By George Dyke….

Today marks a transition in the landscape for Citroën service and restoration in the Northeast USA that hopefully will allow for those who wish to own and enjoy classic Citroëns to do so for decades to come. 

The path forward for servicing and restoring Citroëns in the northeast USA has been on the mind of Dave Burnham for well over decade.  Now at retirement age, Dave still loves the cars and the many friends he has made working on Citroëns, but is thankful that the days of actually working in the shop and all the administration involved has finally come to an end. 

Dave started Dave Burnham Citroën in 1986, an era when Citroën service, marginal in USA even from the time Citroën Cars Cooperation was established in the mid-’50s, had become sparse with Citroën’s departure from the US market 12 years prior.  The few garages that remained to service the cars were closing up one-by-one. 

Dave began working on Citroëns at Carmichael Citroën, a dealership in Albany, NY, but when it abruptly shut down, the owner literally gifted all the specialty tools and and spare parts on hand to Dave, enabling him to work in Citroëns out of his garage in Delanson, NY.  Over the years Dave built a dedicated shop and a storage facility on the property and employed a few people at times keep up with demand, though he has been pretty much hands-on throughout.  But Dave’s passion was eventually taxed to point he was burning out. 

Dave Burnham — Photo: Tim Stevens / Jalopnik

In looking for a buyer, the article “America’s Best Citroën Mechanic Wants You to Take Over His Shop” was featured on Jalopnik where Dave was quoted saying: “I’d really like somebody to try to come in and take over and run the business. Eventually, put it all in their own name and get their own insurance.  They get all the tools. They get all the parts, books, everything related to Citroëns. It’s all here for them to use. And I’ll be in the house if they’ve got a question.”

Even with that article stating enticing terms for competent mechanics to take on a thriving business, and mentioning his frustration on Citroënvie, there was little interest.  A couple of offers were extended but they involved relocating the business halfway across the USA and there was one mechanic in Europe considering a move to the USA that, with the immigration process, proved too difficult to initiate.

However, one call did come in that had the potential to see the business carry on in Delanson, NY and Dave to ease into retirement on his own terms. 

That call was from John Choquette, owner of Trinity Restoration with locations in Williston, VT (adjacent to Burlington) and Swanton, VT (near the Canadian border). 

John Choquette

John started in the automotive business as art major who was doing fine illustration, specializing in medical illustrations, and then got into airbrushing and doing murals.  Also, being a car guy, he applied his talent to automotive bodywork and painting which led him toward automotive restoration and painting. John’s entrepreneurial spirit led him down the road to owing a shop.   

With the shop he expanded into metal fabrication and actual welding of the cars.  That coupled with late nights in friends’ garages painting hot rods, he got into a culture where he truly found his passion. 

Initially he would work on pretty much any car he could, but he discovered that with European cars — the more you touch, the more you like them. “I do like small European cars, the way they’re built, there’s more of a refinement to them,” says John; “That’s more my general path and although we work on anything, the European stuff is what I personally enjoy.” 

He’s done quite a bit of British cars — a lot of MG and Jaguar, along with a coupe of Jensen over the past 24 years.  Key to his success has been keeping his customers informed in the process.  “Getting a system set down where people understand exactly where there are at all stages, where they are in the end, what the budget is and keeping everyone updated, has been key.  I don’t like it when people call me and say – how is my car?  That means I’ve failed on my end and I’ve found that pulls me off the floor quite a bit.” 

John puts in lot of hours to keep people updated.  “From 6 o’clock to 8 o’clock and sometimes up to midnight — I’m still talking to customers.  Updating and letting them know where things are.”

John’s involvement with Dave came in a very roundabout manner, stemming from one of John’s customers, Z Motorsports. 

Z Motorsports is located in Detroit.  They operate an auto museum there as well as a racetrack located behind it.  Each year they hold the M1 Concours and the Festival of Speed, as well as doing car shows all summer long.  Part of the Z Motorsports collection is located with one of the owners on an island on Lake Champlain in Vermont, not too far from Trinity Restoration, and John and his team at Trinity look after that.  John got a call from him looking to buy a Citroën SM.

John helped him source a SM in the Netherlands and his customer flew over to assess it.  While there, he called John wanting to know his opinion of how viable it would be to keep it on the road back in New England.   John reiterated; “At least have a plan, otherwise you’re going to be shipping it back or you’re going to be emailing me.”

