It would be easy to miss unless you have an eye for vintage automobiles or notice the gleam of “Detroit Muscle Machines” as a master of the craft meticulously reinvigorates them for form and function.
And, John Dott, longtime owner of Nostalgia Auto Restoration at 3419 Vilas Road in the Town of Cottage Grove, kind of likes it that way.
He is quick to tell you the history and lore of his little slice of Wisconsin countryside.
Dott started out renting just one small slice of what is today a several-acre shrine to great American chrome and automotive ingenuity.
The former owner of the land asked if he wanted to buy the original parcel — largely the remnants of a former small Texaco gas station and homestead. The original building is so old you can still see the log cabin construction at its heart.
Dott did purchase the land and, later, two more additional parcels of largely lowlands, woodlands and former farmsteads to own the entire corner. He enjoys watching the wildlife and the slower pace of life it offers.
“I love it out here,” he said. “There are natural springs on the land, and I have never seen the creek freeze up. There are deer, wild turkeys and river otters on the land.”
To get the seed money to buy and improve the business, Dott sold four restored investment cars of his own.
“I sold a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, a 1956 Chevrolet Nomad, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu Super Sport and a 1963 Chevrolet Nova convertible to get the money to buy,” he said.
The original shop building was about 2,000 square feet, and he hand-built his own paint spray booth.
“I could get two cars in the shop and have one in the paint booth,” Dott said.
As work grew, he added a larger commercial paint booth and an office in 1980-81 and later built an additional building and remodeled the original gas station into another storage and work area.
Dott fixed up the outside of the former gas station to look somewhat close to how it looked in its heyday, complete with a vintage rotary pay phone, Coca-Cola cooler (he built himself) and hand-restored gas pumps of the era that he also rehabilitated.
“When I first came out here, I used to go to the little Texaco station, and the old lady who owned it and lived there sold beer, pop, doughnuts, coffee, and I would usually buy a Pepsi and a candy bar,” he said, adding that the Cottage Grove Area Historical Society has several photos of the old station.
On part of the land, Dott said, remnants of the old road that ran from Camp Randall during the Civil War days can be seen, including the old rock foundations of a bridge. He also enjoys exploring some of the old farmer junkyards searching for small treasures, such as old Model A and T carburetors or gas caps from old storage tanks and gas pumps.
“I was exploring a junkyard at a friend’s farm one time, and found an old clock face gas pump,” Dott said. “I asked him if I could have it, and he said yes. I moved it to my place, and it sat there all of four hours before someone drove by and offered me $800 for it. I sold it.
“I really just like old stuff. It is in my genes, I guess, but I always have liked old stuff. I’m in heaven when I am in a good junkyard. I love the TV show “American Pickers” and used to do a lot of auctions, but I don’t do as much of that today. I have all the work I can do right now.”
Dott is a native of Sun Prairie, where his love of American steel began. His parents were originally from the Dodgeville and Mineral Point area.
“My dad used to take me to go through the old lead mines there,” he said. “That was a lot of fun and made me aware of history.”
The same day Dott graduated from technical school in 1977, he landed a job in the Madison area learning about auto restoration.
“It was a specialty shop, and I thought it was all pretty cool,” he said. “I was there for about a year until I took a job here with the guy I would later buy the business from.”
Dott was about 21 when he had the opportunity to buy the operation around 1979.
“It was a big move at that age — going out on your own,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of tools or experience. I learned as I went along. By making mistakes along the way, I learned how to do it right. I got to call all of the shots and worked a lot in the beginning. I bought equipment and expanded the business as time went on. If I got frustrated, I could just leave and play golf. It has been a great ride for more than 35 years.”
Today, Dott said he still works pretty much seven days a week restoring and reconfiguring cars for his clients.
“I still get way more done on the weekends, and living onsite allows me to work when I want,” he said. “I like talking cars with people. I worked hard all of my life. I started out detasseling corn to buy the things I wanted, like my first bike. It created a solid work ethic.”
Dott has noticed a big difference in work ethic between older employees and recent graduates of today’s trade schools.
“The kids out of tech schools today have little work ethic,” he said. “All they know is how to look things up on the computer. If they can’t find it there, they don’t understand that you may have to fabricate the part yourself.”
While Dott enjoys watching car restoration shows on TV, he said they also cause him problems professionally.
“Customers who watch these shows and know little about auto restoration come in and expect the car to be done in a week, because the shows make it look like that is how it is done,” Dott said. “It takes a long time, even on the shows, to restore a car — and there are always those unknowns you don’t see until you really get into it. It is never easy.”
For example, one project Dott is working on is a 1949 Dodge Wayfarer where the owner wants the hood chopped and a major overhaul of the look and profile of the car. The work on the chopped roof alone is time consuming and involves removing pieces of the roof and rewelding to accomplish the desired look.
He and his two full-time employees — Don Siebert, who does body work and has worked on an off for Dott for about 20 years, and Roger Schlender, Lodi, who does mechanical work — are actively working on between six to eight projects at any one time because of the complexity of the work and the ordering of parts. Dott, who specializes in fabrication and welding, charges $65 per hour labor and said the firm has more work than it can handle right now.
His wife and longtime partner, Robin, manages the books and social media sites in addition to working a full-time job in Madison.
In the past, Dott has also refurbished other collectibles, such as old toy peddle cars (that can go for hundreds of dollars at auctions), old gas pumps and other items. He even once published custom calendars highlighting some of that work. He now focuses solely on cars.
A big event for Dott is an annual open house he hosts each year the same weekend as the Jefferson Car Show. He puts several cars out on display and invites people to stop in and tour his shop and ongoing projects.
“It is fun,” Dott said. “I get people stopping from Iowa and Minnesota, and we talk about cars the entire time.”
To learn more, visit www.nostalgiaautorestoration.com or call 839-4493.