Featured: Transforming A Garage In The Philippines Into The World's Largest Restoration Shop

Transforming A Garage In The Philippines Into The World’s Largest Restoration Shop

Jenna Genio By Jenna Genio
July 11, 2018
8 comments

Photography by Jenna Genio

This story is not so much about cars as it about a special process and the people involved. Don’t expect to read lists of makes and models here, this is about how one man turned a sorry shop into a well-oiled factory, churning out full restorations with incredible efficiency and concours quality. Under the expert tutelage of Jason Lemberg, current CEO of Byrnes Motor Trust (BMT), the once-struggling business is now restoring 40-50 cars at any given time with an average turnaround of 10-12 months on each. Jason’s speedy system at BMT constantly produces prestigious show winners too. Those numbers, along with an area of 15,000ft2 to work in, are the reasons BMT just might be the world’s largest restoration facility… And it’s in the Philippines.

It might be difficult to believe that vintage European sports cars and sedans are being nursed back to life in this Southeast Asian country, and at such an astounding scale. When I first heard about BMT, images of the shop had started leaking. It was all very exciting, albeit shrouded in secrecy within the confines of the Clark Freeport and Economic Zone (CFEZ) in the province of Pampanga. Because of certain tax-related perks and trade regulations, the finished cars are never physically shared with the Philippine car community but are instead just shipped in and then shipped back out once completed.

I met Jason Lemberg and his wife Sarah at the Tour de Cebu historic rally last year and I was a bit intimidated, but quickly discovered how surprisingly down to earth the couple was. I watched them effortlessly talk shop and culture around some very discerning collectors, but around me they just seemed like ordinary, working-class Americans—with quick wits, grit, a bit of rockabilly flair, and humble values. Jason is tattooed, a beer drinker, and a Star Wars fan. Sarah loves dogs, country living, and off-roading. Together, they are forces to be reckoned with in the automotive world. As a bonus to our new friendship, I got an invitation to tour BMT.

Hailing from San Diego originally, Jason Lemberg is what many would describe as a “wealth of automotive knowledge,” but beyond just stats and memory, he has some genuine mechanic’s experience. He’s the real deal—having won multiple times at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and earning other awards on the international show circuit. He also held a record for a while in the top ten most expensive cars ever sold at auction. “I wasn’t given a car as a teen, I had to buy one, fix it, and make it better myself. I just had an itch, a need. I loved speed, driving, and the evolution of engineering,” he tells me. In 2012 through mutual friends, Jason met Sacramento-raised Sarah at an RM Sotheby’s auction in Monterey for Pebble Beach. “I’ve always liked cars, luckily before I met him. Otherwise, it would’ve been a very steep, uphill learning curve,” says Sarah. They wed three years later in 2015. After a month, they found themselves moving to the Philippines.

Why would this couple uproot and trade their lives in the United States for a tropical, developing nation in Southeast Asia? Jim Byrnes, the Aussie owner of BMT, had emailed them in late 2014 asking Jason to assess his Philippines-based shop. The initial consultation fee was a five-day honeymoon in the island destination of Boracay for Sarah and Jason, who gushed “The local traveling is excellent and the country is just beautiful. We’ve made great friends and a home here… Falling in love with the Philippines and its potential was actually the main reason we decided to stay.”

BMT started in 2011 mainly to serve Jim’s private collection. There was no other real vision for the place, which Sarah saw as an advantage. “I have a masters in marketing so I was able to step in and create a brand from scratch,” Sarah said about becoming the shop’s Marketing Manager. “There was no website, no social media, no nothing. Petrolicious knows the business better than anybody—that it’s very visual. People want to see the cars, the process, and the craftsmen behind it. They want to feel like they understand, whether they actually do or not. It’s all about how these machines come from a time of elegance and appreciation for a different driving experience… Jason is a huge asset, because he makes sure what we put out is accurate, which is beyond important in an industry that isn’t forgiving.”

Sarah told me that Jim knew the business was hemorrhaging, so Jason became BMT’s crisis manager and overhauled the operation completely—streamlining it with a self-developed method, and armed with decades of experience learning. “I don’t even know where to begin. The process was completely messed up, from the organization and managers to the training and techniques. They were literally building things backwards,” said Jason. “Restoration shops are hard to make profitable. Without good practices and knowledge of the cars beforehand, money and time get gobbled up so you have nothing left over for sustainability or expansion.”