John’s customer had recently seen the Jalopnik article and pointed out that, according to Jalopnik, the only guy left in the area to competently fix a hydraulic Citroën (or any classic Citroën for that matter) wants to retire.  As John was already restoring portions of his collection, perhaps there was an opportunity to get into Citroëns in a serious manner. 

Upon his return they set-up a meeting with Dave that went well.  John liked Dave’s philosophy, the cars he was working on, and after some back and forth came to a mutually agreeable deal.

Over the course of 6 months, the logistics were worked out for an official transition on April 15, 2024 whereby Trinity Restoration becomes Trinity Citroën, retiring the Dave Burnham name.

I sat down in January with John at Trinity Restoration in Swanton and we discussed his takeover of Dave Burnham’s business. 

Trinity Restoration, Swanton.

I mentioned that Citroëns are incredibly unique, depending on the model obviously, and when you are dealing with something like a DS for example, there are two aspects to consider; — to get the engineering to the point where the car drives like it was made from the factory, that can be a challenge in it’s own right, and secondly — the structure of the car is totally different than virtually anything else on the road.  They can be particularly tricky to restore. 

“I would definitely agree with that. Actually, more exciting than anything is the challenge.  If we were doing just cookie cutter cars. I would probably get bored pretty quick.  I do like the challenge it provides.  The fact that there is a knowledge-base there with Dave and we have the manuals.  I’m a bit of a nerd.  I’ll open up the manual and just read it for fun. That’s what I do at night.  It’s like — well look at that, that’s the fitting they’re using for this particular application and so that part I enjoy.  The finite workings of the car — it does take a special personal work on that.  You can’t just put anybody on the car. You have to have somebody who’s really gets it, so finding those people is the hardest part.  Finding people that align with your theory that I want this car to be as perfect as we can get it within the customer’s specifications. And sometimes that means taking half a day to make sure you have the right fitting in the right place because that fitting, if it falls off, is a big deal!”

Pressed about the uniqueness of Citroëns and the challenges of of repair let alone restoration, John feels that Trinity restorations is up for the task. 

“For a restoration shop to exist today you have to specialize in something.  You have to pick the specialty and stay with it.  In Dave’s case the Citroën business was established and the knowledge base was there.  It seemed like a pretty good fit”

Does your effort to date enable you tackle both the servicing Citroëns and restoring them? 

“A lot goes into to buying, running and maintaining business and we all have great intentions when we start and then, when the actual mechanics of doing it come up, it could be different.  I knew we had to go into more of the mechanical end to kind of balance out we’re doing. We had to sub out mechanical before for a lot of our restoration stuff and it just doesn’t work.  If our level is here and the mechanics’ level is down here — its just not good enough.”

I take it that you agree that mechanical skills will be key to your success taking over from Dave? 

“Having mechanical 101 helps but if you’re going to specialize in anything, knowing that if you are going to rip something apart you can put it back together confidently should be your first step before doing any part of this.  Call it “deep mechanical” and for restoration as an example; taking a clock out of the dash, not just putting it back but having it work by knowing what channels you have to do to accomplish that.  You can’t leave things undone and it has to annoy you at night that you didn’t get something finished.”

Who will be doing the mechanical work on Citroëns in Delanson and what role will Dave still have in this?

Dave is going to continue doing Citroën storage in Delanson and he is going to continue selling parts.  He’s not leaving the community in any way. You should expect to see his trailer at Rendezvous with parts in it and the only thing he’s not going to be doing in the future is the actually repairs, and we’re trying to expand it out, commercialize it at a little bit or should I say industrialize it a little bit with the restoration.  Just so we have a kind of a one-stop shop for an entire car if need be.  And Dave is available to us for consultation.

As for ‘hands-on’ mechanical aptitude at the Delanson location, Alan Bentsen who has been working with Dave for a few years now will be staying on, and Paul Marshall, one of our Trinity mechanics, has already been training there for 3 months.  We have also hired another young mechanic, Isaac Albertini, who shows good potential and has a true passion for Citroëns.

The crew that’s there right now is pretty up to the task. For example, they really want to focus on hydraulic pump rebuilding and that’s the kind of direction we’re trying to go with that is to have all the rebuilding done at just that one location whereas a lot of mechanical stuff – bearings or say you have to put brakes on or something – that can pretty much be done anywhere.” 

Alan Bentsen

For the mechanical repairs in Delanson, are you managing that as well?  Billings are coming through Williston for that? 

