I've been building my van out for almost two years now. The last major part of my build is paint.
Paint has been something that's been in the back of my mind throughout the whole build. Should I paint the van? Should I change the color? Should I get a cheap re-spray at Maaco, or spend a ton more and do a proper windows-out paint job? What about Monstaliner, or Plasti-Dip? With so many options, it was something I wanted to give myself a while to think over.
Earlier in the summer of 2016, Teri and I made the huge decision to sell our house, and most of our possessions, and travel for at least a year in the van from California to Patagonia. That decision radically changed my approach to the van, and the choices that I would make in my build going forward. The van was no longer going to be a toy for the weekends, or short road trips, this would be our home. It was at this point that I realized that everything I did to the van from now on would have to be very thought out, and of the best possible quality. The last thing I wanted was to embark on this adventure of ours ill prepared. No doubt, things will still break, but I would do my damnedest to build this machine to be the best version of itself before we departed.
Having made this change, it was no longer an option for me to go the cheap route, a Maaco paint job wouldn't suffice. I thought long and hard about Monstaliner, which is inexpensive, DIY, and gives you an interesting and very tough finish. I could paint it over top of my existing paint, and the cost would come in at around $500. This option, however, would still leave the van with lots of the small dings and dents that simply painting over wouldn't fix. In addition, my now 35 year old window rubber was starting to fray in places, and the idea of them failing in a tropical climate gave me the shivers.
I wanted the best, and the best option was to strip the van down to bare metal, pop out the dents, fix any rust found, remove the windows and then apply several coats of good quality paint, and a layer of clear-coat. Then after painting, reinstalling the windows with new window rubber. This option, at a reputable body and paint shop in California, would run me anywhere from $6,000 - $10,000 USD.
At this point, suffice it to say that I have quite a bit invested in my Westfalia. I'm well beyond the point of no return from an investment standpoint, however this van is going to be my home, it's going to take my family and I around the world, and I have no intention of ever selling it. I would constantly remind myself that from here out, only the best would do. That being said, the prospect of yet another huge expense, following shortly after my Subaru install, transmission rebuild and upgrade, interior rebuild with in-dash A/C, and high top install (all within the last six months), and all at a total cost of around $30,000, wasn’t something that appealed to me. I still wanted the best, but knew there had to be another way.
I’ve been traveling to Baja, Mexico for the past decade since I moved to California from New York. Despite all of the crazy things that I've always been told about it, personally I've never experienced anything but nice people, chill vibes, and mind blowing tacos in Mexico. “Better be careful down there,” old timers would say to me, “my buddies, friends, neighbor was shot/stabbed/robbed/beheaded down there, you couldn't pay me to go to that place”. My usual retort was that I wasn't all that interested in going to Mexico to score drugs or prostitutes, activities which were more likely to expose you to the seedier side of the country. And all of my adventures south of the border have thus far confirmed my suspicions that if you mind your own business, are polite, friendly, and keep your activities legal, then you have little to worry about. Sounds kinda like a blueprint for staying out of trouble here at home too, doesn't it?
On a recent trip to Mexico, I passed a paint and body shop and wondered what the price and the quality might be at a shop in Tijuana. I began researching and found that there were many people online who had brought their cars to Tijuana for paint. I began pouring through car forums and quickly realized that taking your vehicle south of the border for paint and bodywork was sort of a quiet secret in some circles. In fact, many Porsche and VW guys had taken their Split window buses, bugs, and 911’s to Mexico for years. The price savings were immediately apparent, the numbers posted by others were 1/3 to 1/4 the price that I had expected to pay for similar work in California. But what about the quality? Strict environmental regulations in the U.S., and California in particular means that the quality and durability of the paint used here in the states is not what it used to be. Mexico is not bound by these regulations, if this is something that bothers you, it's worth considering. My goal is to get the best possible paint at the best possible price, so this was not a concern of mine. Workmanship? Many of these guys have been doing bodywork and paint the old fashioned way for decades. Labor is cheap, and it still makes sense there to bang out body panels, and do body work the right way. Many shops in the US will simply use Bondo to fix body panels because the cost to hammer out dents is just too high.
What about safety? One thing that kept coming up in the comments on all these forum posts regarding Mexican paint shops were the warnings from others that their cars would get stolen without recourse. “If you take your car down there, you’ll never see it again”. Similar to the exaggerated stories of imminent death or dismemberment upon stepping foot into Mexico, it seems like many of these fears are unfounded. So far I have been unable to find a single confirmed case of a car brought to Tijuana for paint and then disappearing. In fact, many of the body shops in Tijuana have been around for decades. Reputation is important, yes even in Mexico, and I'm sure long ago savvy business owners realized that if their customer's cars were to disappear, then new customers would stop coming. It's just simple economics and business practice, especially for these little shops who are family owned and their auto shop is their main bread and butter income for their families.
Let's summarize the reasons why you should get your cars bodywork and paint done in Tijuana: It's way cheaper, the paint quality is higher, they still perform bodywork the the right way, and it's safe according to the research.
So then why wouldn't you want to get your car painted in Mexico? Despite everything I've said, there will still be many people who couldn't be paid to drive to Mexico and then leave their car for painting. Whether it be due to fears or politics, or whatever, these people cannot be convinced that this is a viable option. Also, despite my belief that this is a completely safe endeavor, the fact is that it is more risky than taking your car down to your local body and paint shop. You do in fact have very little recourse if something goes wrong, and there is some inherent risk anytime your doing any transaction in a different country and culture, whether it be for car paint, for dental work, or for business.
This is part 1 of a multipart part series on my paint experience in Mexico. When we receive the van back, and drive it home to the US, I'll reveal the outcome of the work and make a final determination on if painting your vehicle in Mexico is worth the time and hassle for the low cost. Stay tuned!