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mwerks Feature: The Werk Shop

Where BMWs are reborn

March 12, 2004

by: Bryan Joslin


There is an inherent danger to making a living out of a hobby. What starts out as fun eventually becomes work, and the hobby that once produced so much joy is quickly reduced to just another job. More disconcerting is the reality that what makes for a great pastime often makes for a lousy career, at least financially speaking. Passion is a powerful force, blinding many would-be entrepreneurs who start a business doing what they love most, regardless of the fact that most will fail.

In the world of hobbyist-turned-businessman, Don Dethlefsen is a rare survivor. For Don, success is the result of a relentless passion for BMW automobiles combined with a successful background in running prior businesses, and a healthy dose of genuine good-guy car enthusiast. For the last ten years, The Werk Shop in Lake Bluff, Illinois, has applied Don’s “professional enthusiast” approach to preserving, maintaining, and restoring its customers’ BMWs.

Though Don’s hobby has always been bringing cars back to life, he admits BMWs were not originally his favorite. As a young businessman in the Sixties and early Seventies, his interests initially leaned more towards Ford before eventually moving to Ferrari, at a time when he recalls, “They were still affordable and nobody wanted them.” As fate would have it, a colleague purchased a quirky BMW 2002 in the early ‘70s, and raved about it so much that Don had no choice but to check it out. He quickly dismissed the homely-looking car, convinced that his friend was a poor judge of taste. It wasn’t until he drove the little Bavarian sedan that he came to fully appreciate the car.

Since the day of his first 2002 encounter thirty-some years ago, Dethlefsen has not only gained a deeper appreciation for BMWs, he has gone on to become one of the nation’s foremost experts in the marque and a renowned restorer of earlier models. Don reckons he is one of the more experienced restorers of BMW 2002s in America, restoring more than a dozen of them for himself, his friends, and his customers. Having retired at a fairly young age from a successful career in the printing business, Don rented a shop in the northern Chicago suburb so that he could “play cars” more seriously. Throughout most of the Nineties, that is what he did, restoring and collecting cars mostly for himself, but occasionally for friends and associates.


Though it may sound cliché, Don’s reputation truly precedes him. In fact, his reputation is what launched his post-retirement career in the restoration business. An active member in the BMW Car Club of America (BMWCCA) since the early Eighties, he enjoyed showing his most recently completed restoration project at local and national concours d’elegance events, such as the annual Oktoberfest. Fellow participants and attendees were so impressed with Don’s level of perfection that his phone was soon ringing, requesting that he please restore their cars the way he had done his own.

Several years after his retirement, Don decided to go back into business, offering his services to all BMW enthusiasts. After all, for him the fun had always been in the creative process, so what difference would it make if he were restoring cars for himself or for someone else? So in 2001, The Werk Shop, formerly Don’s personal playground, opened its single overhead door to the public.
\nThere was, however, one stipulation: he would only restore a car on his own terms. While that might sound like a harsh statement, quite the opposite is true. Don promised that his customers would be treated to a restoration experience unlike any other. This would mean not only top quality work, but also a top quality approach.


Restoration a Different Way

Restoring a car can be a crazy experience. For starters, it rarely involves a single shop; typically a repair shop handles the mechanical work, the bodywork is done at a body shop, and an upholstery shop might handle the interior and trim. Aside from the inconvenience of taking a half-functional car all over town and country, each shop must be careful not to damage the others’ work, a task that can range from extremely difficult to nearly impossible. Each shop will also have its own priorities, meaning the car may sit in a dark corner of the garage until they feel good and ready to work on it. It’s easy to see why the restoration of a car, even one as simple as a 2002, can be such a stressful and exhaustive experience, dragging on for what seems like an eternity.

When Don opened The Werk Shop for customer cars, he insisted there had to be a better way. The process begins by consulting with the prospective client to determine his intentions. Not all cars are destined for the concours circuit, and not all of his customers are made of money, so a fair and honest assessment of each project is made. Although a rare occurrence, Don has had to make the uncomfortable suggestion that not every BMW is a suitable candidate for restoration. Nevertheless, he knows his customers love their cars, so he does whatever he can to set realistic expectations for them.

Once Don and his client agree on the project, he puts it on the production schedule, rather than taking the car from the owner immediately only to have it sit dormant at the shop for weeks or months. This is but one example of The Werk Shop’s consideration for its clients time. Another is the fact that once work begins on a car, the work continues on that car until it is finished, eliminating the unnecessary delay so common with this type of work. Even still, a full restoration can take anywhere from nine to twelve months.

The owner is not the only client in the restoration process; the car itself is treated like a client as well, receiving personal attention just like its human counterpart. Each car receives its own dedicated shelf space for its parts, reducing the possibility of damage or confusion with other projects. With rare exception, a single craftsman from the team of 4 restorers will take ownership of a given project, handling all of the disassembly, mechanical repair, and reassembly from start to finish. This method assures the highest degree of care is taken and results in not only a proud owner, but also a proud “parent” in the performing technician.