“Yes, and we have Skype for all that too.  Between Skype and me driving down each week, I am able to manage it.  All the smaller things, you know, fittings, brakes, pretty all the normal general maintenance, they can stay in Delanson New York for that customer base.  Our crew is accustomed to taking care of that right there.  For something where you’re not going to see your car for full year., that might be something we want to bring up here and take care of it.”

Let’s talk about branding.  Going forward, after April 15 what is the new entity going to be called?   

“It’s going to be Trinity shop.  Our Vermont locations will remain Trinity Restoration and the Delanson New York location will be known as Trinity Citroën.   The Dave Burnham name will be retired but we want him to be kind of a brand ambassador for us.  So really, having him onboard with us and helping us transition over as well as helping everybody else understand that this has happened.  Think of the change like going to the grocery store.  You like to go that same store every day but when they change an isle, we lose ourselves.  It’s the same theory — we’re going to change an isle but I guarantee you we’re not going to be ripping apart the grocery store.” 

Trinity Restoration – Williston

How will you be marketing Trinity Restorations and Trinity Citroën?  

That is something you will see that is little different in the Vermont locations now that the ink has dried.  Our Swanton location will have a showroom, where 2 completed vehicles will be shown in photographic lighting on a clean granite floor. We’re trying to give a better experience to the customer by offering a modern repair facility for classic cars and that’s really the direction we have to go to get techs and keep techs and find customers that want to give you a check.” 

Do you anticipate at some point trying to tie it all together under one roof?  

“That would be ideal, but if you really have to feel out where that market is.  That market may not be here in Vermont.  It might be that this remains the restoration shop and maybe we need a bigger shop in New York.  It’s hard to tell until you in that atmosphere and you really have to read the road.  So it makes sense to kind of figure out which side’s going to work out better.  You know if works out better there’s plenty of properties over there and it makes sense to grow that margin over there.   But if here works and we can pull work out of Canada and the surrounding areas, then it makes sense to to maybe have 2 locations.”

What do you see for the future of classic car service and restoration? 

“I think we should feel very safe as far as petrol goes.  GM, Ford, Chrysler (Stellantis) have all pulled back on their EVs because they’re just not profitable.  There’s a big gorilla in the room and that’s Tesla and sometimes somebody just owns that niche. They’re going to own it. I don’t think it’s a space a lot of people can get it in.  I don’t think its a space a lot of people want to be in.   Personally, I don’t want to own.  I think they’re neat, in fact I have an employee who has one and he loves it.  You know that’s a lifestyle choice to pick that car for him.  Cars are for a lot of people becoming more of a point of collectability, and it’s not just that it’s also investment.

If you’re investing in let’s say a buying a 512 Ferrari for her $100,000 and in 5 years you get $150,000 for it, that’s a better investment than throwing it away or ending up paying taxes for it. I think it’s still going to be looked at as an investment from a collectability standpoint, and of course we we do like drive the cars.  There’s enough rich and influential guys out there with classic cars who want to enjoy them and should mean that we won’t be legislated off the road, at least not for a while.

As far as the restoration aspect of it, it does help the business plan and in a lot of ways.  Take this Land Rover we have here, it’s probably got 15 different circuits and computers — things talking to each other so if the parking brake doesn’t initiate perfectly on that on a cold day it sends the whole thing into a tizzy and the car’s doors will lock and you have all sorts of issues as far as that aspect of it.  Finding the techs to fix those things, they’re not out there right now.  The kids aren’t getting into this and the ones that are — they just want to turn a wrench.  So, for the restoration aspect of it, and being fortunate with the specialized techs we have, I think we are pretty safe in that space.” 

How do you describe your enthusiasm for remaining as the ‘go-to’ shop for Citroëns in the Northeast USA?

“I think a lot of the Citroën world is the community and I am very new into this community so I’ll have to get some cars out there and prove myself to a lot of customers. There’s a lot to be learned — there’s is a lot of people to meet, there’s a lot of cars to know more about which you have to get in there one way or another.  You have to start somewhere. 

Dave and I were talking a few weeks ago about our friends, most of who are our customers.  Christmas and New Year’s Eve my phone gets texted from customers before family.  Yeah, Hey John, just want to let you know that car is still great after 12 years…  and Merry Christmas and the next time we go skeet shooting I’ll give you call and let you know what we’re up to… or hey — we’re going out on such an such date.  If you want to bring your wife out we’ll have pizza. 

This community stays pretty together and now that I am into the Citroën community and a lot of things here are new me as far as people and events, I am looking forward to being a part it.”

Trinity Restoration
1028 S Brownell Rd.

Williston, VT   05495-7257

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