I must admit, I’ve always been one for a good, old-fashioned rags to riches story. Hearing about someone who came from nothing, worked hard and overcame substantial adversity to rise to the top never fails to capture and inspire me to raise my own game. And when said story involves automobiles, and someone emigrating to America from a place where such elevation would literally be impossible, well, it doesn’t get much better than that as far as I’m concerned.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet such a person, and was honored to be a trustee of his remarkable story. This engaging man of diminutive stature, and an even more humble demeanor is one Guillermo Osorio; and if you haven’t heard of him, then you likely don’t have much experience in the world of high-end, concours level auto restoration.
Because Guillermo, and his shop, Classic Vision Restorations in Burbank, California, are amongst the finest in the country in the field of turning out cars destined for blue ribbon glory at car shows with vaunted names like Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and Hershey.
Born in 1961 in San Salvador, El Salvador, Guillermo was the fourth of seven children. His father, a carpenter, and his mother, who owned and ran a small café, provided a relatively comfortable living for the family.
“… comfortable enough to own a pickup truck,” Osorio recalls, “which was kind of a mark of status where we lived.”
But political troubles in the country were brewing that caused Guillermo’s father great concern.
“As I was graduating from high school, a civil war between government forces and opposition guerillas was raging, with both sides kidnapping young men to become part of death squads,” Osorio remembers.
Guillermo’s father knew he had to get his family out of this terrible situation, so he sold every last tool he owned, had Guillermo’s mother sell the restaurant, and between them made enough money to purchase visas to the United States.
Arriving in Los Angeles with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs and no English language skills at all, the entire family moved into a small house in a bad neighborhood. For an extended period of time, they all shared one room to sleep in, and one bathroom.
Guillermo immediately began attending night classes to learn English at Hollywood High, where such Hollywood legends as Judy Garland, Ricky Nelson and Lana Turner had attended; and managed to find work in a series of restaurants, including the famous Brown Derby on Hollywood and Vine, bussing tables and washing dishes.
One night at the Derby, Guillermo crossed paths with Hollywood star, Ricardo Montalban, and accidentally spilled a glass of water on him.
“The restaurant manager was angry and wanted to fire me, but Montalban brushed the accident off. He even gave me a big tip!”
Later in life, Osorio would have another connection to the actor, but in a much different capacity.
In 1981, Guillermo had a life-changing opportunity when he gained employment at a body shop, Exclusive Auto Body in Sherman Oaks. Here, he began at the bottom, washing cars that had been repaired. But it wasn’t long before one of the shop’s painters recognized the young man’s work ethic.
Guillermo remembers, “He said to me ‘Do you want to wash cars your whole life, or do you want to learn the craft? C’mon, let’s teach you how to block sand and prepare primer.’”
Osorio took to learning his new vocation like a fish to water, and before long was the shop’s preferred paint-prepper. What’s more, another one of the painters took note of Guillermo’s obvious talent, and taught him the art of mixing paint to achieve precise color matching.
“It was at that point that I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to paint cars and make them perfect.”
After deciding upon a future, Guillermo honed his craft and parlayed the connections he was making into a job at the prestigious Nethercutt Collection. Here, another echelon of automobile was revealed to Osorio: multi-million dollar classics ranging from Bugattis and Duesenbergs, to Ferraris and Delahayes, all in absolute 100 point concours condition.
“To me, The Nethercutt was like heaven,” recalls Guillermo. “Never in my life did I dream of seeing cars like they had there. I was young and nervous about the job. Even though I had lots of experience on regular cars, I didn’t have any experience working on classics of that value.”
The first car Osorio worked on there was a 1932 Pierce-Arrow.
“I had never even heard the name Pierce-Arrow before. One fender took me five whole days to prep, sand and prime until it was perfect. At The Nethercutt, I learned many of my skills, and most of all, I learned patience.”
Guillermo spent five years at The Nethercutt, learning the ins and outs of price-is-no-object, Pebble Beach Concours level restoration.
“I can remember pushing bolts into a cardboard box top so they could be sanded and painted. It was crazy, because I would spend hours getting these bolt-heads just right, and then a mechanic would tell me, ‘you might have to touch those up later, because I have to use a wrench to put them on the car!”
After several years working at The Nethercutt, Osorio had another life-changing moment: he was permitted to paint his very first car, a 1936 Bugatti roadster. The results were impressive, even by the standards of the Collection’s painter.
Guillermo recalls, “ I ran home and told my family, ‘I just painted a Bugatti!” and they looked at me like I was crazy because they had no idea what a Bugatti was!”
One day in the summer of 1987, Osorio attended a classic car show to detail a car he had worked on, and met former Formula 1 World Champion, Phil Hill. Hill had retired from racing decades before and was now co-owner of one of the world’s most prestigious concours restoration shops, Hill & Vaughn. Hill was impressed with the priming and paintwork Guillermo had done on the car and offered him a job.
Guillermo decided to jump ship from The Nethercutt. He found working for Hill to be fantastic, but painstaking, as Hill was an infamous taskmaster. Hill was also a car hunter, travelling the world to find the most unique automobiles to catch the eye of top concours judges.
A one-off 1922 Hispano-Suiza H6B, and Adolf Hitler’s custom 1939 Mercedes-Benz 770K two-door Cabriolet were just two of the automotive jewels that Hill acquired abroad and allowed Guillermo to help bring to show-winning condition.
Both Hill and Vaughn retired about five years after Osorio joined them, and the shop was snapped up by a new owner who allowed standards to slip. Guillermo left and used his now considerable contacts with big collectors to set up shop for himself in Burbank, as Classic Vision Restoration.
At his current location for eleven years, Osorio employs five people full time and does every step of the restoration process in-house, save for things like chroming. Big time-collectors such as Gary Moore won’t allow anyone else to touch his cars, and Ricardo Montalban’s son, Mark, is now a client (yes, he knows the Brown Derby water spilling story quite well!)
Today, Guillermo utilizes every trick and technique he learned from his illustrious places of training in wringing the absolute most out of the cars he lovingly slaves over.
“Restoration at this level is very difficult, expensive and time consuming. Sometimes it requires two years or more for a top level restoration, and at no point can you cut corners. My standards are just as high as my client’s, so if something isn’t right, I have to scrap and redo it.
Each car also has its own special needs. For example, if you are restoring a car in which only one or two were ever made, parts don’t exist, and fabricating something from scratch doesn’t just involve having it work right, but getting it to be 100 percent the same in appearance to the original. This requires serious research, finding pictures, talking to people who knew the car…”
And as far as Guillermo’s preferences in cars, he is quite egalitarian.
“Although I am probably best known for the pre-war cars I have done, the big show-car Packards, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, I love working on just about anything. Ferraris, Chevy Bel-Airs and Jaguars all provide satisfaction in getting right. I love the muscle cars too. Cudas, Challengers, Chevelles, Mustangs, the Shelbys, I do them all.”
Guillermo will even perform collision repair and insurance claims on modern daily drivers for those who want their cars to be repaired to a higher standard than most. But it is the high-end stuff that keeps Osorio in love with his craft.
“I have been given an amazing gift. I am able to do what I am good at and what I love, and support my family doing it. People say it all the time, but take it from me, America truly is the land of opportunity. It took in an immigrant kid who didn’t speak the language, and showed him that you can open any door, work for anybody and do well, so long as you have ethics, are humble, and work hard. I became a citizen in 1986, because I love America and it is by far the best country in the world. It let me live my dream.”
Guillermo Osorio can be contacted at Classic Vision Restorations at 818- 840-0511 or through his website at classicvisionusa.com.