Santa Maria Sun / Biz Spotlight
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 39
Spotlight on: Absolutely British
BY FRANK GONZALES
Grunden. Eric Grunden. That’s how anyone who visits Absolutely British might expect the owner to introduce himself.
But after a long conversation with Grunden, it should be clear that his success comes not from emphasizing the elite origins of the sophisticated sports cars he restores, but from understanding their every detail down to the last bolt. This knowledge allows him to meticulously fix, modify, and reassemble every part of the Austin Healys, MGs, and Triumphs his customers pay him top dollar to restore and repair. With 28 years in the business, six of which have been in his current Santa Maria location, and a long list of car-show-winning restoration jobs, their money is well spent.
Grunden has been operating his restoration business out of an industrial unit in Santa Maria since December 2006. Originally from Ventura, Grunden described how he got into cars: “I was out of work. I went to the employment development department in Ventura, and they set me up with the JTPA [Job Training Partnership Act]. What that does is the employer hires you and for the first year they only have to pay half of the employee taxes, so it gives them a break and it gave me a job.”
In this program, he got his start at German Auto Haus in Oxnard. As in many American success stories, Grunden started at the bottom and worked his way up.
“I started as a cleanup boy for the Volkswagen shop,” he said. “I was always mechanical, but I never had really worked on cars professionally, or anything like that. I just sort of taught myself from there.”
Because the owner of that first shop owned an Austin Healy, he and a partner began a second shop specializing in British cars that eventually moved to Ontario in Southern California. Grunden worked at the British venture the whole time and eventually bought out the owners and moved the business to the Central Coast.
Over his career, Grunden has restored 35 to 40 cars, or a little more than one per year, for his often well-heeled customers. The cars he works on range from the 1948 MG TC to the 1980 MG B, but he built his reputation around another name.
“My main concentration is on Austin Healys,” he said. “That’s what I’m mainly known for. I don’t really advertise. It’s all word of mouth.”
In terms of price, he said, “A ground-up restoration, nut and bolt restoration, is probably I would say around $100,000.” While expensive, the price of a good Austin Healy has to be taken into consideration. “At one point this model … which is a 3000 Mark III BJ8, a couple years ago, a ground-up restoration was selling at auction for up to $145,000. It’s not that way any more since the economy tanked. That same car now would probably get about $80,000 or $90,000.” Nevertheless, customers passionate about their cars continue to spend their money with Grunden.
“The people who have the money who can afford to spend $100,000 on a restoration still have the money,” he said.
And based on the seven or eight cars he’s currently restoring, some from as far away as Long Beach and Reno, he seems to know his market.
Grunden has all of this business in spite of the fact that his restorations can take up to two years. At one point he even had a two-year waiting list for restorations. That comes from being a perfectionist in his work and from working alone for the most part.
“My idea of a restoration is ground-up, thorough, nut and bolt. You go into everything and everything gets done,” he said. “I do everything [on the cars], except for paint and body. Engines, transmissions, overdrives, rear ends, steering, electrical, I do all that here.”
Regarding working alone he said, “I like to do as much as I can myself, because then I don’t have to worry about somebody else’s substandard work.”
The cars Grunden has restored have gone on to receive many awards and honors: “All of my cars win car shows. Even cars that aren’t done as show cars,” he said. One of the Austin Healys he restored won more than 30 prizes, and its owner even sent it to England for Austin Healy co-founder Donald Healy’s posthumous 100th birthday. Customers regularly come to Grunden before shows for detailing work and repairs, which, given the fragility of the cars, is somewhat frequent.
“These cars in general were never meant to last as long as they have,” he said. “They were basically a disposable, cheap sports car.”
Despite all of his success, Grunden is happy with the size and pace of his current business.
“I don’t really want to expand,” he said. “I think that the more that I can do personally, the less problem that I have. I don’t want to be responsible for looking out for someone else; I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s livelihood. I’d rather stay small and stay in business and stay steady, rather than go big and maybe go out of business.”
Grunden’s business philosophy is fitting, given that it matches perfectly with the focus on expert craftsmanship at low volumes that made these British sports cars so desirable in the first place.
For more information about Absolutely British, call 349-1000 or e-mail Eric Grunden at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biz Spotlight was written by Intern Frank Gonzales. Information should be sent to the Sun via fax, e-mail, or mail.