"This is basically a race car you could drive on the road," Bob Mosier says as he roars through Inglewood in a 1914 Mercer Raceabout, oblivious to the gawking bystanders. From his perch in a bucket seat facing a long nickel-plated steering column, he can see the exposed valve springs of the engine fluttering up and down like a gag set of chattering teeth. He pulls back the gigantic gear lever--it looks like it belongs on a steam locomotive--to engage second, then carves around a corner just as confidently as if he were in the Toyota Prius he uses as a daily driver. He has no trouble keeping pace with traffic. But the ignition isn't firing properly, and the fuel system is losing pressure, and the transmission is making expensive-sounding grinding noises.
"This thing really needs some work, poor guy," he says with a sigh as he swings back into his garage.
It's not clear if the poor guy in question is the car--Mosier has a profound reverence for these horseless carriages and the magnificent engineering they embody--or the Mercer's owner, who's looking at a stratospheric repair bill. A week in Mosier's shop runs a couple of grand. A month could be 12K. A no-expense-spared restoration takes about two years and $600,000. Mosier doesn't flinch when he trots out these numbers. "The guys who come looking for us know that we're expensive," he says, hustling past a supercharged Cord, a stately Pierce-Arrow and a flotilla of elegant Packards parked cheek to jowl in his shop. "We work on prestige cars, and our customers expect best effort, and whatever it costs, it costs."
Mosier is the go-to guy in Southern California for ultra-high-end collectors looking to restore, rejuvenate and repair cars valued at six, seven and, sometimes, eight figures. In recent years, he has spent most of his time servicing and prepping classic cars to participate in rallies and other road-going events that require these precious and often temperamental artifacts to maintain highway speeds for hundreds of miles. "Bob is wonderful," says the Mercer's owner, Ray Scherr of Westlake Village. "When you bring something to him, you know it's going to start, it's going to drive properly, you're not going to have any problems with it. Whenever he finishes a car for me, I just send him another one to work on."
Mosier's calling card is so-called body-off restorations of classic cars of the '20s and '30s. These entail disassembling cars until they've been reduced to nothing more than unpainted frame-rails sitting on sawhorses and then painstakingly putting the refurbished, rebuilt and, if necessary, remanufactured components back together again. "He is my first recommendation when I refer business," says David Gooding, a Santa Monica collector-car auctioneer who recently hired Mosier to work part time for his company. "I have the utmost confidence in his uncompromising ability to do the job right. What sets Bob apart is that his work meets the highest standards both cosmetically and mechanically. There are a lot of shops that can make a car look pretty, and that's an important skill. But nobody understands how these old cars are supposed to perform better than Bob."
although collectors have been restoring cars for the better part of a century, the car restoration industry, as such, didn't emerge until the late '60s. At the time, a handful of premier museums--the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, for example--had their own in-house shops. But if you wanted to restore a car, you either did the work yourself or you acted as a general contractor and took the engine to an engine builder, the body to a body man, and so on. Then Phil Hill--a Santa Monican recently retired from a racing career that had seen him crowned as America's first Formula One World Champion--hooked up with Bel-Air resident Ken Vaughn in the early 1970s to create one of the nation's first soup-to-nuts restoration shops. Mosier, a freshly minted graduate of Santa Monica High School, was Hill & Vaughn's first hire.
"Phil was the perfect mentor," Mosier says of his boyhood idol (and neighbor). "It's not enough for him to take something apart, grease it up and put it back together again. He feels compelled to understand how it works, understand the principles behind it and perceive why they designed it the way they did. I have the exact same curiosity about mechanical contraptions, and I thank God that I got to participate in those investigations with him. I couldn't have learned all I learned in the amount of time I learned it without Phil."