When a Ferrari’s in a Fender-Bender

A dented fender from a run-of-the-mill car crash is easy to fix. The task becomes vastly more complicated when that fender belongs to an elegant creation with a name like Ferrari, Bugatti or Delahaye.

The bodies of those cars were handcrafted so long ago that there are typically no spare parts available. The flow, the arch and the dips must be recreated with exquisite eye-hand coordination.

That’s when it takes a modern-day artisan the Europeans call a “panel beater,” a term that doesn’t do justice to the finesse involved.

“The challenge — my God,” said Leslie Kendall, the chief historian of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “It takes a good eye and a steady hand and a highly developed artistic sensibility. All those things have to come together — with patience.”

Few metal crafters in the United States today have the skills to shape an auto body from a bygone era. Bill Warner, the founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, estimates that only 30 people do this type of first-class occupational time travel.

“It is a modern-day Degas or Renoir that these guys create from just basic metal,” Mr. Warner said.

One such craftsman is Mike Kleeves.

Mr. Kleeves, 62, has been fixing wayback machines for four decades, his life a traffic jam of damaged Ferraris, Porsches, Delahayes, Jaguars and Bugattis.

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His Automobile Metal Shaping business in Morganton, N.C., can recreate a body panel — or the entire body — of a car made long ago by companies known as coachbuilders.

Until the 1930s, people who wanted a luxury vehicle would often buy a chassis, which is basically all of the mechanical pieces that make a vehicle move, and then decide what they wanted it to look like. A coachbuilder would create the body and attach it.

Mr. Kleeves said repairs to those bodies were not just a matter of fixing them. They should honor the way the car was created as long as 100 years ago.

He starts with a flat piece of metal, sometimes steel and sometimes aluminum. While a computer may be used to help get the correct dimensions, the shape of the panel is guided largely by hand, with what ultimately amounts to a series of hammer taps.

The close attention to historical detail includes putting welds in the same place and having a forge in the shop, because if a bracket on a car was originally forged, well, the repair must use a forged bracket.

Mr. Kleeves said he often thought about the original coachbuilders.

“They took great pride in their work. They put their heart and soul and life into it,” he said. And he feels obliged to pay homage to that with “a proper piece.”

That “proper piece” can take a year or more to build and cost between $300,000 and $500,000, assuming an entirely new body is not needed.

Early on in his career, Mr. Kleeves worked in conventional body shops, helping repair everyday cars damaged in everyday accidents. But his skills got a significant boost when he worked for the metal shapers John Glover and Harry Kennedy.

At the time, Mr. Glover and Mr. Kennedy were working at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., building prototypes.

Mr. Glover, 90, remembers a young Mr. Kleeves walking into their shop, fascinated by their work. They agreed to teach him.

It became apparent that he was talented, said Mr. Glover, who now lives in Macomb Township, Mich. “I showed him all I could. He was like a sponge.”

Now, Mr. Kleeves’s reputation is such that the businessman Peter Mullin selected him for an ambitious and unusual project that would be housed in Mr. Mullin’s automotive museum in Oxnard, Calif.

Among Mr. Mullin’s collection of pre-World War II French automobiles was the chassis of a 1939 Bugatti Type 64 Coupe, built by Jean Bugatti. It had all the necessary mechanical pieces, such as an engine and suspension, but it was half naked: No body sat atop. Bugatti was killed in a crash in 1939 before he could create it.

Only three Type 64s were ever made, and only two are known to exist.

Mr. Mullin wanted to create a body for his coupe. He asked Stewart Reed of the ArtCenter College of Design to design it and Mr. Kleeves to construct it.

The body was finished in 2013, after 14 months and about 5,500 man-hours.

“When I first laid eyes on the newly bodied 1939 Bugatti Type 64 Coupe, I was amazed at the work that had taken place,” Mr. Mullin said in an email. “It was extraordinary to see the car come to fruition.”

The Type 64 is now on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum. Neither Mr. Kleeves nor Mr. Mullin would disclose the cost.

The work of auto restorers can get lost in the glitter of what they do and whom they do it for.

“A lot of these guys do this fabulous work for very wealthy people, and the wealthy people get the trophies and the guys who do the work don’t get anything,” Mr. Warner of the Amelia Island Concours said.

Mr. Warner created the Phil Hill/Craftsman Award to remedy this. In 2015, Mr. Kleeves received the inaugural award, named after a Formula One world champion and winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“He is an exceptional craftsman,” Mr. Warner said. “There are only a handful of people who can do what Mike Kleeves does.”

For Mr. Kleeves, the reward is being part of preserving some of the finest moments of automotive history.

“To be able to touch and feel from that time period is a blessing,” he said.