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NH Craftsman rebuilds auto masterpieces by hand, giving life back to great autos of days past

Bethlehem, NH – Say the words “hand-crafted masterpiece” and the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t a vintage sports car.
 
Joe Stafford wants to change that. Stafford is one of the few people in the country restoring and replicating vintage sports cars by hand, using the same equipment and techniques the original manufacturers used--and he’s passionate about his craft.
 
“The bodies of these beautiful old sports cars were crafted by hand, and I believe in using the same techniques when restoring or replicating them,” says Stafford. “That makes each car a one-off, custom project.”
 
Making the body parts for a vintage auto is a painstaking process, one that involves shaping aluminum sheets by hand, then welding and smoothing the pieces to form a complete, seamless body for the vehicle. The complexity of a project dictates its duration, but the process can take 500 hours per car. Stafford figures he can do three cars a year, five if he’s having a good year. Manufacturers who use the more common stamping process can crank out that many in a week. But Stafford isn’t interested in speed. He prefers to use the original construction methods to create high-quality, one-of-a-kind cars for discriminating—and patient—buyers. “I’m totally against cutting corners,” says Stafford. “When a job comes in here, there are no parts--we make everything by hand.”
 
Stafford’s introduction to this highly-specialized craft reads like a car enthusiast’s fairy tale. In the late 1970s, he was working at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan when he noticed a wheeling machine—a device used to shape aluminum sheets into auto body parts—in the sheet metal shop. He introduced himself to the man using it and asked for a demonstration, little knowing he was talking to John Glover, an Englishman and one of the world’s top “panel beaters”—a person who shapes auto body parts by hand. Glover took Stafford under his wing and gave him lessons, which eventually—after some years of working for others—led Stafford to opening his own business, Panel Craft.
 
From day one, Stafford has been dedicated to quality craftsmanship using the time-honored traditions he learned from his mentors. The main part of his business is making replacement parts for vintage European sports cars. (You can’t go to your local auto parts store to buy new fenders for a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO.) The list of cars he has worked on reads like a roadster hall of fame: Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Cobra, Delahaye, and more. His most recent project was restoring an original Cobra 427 S/C, a vintage car valued in the millions of dollars.
 
In recent years, Stafford has also begun building complete custom-made replicas of classic sports cars for a select clientele. Among his most interesting commissions was a modernized version of a 1939 Delahaye roadster. “The idea was to take a classic car built in 1939 and then fast forward to show what that car might look like if it was built today,” he says.
 
These days, he’s putting the finishing touches on a hand-made replica of a Rover 4WD center-steer Jeep-like automobile intended to appeal to the masses as a utilitarian tractor-type vehicle with an aluminum body. Early prototypes were built on Jeep chassis. The idea was quickly abandoned, and few remain in existence today.A collector commissioned Panel Craft to re-create his missing Land Rover. He brought in a restored and period-correct Jeep chassis, along with photos. Stafford relied heavily upon the photos to construct the body. "I stared at pictures with a magnifying glass for hours to get all the details right," he recalls.
RangeRover1
 
Joe wanted to get everything just right, so he adopted a 1940s point of view, paying attention to placement and spacing of rivets and other refinements. 
Almost a cube shape, the Land Rover is small enough that all four corners can be viewed at once - meaning that inconsistencies are easy to spot. The biggest challenge Stafford faced was getting the body square and plumb.

“There are just a handful of people in the county who have the skills to do the work that I do,” says Stafford.
 
Read more about Joe Stafford’s vintage car restoration and reproduction work, and seeing some of the beautiful machines he has restored or built from scratch. You can learn more about the process and see examples of his master craftsmanship at his website, www.panel-craft.com