Paint-stick perfection

At Cruzin Classics, Rich Schulenberg builds a classic following.

Curiosity got the best of Rich Schulenberg as a young child. For example, he once took his sister’s doll apart because it talked, and he had to know why.

At age 10, he removed the dashboard from his dad’s 1965 Dodge Polara — without his dad’s knowledge, of course — because he needed to know how the temperature gauge worked. “Yeah, I got in trouble for that,” he laughs. “I was hoping there was a thermometer back there.”

These days, Schulenberg, 60, takes cars apart every day as the owner of Cruzin Classics on Madison’s east side. Many of the cars he’s restored have earned trophies thanks to his commitment to detail, a remarkable gift of gab, and his ability to smooth imperfections with only a paint stick, sandpaper, and his bare hands.

After graduating from East High in 1979, he was lured away from Tuff-Kote by another shop owner who promised him a chance to work on a 1973 Pantera. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Tucker and other transformations

For years, Schulenberg perfected his talents at Benchmark Classics until it closed. He opened Cruzin Classics LLC in 2011.

Inside the shop, three cars are in various stages of restoration: a 1966 Corvette, a 1969 Mustang convertible, and the shell of a 1954 Mercury Monterey on a hoist.

Most restorations average $20,000–$30,000 and take between eight and 18 months, he explains, but until the paint is stripped off, there’s really no way to estimate. Every step is documented with hundreds of photos to protect all parties.

High-end, numbers-matching vehicles will likely cost more. Schulenberg has spent 60–100 hours locating date-stamped parts or researching paint colors that no longer exist.

He encourages owners to do whatever they can to keep their costs down. The owner of the ’54 Mercury, for example, will do his own mechanical work before returning it to Schulenberg for a new floor, toe boards, and a front for body mounts. All told, restoration will take about a year.

“You can easily spend $6,000 and not see a whole lot initially,” acknowledges Schulenberg, who often must remind nervous clients that a car must look ugly before it can look pretty.

“I understand that some people may not want to spend thousands of dollars but when I’m done restoring a classic car, it won’t lose value. You can’t say that about a new car!”

Next to the Mercury, the 1969 Mustang convertible will be painted soon. Most of its parts are already in the paint booth. After priming, a car will sit for six weeks before sanding to allow it to breathe (or gas out), Schulenberg says. He’ll spend another 80 hours sanding, roughing, and polishing a vehicle to a mirror finish.

The Mustang will receive a solid coat of Candy Apple Red, a Ford color. “My cost is $1,300 per gallon,” Schulenberg says, “and this will take a gallon and a half.” Add to that similarly priced paint reducers and clear coat and costs skyrocket.

“Back around 1980, I could have painted a car for $500 and made $300. Today, I can’t buy the materials for less than $3,000 to $5,000,” he states.

For the most part, Schulenberg sands with a flat-hand and a paint stick wrapped in sandpaper, a technique he learned from his grandfather. It saves a client hundreds of dollars in materials, he explains. More importantly, it works.

“I can sand an entire car with roughly three sheets of paper,” he says. “Most people don’t have the patience to do this anymore, and nobody teaches it.”

After painting and multiple rounds of sanding, cars are buffed and polished to remove imperfections or swirl marks.

Does it ever get monotonous? No, he says. “These cars turn into something special right before my eyes. That takes the time away.”

With few exceptions, Schulenberg’s forte is working on cars manufactured before 1972. After that, horsepower started dropping due to Environmental Protection Agency emission standards.

“It’s all about cost to value,” he explains. “A 1972 Challenger may be worth $60,000, but a 1973 Challenger may be worth only $25,000 because of the lower horsepower. After 1974, you’d be lucky to get $6,000 for a car like that.”

He’s worked on a variety of classics through the years:

The newest? A 1981 non-T-top SE Bandit Trans Am. Only 65 were manufactured, Schulenberg notes.

The oldest: a 1932 Cadillac.

The most valuable [and somewhat controversial]: a 1948 two-door Tucker convertible prototype, which currently is for sale in another state for $2.5 million. Reportedly it’s the only one in the world.

Work on the Tucker was a team effort. “That wasn’t a restoration, it was a completion,” he clarifies. One of his jobs was to fabricate components so the car’s unique center headlight would turn with the steering wheel. “It could have been the U.S.’s first rear-engine car,” Schulenberg laments, “but it didn’t go through.”

Two locally owned vehicles, a 1953 XK120 Jaguar and a 1965 Austin-Healey, are among the “coolest” cars he’s been associated with. Together their value is about a half-million dollars.

But Schulenberg’s personal dream car is a 1969 Charger Daytona. “Only 503 of them were made. It’s a six-figure car now,” he says. In its heyday, NASCAR officials banned the “winged” car because it was too fast. No wonder — it was the first car to break the 200-mile-per-hour mark.

Every classic has a story

On this July night, a parade of classic cars arrives for the photo shoot. Had there been any threat of rain, nobody would have ventured out. “You don’t take these cars out in the rain,” Schulenberg stresses.

The owner of a yellow 1971 Mach 1 with a black stripe bought it in high school and insists he’ll never sell. “No way,” he says. “This was my very first car!” Standing next to him, his 14-year-old daughter nods. She helped sand it when she was just five.

A black 1970 Nova SS survived kids and ice cream cones before its owner parked it in the garage — for 25 years! Schulenberg helped with cleaning, bodywork, and paint. Now, with 85,000 miles on the odometer and the original spare tire in the trunk, the car has earned two best-in-show trophies at area competitions. “Nobody drives it but me,” the owner smiles.

There’s a 1969 blue Austin America, a definitively British car that its owner describes as his clown car. “My wife drove this to high school,” he says, “and Mr. Bean drives one!” referring to the British sitcom character.

Schulenberg glances around at the collection of cars and clients assembled. He didn’t know how many people would show and estimates that the grouping represents between 45,000 and 60,000 hours of his life. “When I look at these cars, all I see is the family we’ve created. Everyone’s nice. For me, this isn’t work.”