Answer: The simple answer to your question is that you have two choices. You can either pay them, or you can hire an attorney to handle the matter for you. Given the amount of money involved, the latter might be your better option. I wish I had a better answer for you, but your question does provide the opportunity to explore the situation in the hopes that it might prevent others from having a similar experience.
It is first and foremost the responsibility of the vehicles owner to determine what their vehicle is worth, and how much they are willing to spend to restore it. Courts are not sympathetic to claims that “I paid $140,000.00 to restore my car that is only worth $15,000.00.” They may be sympathetic to a claim that you were overcharged for the work that was performed, but it will cost you a significant amount of money to hire an attorney to find out.
In many cases the cost of the restoration will exceed the value of the car, so from a purely financial perspective a comprehensive restoration may not make sense. But there are other reasons that an owner might want to restore a car. I see many cars that are restored for sentimental reasons. Others choose to restore cars because they can’t afford the price of a fully restored car, but they can afford to pay a monthly amount to a shop as a restoration proceeds. These are fine reasons to restore cars, even knowing that ultimately you will end up spending more than the car is worth.
Most of the cases that I get involved with begin with the vehicle owner dropping off their vehicle and receiving in return nothing more than a handshake and the comment that “we’ll send you invoices as we proceed.” Luckily, most shop owners are honest. The problems arise when you encounter the shop owner that is dishonest. Trust me, they are out there.
The first thing to do before deciding which shop to use is to talk to other hobbyists and find out what shops they use. A trip to a car show or cruise night will give you access to dozens, if not hundreds of classic car owners who will be more than happy to give you recommendations. This is called due diligence, and you owe it to yourself to do it, or you will have no one to blame but yourself if things go poorly. Just because a shop is full of cars sitting under dusty plastic covers does not mean that the vehicle owners are happy and being treated fairly. In fact, it is often the opposite. A good shop is a busy shop. And a good shop owner makes money by working on cars, billing a fair price for their work, and getting paid. A good customer is one who tracks the progress, is happy with the price and quality, and pays their bills on time.
The best way to avoid problems is to get as much in writing as possible. It is not unreasonable for a shop owner to claim that they can’t provide an accurate estimate until they have disassembled a car to determine its true condition. In this case it’s best to get an estimate in writing for the disassembly. Following the disassembly, proceed only once you know the scope of work and the price range to complete this work. Specify what parts will be replaced, what will be restored, and what will be rebuilt. Agree on what the disposition of any used parts will be. Most importantly, get everything in writing. As hard as this may be to believe, the restoration shop involved in two cases I am currently working on claims to have discarded the original engines. Visit the shop periodically to make sure that work is proceeding as expected. Keep a record of the payments that you have made, and make sure that they are in line with the estimates.
Even doing all of this is no assurance that you will not run into that unscrupulous shop owner. However, it will assure that you will discover the problem early on in the restoration when there is still time to do something about it.