Steamboat man takes pride in restoring vintage cars
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Don Bongiorno considers himself an artist, a craftsman, a businessman and a historian, of sorts.
He said the owner of a 1939 Packard, which Bongiorno restored a while ago, told him, “You didn’t just redo the upholstery. You restored a little piece of American history.”
As Bongiorno watched, William Whelan carefully clean the curved metal of his 1959 KK150 Jaguar roadster last week, those words rang true again, as Bongiorno described the hours he had spent helping to restore the vintage Jag to its original condition over the past three years.
“I inherited it from my dad,” Whelan said. “He grew up with them. It’s completely original, and I decided to restore it when it became my car. My dad had done little bits — little bits and little bits. Now, I want to finish it.”
His dad bought the car in October 1959, nine years before Whelan was born.
“It was his sports car before he settled down and had kids, and then it went into storage for a while ” Whelan said. “I was probably 7 or 8 years old when we broke it out of blocks and fired it up again.”
Whelan fell in love with the car riding in the passenger seat as his father drove him around before Whelan was allowed to drive it when he turned 21.
Whelan began working to restore the car in 2003.
“There are three parts to the car. There is the motor, the body and the interior, so we are getting there,” Whelan said. “It’s still got a ways to go, but it’s a driver. It’s not a trailer queen.”
The interior is where Bongiorno and his company, Foothills Upholstery and Restoration, entered the picture.
For more than 50 years, Bongiorno has been working on exotic, classic and antique cars. He owned a shop in Denver for a number of years and moved it to Steamboat Springs several years ago. He doesn’t have a staff these days, but he stays busy.
His passion for restoring cars is one of the reasons Whelan sought out Bongiorno and finally convinced him to work on the car.
“I didn’t want to do it at first,” Bongiorno said. “These restorations can be a pain.”
He also knew that Whelan liked to drive the car, and he was afraid that his soon-to-be client didn’t understand the time and work that goes into restoring this type of car.
“Before he brought it to me, he drove it all the time,” Bongiorno said. “In fact, he has missed the heck out of it.”
Bongiorno warned Whelan that it wouldn’t be an overnight project, and it would take time and money to complete.
Whelan said he is not rich and he learned to be patient throughout the three-year restoration process. He helped cut costs by sourcing many of the parts himself.
Bongiorno had some of the wood interior fabricated and had to further mold the pieces to get them to fit in the car.
But Whelan’s effort and Bongiorno’s persistence paid off.
Today, when a person takes a seat behind the handcrafted steering wheel, it’s as if they have stepped back in time. For Bongiorno, it was a chance to restore a little piece of history, but for Whelan, it was so much more.
“This car is priceless to me,” Whelan said. “I’m not selling it.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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