Luigi’s Lesson

A Lesson In Restoration

A father-daughter project turns a passion for cars into a family tradition.Andrew Johnson

Courtesy Bill Miller

Bill Miller has made a career out of restoring old vehicles—a passion that started at age seven when he built his own spray booth in his bedroom to put custom paint jobs on his model cars.

Since then, Miller has restored and sold more than 50 cars. And he’s done far more than that since opening Livermore Collision Center Inc. in 1993. The 6,000-square-foot shop in Livermore, Calif., does 75 percent collision repair and 25 percent restoration work.

Miller’s most valuable project was one he completed with his daughter, Rachel. She’d fallen in love with cars at age 16, after watching Disney’s 2006 movie, “Cars.”

“She was hooked,” Miller says, noting that he was delighted when his daughter expressed interest in his lifelong hobby. Miller jumped at the opportunity to introduce her to vehicle restoration. He searched for a project the pair could share, scouring the Internet until he came across the perfect job: a 1963 Fiat for just $1,500.

The father-daughter duo worked together on the tiny Fiat for a year. And now, the medium yellow-colored coupe with suicide doors is quite the attraction in Livermore Collision Center’s parking lot.

The Restoration

Miller says the Fiat was in decent shape when he picked it up, but there was still enough work to be done to give his daughter a sense of the entire restoration process. The car had been driven for only eight years—from 1963 to 1971. With just 46,000 miles on it, the car sat untouched for 36 years until Miller bought it in 2007.

The Fiat needed both mechanical and body work. It was filled with rust, dents and a ripped up interior. Mechanically, the suspension needed work, and the transmission and engine had to be replaced.

Miller put out $7,500 to fully restore the Fiat. The investment, he says, was well worth everything the process taught his daughter about cars. She learned how to strip a car to bare metal, repair rust and dents, replace chrome, repolish aluminum, fix the suspension and replace the transmission. She learned how to install new parts: a water pump, carburetor and hoses.

The big challenge was in finding an engine to drop in the car. Ironically, a replacement engine sat just next door—in their neighbor’s backyard. Miller’s neighbor just happened to have a similar Fiat sitting under cover.

The neighbor’s Fiat was in rough shape, Miller says. He thought about restoring that one, too, but the body was too rusted out to safely repair. There were, however, parts that could be salvaged from the car, Miller says, most notably a well-running 650 cc, 35 horsepower engine.

Finally, the Millers added a few aesthetics to the car. They installed a modern gray cloth interior and added 12-inch rims to the tiny wheels. Miller’s daughter wanted the Fiat to have a race car feel, so they installed a roll bar and racing seat belts inside as novelties.

Miller also taught his daughter that every restored classic should be given a name. She got into the spirit of it, dubbing the restored two-door, four-seater “Luigi” in honor of her favorite “Cars” character. “It was great for her to see the restoration process from beginning to end,” Miller says.

The Talk of the Town

The Fiat has become something of an icon in Livermore, and a staple in Livermore’s downtown parades.

Rachel doesn’t drive it much—the car has only 4,000 more miles on it than it did when they picked it up—but Miller says it does get recognized every time she takes it out for a spin.

And the car is an eye-catcher even when it’s just sitting in Livermore Collision Center’s parking lot. Miller says his shop has become known as “the shop with the little yellow car in the parking lot.”

“People stop to take pictures of the car,” Miller says. “We even had some people from Italy ask to buy the car so they could export it back home.”

In fact, Miller’s obvious talent for restoration earns him a second income selling his works for profit. But the Fiat is one job that’s not for sale.
The sentimental value of the time spent with his daughter, he says, is priceless.

This article appears in the September 2010 issue of FenderBender

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