WHEN YOU WERE A KID, DID YOU HAVE A DREAM CAR?
As a second-generation smash repairer, cars have been as constant in my life as red dust on an Australian roadhouse roof. While I could often be found helping with kangaroo-dented utes or pole-assaulted rear bumpers from the time I could walk, my absolute favourite place in the world to be as a kid was working alongside my dad on one of the many classic cars he’s restored over the years.
From an old S series Valiant to 60’s Falcons, we’d work on a whole range of makes and models in our family’s backyard workshop. Even though each project had me wide-eyed and in awe, I quickly learned that when you get the chance to work on the car of your dreams, the experience becomes infinitely better.
Like your dating preferences, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every car lover has a type. My dad was and is a Falcon guy and in the early 90s, I was all about classic Australian cars. While there were a few iconic American muscle cars that had caught my eye, it was after watching Gone in 60 Seconds in 2000 that I learned that I’m very much a ’65, ’66 and ’67 Mustang Man (and Angelina Jolie fan).
When the first ‘65 Mustang we restored for a customer rolled in, it was in rough shape. She had rusted out floor pans, mouldings hanging off, a paint job that was more like a moss-covered rock and the type of interior that you’d find mice happily making a home in. Even in that condition, I knew I wanted her to be mine.
Over hundreds, if not thousands of hours, Dad showed me just how much patience and craftsmanship goes into vehicle restoration. There’s the problem solving that goes into aligning the body and panels, the skill of stretching and shrinking metal, the careful restoration of the original bodylines as well as the final prep before sanding, spraying and polishing. Every single step was done with precision, passion and the promise that one day, this Mustang would be back on the road and making someone’s stomach flip even before they put their foot on the pedal.
Although I had a love for Mustangs, owning one always seemed like it was out of my reach, which is why when I was finally able to buy my first car, I settled for what I thought was the next closest thing: an RA23 Celica. (Which, I still have to this day!) Like most Australians, I also got the itch to travel after finishing school and went to B.C., Canada to do a ski season… thus depleting even more of my Dream Car Savings Fund.
While I was considering being a ski bum for eternity, I knew deep down that I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. First, I became a panel beating apprentice and then fully qualified panel beater in our family’s workshop, which had since moved to Mudgee’s industrial complex. While I would have loved to have been working on old classic cars, I enjoyed the satisfaction I got from collision work. Seeing a car come in damaged and being involved end to end until it was proudly presented to the customer in pre-accident condition was the best feeling.
Ultimately, I ended up learning every role that I could. From completing another trade in painting to estimating to gaining a firm grasp on the business end of the business, smash repairs became my thing and in 2009, I purchased the family business. Over the last twelve years, I’ve gone on to create the 50+ person Central West operation that is now known as Leven Smash Repairs. (My accountant still reminds me of the first time he met a young twenty-year-old panel beater who sat at the end of the board room table telling him how he was going to take over the family business one day.)
Even though I’ve been on one helluva hyper-focused ride, I’ve never forgotten about my first love and have always been looking for the right moment to venture into restorations. In 2020, I got my chance. Around the time the world was in pandemic chaos and hitting the big pause button, I found myself questioning the position Covid had put us in and how I had even ended up there to begin with. Was I living my life exactly how I wanted to? With people driving less, what could I do to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction that comes with repairing and restoring something?
Mentally, I went back to where my passion for cars started: the family workshop. Instantly, I had visions of that 1965 Mustang. That was it! I needed a project. For months, I spent much of my down time scrolling through car sales, auction sites, Facebook groups, unique car magazines and even in the US to find the perfect 1965 Mustang to restore. Unable to find anything, I began making phone calls to people in the industry or who may know someone with the car I was looking for. It took a lot of ‘Sorry, Mate’ and ‘Can’t help you!’ responses before I got a solid lead! Only issue: they weren’t selling.
Or were they? It took three phone calls and two face to face meetings, but I managed to convince the owner to let me buy it. Together with a good friend, I drove three hours with a trailer to go pick it up. (Some people baked banana bread in 2020, I clearly had an appetite for something a bit bigger!)
With more rust than a tip full of scrap metal during the rainy season in Darwin, the car was everything that I could have ever imagined and more. The whole way home I replayed images of me working on it with not only my dad, but now also my son. At first, I thought this would be a personal project for me, but when I unloaded her into the workshop, a few of my restos-loving team members flocked over to admire my purchase and show their keen interest to be involved.
As I watched them run their hands along the curves of the car and discuss how they’d restore it, I realised that not only did I have my dream car, I also had the perfect storm to start a business: the right car, the right people and the right reason. In that moment, Leven Restorations was born. With a firm belief that cars are in our lives to make memories, celebrate milestones and, in many cases, act as a motivator, I can’t wait to see which projects find their way to us.
We’re currently midway through the Mustang and guess what: we’re doing the RA23 too! You can follow along on Instagram via @levenrestorations
So tell me, what’s your dream car?
– Simon Leven