000."

The body work is complete and Mr. Hatzignatiou awaits the owner's call to ship the car to another shop for finishing and painting. "I can do painting, but I don't like it," he said, "I love the metal work and the wood work."

Still awaiting his ministrations is a cousin of the million-dollar auto, a 1939 Bentley, also shipped from England. The oak body frame is so deteriorated Mr. Hatzignatiou will have to rebuild it before he can re-install the steel sheathing.

Few of the cars that end up in Mr. Hatzignatiou's shop have been damaged in accidents, he said. Most are the victims of time, rust and use.

One such vehicle is a 1934 MG Salonette Type L, which Mr. Hatzignatiou said is one of only three produced by the British motor company. He rebuilt the oak body frame four years ago and is waiting for the new wood to cure.

"Feel this," he said, fingering a wood joint. "This was smooth when I made it; now you can feel where the wood has moved. I will wait until there's no more movement, then I'll smooth it all again and reinstall the steel body covering."

Across the shop is a tan and brown 1933 Mercedes-Benz convertible that once belonged to Adolf Hitler and now is owned by a Timonium woman, Mr. Hatzignatiou said.

"That car wasn't driven from 1944 until 1990. It needed a ground-up restoration that will take from 18 months to two years," Mr. Hatzignatiou said.

"I rebuilt the engine. I remade the whole body frame and I remade the radiator and the grill, it's 24-karat gold-plated," he said. A specialist will make the leather upholstery.

Another Maserati shell on blocks looks like a scrap yard refugee. Not so, Mr. Hatzignatiou said, "The owner paid $33,000 for that, and it didn't even had a hood. I made this hood," he said, caressing it like the cheek of a favorite child.

To match the hood's slope and contours, Mr. Hatzignatiou built a die," a wooden framework with contours mirroring the finished hood's.

Working the sheet of metal under the planishing hammer, the English wheel, shapers and trimmers and other tools of the trade, Mr. Hatzignatiou checked the piece against the die constantly until the new hood fit as neatly as the original.

He makes replacements for the elaborately curved windshields the same way, at $6,000 a copy. "It's $5,000 just to build the die and another $1,000 to make the windshield," he said.

As a traditional craftsman, Mr. Hatzignatiou eschews the body putty most shops use to fill dents and gaps. An alloy of 70 per cent lead and 30 per cent tin is melted into place and hand-filed smooth.

Mr. Hatzignatiou's files contain blueprints and specifications for

most of the cars he restores. From small drawings and measurements of the parts, he said, "I make exploded drawings, full-size, to check the parts I make."

Mr. Hatzignatiou began his career at age 13 on Lesbos, where he learned welding as an after-school job.

From 1961 to 1967, he spent summers in Stuttgart, Germany, living with friends and learning his craft in the Mercedes-Benz plant. "I learned by working with them on prototypes of the Mercedes," he said.

Soon after, he got married and opened an auto-repair shop on Lesbos, where his father also had a shop.

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