Years ago, when a local customer approached Joe Joas, owner of Joe’s Auto Body, and asked him if he would restore an antique tractor, Joe obliged, never realizing what the project would lead to.
As a body specialist who had worked with accident-mangled cars since 1971 when he opened shop, Joe was an expert in refinishing—painting and buffing vehicles until they shined.
Soon, he had another tractor restoration customer and then another and then, as Joe puts it, “all of a sudden, all hell broke loose.” Customers started coming from everywhere. Even after restoring over 500 tractors, today, he still finds it hard to believe how quickly his business took off.
Around the time his first tractor customers came through his door, Joe and his son, Mike, who was 13 at the time, began to restore their own tractors as a hobby. One of them was Joe’s father’s old 620.
“Grandpa bought that brand new,” said Mike. “We have pictures of Dad when he was a kid on it.”
The idea was to keep history alive, to bring back precious memories.
But they also entered their restorations in shows, and people noticed the quality work.
I’d like to have a nice shiny tractor myself, they would think.
“And the ball kept rolling from there,” said Mike.
In 1995, Joe and Mike stopped working with automobiles and focused on tractors. Both agreed that, more than cars, tractor restoration was where their real passion lay.
When it comes to auto work, people need their vehicles to get to work and to take their children to school events. They can’t afford to be patient.
“If you pull a car away from these people, it’s a tragedy,” said Joe.
Restoration is different.
“Customers say, ‘When you’re done, give me a call,’” he said.
This gives them time to lavish attention on the tractors. When the customers come to pick them up, they are awestruck to see the end result, the work of certified painters, experienced in epoxy, urethane, self-etching primers, sealers and single-stage urethane paint.
One woman, who had searched out other shops before she settled on Joe’s Auto Body, came with her husband to see the tractor she had driven as a little girl.
“She walked in the door, walked around it, and she started crying,” said Mike. “She said, ‘I never thought I’d get to see Dad’s tractor in such nice shape.’”
Many steps along the way
Yet, the transformation goes through many steps before it is ready for the customer. First, the men have to dismantle the tractor and examine every part. If a piece is worn out or even if it has been modified over the years, the father-son team has to endeavor to get everything back to the way it was when it left the factory line. And that requires a lot of research. Joe spends $1,000 a year for resource books.
“Our clients are dragging in dad’s first tractor or, like the guy from Beaver Dam, the first tractor on the farm after the horses were gone,” said Mike.
Even after they find out what the original part was, getting it in their hands can be a challenge. What helps to find the part, however, is that Mike has connections with over 300 sources all over the States, having been involved in restoration work as a hobby for so long even before he went professional with his father.
“I’ve received parts from over 25 different states,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff I find.”
When the tractor is ready to be painted— dents already removed by Joe— Mike uses one of over 100 job-specific, movable jigs to hold the chassis and other pieces in place so he can inspect them from all angles at eye level to make sure each part gets an even coat of paint. Mike isn’t satisfied until every piece is perfect. Then Joe takes over and buffs each part to a dazzling shine. The vehicle may have started out as a farm tractor, but by the time it is finished, it has been transformed into a show tractor.
If the vehicle requires mechanical attention, they subcontract the work out to one of three different shops in the locality.
Customers from all over
But where do their customers come from?
Over the years, customers have come from eight different states and beyond, like Puerto Rico. The fact is, one person sees a tractor from Joe’s Auto Body, maybe in a show, maybe at a friend’s house, and he wants his tractor brought back to the same condition. Then, when it comes back looking like new, his friends come knocking at Joe’s door, too. The cycle is endless.
About 90 percent of Joe and Mike’s business comes from referral and repeat customers.
Take the couple from Iowa who came in last March to check out the shop after seeing their work. After taking one tractor home, they returned with two more.
When a friend inquired about the shop, they told him, “We just got this back from Wisconsin. You have to go there,” said Mike.
That resulted in another phone call, “Hey, when can I get my tractor in?”
Mike sits down with each customer at his computer to walk him through each item to determine an estimate. Then, if he should run across something unexpected as they take the tractor apart, they call the customer. “This is what it’s going to cost. What should we do?”
“Get the customer involved,” said Joe. “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
First one, then four more
Mike met one of his customers, a man from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at a tractor show. The man wanted his tractor to look like a show car, and Mike and Joe were up to the task. After the man commissioned his first tractor, he brought back four more.
“He’s like family now,” Mike said, “Once we have a customer, we have him for life.”
With all the interest the men have accrued from their work, customers now have to wait six months to bring in their tractors. They had to hire an employee to speed things up, friend of the family Floyd Voss. Having run his own business before he retired, he’s what Joe calls a “go getter with fantastic work ethics,” and being a tractor collector himself, he brings a store of knowledge with him into his work.
“He fit like a glove,” said Joe.
Now the only problem that faces Joe and Mike is whether or not to expand their facility. Joe calls it “growing pains.” On the one hand, with a business he has run for 42 years, he appreciates being in a situation where everything is paid for. Still, trying to house and dismantle three tractors at a time takes a lot of space. It’s a decision he will have to make.
But for now, Joe is happy doing what he loves. At 69, he no longer has to work. He does it because restoring tractors is something he loves.
“If I didn’t enjoy it,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here. My dad always said, ‘If you like something, you’re going to be good.’”
Mike agrees. Even when they meet up with a tractor that requires more work than they bargained for, a real challenge, it’s the big smile on the customer’s face that makes any obstacle worth the effort.
“They’re all excited,” said Mike. “They’ve got their new toy back again.”
And although the men enjoyed the journey to get to that point, it’s that customer reaction that is like “the cherry on the top of a sundae.”