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October 24, 2014

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Q+A: Talking (auto) shop at SEMA with ‘Car Chasers’ star Jeff Allen

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Kevin Lynch/NBC/AP

Perry Barndt and Jeff Allen star in CNBC’s “The Car Chasers.”

2013 SEMA

Ralph Marciano, of Rhode Island, takes a photo of a Chevrolet Camaro that has been lifted on to its side during the 2013 SEMA show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The annual Specialty Equipment Market Association convention is in town this week showing off the latest products, trends and materials the auto industry has to offer.

For Jeff Allen and the team behind CNBC’s car-flipping reality TV show “Car Chasers,” the trade show is a feast of opportunity to bring back to their auto shop and workplace Flat 12 Gallery in Lubbock, Texas.

I spoke with Allen about this year’s convention and his career giving classic and exotic cars a new life.

What have you been doing at SEMA this week?

We’re out here promoting the car that we’re giving away on the show, the ’65 Mustang Fastback. We’re also meeting with people at different booths we’re signing at, people who donated parts to some of the builds on this season’s show. Other than that, we’re just seeing if there’s anything else out here for sale and also checking out what’s new in the industry. This is a big week for us to see all the new products and upcoming styles. I always take away little bit and pieces from SEMA of things that I want to incorporate in my future builds.

You restore old vehicles, but SEMA is about what’s new in the industry. How does what you do fit in with SEMA?

There are so many ideas going around that no matter what you do, you can’t think of them all yourself. I’ll go around and see something like a wheel choice somebody used on a vehicle that I would never have thought of or different color combinations. So many times, our business is to maximize your money and marketing, so you traditionally stick with the colors that sell well. Whereas at SEMA, you might see something like two colors you’d never have thought of putting together, but it looks beautiful. I’m always looking for new products that help out and that really enhance either a car’s performance or the aesthetics of it.

What are some of those new products you’re seeing this year?

In the past, a lot of people were reusing satin finishes for their paint jobs, and now we’re seeing satin finishes underneath the hood, which is a really neat contrast. Billet hood hinges are a huge improvement from the factory hood hinges on a lot of these muscle cars. They’re so neat. When you open them up, it makes the underneath of the hood just as fancy as the outside of the car. It adds so much to the car in the detail. Plus, there’s stuff like coating on the bumpers. We saw a gear today with the most beautiful, what almost looked like nickel-plated, bumpers instead of your traditional chrome bumpers, and it sure made the car just look incredible.

What’s the worst-condition vehicle you’ve ever had to restore?

Ooh! Boy, most of them that I get have extremely good bodies on them. I won’t start with a rusted-out car. It’s just too much work, and you’d never recoup that money. A lot of people will go out and buy a car looking at it from price point. I go out and look at it as, it’s got to have at least one of three things — really good paint, really good interior or it has to have a really awesome power train. That’s kind of my starting point. I don’t get into too many heavy restorations because of the show parameters. I think we moved 46 cars in eight weeks this season on the show. So we’re doing mostly cosmetic restorations, updating paint styles and wheels and steering wheels. I have kind of a wheel fetish; I’m always changing those, I don’t know why. To me, it’s like looking at a beautiful woman, and she’s wearing the wrong shoes. Cars have to have the right shoes, and that’s the right tires and the right wheels.

What’s the biggest misconception the average person might have about the work that you do?

The biggest misconception is that because the show is a 30-minute format that we completely rebuild cars in 30 minutes or an hour, on a really quick timetable. That does not happen. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into each and every car before we sell it. A lot of people think I just take them to the car wash and then sell them. That’s not true at all. The average car takes anywhere from three to four weeks. Some of the bigger builds will take up to six weeks. And that’s with us streamlining the process. We’re very systematic. When we get a car in, on day one we make a list of exactly everything we’re going to order and have them already on their way while we’re already doing a lot of the other process work.

What do you drive?

I have a 2013 Shelby GT 500 and a 2011 crew cab Chevy truck.

What would you like to drive — what’s your dream car?

That’s a tough one. That’s a really tough question because I usually go out and get what I want. I’m a huge Ferrari fan, I always have Ferraris in the shop. I actually have an ’87 Ferrari Testarossa in the shop right now. I love Porsches. A lot of cars are going away from stick shifts, and they’re all becoming paddle shifts, and I’m not a paddle-shift guy. So a lot of the late-model cars I don’t enjoy as much as I used to. Hence, that’s why I still have a Shelby because it was available in the ’60s. And it’ll do 200 mph. Those were two pluses.

What do you think of hybrids?

Ooh! Interesting question. I think they’ve come a long way. I’m not a big fan of not knowing what we’re going to do with all these leftover batteries. There’s been a lot of them, I don’t know if that’s causing a bigger problem than we’re having with just gasoline. But I am happy that manufacturers are starting to put more emphasis on gas mileage. There’s been a huge improvement.

They haven’t seem to put very much emphasis on hybrids’ style, though.

There’s so much potential for hybrids. Toyota makes a wonderful product, but I never understood why the Prius had to look like a fish. That’s probably why I’ve kind of stayed away from them. I mean, the most attractive one of those cars to me on the market right now is the Chevy Volt. I think that car looks pretty decent. I could see myself driving one of those if I needed to. Style is not mutually exclusive with the technology. When the Scion came out, that was a car with a really great design but that was also fuel efficient. Then the Prius came out, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

What would be your dream car to restore?

I had a ’65 Corvette with flared fenders, and rumor had it that Dick Guldstrand, one of the Corvette racecar drivers from the ’60s, drove it in a race, but we could never verify or prove it. It actually took me seven years to restore that car. I think it was because I didn’t want to sell it, and I knew that the day that I did finish it, Megan [Bailey, his wife and business partner] would make me sell it. Which is exactly what happened. The first time I drove that car was across an auction block. I had a lot of love for that car. I actually like doing Corvettes; they’re a lot of fun. Especially the ’65s through ’67s. I also have done a tremendous amount of Camaros and Chevelles, and quite a few Mustangs.

Right now we’re restoring our first Ferrari. Normally when we’ve bought Ferraris, we just do some subtle things to them. But this season we bought a Ferrari that was kind of like saving an abused animal — I felt kind of like when you see a poor dog tied to a tree and you think, ‘Oh man, I want to rescue that dog!’ That’s kind of how I was when I got this Ferrari — saving it from an abusive relationship.

What was the story behind that one?

The guy bought it when he was 35 years old. It was one of those moments in life when he wanted to show that’d he’d achieved success in his life. The way that he put it was that he had the car, he enjoyed it and then he just kind of got tired of it, so he just let it sit outside for the better half of the last 10 years. It was a black-on-black Ferrari Testarossa, and he just let it deteriorate in his front yard. It was terrible. We’re just getting it back from paint this week once I get back from SEMA, and then we’ll start the interior and everything else. We’ll see if I paid too much money for it, but I just couldn’t leave it there.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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