Bingled your new Lamborghini or need a classic Ferrari restored? Exclusive Auto Centre’s a specialist to suit.
Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is an exotic car lover’s heaven. Pace the streets and in minutes you’ll savour Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis and Rolls-Royces dazzling inside glitzy showrooms. These places are flush with sharp-suited, greased-hair sales folk offering fancy coffees, but good luck finding anyone who can actually get their hands dirty on these million-dollar rides.
The proper work lands at the feet of Nick Contarino, owner of Exclusive Auto Centre, its workshop tucked behind those glass- fronted palaces of exotica. Nick says about 70-80 per cent of the work he and his team perform are insurance jobs, and when you’re dealing with such specialist European brands, it takes various specialist skills and experience to undertake these fixes.
“We have a close working relationship with Maserati and Ferrari and have had factory approval for a number of manufacturers over the years,” Nick explains. “The challenge is our premises doesn’t present to a dealership-style environment.” Practically speaking, how can it? A workshop is a proper working environment with the inevitable mix of tools, equipment, parts and fluids. Wealthy supercar customers may only be exposed to their vehicle’s striking looks and leather cabins, but underneath it’s a highly specialised machine constructed of oily bits.
With a staff of ten, four chassis machines for post-accident re-alignment, two spray booths and impressive space to work considering its CBD location, it’s a busy workshop on my arrival, and one stocked with a number of longer-term restoration all Holdens and Falcons. Totally different engineering.” He bought an existing business in 1986, grew from that and located to his current site in 1992. “Being city centre based it’s a double-edged sword,” he explains. “We’re close to the motor vehicle dealers, but the real estate’s pretty expensive and space is always a challenge. We can get anything up to 20 cars in on a busy week. We always make space and sometimes move things out the back, but anything of value in kept within the four walls overnight.”
There’s plenty of value rolling in. Nick says work includes on Rolls Royces, racing Lolas, McLarens, Teslas and one of the most iconic Ferraris ever, the F40. These 1987-92 mid-engined turbocharged legends are worth over $2million today, and were the final models personally projects. There’s a late-model Ferrari 458 having repairs, but behind I find an early-1970s Porsche 911S, Porsche 356, Jaguar E-Type, the chassis of a Ferrari Dino and an ultra-rare DeTomaso Mangusta.
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“I have a passion for cars, period,” Nick says. “In the UK I worked at a Porsche and BMW repair centre, and we’d get all sorts of stuff. Before that, in Australia, it was approved by Enzo Ferrari before his death. A true enthusiast, Nick doesn’t want to stop there. He’s hoping to one day work on a (Swedish hypercar) Koenigsegg and have a Ferrari 250 GTO (1962-64, worth around $100million) through the door.
Nick completed his apprenticeship in 1974, but still finds time to pick up his tools and offer advice while running the business. With two staff in the paint shop, three in the panel shop and a fitter there’s a good level of speciality on show, Nick pointing out the benefit of having a mix of older, highly experienced technicians and younger guys coming through. One aspect applies to all. “If you just treat it as a job, you’re in the wrong place,” he says. “You have to work with a passion and have to love it otherwise you’re wasting your time. Otherwise, go pack veggies at Woolies.”
From the outside, working on these exotic and classic machines looks far more appealing than spinning filters at a Toyota dealership, for instance. “Sometimes the challenge is the aura of the car,” Nick explains, not to mention their value. “It’s just a car though, and it’s been built by people. You have to back-engineer it, understand the why and how, and make it aesthetically correct and accurate by replicating the engineering.”
An obvious challenge is how cars have changed over the decades Nick’s been in business. “The changes are quantum,” he says. “Aluminium was around in the 1970s, but these days aluminium technologies are a lot more advanced, and we’ve got composites, fibreglass, SMCs and plastics. I’ve been very interested in all these, as about 15 years ago we were subcontracting this work, but got into a few problems that way so I got someone to teach us. As with hybrids and electrification, you have to keep your head, ears and eyes abreast of it all.”
Recent years have seen the biggest advances and challenges. “There’s been more changes in the last 10 years than in the previous 50,” Nick says. “Even so, you have to keep wanting to learn, read, network and find people who do the training. I make time to attend industry-based conferences and speak to others in the industry. You can always learn from somebody else.”
Independents like Exclusive have had their lives made harder with company mergers from overseas gobbling up a lot of insurance work, “they can process a great number of cars in a more efficient way,” Nick says, while the cost of even a minor accident has gone off the charts. “Cars have become so complex,” Nick says. “With plastics absorbing energy it can look like no damage until you get underneath, and there’s $10,000 or repairs needed. Headlights can range from $300 to $7000, and active safety technology and artificial intelligence are very expensive.”
Nick says it’s still an exciting career to be in after all these years, especially with the types of vehicle he and his staff work on. For those interested, he’s always looking for staff and apprentices with the right level of passion. With the types of cars on show, it’d never be a dull place to come to work.