January 17. 2015 5:17PM

Shapeshifter: Joe Stafford gives shape to car lovers' dreams

Sunday News Correspondent

Joe Stafford eyes one of his latest creations. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

BETHELEHEM - He may have slowed down a little, but there's still gas left in Joe Stafford's metaphorical tank, something that should make connoisseurs of his hand-made car bodies happy.

Born in Detroit and raised in Garden City, Mich., Stafford, 59, is one of a handful of automotive "panel beaters" in the Northeast and of about two dozen in the U.S. who can "shape metal for cars, aircraft, boats, anything," he says.

Stafford's panel-beating ability, especially as it pertains to vehicles with four wheels, has earned him international renown, although he wears his celebrity lightly.

Not for car shows

While cautioning that he's not part of the car-show scene, Stafford acknowledges that some of his car bodies have ended up in vehicles that appeared at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and other similar venues where many of the world's most rare, elegant and voluptuous cars are displayed by their well-heeled owners.

Panel Craft's mission to "produce the finest hand rolled body sheet metal in the world" - began at Garden City High School where Stafford took lots of industrial arts classes and where he also played in the school band.

"I loved the band," said Stafford, who played trombone. "It's the best-kept secret in the world."

Immediately after graduating from high school, Stafford got a job with General Motors as a sheet-metal model maker, helping fashion one-off cars that were crushed as soon as their display careers ended. At GM, he also met John Glover, a panel beater from England, and became his unofficial apprentice. Glover was well versed in using a machine known as an English Wheel, which allows a craftsman to curve metals in many interesting ways.

Changing jobs

Stafford left GM in 1983 and came east to Massachusetts, where he did sheet metal for a car repair and restoration company. Saying he wasn't really challenged there, however, Stafford moved to Portsmouth and then opened a shop in Littleton in 1992.

Eventually, Stafford moved one more time - to Bethlehem - where in 1997 he built a 2,000-square-foot garage near his residence, where he has been making exquisite car bodies since.

"The hardest part about this job is symmetry," said Stafford, noting that "nothing in nature is perfectly symmetrical," including car bodies.

Born of many years of experience, Stafford said he can anticipate corrections as he makes the car bodies and also knows when it's time to stop and start from scratch.

A typical car body takes Stafford up to 500 hours to fabricate, although the body for a 1939 Type 165 Delahaye took him 6,000 hours to do.

Comes at a price

Stafford's skills, all things considered, come at a relatively modest price. He charges customers $90 an hour plus materials. Currently, Stafford has an 18-month waiting list, but he is still accepting new customers who need to have two things: a dream of what they want their car body to look like and a nonrefundable check for $10,000.

Once he gets done with a car body, Stafford said his customers sometimes pay in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to have another company equip them and make them ready for the road.

Every finished car body - tailored to the specific dimensions of its owner - is a point of personal pride for Stafford, who as a one-man operation produces about three per year.

In 2012, Hotrod and Restoration magazine, which bills itself as 'The business resource for industry professionals,' featured Stafford on its cover, with an accompanying story entitled 'Why Joe Stafford restores classics by hand.'"

Apart from more than a dozen Cobras, Stafford has also built or restored bodies for an FII Roadster, 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, 1932 Stiles body MG, 1957 Mark II JoMar, 1927 Aston Martin, a Porsche 550 Spyder and a Cunningham C4R.

Taking a toll

Working by himself lets Stafford ensure an exacting level of quality control, but while the quality remains high, the quantity is slipping due to the effects of Father Time. Stafford has undergone several knee operations in recent years, including a knee replacement, which means that "I don't have the stamina, but I still have the enthusiasm."

Stafford expects to keep working, albeit at decreased levels, until his passion for building car bodies is gone.

When that happens, Stafford hopes to spend more time with his family and maybe to also travel the country and world.

But for now, however, the passion is still present, he said, "and I guess there's still some miles left" in his panel-beating future.

"I love beautiful cars. I love things with graceful forms and shapes" and it's that feeling, said Stafford, that keeps him coming back to his shop.

"I don't know if I'll ever really quit," Stafford summed up, adding that the uptick in the U.S. economy has created a renewed interest in custom-made cars.

Good years returning

Back when the economy was going full bore, some customers would come to Stafford and because they were flush with cash, wouldn't even ask how much his services cost. Stafford called the period the "stupid money time," adding that "It's getting close" to that time again.

Good times or bad, Stafford said two things stay the same: his commitment to producing the best car body possible and his rates.

"My answer never changes," he said.

"It's $90 per hour times however many hours and then about a thousand for materials" for a car body that will arguably be a thing of beauty and functionality as well as a joy for many years.