"One minute you can be thinking that the car you're working on is almost finished, then you see something askew and maybe you'll be making a new part for the next five hours."
September 28th, 2012

Bob Gett Vintage Car Mechanic

Bob Gett is a mechanic at KTR European Motorsports in Ayer, Massachusetts. Far from being an average grease monkey, Gett is as articulate as the space-age contours in the vintage racing cars he works on. Read on as he tells us about the unpredictability of an average day, the process of making something new again, and how he got involved in this business in the first place.

How did you first get interested in vintage cars?  

Growing up I wouldn’t have classified myself as a car guy. My dad on the other hand has always been into cars. Especially Italian cars. When I was eight years old, he bought a used 1978 Ferrari 308, and I remember thinking it was the coolest car I’d ever seen (probably because it was up to that point). But still, I never felt that cars were anything to get too excited about. When I was 16, the shop that serviced said Ferrari had fallen on tough times and was going under. My dad ended up purchasing the business from its previous owner, and that summer I started sweeping floors, washing parts, and diving right in to the wonderful world of being a shop grunt. Most of my friends were mowing lawns and bagging groceries, so I considered myself quite fortunate to be where I was. Once I started there, I discovered that this shop didn’t just service European street cars, but rather the main focus was on vintage race cars. I knew nothing about racing, much less vintage racing. Shortly thereafter I was asked by my boss to go work a race with him, and that was all it took. I was hooked on racing from that point forward, and everything I’ve done in life since then has revolved around racing.

What do you do at KTR Racing?

On any given day I could be building a gear box, making a part on the lathe, aligning a chassis on the setup pad, fabricating an exhaust system, or just prepping a car for a race. In a vintage racing shop, it’s essential to have a crew that has a wide skill set, because most of these cars are rare. Often the rarity means that it can be difficult if not impossible to find parts for them. Personally I enjoy the challenge of having to “adapt and overcome” when we hit a snag with the cars. One minute you can be thinking that the car you’re working on is almost finished, then you see something askew and maybe you’ll be making a new part for the next five hours. You just never know, but I like that aspect of the job.

Take me through the process of restoring a car. Does the client have specific things in mind, or do they leave it to you, the expert?

Well, I’ll start by saying that I don’t personally restore the cars. In the end, it ends up being a group effort by several guys in the shop, but I’ll take you through the process. Usually a customer will bring a car by the shop and before we even look at the car, we’ll have a sit down and discuss his or her expectations and budget. These two things vary widely amongst customers and really set the tone for the restoration. Once we agree to move forward, the first thing we look at is the amount of rust and body rot. These areas need to be addressed first because replacing body panels can be the most time consuming part. Keep in mind, you can’t buy replacement panels. Our metal specialist takes flat sheets of material and forms them to shape and then welds them onto the body. Or if the car is really rough, the body is completely remade using wood bucks and forms. At some point while the body work is taking place, the drive train (motor, transmission, and rear axle) is being evaluated and if necessary, rebuilt. After all the metal work is done, the car moves into the body shop where all the imperfections are blocked off, and then it gets painted. At this point the drive train gets installed, and all wiring, plumbing, and trim work is finished. The only part that we don’t do in-house is interior finishing (seats, upholstery, etc.) and that usually happens last. This is the point where I throw out the disclaimer that all restorations are different, and this is a very broad overview of the process.

Did you obtain special training for this work, or was it more a series of mentors who showed you the ropes?

When I first started working at KTR, it was only me and two other guys. One of those guys is the GM of the shop, and he was the first person who taught me how to wrench on cars. I didn’t know anything when I started, and I really credit him for teaching me the basics and showing me the ropes at the racetrack. After a few years of vintage racing under my belt, I wanted to get a job on a professional racing team, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I did a little research and found a race car drivers school that also offered a mechanics training program. At the time there was no other school in the country like it. It was a year-long, mostly hands-on program that capped enrollment at seventeen students. I bounced around a few race shops after that and eventually ended up back at the school as an instructor. One year a student of mine got a job on a new race team, and they were looking for another mechanic. He suggested me, I took the job, and it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The crew chief on the team had been in pro racing for twenty-five years, and he and I clicked right away. If I had to use the word “mentor,” it would apply to him. I learned a great deal while working on that team. Everything from advanced fabrication to vehicle dynamics to interpreting the rule book in creative yet legal ways. Personally he was a good influence as well. He taught me how to be humble and level headed in a business that was anything but. With motor sports you quickly learn that there are a lot of different ways to do what we do, and you just try to absorb as much as you can.