Good simply isn't good enough for Joe and Mike Joas. When they finish restoring an old tractor, it's as perfect as man can make it and, often, in better shape than when it was new.
The owners of Joe's Auto Body in rural Kiel have their headlights trained on perfection and authenticity, and they've got the jaw-dropping vintage beauties in eight states and four books to prove it.
The father/son team is celebrating 41 years of being in business, with the last 18 devoted to restoring tractors full time.
"We love our job; we love our customers," Mike said, a mindset that's led to 90 percent of the business being repeat customers and referrals.
The whole Joas family is involved. Mike's wife, Tanya, handles the bookwork for the business and their sons, Ethan, 6, and Cody, 3, like to scrape grease and help hang parts in the paint booth.
Marilyn, Joe's wife, enjoys polishing each job off.
"Ma will come touch up before a tractor goes out, and spend another half day on it," Joe laughed.
Besides Wisconsin, tractors restored by the Joas are housed in Virginia, Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Puerto Rico. The detailed nature of the work carves an indelible print in the Joas' minds.
"I still remember every one we've done," Mike said. "Each tractor has unique characteristics that make it memorable, and our customers, too."
In the course of the work, the Joas plow deep and lasting ties with their customers.
"They get to be like family and they keep in touch," Mike said.
Their shop at 11807 Lax Chapel Road stands across the road from the dairy farm Joe, now 68, was raised on. It was built in 1971 as an auto body shop after he began transforming accident-mangled automobiles to road-worthy again.
"They would come in smashed and go out looking beautiful," he recalled.
His antique tractor hobby started in the 1980s with a 1944 John Deere B and a 1939 JD H. He painted the H up in a fashion that caught the attention of other people.
"I got the bug and it kept snowballing from there," he said.
The Joas switched to tractor restoration full-time in 1995. The tipping point came the day when the job list was a vintage tractor and a car.
"None of us wanted to work on the car, including me," Joe recalled with a laugh. "It's been tractors ever since."
In the early days, the Joas team could finish a tractor in four to six weeks.
"These days, the cream puffs are picked off and guys are pulling tractors in off the fence line," Mike said. "It takes longer to find good parts and scrap prices are high."
The work has morphed from strictly cosmetic into more mechanical problems, so the Joas lean on a trusted mechanic and machine shop for work that involves the block, head and crank.
"Now a tractor will take a couple of months to who knows when," said Mike, now 34 and in charge of the shop.
Cozy and well-heated, it includes a paint booth and over 100 different jigs and carts the Joas, both certified painters, have built to move tractors and pieces with ease for the best quality paint job possible.
Restoration is time-intense as the men carefully tear each machine down, look for worn spots, and build it back up again. Straightening is a central component of the work.
"It's huge, about 60 percent of the job," Joe said. "This is a lot like farming - there is no time clock, so you better be loving it."
The work takes loads of research, evidenced by the hours Mike devotes to computer investigation and the money spent on manuals and new, old tools each year. "The dealerships throw out the old stuff and we buy it," Mike quipped.
They have most of the books available for John Deere tractors, the color Mike prefers. Joe won't name a favorite hue; he likes the ones he can find parts for.
Mike found his favorite at the Two-Cylinder Expo at Waterloo, IA. "I was 8-years old and I saw my first high cropper," he recalled. "I've been fascinated with them ever since."
High Croppers, like his 1953 John Deere 60 HC, run 16 inches higher than a regular JD. With 38-inch tires, the driver's feet are at the top of the wheel. "It's like riding a draft horse versus a Shetland pony," Mike explained.
Such tractors enjoyed limited production of less than 150 a year, compared to 3,000 conventional JD 60s a year. That's reflected in their price, but Mike just smiles. "If you're gonna grain a horse, grain a purebred," he says. "This is an investment, as well as a hobby."
Joe favors orchard tractors because they carry such a lavish amount of sheet metal. "To me, they are so colorful," he explained. "They remind me of a race car."
He's closing in on 50 years of wedded bliss with Marilyn, but his eye for orchard tractors caused a rift in the family fabric in 1991 when he spent $800 on a motley-looking unstyled JD 1947 AO straight off a New Holstein apple orchard.
"It was all beat up from branches. Marilyn wouldn't talk to me for three days," he recalled. "Now, she calls it her tractor."
Their personal collection includes four prize orchard tractors and the 1957 JD 620 that belonged to Joe's father, Art. It's set up for trail rides with an American flag, supply box and blinkers, and makes the annual trip on the Lake Michigan car ferry and across the Mackinaw Bridge.
The parts situation means the Joas are typically working on three tractors at a time. The search and wait for parts, backorders and returns for lack of quality means shifting back-and-forth between machines as each puzzle slowly comes together.
The work has moved beyond common farm machines.
"These are collector's tractors," Mike said. "Some of our customers want extreme makeovers - not a pit anywhere. This is a number one investment for them, something they are creating for generations to come."
That minute focus suits the Joas men just fine.
"We like detail," Joe said. "We're detail freaks."
Take the Ford 2N they are currently working on. It originally belonged to the owner's father and sported a cigarette lighter. "He wanted that back, and we were able to find the exact one that was on it," Joe said.
Over 90 percent of the tractors ride in on sentiment.
"Our clients are dragging in dad's first tractor or, like the guy from Beaver Dam, the first tractor on the farm after the horses were gone, so they are sticking a lot more into it," Mike observed.
Among the most memorable was the JD 60 they restored for a woman from Waupun. The tractor had been her dad's, and she drove and raked hay with it as a girl.
"When she came to see it after it was restored, she started crying," Mike said. "That's the best part - when people see the finished tractor for the first time.
"When they love what we've done, it's priceless."
For more information on Joe's Auto Body, visit joesautobodytractor.com
or call 920-894-2134.