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Restoring the Classics

Posted On April 1, 2019

Meet a master restorationist whose passion is vintage cars in need of a facelift

By JONATHAN AGRONSKY

“I will do anything,” says Bjorn Nordemo, “to make an antique or classic car owner happy.”

For the Swedish-born septuagenarian, owner and chief auto alchemist of Sports Leicht Restorations (SLR) in West End, NC, that could mean spending up to two years painstakingly restoring a customer’s vintage Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari, or other classic automobile.

“There are untold thousands of [labor] hours that go into these cars,” he explained to a visitor to SLR’s 10,500-square-foot automotive facility last February, where a dozen vintage cars—six Mercedes, a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, a 1959 Rambler Cross-Country Wagon, two 60’s-era Jaguars, and a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda—were either being restored or repaired. 

During a full-bore restoration, says Nordemo, it is not unusual for an owner to visit SLR several times to see how his or her car is progressing and to get briefed on what remains to be done.

One such customer, a Raleigh entrepreneur who paid $500,000 to have his white 1960 Mercedes 300 SL roadster restored to showroom condition, relished his visits to West End, not just to check on the status of his car but to talk shop with the proprietor and the SLR employees working on his car. 

“He’s just a pleasure to deal with,” said the classic car collector about Nordemo, and “he knows so much about the cars. In every conversation, you learn something new.”

Since 1996, Nordemo and his crew at SLR, which Nordemo bought from his business partner nearly 20 years ago, have lovingly rebuilt—sometimes, from the frame up—some 100 automobiles, ranging from a 1908 Buick Model F to a 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT, a precursor to the machine-gun equipped sports car made famous in the 1964 James Bond movie “Goldfinger”. The latter restoration cost the owner $600,000—which sounds like a bargain considering that, in Nordemo’s estimation, the DB4 GT is worth between $5 million and $7 million today. 

A “low-end” restoration by SLR costs around $50,000. Most of its customers are successful business people, like the Microsoft executive for whom Nordemo reconditioned a rare, 1988 AC Mark IV Cobra. But Nordemo also has regular, working-class customers, including a wounded warrior to whom he gave a special discounted price to restore his mid-60’s era muscle car. “I judge people by what they are,” he says, “not by what they have.”

What draws so many vintage car collectors to SLR—one of about 15 elite restoration companies in the country—is its reputation for honesty (apparently, there are a lot of rip-off restorers) and its restoration team’s uncanny ability to return any car to the original state in which it rolled off the showroom floor—in some cases, more than a century ago. 

“If it’s got four wheels on the ground and one to steer with,” quips Nordemo, “it qualifies” for an SLR restoration.

Nordemo owned a successful software business in Massachusetts before buying into SLR and moving to North Carolina in 1996. 

“I learned by doing,” he says of the auto restoration skills he taught himself and which he has honed to perfection over the years. “I was blessed with a mind that can look at things and figure things out.”

“All of these cars,” says Nordemo, “are basically a puzzle to be solved.”

How good is SLR at solving these puzzles? The answer can be found in the company’s showroom, which is filled with trophies won by SLR-restored cars at prestigious vintage car competitions, such as the Concours d’Elegance, in which Nordemo’s personal car—a candy-apple red 1969 American Motors AMX—won Best in Modified Class in 2010. 

In 2002, 2003, and 2004, Mercedes 190 SL roadsters SLR had restored won back-to-back Best in Show awards at the annual International 190 SL Group competition. In the rarified world of vintage Mercedes aficionados, that is equivalent to winning three consecutive Super Bowls.

 Nordemo has been enchanted by cars and curious about how they are put together almost since he could walk. When he was just four years old, in Sweden, his parents gave him a toy truck for Christmas. “By the time my parents woke up [on Christmas morning],” he recalls, “I had the whole thing disassembled.”

Unfortunately, like Humpty Dumpty, the pieces of the truck were never successfully put back together again.

He has had much better luck as a grown-up. For the past 23 years, he has been running a company that rebuilds cars that win top vintage auto competitions and sometimes sell for millions.

To Nordemo, however, neither the money nor the accolades are as important as something else that happens frequently at SLR.

“We have a lot of fun doing this,” he explained, about himself and his seven-man restoration crew. “That’s what it’s all about. If you have fun doing your work, it’s not work anymore.” 910-235-0500, www.sportsleicht.com