RIVER WEST — Keeping a 10-year-old car in top shape can be a challenge.
Getting a one-of-a-kind 1942 Alfa Romeo back to perfect running condition? Now that takes more than elbow grease.
The vintage car restoration team at Cooper Technica, 401 N. May St., regularly goes to extremes to accomplish founder David Cooper's rare ambition: to not only restore decades-old vehicles to mint cosmetic condition, but to get them running with the same oomph they had when they were new.
"Cars are used. They're functional. They get out in the world, they get damaged, things break apart, and then they get fixed — and they usually get fixed rather badly by people over the years," Cooper said.
"So we get them back, and we want to get them back to what they were. ... Our focus is to be authentic to the original."
If they dealt with old and valuable — but more widely produced vehicles like Model-T Fords or Corvettes from the '60s — that would be easier.
But the 24-year-old company, which rehabs client cars and makes purchases on behalf of its backing investment group, usually deals in "challenging" finds.
When they're as rare as the Alfa Romeo, it can take months, even years before they get to work on the vehicle. Cooper flew to New Zealand to recover that one in pieces, and had to do some sleuthing before he even knew what they were working toward.
"First, we had to figure out what [the Alfa Romeo] was supposed to look like," he said. "There are no plans for this car. There was only one of them built in the first place."
Cooper tracked down descendants of the car's former owners, getting his hands on archival photos and documenting its history along the way. A timeline now hangs in his workshop, with notations of accidents and incidents that caused each imperfection his team is fixing.
Next, they use a three-dimensional laser camera to scan the car's pieces and make digital images, which they overlay over the archival photos to figure out what's missing. Then they have to custom-make replacement parts, which often requires recreating vintage tools.
Then his 14-person team gets to work handcrafting the damaged or missing original pieces, right down to the hardware. On another 1942 Alfa Romeo, the 6C2500 Super Sport, Cooper Technica had to straighten a bent door handle, build a mold around it, and recast the pieces in chrome-plated bronze.
Watch the video to learn more about Cooper Technica's restoration process.
On Thursday, Cooper and team will travel to Barrington for the seventh annual Concours D'Elegance classic auto show. This year, Cooper's the chairman of the national showcase — the closest to Chicago and largest in the Midwest — but next year, he hopes to launch his own on Northerly Island.
"A lot of people who are interested in seeing some of these very special cars, they tend to gravitate toward the coasts — so it's nice to bring them here. People in California are just learning that there's a place called Chicago," Cooper said.
"Every Concours D'Elegance that I know of is not set in a major city. We would be the only one. So I'm very excited about that."
Cooper Technica will host a special viewing of five Voisin vehicles at their River West shop starting at 5:30 p.m. on July 25. The event is free, and open to the public.