Outside the cube

Son's business runs with some help from his dad

Dean morgan of classic auto and trim has an assistant he's not about to let go

vbroadus@herald-leader.comMay 24, 2010 

This is a story "pegged" to Memorial Day, as people in the newspaper business would say, because it relates to outdoor recreation. But it could also be an advance piece for Father's Day because, when you interview a craftsman and his dad is there helping out, and their bond is obvious, a story has to include the ties that bind us to things other than the marketplace.

A garage trio: Dean Morgan makes custom interiors for boats and cars. He's the owner of Classic Auto and Trim, a business that operates mostly out of his home on Heather Way but often travels in a Ford box truck to wherever the job might be.

A recent weekday found son and father together in the garage, with the door open wide to let the May breezes in. A "guard dog" named Oreo lounged nearby, neglecting her duties.

Two men and a boat: Dean was measuring, marking and sewing a custom cover for a 20-foot pontoon, or "float boat," that was docked in his driveway. His father, Letcher Morgan, was keeping him company and helping him maneuver the large piece of canvas. "That's one thing I've never understood about boats — they go in the water and get wet but, when they're out of the water, nobody wants 'em wet," Dean jokes.

Parked inside the garage was a white 1963 Austin Healey convertible awaiting a new interior. Dean's work is 60 percent cars and 40 percent boats, he estimates, but this time of year, the focus is on the aquatic.

On pretty spring days, he says, everything becomes an emergency for boat owners, who suddenly realize they need things fixed now.

He got here on the Concorde: Dean, 40, is a Lexington native, "born and raised" he says — "Central Baptist" adds Letcher, who's a retired shop foreman from Quantrell Cadillac. Dean grew up hearing plenty of car talk from his dad — "If you need a mechanic, he's the best" — but it was his mother, Barbara, who introduced him to his career.

When he was five, Mom got a job at CoachCraft downtown, which specializes in interiors for cars, trucks and boats. "Mom worked in sales, and I went there during summer vacations," Dean says. "They had a car seat in the waiting room for customers. Mom brought a TV in, and I'd sit there with my toys. It was an olive-green Concorde seat cover. It burnt in my brain."

A major creditor: "Don Miller was the boss back then," Dean says. "He was nice enough to let me stay. I'd go in the back and bug the guys who were working there ... Larry Starns, Glenn Thompson, a fella named Chester Blanton, and Jack Tilghman, the shop foreman."

During high school, Dean started working at CoachCraft for pay, checking inventory.

"Mr. Miller asked me if I wanted to work in the shop. He said he'd give a little more money if I worked back there." And that's how a career was launched.

Dean credits a man named Vaughn Kelley for teaching him how to do the job right. "I'd start piddling around, sewing up a cushion, and he'd walk me through it." Kelley has his own shop now, says Dean, and they're friends to this day.

The 14-year itch: Dean left CoachCraft after 14 years. "I went as high as I could go." He spent a couple of years with a fire-equipment company, but "you don't get the same appreciation from customers when you're putting tags on fire extinguishers," he says, and besides, custom interior work was in his blood.

So he opened his own business, calling it Classic Auto and Trim to be near the top of the alphabet in the yellow pages and to represent the classic-car restoration that's a part of it.

These days, most of his work comes from word-of-mouth — the phone book brings in about 10 percent of his business, "enough to pay for the ad," he jokes.

Street rods and real beauties: That yellow-pages ad mentions "interior upholstery, vinyl-top replacement, restaurant furniture, truck bedcovers" and other services. It leaves out that he can sew up a full enclosure for a 28-foot pontoon with drapes all around, or make competition-quality interiors for classic-car buffs.

"I liked that green convertible you did," says Letcher, talking about a '73 Caprice with crushed velour seats. Dean likes the street rods, where you can do "something nobody's ever done before." Then there were the more refined interiors for a Bentley, a '33 Chrysler, a '37 Packard:

"The owner brought me a picture of one he'd seen at a show, and that's what I had to go on."

It's a snap with Pop: On this morning, Dean finishes some preliminary stitching. Then he and Letcher throw the canvas over the boat and snap it in place to check the fit. "Dad helps me out a lot," Dean says as the two work together. The job is pretty straightforward — two days from start to finish.

Others are more challenging: a houseboat that's in the water, for instance. Or a Piper Navajo eight-seater in a hangar at Blue Grass Airport.

"I've never spent so much time on my knees in my life," says Letcher, who assisted on that operation, too.

In good company: Letcher is at his son's shop about three times a week. The two have tackled some big jobs together such as the booths at Winchell's on Southland Drive and Cheapside Bar and Grill.

Did he teach his dad about upholstery? "We've both learned a little bit off each other," says Dean. "He's always given me a hand, and vice versa." Letcher serves as adviser, sounding board and companion on supply runs. "He's my buddy," says Dean. "I don't know what I'd do without him."

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