This is how Jason did it differently. First, he downsized the staff—retaining only 100 of the truly dedicated. The still-sizable workforce is necessary for his system. After clients get in touch, he sends them scope letters with leeway for addenda. A logistics officer handles the bureaucracy of import and export. Disassembly of each car begins and every single part, no matter how small, gets its picture taken. Workspaces are scheduled, and a copious amount of notes gets written on a whiteboard which is also photographed extensively and routinely.

Hundreds of images are archived for each client, which prevents last-minute emergencies and redo’s while adding value to the story of the car. Every bolt and washer is accounted for and tracked through BMT. Parts are marked with symbols determining what can be restored or replaced (the former is always preferred). “If OEM and NOS parts are crap or not available, we reproduce them. We can make anything,” said Jason. The last statement is not an exaggeration. From hand-crafted body panels, beautiful wooden dashboards, and svelte fiberglass, to intricate window mechanisms and tiny machined components, his army of technically trained Filipino craftsmen can likely build it in-house. BMT handles streamlined Jaguars, gorgeous Benzes, luxurious Bentleys, air-cooled Porsches, one-off Italian exotica, Australian curiosities, and even prototypes for IMSA and Le Mans. It’s even one of two shops in the world that properly achieve two-door conversions of classic Rolls-Royces, turning $30,000 sedans into $300,000 coupes.

Jason and Sarah live ten minutes away from BMT, in Angeles City. They stay at the shop from 8AM to sometimes 9PM. Each workday actually begins the night before; after the workers leave, Jason obsessively records the progress of each car for a dispatch list used the next morning. A typical day involves 5-8 miles of walking for Jason and Mick Harrison, BMT’s British Special Projects Manager. They don’t sit behind desks in air-conditioned rooms, they sweat and get dirty with everyone else. “If someone needs something or finds a problem, you need to address it right away. Coming up with solutions in a timely manner gets cars finished properly,” said Jason. He goes to the shop even on weekends, working on his own personal projects—a rat rod, a Kawasaki GPZ750 motorcycle, an FIA-sanctioned Alfa Romeo race car, a rock crawler for his wife, and his modified Porsche 914/6. “It’s a bit of a sickness, I know.”

The warehouse complex was once used by the US military in the bygone era when American forces maintained bases in Clark and nearby Subic. Its age shows. No resources went to repainting the shop to appear shiny and sterilized. Jason funnels all focus, love, and care onto the cars themselves and his 100-strong staff. Inside the rugged walls, tired old machines are transformed into diamonds and Filipino mechanics evolve into masters. There’s no super advanced equipment, they stick to the basics: English wheels, shrinkers, stretchers, planishing hammers, press brakes, mills, hydraulic presses, and an array of specialty hand tools, etc. “The tools aren’t rocket science. We use the same stuff as back in the day. The art is in how you use them so nothing gets damaged.”

It’s true that the advantages of offshore factories include relaxed restrictions and cheaper labor, but BMT’s workforce is happy, highly technical, well paid, and very much respected. “They are some of the best metal workers I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked with masters from Sweden, England, France, Austria, etc. Metalwork is both a gift and a learned skill. In Pampanga, it’s almost native, I don’t know really know why there are so many good ones here,” Jason remarked. Sarah agreed, “The beauty is that we walked into an extremely mechanically gifted area. It’s been passed down through generations of fathers and uncles.” We wondered if that had anything to do with the former military bases, and the resulting Filipino traditions of replicating colloquial “owner-type” jeeps and building infamous jeepneys.

It was initially challenging, but Jason and Mick quickly understood how to harness and direct the local spirit. The employees immediately respected Jason and Mick for their very hands-on approach. They teach by example, continually demonstrating their own abilities to do every technical task within the restoration process. “I noticed that Filipinos enjoy working in groups because of their social culture,” explained Mick. “We don’t just teach people how to bolt stuff together. We teach a mentality: You don’t just do the job, you have to prep to do the job, check the job, and clean up after the job… No one should yell at or talk down to them. The Filipinos are everything. They do all the work. Their passion to learn, I find, is incredible,” added Jason.

“The Philippines isn’t full of vintage European cars, and there aren’t car shows where my guys can go to learn and look around, so they work on cars they’d never seen before. They were MIG welding body panels! MIG welding is very poor—it creates cracks and you can’t work a MIG weld, all you can do is grind it. We insisted that body panels had to be torch welded with gas and rod. That weld, you can work. That’s a good weld. A guy might say, ‘Well it’s easier to MIG weld’ and people might TIG weld around the world, but using oxyacetylene was how most of these panels were originally put together. If you’re not willing to teach your crew things like that, you’re not helping.”

