Hot-rodders around the world trust Dave’s Perfection Automotive in Austin, Texas. The shop’s owner has some words of wisdom for budding car collectors.
Dave’s Perfection Automotive might be one of the planet’s leading shops for hot-rodders and vintage car collectors, but it doesn’t go out of its way to advertise. There’s no website. It’s identified by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it street sign, and you get there by driving down an unassuming alley. Call and ask for the proprietor, and you might hear the following refrain: “We don’t call him ‘The Phantom’ for nothing.”
Step inside, however, and you’ll see why collectors worldwide track these guys down. In one corner is an International Harvester Scout II, the pinnacle of 1970s off-road cool, and the vehicle that reps Liz Lambert’s famed Hotel San Jose, which helped make Austin a hot spot two decades ago. There’s a plush Cadillac Eldorado and boat-tail Buick Riviera on the lot, both belonging to a Frenchman who sent the cars Stateside for repairs. And then there are the men running this place, including a mechanic who has worked here for 30 years, and Steve Wertheimer, the longtime Austin scenester who took over after the shop’s founder, Dave Geddes, passed away.
“I was always one of those guys who liked to take things apart,” Wertheimer says. “Sometimes I could get it back together, sometimes I couldn’t.”
He grew up reading car magazines, but didn’t get into collecting until after he bought the Continental Club, the legendary South Austin music venue, in 1987. He befriended Jimmie Vaughan, the iconic blues guitarist and older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Charlie Sexton, a singer-guitarist and frequent tour-mate of Bob Dylan’s. Both men collected cars, and encouraged Wertheimer to do the same.
One night, Sexton introduced him to a local car enthusiast named Mercury Charlie, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, declared that Wertheimer should own a Mercury. He just so happened to be selling one, a parts car that needed to be restored from the ground up.
“I went out to [Mercury] Charlie’s house every night for it seemed like eight months, and we worked on this 1951 Mercury,” Wertheimer says. “And we basically built the car, put it together, and I’ve been driving that thing for thirty years.” Indeed, the car—curvy, streamlined, jet-black, unmissable—is parked in front of Dave’s most days.
Later, after attending a car show in Paso Robles, Wertheimer caught the hot-rod bug. His first was a 1930 Ford Roadster, christened The Continental Kid, which he still owns, and is powered by an engine he built himself. He founded the Lonestar Hot Rod & Kustom Roundup, a massively popular spring car show, in 2001, and took over at Dave’s in 2012. Along the way, he picked up a few more hot rods (with names like The Black Dahlia and Goldenrod) and became something of a local impresario.
Accordingly, there’s typically a two-month wait just to get your car in the door at Dave’s. When you do, Wertheimer says, the mechanics will likely discover there’s more work to be done than you initially thought. (Original components on older cars wear quickly, and most of the frames and bodies were made from steel, which is susceptible to rust.) From there, it may take months for your car to be finished; it’s not easy to track down vintage parts, and once the team does, it takes time to get them sent to Austin and installed correctly. As Wertheimer notes, “Most of the stuff that we have to deal with, you can’t down to O’Reilly’s or Pep Boys.”
Thinking about getting into hot rods? Wertheimer has a few pieces of advice that will sound familiar to anyone who collects watches. First and foremost, find an expert who can examine your potential quarry and assess its condition. “Don’t get all hyped up over the shiny paint and chrome and all that stuff,” he says. “Local dealer auctions are notorious for putting lipstick on a pig. They wind up over here immediately afterward trying to fix all the stuff that those guys covered up. It’s worth spending a hundred bucks to take a friend or a professional with you to go check out the car. It’ll save you a hell of a lot more money in the long run.”
Once your purchase is sorted mechanically, Wertheimer has one final piece of advice to offer: Drive the thing. Not just for pleasure, though that will be considerable—but also to keep it in good shape. Many of the cars in Dave’s Perfection Automotive suffer from simple lack of use, because owners are too nervous about taking such a beautiful vehicle on the road. (Wertheimer drives more than 20,000 miles a year.) And hey, if you still wind up needing some help, you know who to call.
“Seeing someone drive off, saying this car runs better than ever—that’s where I get the most satisfaction,” Wertheimer says.
Perfection, you might call it.