Interview and photos by Greg Wing
Bob Ensign of Ensign Restoration Services of Latham, New York, has been in business for 16 years. His philosophy is, “Do what you love. Love what you do. It is going to work.” His short cropped hair, animated gestures, steel blue eyes and great stories draw you in. Bob demands the highest quality. Here he discusses his work with restoration of a 1949 Maserati A6 1500, a 1953 Cunningham C3 Coupe and his unique MG custom while giving a tour of his shop.
Sports Car Digest: Tell us about your history, shop, and current projects?
Bob Ensign: We recently moved from a shop of 4,000 square feet to our new location in Latham Circle that has 14,000 square feet. We are now able to also store automobiles; auto repair, restoration and storage. Having the storage is a natural extension.
As the economy went down, our business exploded. Don’t ask me why, people love cars; as do we. Some people have money and some people don’t. The cars aren’t about the money to me and they aren’t about the value. It’s about the love of the car. Of course, you have to screen your clients because a lot of people get into things that are way over their heads. That makes for adversarial tensions. I don’t want tensions. I want to have a good time doing what we do. Do nice cars and do the best that we can do.
First auto on the shop tour:
BE: Under the cover is the Hemmings Sports & Exotic MGB; their project car. We did our part over a year ago which was paint it and it came back to me in boxes so that we could finish it. Writers for publications are busy and they are cutting back budgets so they have more to do with less resources. It is okay with me as a non-profit will benefit, Good News Garage. We do a lot for non-profits for a repair and restoration shop. We are unusual because we do give back to the community and especially to non-profits. It’s a very important thing to give back to the community with the Saratoga Auto Museum and with the local arts organizations. It’s a passion. I do this because non-profit revenue is way down and without non-profits our state is going to have to step in. We can’t afford that. We need more people to support the non-profits whether it be the food bank or Saratoga Performing Arts. This (1979) MGB is a pretty cool car. MGBs aren’t my favorite cars, but they are really nice drivers.
Next stop on the shop tour:
BE: This is an amazing car and an amazing owner. It’s a 1949 Maserati A6 1500. This particular Maserati (chassis 086) was the first Maserati ever entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It didn’t actually race in it, but it was entered. It is just an amazing car, all-aluminum, a Pinin Farina (body). What’s really unusual is that we have a Cunningham in the shop right now and that’s Vignale. So we have really both Italian coachbuilders. They are both kinda Superleggera construction and it’s really nice to see the differences between their construction. These guys (Pinin farina) are way better, way better. It had a lot of corrosion on it. We are done welding on it. So now we just have to finish up the painting on it and get it back to Don.
There was a television show from 2006 on the Mille Miglia and there is a motorcycle stuffed in the center of this car. It was pretty ugly. It was accepted into Amelia Island for 2011. Because of the significant European race history, I knew that it will be accepted. It is really straightforward a car that really belongs there. Now we are shooting for Pebble Beach since I wanted more time on the car. The last restoration was in California and they put lead on aluminum. You can’t lead aluminum. The beauty of it is that when I get done with it, it’s going to look, really nice. We’ve got a ton of time in it; probably three months and one more month to go. Of course, we’re not on it everyday. We want to do it right, not cut corners. That’s not my style. That can come back to bite you, I’ve seen it happen; not to me. I pass on those, ‘just hurry up and get it done jobs’.
Next stop on the shop tour:
BE: The next one is a 1953 Cunningham C3 Coupe. This has been through two other restoration shops; one in Ohio and one in Vermont. It started in Vermont, and then went to Ohio. That took five years and not much was done to it. The owner is a friend and a large collector. He likes to drive his cars. Last year at Amelia Island, I was doing inspections and write-ups for Hemmings Sports and Exotic. The Cunningham’s owner saw me inspecting a Cunningham drop-head coupe and he said, “You like that car?” “Yeah, of course!” “You want to do one?” “Yeah!” Next thing you know, I come home from Amelia and I tell my wife I got to go to Ohio! She’s like, you just got back from Florida and I’m like, oh well, bye! So I got it and have put a focus on it. The paint will be a two-tone with silver and champagne. This is going to be a lot of fun.
I’ll have a clean room in my new shop to do the assembly in. It’s going to be so nice. I when out to LA with the Silver Arrow Society and went into Jay Leno’s collection, the Nethercutt Collection and the Peterson Auto Museum.
I walk into Leno’s and you know he’s got a 12,000 sq. ft. repair shop and it’s well equipped. He’s got three pieces of equipment that are kinda-outta reach like the 3-D plastic printer for your average restoration shop, but the rest of it, not really out of reach. So, of course, my mind starts spinning. Then we go to Nethercutt and look at areas of their shop and it’s absolutely perfect. So my head is spinning more and more and I came back from LA with this idea and realized what I had just wasn’t cutting it. I really have to step it up a notch and I am going to.
BE: I like working on MG’s.
SCD: My father had a 1952 TD and when he’d drive it up the street in the 1950’s, the kids would yell at him, “Hotrodder!” Then in late 1960’s he got another one for my sister to drive for her first car. When he’d drive that up Mill Hill Road in Woodstock in 1969, the kids would run out and chase him yelling, “Get a Horse!”
BE: My favorite-favorite MG is my custom. The one I designed and built myself. Every now and then I get bored restoring cars to original. I’m not one to just modify cars to modify this or that. MG between the TD and the TF there is a huge difference; the front end and the visual effect of the cars. The TFs are one of my favorite MGs of all-time visually. I love the fenders. For years I’ve been doing MGs, so I wound up with this part or a motor, gearbox, rear-end and I had all of these parts. Then I got a call from a guy and went to Nyack, NY. He had about 15 frames. He said, “Take your pick.” So I got a nice frame and this and that. I know what interchanges with MG, MGB, TD and TF. So, one thing lead to another and all these parts came together.
You can really turn RPMs with this custom. It’s very, very fast. I can run with Jaguars. Oh yeah, I can run with Porsches too. Especially in tight corners and pretty much go around them. So, I can run with the big boys. On a straight, forget it; I can meet their top speed, but it takes me a while. I’ve been to 8,700 RPM with it several times, not sustained. It’s the black car right outside here and my favorite ride right now. Since I finished, it has about 55 to 65K on it. It’s only been on a tow truck once because I blew a freeze-out plug racing a Porsche Boxster on the Northway. I was ahead of him. Keyword was…ahead of him. Eventually I was going to put a blower on it, but the thing’s so damn fast, I don’t need it. The horsepower-to-weight ratio is absolutely perfect.
SCD: What do the purists think of your MG custom?
BE: They like it as long as I’m not being judged next to them.
Ensign Restoration Services
836 Loudon Road
Latham, NY 12110
Greg Wing is a freelance motorsports writer living in Clifton Park, New York. Wing created a website dedicated to the history of the innovative Deutsch-Bonnet Panhards race cars that ran at the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. For more information or to contact him, visit Deutsch-Bonnet Panhards.