“Building cars requires a special breed, because it’s tough. My guys rise up to it, which I admire. I demand a high level of care and concentration. If you’re the guy that rounds or strips bolt and scratches paint, this isn’t the place for you. I’ve seen guys, fresh out of a trade school, that were too scared to touch the cars, then they went on to build engines and do some of the finest work we’ve had. Some of them are specialists and some of them are very well-rounded… I’m really happy I get to see all that in such volume.”

Walking through BMT, as a Filipino, gave me a sense of national pride. Every department now has Filipino leads, and Jason talked about his people with nothing but praise and genuine fondness. His apprentices are now largely independent—exhibiting high morale, proactivity, less hand holding, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and engineering ingenuity. Few have left to do other things, but most stay with him out of loyalty. Jason is always willing to provide references, though. “I had one guy who is now building drift cars in the Middle East and he’s doing great! I see their confidence rise and show them photos of our clients’ cars at concours events, to inspire. I always remind them: You are world-class. I didn’t do this. We did this.”

Jason’s philosophy of restoration is inspired by old coachbuilders and manufacturers he says. “Projects that stagnate do not turn out very well. When a car was built, going through a factory assembly line in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it didn’t start and stop. It went through as one cohesive build. That’s what we’re doing.” Cars come and go so rapidly that I didn’t catch any 100% finished jewels to shoot. Finished orders quickly make their way to the port. A week earlier, they shipped out 23.

I asked Jason about the future next. Regarding his own career trajectory, he seems flexible. He isn’t entirely sure he’ll stay with BMT forever. He doesn’t discount the idea of starting his own shop or trotting the globe, offering his consultation services. However, he’s gotten to know all of his employees and has grown attached. Commenting on automotive trends, he’s convinced that the stocks of pre-war restoration projects have dried up. Soon there will be less cars from the ‘50s to ‘70s that can be worked on. He doesn’t see electrification negatively impacting the restoration scene, at least not yet. “Cars from the ‘80s onwards are going to be more difficult to restore, because of processes that haven’t been duplicated. Plastic and foam parts will have to be reproduced, so I see companies having to adapt to replicate those relatively modern parts.”

After allowing me to wander around the facility unsupervised for hours, Sarah cracked open a beer for Jason at dusk as he shared a couple of his wishes. “I’d like more downtime with Sarah, but we keep accepting more clients. I need to work on that. I still want to do the Mille Miglia. I’ve prepped several cars, but never driven it myself,” Jason sighed, then digressed. “There are certain countries like the Philippines which have strict, very stupid laws on importing old cars that don’t differentiate classics as investments. I hope that changes. An old, rusty Toyota beater differs from a mint, low-mileage one. People with strong sentimental attachments to a car should be able to own it. I hope parts of the world start to change legislation. It’s not fair.”

“I’m a gas-smelling, clutch pedal kind of guy—paddle shifts, drive-by-wire, and active suspension are wonderful but I feel they take away from the experience. I don’t think I’ll ever own a self-driving car. I might own an electric car, but it wouldn’t give me a sense of passion somehow,” Jason insisted. “I look at my work here as an opportunity to teach what I’d learned from good people. A lot of my mentors are aging, with their dying arts. The post-war era was a great time of sharing and engineering evolution. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, skills became coveted. Young guys didn’t share, for fear of losing customers. I see being protective as a bad, bad thing. If I can teach you something, and you perfect it or do it better, that’s wonderful… I don’t care about being famous. I just want to keep building cars with good people for as long as I can.”

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Kelvin John GanoPete McLachlanRegJenna GenioJoe Recent comment authors
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Kelvin John Gano
Kelvin John Gano

Keep it up sir, its great to hear all your progress, more power and blessings, filipino people’s need a leader like you.

Pete McLachlan
Pete McLachlan

It is difficult to beat the Filipino work ethic. Spread that talent around I say!

lowebird
lowebird

I bought one of their Series 1 E Types and was not overly impressed. I think there are better places in the UK

FRanco Jo
FRanco Jo

Great story, very inspiring. Would love to see more articles about shops like these.

Jenna Genio
Jenna Genio

Thanks, we appreciate it! 🙂

Clay Carter
Clay Carter

Good story . I hope it works out for Jason but Jim Byrnes is a con man and a crook. In Australia anything he touched ended in tears.

Joe
Joe
Jenna Genio
Jenna Genio

Good thing I chose to feature Jason. 😉
He’ll be fine. There will always be demand for his skill set.