In mid July, a restored 1930 Ford Model A rested outside Vargas Custom Body. It was easily visible to anybody driving by the business at 4201 East 31st St., Kansas City.
For advertising purposes, it was the perfect spot. The car represented the type of work Vargas Custom Body Shop has been doing for 36 years in the same location.
But Joe Vargas, the manager for Vargas Custom Body Shop, wasn’t thinking in those terms when he placed the car out front.
“I put it out there because I had nowhere else to put it,” Vargas said. “I needed space to work on more cars.”
The no-nonsense approach to restoring cars, fixing them up after an accident or repainting them is what has kept the business thriving since owner Jim Vargas started it in 1980.
Joe Vargas has worked for Jim, his cousin, off and on for since the beginning, including the last three years as the manager.
“He is my cousin, but I consider him my brother,” Vargas said. “He is 78 years old now and has some health issues and can’t make it to the shop every day. He has so much knowledge.”
Through the years, Vargas figures close to 15 family members have worked there. Vargas’ children have worked there. Vargas laughed when asked about working on a daily basis with family members.
“It is a pain,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I can glory it up for you if you like.”
Don’t be fooled by Vargas’ dry sense of humor. He is proud of the work the shop does on a daily basis and what the Vargas family has built.
“We wanted to be one of Kansas City’s best custom shops,” Vargas said. “It is more than just a job. It is a passion. We restore old cars, and that is something not everybody can do.
“We are a small shop. You can see how big the building is. But we’ve been here for 36 years and the doors are still open so we have to be doing something right.”
One longtime customer who can attest to their work is Don Motley, former Negro Leagues Museum executive director and president. As chairman of Community Baseball Academy of Kansas City, Motley still drives around the city to youth baseball games.
He admits that in his earlier days he wasn’t the best of drivers.
“I was a bad driver for a while and tore up a car,” Motley said. “One time a tree fell on my car in the backyard. They made them perfect. Honest to God, they do very good work.”
Four years ago, Motley brought in a car to have a touch-up paint job.
“I went back for it, and Vargas had painted the whole car,” Motley said. “He said, ‘Motley, I can’t let a car go out like this. He said you can pay me for the touch-up job and the rest is on me.’ So I paid him for the whole job. He doesn’t put out anything unless it’s A-1.
“He treats everybody right. People go in there and he gives everybody a fair price. Vargas doesn’t put out a second-hand work.”
Serafin Lopez agrees that customer service is the reason why Vargas Custom Body Shop has been around for more than three decades. Lopez, 42, hung out around the body shop since he started liking cars when he was 10 years old.
“It is great to see a shop still going because small shops don’t last,” Lopez said.
For Vargas, there is always a sense of satisfaction after he finishes a car. Sometimes he posts his completed work on his Facebook page.
“I did a 1955 Packard last year,” Vargas said. “I did a 1955 Chevy and 1986 Monte Carlo. It never stops.”
Vargas added that they have restorations and paint jobs lined up to keep them busy for a long time.
“We are trying to stay busy, trying to make a living,” he said. “That’s all we do. Nobody is getting rich. We are just trying to make a living. My kids have shoes on their feet and food in the refrigerator.”