Whatever work cannot be handled in-house is sent out to any of a number of local outfits specifically chosen by Don to complete the task at hand. These operations primarily include paint and trim work, which are both specialized crafts in their own right, but also includes such minor details as the gold cadmium plating on much of the body hardware. The important thing is that The Werk Shop not only handles the dirty work of scheduling and transportation, but also holds these select few companies accountable to him directly, guaranteeing top-quality work delivered in a timely manner, much like a general contractor would do on a home construction project.


A Werk Shop Car

One of the great things about having The Werk Shop perform your restoration is that you can choose exactly how you want your car to be, and they will gladly deliver. It is only natural that some owners will want to put their cars back to 100% original condition, and Don has the trophies to prove he is more than capable of delivering. His personal cars and his customers’ have won numerous awards throughout the country. An excellent example of this type of work is the 100-point Ceylon-colored 2002tii, of which The Werk Shop actually built two for the same lucky owner.

Others may choose to bring back the spirit of the original car, but with less focus on originality. When we visited the shop, one particular 2002, a Bauer Cabriolet no less, had recently come from the painter, wearing the Dark Silver color from a new MINI. Aside from the non-standard paint, the car featured a black grille from a later model, which conspired with the new hue to make a very aggressive looking ’02, even if it is not factory correct. We have our eyes on this little gem and plan to run a full story on it when it is complete.

Many of the shop’s clients simply remember their little cars being such fantastic fun to drive, opting to build a fun, solid driver over a show car. Don and his crew are happy to oblige, offering performance upgrades to enhance the experience, such as bigger carburetors and radiators, more aggressive cams and free-breathing exhausts. Other performance upgrades are achieved with the use of components from the later 320i models, such as brakes and transmissions.

Regardless of individual tastes, all of The Werk Shop’s cars receive attention to the small details that really make for a spectacular restoration. The engine compartment probably represents the best example of this work, with its blend of bare castings, painted and plated metals and colorful plastics. As Don puts it, a restored car should be interesting to look at, with a contrast of colors and textures.

Most every car that passes through the shop receives a bit of heart surgery. While Don used to rebuild every motor himself in-house, lately a popular and more cost-effective approach has been to simply drop in a new, factory-rebuilt engine. Either way, cars leaving the shop are broken in before being handed over to their owners, typically receiving 400-or-so break-in miles under the skillful eyes and ears of a BMW expert.


All European Cars Welcome

Though 2002s have so far represented the majority of the restoration work, Don is quick to point out that there isn’t a BMW he wouldn’t work on. During our visit, the shop’s works-in-progress included not only the handful of 2002s, but also a couple of CS coupes, and even an extremely rare 503 Cabriolet, Don’s personal project. Newer 3s and 5s were also visible in the parking lot, waiting to be serviced. In addition to restoration, The Werk Shop handles routine maintenance and repair for all European models, regardless of age.  Sometimes service customers are allowed to supply their own parts for repairs, however, there is no warranty on customer supplied parts as we cannot verify the age and quality of those parts.

Of all the unique BMWs to pass through his doors, the one car Don has yet to restore that he would really love to work on is a pre-war 327 coupe. According to Don, “This is the BMW model that I believe to be one of the most beautiful automobiles ever made.” Until the day a 327 rolls in, his favorite project will likely remain the pair of Ceylon 2002s. He hunted for four months to find these two tii’s that were just six serial numbers apart, both originally painted Ceylon, and both built on the same day. For Don, this project was like reuniting lost siblings, and the finished cars are simply breathtaking.

While 2002s will probably continue to be the subject of choice for vintage BMW fans, Don reasons that the E30 M3 will likely become a future favorite among restorers. The fact that many purists view it as “the only real M3” bodes well for this prediction. It has all the right ingredients of a classic; a perfect blend of looks, handling and performance. Relatively few were produced, especially by comparison to the E36 and E46 successors. Add to that the fact that many of the chassis were used up in racing, and you have a highly desirable collectable for the serious enthusiast.

There seems to be no end in sight for the popularity of BMWs as collector cars. As new owners join the fold, many are likely to succumb to the charms of the older models. One of the biggest challenges of their popularity will be the availability of suitable restoration parts. Already the status of many critical parts is “NLA,” No Longer Available. As time goes on, this problem will only become bigger.


The Future of The Werk Shop

It is natural to assume that such a successful business as The Werk Shop would be on the path for phenomenal growth. In reality, Don is quite satisfied with the size of the company. In his own words, “We are a small shop of highly skilled craftsmen. We continue to stay busy. We always seem to have a short waiting list of BMW restoration projects ready to begin…we have no interest in becoming any bigger than we are at the present. I would hope the future continues at our current pace.”

His words reveal the secret of his success. He absolutely loves what he does, each and every day. To grow the business would likely mean making sacrifices that would compromise this joy. The key to being successful is in knowing how to measure it. Don, it would seem, has found his measure of success.