At 19 years old Doug Graf had no idea that his first car would one day lead to a business venture.
“It was instrumental in ruining my college career,” Graf joked about his flashy 1961 red Corvette.
Truthfully, ownership of that car ignited Graf’s love for Corvettes which decades later led to the founding of his Lakewood-based business: Classic Reflection Coachworks.
“The Corvette is the most collected vehicle in the world,” Graf said.
He should know. He has customers as far away as Switzerland and Germany.
But the work Graf’s company does inside the Lakewood Industrial Center isn’t your traditional restoration. It’s the opposite.
“Instead of taking an old car and making it look new again, we take a new car and make it look old,” Graf said.
People give Graf and his employees perfectly good cars and ask they be torn apart. They can choose one of three models to replicate: 1958, 1962 or 1967.
The end result? A custom car with the body lines of a classic Corvette complete with new upholstery and amenities like heated seats and present day technology.
Seated in the office of his business at 4425 100th St SW, Graf explains the evolution of how he went from being a Budweiser beer distribution business
owner to owner of Classic Reflections Coachworks.
When Graf sold his beer distributorship in 2003 he wasn’t ready to retire. That’s when the son of an electrical engineer let his genes take the wheel.
A self-professed analytical thinker with a history of taking things apart and rebuilding them in his own style, Graf undertook a personal project: the conversion of a 1993 Corvette into a 1962 Corvette – at least on the outside.
He started with handheld models – a 1962 Corvette and a C5 Corvette (the model designation for cars built from 1997 to 2004) – and pieced them together.
Next he created scaled and three dimensional drawings to determine whether a present-day car could be converted to one from decades earlier.
From there he knew what he had to do.
“We bought a brand new Corvette Saturday and on Sunday I was cutting it up with a saw,” he said.
Graf and his wife took the finished car to a car show.
“It was a huge hit,” he said.
From there the road was clear. He opened his business in 2005.
Back then he didn’t envision he’d one day occupy a space like the one he’s at in the Lakewood Industrial Park.
“My intent was to buy a small shop somewhere and have a couple people work for me,” he said.
But when people saw what he could do they wanted one of his cars. Once he was up and running Graf had “more orders than I could fill.”
Demand has ebbed and flowed in the years since, but Graf estimates the business averages 17 cars a year.
His first car took him three years to complete. Now they are transformed in 10 weeks.
All the work is done in house and the materials made in America.
The cars are rebuilt by 11 employees inside the 15,000-square-foot industrial space off 100th Street. Graf also owns two smaller locations in the city where items are stored.
They start by peeling off the panels of the “donor car” – the term used to describe the car that will be transformed. The body panels are sold and the interior is taken out (it will later be reinstalled).
The body is created using molds and composite that is cooked in a massive oven at high temperatures.
Once cooled the body works its way through an assembly line of sorts, stopping at different stations around the warehouse to be cut, trimmed, sanded, painted and buffed before it is reassembled on the donor car chassis.
Ninety percent of the car parts are made in-house, said Julie Stacy, Graf’s daughter who manages the office. That includes chrome bumpers, trunk spears, the trim on the grill and side pipes.
Taillights and emblems are a little trickier, so those come from licensed sellers, Stacy said.
“We want to have the highest quality so we do it in house,” Graf said.
A 40-year resident of Lakewood, Graf has made his business available to local service clubs who want to meet among the “Retro Vettes” and he’s also opened his doors to vocational schools and their students.
Graf has also hired a handful of Clover Park Technical College graduates over the years.
For its significant contribution to innovation and the creation of family wage manufacturing jobs, the City of Lakewood recognized CR Coachworks as its February 2017 Business Showcase.
To see how CR Coachworks transforms its cars watch thisvideo on the city's YouTube channel.