Upholstery artist restores masterpieces

Upholstery artist restores masterpieces

The Providence Journal projoCars.com by: Peter C.T. Elsworth Journal Staff Writer

Projo Article


Dressed in jeans and sandals with longish hair swept back behind a beret-like reversed cap, Nick Petcu looked more like an artist than an artisan.

Indeed, the 50-year old Romanian immigrant trained as an artist and used to paint and sculpt.

No more.

“I found another passion. This.” he said in a recent interview, gesturing toward a 1947 Cadillac and a 1938 Packard that were undergoing restoration in his workshop.

Petcu, owner of Nick’s Upholstery, restores the interiors of classic collector cars. He can transform a car’s beat up and rotting insides including the door panels, carpets and convertible roofs, let alone the seats — into a flawless re-recreation of the coachbuilders art.

The 1938 Packard 1608 V12 Town Car is a unique car. It was built for tabacco heiress Doris Duke and has a custom body by famed New York coachbuilder Rollston Company, which was founded in 1921 by Romanian immigrant Harry Lonschein.

Petcu said time had taken its toll on the interior, which had been “totally destroyed.”

“Much of the wood (frame) was rotten and the roof was (perished),” he said. “We had to cut off and replace half of it.”

Petcu’s skill in re-creating the upholstery is matched by Bobby Dwyer’s woodworking skills. While the two are not officially partners, they have worked on many projects together and a door connects the two workshops.

Dwyer is able to not only re-recreate the frame but also to refurbish or replace the finely veneered wood that is a hallmark of classic cars.

“Hours and hours can go into one tiny piece,” he said. “You can invest $1,000 into a part you can hold in your hand.”

The Packard is one of a kind. Not only is the driver separated from the passenger compartment by a glass window, but the rear of the passenger compartment has a convertible roof.

Petcu and Dwyer have refurbished the interior in beige and refurbishing (and in some cases re-creating) the fine veneer trim.

A measure of Petcu’s attention to detail is outlined in long strips of cardboard that line both cars’ massive running boards. They are covered in meticulous notes listing every task he undertakes. He uses the notes both as records of what he has done and for billing purposes.

He had made the new convertible roof out of beige material that matched the interior, but was dissatisfied with the result because it clashed with the black paintwork. He said he planned to replace it with black material after a discussion with owner, collector and restorer Dick Shappy.

How long would that take? He said about 30 hours, or two or three days given that he works “12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week.”

He said he also often works on Sundays, breaking only to watch his beloved Celtics on television. Overall, he said the Packard has some 700 hours of work in it.

He said replacing a set of seats required him to install them three or four times, taking them out each time for retightening or loosening and possible additional stitching.

“It’s like making a suit, you pretty much tailor it,” he said, adding, “A major aspect of the upholsterer’s art is measuring and re-measuring.”

Petcu said the interior of the massive black 1947 Cadillac 62 Series Convertible was down to the metal when he received it. He re-created the two door panels, all the seats, the floors, the convertible top and interior of the trunk.

He pointed out the piping along the back of one of the front red leather seats of the Cadillac, which he said was very slightly crooked on one of the seats.

The flaw was invisible to a layman’s eye but he said he would be taking the seat out and tightening it up to bring the piping in line.

Petcu said he left Romania in 1990 as a political refugee from the Communist government. He had been a foe of President Nicolae Ceausescu, who was captured and executed in 1989 following a general uprising.

“Why leave now?” he said many of his friends asked him.

“No, no, no, I’m leaving.” he said, noting that the new government was still a Communist one. “I knew nothing good would come out of it.”

He subsequently spent a month in Italy being processed by the U.S. immigration authorities before coming to the U.S. in 1990.

Petcu said he held a variety of jobs when he first arrived.

“I did everything,” he said, citing breaking asphalt, working at Stop & Shop and washing dishes. He also started upholstering furniture, a skill he had acquired in Romania.

“I had a sewing machine and fixed couches and chairs,” he said. “One day (in 1996) , a guy comes to me and says, “I have an old car, can you do the upholstery?”

He said he had always loved cars and thus the transition into working on collector-car upholstery was a natural fit.

Petcu shares his workshop with another artisan, Brian Sullivan of P&S Upholstery. Sullivan left the corporate life with Merrill Lynch to focus on upholstering, a skill that runs in the family as he said he learned it from his brother who has a shop in East Providence.

Indeed a recent visit found yet another brother, Bobby, helping him refurbish the upholstery of a dark blue 1964 Iso Rivolta,, a car with “an Italian body and a Corvette engine.”

He said he ahd spent some 70 hours re-creating the Rivolta’s dashboard, floor, door panels and seats, noting the work had been eased by the fact that the car was delivered from a paint shop without doors or windows.

“Restoration is a sequence of events,” he said.

Two years ago, Petcu and his wife, Shirley Page, who is Brian and Bobby Sullivan’s sister, bought a condo in Tagliolo, Italy, where they spend half the year. He has established an upholstery business Autotappezzeria di Nick, but said he has yet to fully exploit his Italian business.

“People were concerned that I was leaving,” he said of his American customers.

For more information, check out: www.nicksupholstery.net