Jim Schmidt’s passion for classic cars and preserving historic vehicles drove him to start a home-based, mail-order restoration business. During the last four decades, National Parts Depot (NPD) wisely entered underserved markets and became a preeminent restoration parts source. Today, NPD has four warehouses in Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, and California that have about 550,000 square feet of space, and the company stocks more than 125,000 unique part numbers.
In 1976, Schmidt built some wooden shelves in his basement, stocked them with 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird parts and released a catalog. The fledgling business grew from a humble home-operated company into National Parts Depot. While the company steadily expanded by serving the muscle car restoration market, the company is currently experiencing a growth boom in the truck restoration market.
By the mid-’70s, the muscle car era all but ended with high gas prices, rising insurance costs, and changing public opinion. However, Jim recognized the potential in restoring classic American cars to their former glory. The muscle car market started to rebound in the late ’70s as the business established itself on Thunderbird restoration parts.
Schmidt had a personal history with early Thunderbirds – he owned and drove a ’57 T-Bird E-Code for more than a decade. Later on, he performed a complete body-off restoration of another ’57 Thunderbird. It was at this time he launched the parts side of the business, and also started AutoCraft restoration car services. Although, it was difficult for Jim to find talented craftsmen to restore the cars to his high standards. Often some portions of a restoration were done two or three times to bring them up to his level of satisfaction. Meanwhile, the parts business was flourishing. Eventually, the Schmidts closed down the restoration shop to exclusively focus on the parts business.
In the early ’80s, NPD needed to step into another market to sustain growth. Jim astutely decided to launch a 1965-1973 Mustang restoration parts catalog. Given the success of the Mustang parts business, NPD continued to expanded into other product lines in the coming years by releasing its Camaro and Chevelle/Malibu/El Camino catalogs.
The Florida-based company then entered the truck market with a Ford Truck catalog that offered restoration parts for the F-100/F150 half, three-quarter, and one-ton pickups. At the time, NPD Vice President and COO (Chief Operating Officer) Rick Schmidt admitted they didn’t exactly know what a large undertaking it would be to allocate all the parts and products for the 1948-1979 Ford truck catalog.
Rick explained, “While plenty of our competitors were diving into the Chevrolet trucks, only a few businesses were catering to the F-Series trucks. We wanted to get in there while the getting was good. We just didn’t understand how much research it was going to take to put the catalog together. We picked up the project when we had time, and after many years, we finally had a workable catalog.”
From the strong growth of the ’80s, the muscle car restoration industry kicked into high gear. NPD was there to serve the expanding market and incrementally added new product lines to serve the demand. Over the years, NPD added 1967-1981 Firebird, 1964-1972 GTO, 1960-1976 Mopar, and 1967-1973 Mercury Cougar restoration product lines. NPD had established a strong foothold in the market with the first-generation Mustang product line. Naturally, when the Fox-Body Mustang transitioned into a classic automobile, NPD added that product line to serve restorers, and eventually, a Mustang SN95 catalog for 1994-2004 Mustangs as well.
As the truck restoration market gained steam, the company continued to expand and serve the ever-growing market. They launched a 1947-1998 Chevy truck catalog, while also introducing a new Ford truck restoration product line, including the 1980-1996 Ford Truck, 1997-2004 Ford Truck, and 1966-1996 Ford Bronco catalogs. Currently, NPD has 15 different catalogs. Keep in mind, some of these catalogs serve multiple product lines. For example, many Chevy truck parts and panels fit GMC trucks. NPD offers parts in every major component category, including engine, suspension, heating/cooling, air/fuel, and of course a comprehensive line of reproduction body parts.
According to Rick Schmidt, “Where we’re seeing growth is the pickup truck restoration. It’s a perfect storm of trucks getting ever more popular. The modern paradigm is that people look at trucks as daily transportation, but this trend allows people to look at antique pickup trucks in a whole new light – people are all about trucks and they are as cool as a car. There were so many millions of Ford and Chevy trucks built that there’s a huge inventory of solid, relatively rust-free trucks to be done [restored]. The truck market seems to be on a steady upswing right now.”
The Chevy truck restoration parts have been very popular and continue to be. According to Rick, “There seems to be more restoration activity with the Chevy truck right now than with the Ford. It probably comes down to the [Ford] twin I-beam suspension that makes it harder to lower them and make them more muscle car-ish.” He further explained, “The 1967-1972 Chevy is still the hot ticket, but more and more people are doing the Squarebody trucks because they are very affordable. Trucks are great gateway vehicles for people to get into the hobby because its’s something they can afford to buy.”
All restorers are searching for the best quality sheet metal part at the best prices. An inexpensive body panel at a low price that requires a lot of metal work and adjustment is not a better deal, because of the labor involved to install it.
Rick Schmidt puts the complex topic into perspective: “A lot of the cost, profit/loss analysis, coordination, and market research factor into the decision whether or not to make expensive reproduction sheet metal parts. Schmidt’s insight is enlightening: “Over the years, we have developed relationships with various suppliers, both domestic and overseas. It depends on what you’re reproducing, whether or not you’re going to find someone who can do it competitively, and of high-quality here in the U.S., or whether you have to look at Taiwan, China, or India. We have over 1,000 active suppliers at the moment. When you’re talking about reproduction parts, such as sheet metal – that’s where it gets complicated. There’s no factory in Taiwan where everything they make is beautiful and high quality – If only it was that easy.”
New technologies and advancements in production and tooling have greatly improved the quality of reproduction sheet metal. Rick explains, “Technology has been a large part of improving the quality of reproduction parts. There is no single spot [factory] where you can get the best of everything. The quality, fitment, and the amount of work you have to do to massage the part to get it to fit often depends upon the tools that have been developed, such as laser scanning and CNC machining, for producing the tools [that make the parts]. Most reproductions that come out these days are done to a very nice standard.”
The manufacturing cost of producing new body panels is a significant capital investment. “The cost of the tooling is so horrifically expensive,” according to Schmidt. “If you look at a pair of fenders for any ’60s muscle car, you’re talking about a quarter-of-a-million dollar investment in tools for those fenders. You have to commit to at least 500 pairs to get them going [to offer them for sale]. These are big commitments, so they don’t happen overnight.”
It’s a lengthy process when NPD is searching for a parts supplier to manufacture a new product line. “All can do a good job. It’s just a matter of figuring out which will meet all the necessary criteria. For example, out of 15 suppliers involved in the classic car industry, who has tooling for the classic car year range and application of a part? Three of them have tooling for the same part, and all of them have different quality and price levels, and then it’s a matter of figuring who has the best one. If one is significantly more expensive, you may consider the second best option for the people who cannot afford the pricier option.”
Through high-quality production selection and exceptional customer service, NPD resides at the forefront of the restoration parts industry. Schmidt states, “When you order from NPD, you’re going to get the best that’s available, so you don’t have to worry about doing that homework or wonder whether what shows up at your doorstep is the best you could have gotten.”