While there are thousands auto body mechanics in the U-S, only a handful have been able to turn their work into a specialized art form.
One of those artists lives in the North Country re-creating some of the world’s most elegant automobiles.
In a shop in Bethlehem Joe Stafford is beating – ever so carefully - an aluminum panel.
He’s practicing a craft that goes back at least 80 or 90 years: Creating exquisite automotive bodies largely by hand.
“Different cars I have worked on are Ferraris, Cunninghams, Rolls-Royces, Bugattis, Delahayes, Bentleys, Porsches. Any kind of car that originally was built by hand typically needs a person like me to do the repairs.”
Stafford is what’s known as a panel beater.
It’s far more elegant and learned than it sounds.
He’s one of a handful of people in the country with skills he figures took about 10,000 hours to perfect.
Stafford’s tiny shop now holds two customer cars, a 1950 Jaguar and a 1965 Shelby Cobra.
The Jag’s silver, unpainted skeleton sits next to the gleaming, gold 427 Cobra.
The Cobra has become a legend among performance cars because of its impressive horsepower and light weight.
The Cobra’s power-to-weight ratio pretty much guarantees accelerative mayhem if one pushes hard on the gas pedal.
The Cobra weighed so little because of the aluminum body.
More tapping noise.
That’s Stafford finishing up the hood for the Cobra.
He’s got it on a table.
Next to him is a tray of the oddest-looking tools. They’re about a foot long and are bent at various angles.
Stafford selects one.
“These are some of the tools that I have made. Some people refer to them slappers but because I was trained by the Europeans they call them flippers so that is what I refer to them as.”
These did not come from some modern tool catalog.
"They are made out of old leaf springs which I found on the side of the road."
He took the old springs – best known as the rear suspension for pick-up trucks – and cleaned them and polished them until they gleam.
And they are involved in the panel-beating part.
He is hitting the aluminum hood to fine tune the shape. He doesn’t just apply pressure. He hits it. He says the flippers are perfect for that.
“They strike the material and they bend. Rather than if you were hitting them with a hammer, where the blow is very concentrated and causes the material to yield sometimes in a way you don’t want it to.”
The trick is also knowing how hard to hit. Gauging the amount of muscle to get just the right change. That’s something Stafford says only comes with lots and lots of experience.
He figures getting that Cobra hood just right has taken somewhere around two thousand hits.
“When you reproduce a body for a high-end Bugatti or a Ferrari the customers want the car built the same way it was built back in the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s.”
That means using the same kinds of rudimentary tools and techniques favored by the original creators.
“So, what I do is take a lot of time to investigate how the bodies were welded together, where the seams were, what kind of fasteners they used, what kind of tooling they used to actually shape the metal and that’s what I do. I build it exactly the way it was built, by hand, at the time of original construction.”
Sound of metal being moved around and clanging.
One recent morning Stafford is working on the back of the Jaguar.
He’s trying to make a newly fabricated piece fit. That can be tricky.
Because the bodies of the cars he works on were all hand made the pieces aren’t all the same size.
They’re not like modern cars where body panels are stamped out identically.
“I’ve seen Ferraris that are noticeably asymmetric. You can stand and look at it and see one headlight higher than the other and that’s part of the charm of the car.”
After 33 years as a panel beater Stafford still likes his job.
“It is very challenging. The work is fun. You never do the same thing twice. Every piece of metal shapes differently. The cars that come in are unique. The people you work for are unique.”
And Stafford says working on those cars gives him a feeling of kinship, an affinity with the people who designed and shaped and assembled them so long ago, beat by beat by beat.