When know-how counts

NOTE: This article was published a few months after we opened the shop, when Tom Himmelsbach (the “T” in K&T) was a partner in the business. Tom has since left the business to pursue another job opportunity.

The Morning Call, December 1, 2006

There was a time when every main street in every town had a green grocer, a butcher and a bakery. Each shop specialized in what it knew best. Of course, the age of supermarkets and big box stores changed all that. Some critics say, what we gained in convenience, we lost in expertise.

Today, there is a small resurgence of specialty stores that cater to customers who want true quality and expert service. One such shop that arrived on the scene in May is K & T Vintage Sports Cars LLC at 1511 E. Woodlawn St. in Allentown. Owners Ken Beck and Tom Himmelsbach apply their long-acquired knowledge to the restoration and repair of vintage automobiles.

“We are already well-known by people who belong to car clubs or who participate in car shows,” says Himmelsbach. “But there are also people out there who may not be car enthusiasts but drive older cars. And they might take them to any local garage that doesn’t have the knowledge for working on vintage cars.”

That begs the question: Just what is a vintage car? In general, Beck and Himmelsbach consider anything before 1980 a vintage car. That’s when the British sports car – Jaguar, MG, Austin Healey, Triumph -- lost its hold on the market. But the early 1990s also produced some classic American cars such as the Corvette.

Those dates, generally, also mark the transition when cars stopped being mechanical wonders and started being technological ones. Today, computers run and monitor most systems in a car. In fact, cars need to be hooked up to a computer to help fix it. Mechanics aren’t even called “mechanics” today, they’re called “auto technicians,” which reflects the change in knowledge and expertise required to fix new cars.

Vintage cars, on the other hand, still need skilled mechanics. And the older the car, the more knowledge and artistry are required.

“We’ve been car enthusiasts since we were teenagers,” says Beck. “We’ve worked on some of these vintage cars since they were new.”

Beck has retired from Agere Systems Inc. and Himmelsbach is semi-retired, and both approach their new venture with the precision and attention of an engineer. The K & T facility is so clean and orderly, that it isn’t fair to call it a garage; it’s more like an operating room.

Obviously, the team brings a lifetime of experience to the repair and restoration of vintage cars that a neighborhood garage just can’t offer. But they also bring real world experience. Beck, for example, spent 20 years racing on dirt and oval tracks, competing also in sports car hill climbs and endurance races.

Not surprisingly, this enthusiasm translates into expertise, especially for vintage British and American sports cars. But K & T can work on any older car and usually have eight to 12 in the shop at any time. This collection often attracts people who just want to look at some cool cars. For this reason, K & T keeps track of people in the area who are looking to sell or buy a vintage car.

“We’d rather try and make a local connection to keep the car in the area than have it sold over the Internet and shipped away,” says Beck.

It’s clear Beck and Himmelsbach have a love for cars, but it’s also a commitment. Some restoration jobs can take years to complete. The owner of the car often just shows up at the shop to visit during the process. And these aren’t always show cars; there are plenty of older cars that people use for everyday transportation.

“There’s no typical work when it comes to vintage automobiles,” says Himmelsbach. “We do minor tune ups or total restorations. But the important thing is that people understand that specialty shops offer the knowledge and quality service they can’t get anywhere else.”