Restoring vintage cars in the Napa Valley

As he was growing up in St. Helena, Joel Horne, owner of Napa Valley Restorations, always worked on car models — tinkering, gluing and painting them until they were perfect replicas of the originals. This fascination grew, and for the last decade he has centered his life around restoring the real thing — vintage cars, often for some of Napa Valley’s premier vintners and business leaders.

“I’ve tried a few other careers in my life, but I’ve always come back to cars,” Horne said. “At one point I even looked into becoming a sheriff, but it wasn’t for me. I believe God wants me to keep doing the cars. It’s what I think about, dream about and where I feel I do the most good. I am lucky that there are so many people in the area that also have a passion for old cars.”

One of Horne’s mentors is Russ Aves.

“I learned so much from Russ,” Horne said. “He’s a local legend who is world-renowned for his restoration of hot rods and custom builds. I have admired Russ for many years. He’s the real deal, and he has given me lots of help and advice over the years. It was an honor when he recently said that he was passing the hat to me.”

Renovating vintage vehicles is a craft that takes skill and patience, with some projects taking years to complete.

“One of my favorites so far has been the 1972 Series II Land Rover I built for Dave Phinney,” creator of the Orin Swift Cellars brand that sold in 2016 to E. & J. Gallo,” Horne said. “It took two years to finish, but it was well worth it — there’s nothing else like it. Dave told me it turned out so nice that he’s afraid to drive it.”

As to why it can take so long, Horne explains that many of the replacement parts have to be found either in obscure shops and car yards around the world or re-created from scratch.

“Being a car builder you have to wear many hats,” Horne said. “You’re the secretary, the parts orderer, the paint and interior expert, the estimator, the banker, the boss and sometimes even the friend to the client.”

Horne has worked on four cars for vintner and attorney Robert Arns, who counts himself as a fan.

“Joel has brought back to life a few wonderful examples of history in these cars,” said Robert Arns. “The cars, like wine, capture a particular vintage. And where wine can become art in your mouth, cars are not only visual works of art that you can experience like art on the wall or a sculpture, but you can get in them and drive them and you are instantly drawn back to that era. To me, it’s exciting, merging for a moment with a piece of history. And then when you know someone like Joel Horne who can connect you with these cars, rebuilding them, bringing them back to their beauty, that’s when it can become something pretty magical.”

Arns’ day job is as an attorney, but he became a vintner in 1998, when he and his wife, Anne, purchased 16 acres in Napa Valley. There they built Tournesol Winery. Horne has restored three vehicles for Arns and is currently working on the forth, a 1955 Porsche Speedster.

“The Arns Speedster is special to me because it had sat in Ralph Dewer’s St. Helena barn for nearly 40 years,” said Horne. “Ralph was highly intelligent but lived like a crazy homeless person and had unfortunately never refurbished the car. He passed in 2015 with a reported $13 million in the bank, so it wasn’t that he didn’t have the money to fix the car, but some people just hold on to things. Everyone knew about Ralph’s Speedster — not many of them had been made that year — and so most of us tried to buy it, including me, but he never sold. I have always wanted to work on it since I first saw it in seventh grade. But here I am 32 years later working on it.”

Most restorations result in a car that is as close to an exact replica as possible, but some clients like to get a little creative.

“I had some creative freedom on Erin Martin’s 1943 World War II Dodge Command Car that had been her father’s,” Horne said. “She wanted it put back together so her father, who was a United States Army captain in the Vietnam War, would still recognize it. But because she is an artistic designer she wanted a cool paint scheme — including a new color for me, ‘Wet Elephant Brown,’ in addition to the typical greens and grays.”

The reasons for renovating a car are as varied as the car owners themselves. Martin, an interior designer and owner of Martin Design in St. Helena, had been given the command car from her father as a gift.

“My dad gave me the car and told me that I’d never be able to renovate it,” Martin said. “Joel helped me meet that challenge. We had some differences of opinion when it came to color selection — Joel is a traditionalist and I am not. I ended up giving the finished car to my father as a gift — I drove it right up to his house.

“Another reason to have one of these old cars is that they don’t need a computer electrician to keep them running,” she said. “So during the next zombie apocalypse all those Tesla drivers will be out of luck when the electrical grid shuts down.”

Beyond planning for outrunning the next zombie invasion, other of Horne’s customers see restoration as a way to hold onto something that we seem to be losing.

“Joel is a true craftsman,” said Richard “Dick” Grace, owner of Grace Family Vineyards. “He restored my 1960 VW 23-window bus down to the last detail.”

When asked why it is important to restore old vehicles, Grace paused only a second before answering.

“We are losing craftsmen, and along with them we are losing our humanity,” he said. “Take this car to a downtown parking lot and you will see people stop and start to share stories that make them smile, remembering and sharing some special time in their lives. It provides a way in which people can connect, tell stories and interact. Craftsmen are an anchor to our humanity by providing a way to connect us through their pride of ownership and workmanship, and in Joel’s case, using a high degree of resolve, determination and pride in what can be challenging projects. We all need to support such efforts.”

As for Horne, he plans to continue to do what he loves to do, renovating old cars for those who have the bug.

“Americans love the freedom of driving cars down the open highway,” Horne said. “There may very well be self-driving cars someday, but I think most of us will still love turning the steering wheel and mashing a gas pedal down to the floor. As for me, I don’t know how many I have left in me, but I will keep going, trying to help those who have the vision and passion for bringing these beautiful cars back to life.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2017