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Car restorer remembered

Auction scheduled for items owned by Mike Fennel, a vintage automobile expert

Posted: December 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Juli Fennel with a 1956 Continental in her late husband Mike Fennel's restoration shop in Saugus. The classic car is one of six that employees are restoring following Mike Fennel's death in September.

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Mike Fennel’s legacy may be seen by car aficionados as his extraordinary talent for bringing vintage cars back to life. But to family and friends, his sudden death on Sept. 19 signaled the loss of a man of integrity and passion.

Founder and owner of Santa Clarita-based Mike Fennel Restorations, Fennel returned to the Saugus shop that he loved just days after leaving Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he had had surgery for a brain aneurysm.

“The doctors said everything was fine,” said his wife, Juli. “I thought for sure we had a clean bill of health.”

Juli accompanied her husband to the shop, as she so often did to handle the bookkeeping and office responsibilities for the business. But after sitting at his desk for only 15 minutes, Fennel, 64, walked out of the shop and collapsed. Fennel died from complications of the brain aneurysm his family believed he had survived.

On Saturday at 9 a.m., Ken Porter Auctions, one of the oldest vehicle auction companies in California, will auction off the scores of classic cars Fennel kept at his 100,000-square-foot building.

The auction company will also help the family liquidate hundreds of machines, 45 motors, pallets and pallets of parts that he kept stored in the building and on his one-acre outdoor lot, Juli said.

“We’re closing the business,” Juli said. “There is no Mike Fennel Restoration without Mike Fennel.”

Friends agree.

Blackhawk Collection

Don Williams, owner of the Blackhawk Collection of vintage vehicles out of Oakland, met Fennel some 40 years ago in Los Angeles. The two men became close friends.

Fennel restored some of the rarest cars in the world for Williams. Together they traveled the country and the world tracking crown jewels of automotive history, like the 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom that Williams purchased in 2000.

Fennel spent six years restoring the car to perfection, its owner said.

With the painstaking attention Fennel paid to detail, the Rolls Royce won First in Class at the world-renowned Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2008.

Over the 40-year friendship, the two men won 150 trophies at Pebble Beach for cars Fennel restored.

“We never had a written contract,” Williams said. “There was never anything in writing. He’d quote me a price and tell me how long it’d take to restore a car. And he’d keep his word.”

At times, the two would find a really rare car, Williams said. And then the two would work only off a verbal “guesstimate.”

The two always sought cars that were artistic, Williams said.

Like the 1949 Delahaye coupe de Ville, — built for the 1949 Paris Salon Auto show — that Fennel spent two years restoring, the Delahaye is now set to be auctioned in January by the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Mike had some very challenging cars,” Williams said. “I consider him to be one of the best experts. He’s done the rarest cars in the world.”

Fennel also worked for other clients, some of whom shipped cars across the country to his Saugus shop for restoration. He worked on iconic cars built internationally and domestically — cars that sold in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars — once they went up for auction.

But Fennel was a private personality with a public business, Williams said. He never did the work for the prestige; he worked for the love of cars.

The two men talked every day, even holidays, he said.

“I won’t be able to replace him, but we had 40 years of a great friendship and camaraderie,” Williams said. “We were lucky.”

In the meantime, the task of organizing Fennel’s extensive collection has been left to wife, Juli, and son Tim Fennel.

Dismantling the business

“It’s been an overwhelming task,” Juli Fennel said. “We didn’t realize he had this much. He was not only an accumulator, but an eclectic collector.”

Juli credits her son Tim for putting the auction together and organizing everything at the shop.

“He’s put his life on hold to pick up all the pieces,” she said of her son, who works in transportation for movie studios. She said she feels very lucky to have him and all of his support.

However, the auction is just a start at dismantling the business. The family still has six cars Fennel had been restoring for clients.

Together with the employees, Juli Fennel estimates they’ll spend the next six months finishing all of the cars — the way Fennel would have.

The auction will help the family consolidate, organize and reduce overhead by moving into a smaller space while the remaining cars are finished. They then plan to close down the shop that Fennel loved — for good.

While Juli handled all the bookkeeping for her husband, she defined it only “as a means to having a life.” But for Fennel, she said, the auto restoration business was his life.

The auction is Saturday, Dec. 8 at 9 a.m. at 25655 Springbrook Ave., in Saugus. Interested bidders can inspect the collection Thursday and Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at




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