Michael Engard fixes toys. But don't take him your limping Barbies, frozen Lionel engines or rusted Flexible Flyers. Engard, 41, specializes in aging Jaguars, Triumphs, MGs and Land Rovers, cars which were on the road in Britain before the Beatles. "It's a luxury market," he explained from his 10-man shop in Perkasie recently. "This is discretionary cash for a lot of these people. It's a toy for many." Customers at Ragtops & Roadsters, which Engard opened in 1990, are willing to pay up to $150,000 and wait three years for their repairs, he said. Doing everything from a tune-up to a complete restoration of a pre-World War II car, the company's sales have grown steadily since the beginning [377% between 1994 and 1995 and expect another increase of 15% in 1996].
Upon delivery, Engard's customers are able to drive their British-made cars in parades, to car shows and, if brave, to malls. "I bought my used Austin-Healey 20 years ago," said Charlie Becht, an owner of Becht Engineering in Liberty Corner, NJ. "After enjoying it until about three years ago, I had to put it away. I figured I'd do the work myself. Then I saw an ad for Ragtops & Roadsters in the local newsletter for the Austin-Healey club. I went out to see them, and they worked on the car for two years. These are not appliances. They are not a refrigerator or a washing machine. British cars are different from Detroit. They are hand-made."
Jack Stoll, a purchasing manager for AEL-Tractor Corp., in Lansdale, paid $2,495 for his new MG Midget in 1973. He believes it's worth about $4,700 today, but he admits after restoring the car over a three-month period in 1995 "I have more than twice that amount of money in it." No worry, he said, because "This MG never let me down."
Americans' fascination for British cars began during the country's recovery from World War II, Engard said. "When they were importing cars, they were coming into Baltimore and New York as well as Los Angeles," Engard said. "They were also bringing them in to Houston and Seattle. We figure that about 25 percent of those cars came into this area." Thus, Engard estimates his market is 250,000 cars.
"After the war, England had no money," Engard said. "About 25 percent of their overall production, and 75 percent of their sports car production, came over here. The government said "export or die." The British had a stiff-upper-lip attitude. They felt their cars were the best, saying "We make this car, and here it is. They had no dealer network. They would send over some Englishman with a transmission. He'd go to a hotel somewhere and call up all the American dealers. They'd come to his room and he'd take the transmission apart on the table. That was their service network. They had no parts because they were selling cars, not parts. And to make things more complicated, there were about 1,000 car makers from Britain."
The post-war success was followed by a downturn in the market in the 1970s that left many owners clinging to their 20-year-old Land Rovers and MGs. While fuel-efficient and high-quality Japanese cars damaged American automakers, they nearly destroyed the British.
"In the mid-1970s, the British dealer network collapsed," Engard said. "There were no sources for parts, so no one could fix the cars. For many of the cars, there was nothing wrong except for some little part." It was about that time that Engard dropped out as a pre-med student at Temple University and used his technical ability to buy British cars and find ways to fix them. "You could buy the cars for $50 at that point, put them in a garage and buy another car for the parts," he said.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Engard worked at various garages and car dealerships, doing everything from restoring buses to joining a pit crew for a Toyota racing team. But when he found a home on South 4th Street in Perkasie, he found a suitable building to start the business and room nearby to expand. Ragtops & Roadsters now occupies a two-car garage, a 1,500-square-foot building and a former warehouse measuring 6,000 square feet.
"Gas stations and dealerships pride themselves in getting things in and out the same day," Engard said. "We have done almost 100 cars this year and I would guess only one of two of them have gone out the same day." Now, the British automobile manufacturing industry is on a revival. For the first time since 1975, the country's passenger car production exceeded 1.5 million units, according to Automotive Industries magazine. The industry has gained new life, thanks to the takeover of domestic firms by foreign automakers, which have brought innovative work rules to Britain. Rover has become a German BMW and Jaguar is now an American Ford. But that doesn't mean the prices are any more affordable, allowing a market for repairing older cars.
"You can buy a new Jaguar for $60,000, a Lotus for $90,000 and a Rolls for $150,000," Engard said. "It's not assembly line production the way Americans do it. For instance, the Morgan factory recently upped production to eight cars per week, up from seven."
Few junk the British cars.
A note pinned on Ragtops & Roadsters bulletin board explained it all:
You know you're an MG car girl when:
You ask for tools for Christmas.
That man in the auto parts store knows you by name.
You would rather get a package from Victoria British than Victoria Secret.