Meet the Craftsman:

An interview with Chris Picconi. 

Brian Ellis  |  October 2022

Tucked away a few miles inland from the beaches of Asbury Park, NJ you'll find a small warehouse, a French Bulldog named Carl, and a man named Chris. The warehouse, nicknamed the Jam Pad, serves as the man's home away from home, a place to shelter and tinker with his rotating collection of 4x4s.

Chris Picconi really knows his way around a Jeep. As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, he watched them steal the scene in classic 80s flicks like Back To The Future and The Goonies. Later on in high school, his first set of wheels were that of an Aqua Metallic '95 Jeep Wrangler Sport YJ. Sure, his buddies made sure to give him plenty of flack for riding around in a teal Jeep, but to Picconi it represented pure, unadulterated freedom. 

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Chris’ 20s and 30s placed him in New York City where he hit his stride in the corporate world. These days, his corporate life is behind him and he's focused on his wife of 16 years, his restorations, beach life, and his newest project, the Classic 4x4 Podcast

He is an avid traveler, calling himself a beach and mountain addict. Fishing, skiing, and hunting are all part of Picconi's  normal routine. In the winters, you might find him on the slopes in the Northeast, Rockies, or Sierras. In the summers, you'll spot he and Carl in the surf outside their Jersey Shore home - not far from the Jam Pad. Right before my latest catch-up with Chris he had returned from a fishing trip down to the Carolinas—with the same friends that teased him for his teal Jeep—where he pulled Spanish mackerel, tuna, redfish, and shark.

I first met Chris when he was selling his 1965 Jeep CJ-5A Tuxedo Park. Over that first email, I couldn't help but think that this was truly the most genuinely happy human I had ever met. I gave Chris a call to talk about his restoration, and it was immediately like I was speaking with an old friend.

What's more, the depth of detail and enthusiasm he shared over his build was captivating. I honestly thought that this man was somehow on the assembly line when it was first together. He knew every bolt. Each step of the restoration process was diligently performed with the help of a well-curated list of trusted specialists to tackle the intricacies of the project.

Since then, Chris and I have stayed in touch to talk shop, swap stories on our latest projects, the state of the industry, his podcast, and fishing. 

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BRIAN:  You call your shop the Jam Pad. Tell us what goes down in there, what music you have in heavy rotation at the moment, and what’s your most prized possession inside.

CHRIS:  The Jam Pad is just a place to store my collection, work on my restorations and chill with my buddies.  I will say that the music rotation is on point! My wife and I love live music, there was a point in our lives when we were traveling almost every weekend around the country to see 50+ Avett Brothers shows a year.

The Jam Pad always has some modern folk playing in the background through a modern Yamaha receiver, high-quality digital input cable, vintage Technics turntable and a set of vintage Panasonic Thruster speakers. I found that receiver in the back of a 1985 Toyota FJ62 that I bought out of a garage that was being demolished the next day.

The best thing that came out of that FJ transaction was the Yamaha receiver. That FJ had 82k original miles, started and ran like a champ and the interior was immaculate.  Unfortunately, the previous owner parked, at that time a rust free, FJ on the street a block off the beach for less than 2 years before parking it in the garage where I found it. The damage that the salt air and elements did in less than 2 years to that truck was insane!  The body was unsalvageable and useless  It eventually was sold to a guy that had a perfect FJ 62 body but needed an interior, powertrain, VIN and title, so it worked out in the end. That Yamaha receiver is probably my most prized possession in the Jam Pad.


BRIAN:  You're a big Jeep guy, and I think I once heard you say on your podcast that you wanted to own one of every CJ. What's left on your list, and what are your favorite cars so far - Jeep or otherwise?  

CHRIS:  About 5 years ago I embarked on a journey to restore and add to my collection every Jeep CJ. So far I still have to own a CJ2a, CJ3b and CJ10 to complete that quest. My favorite car I've owned is a toss-up between a 2015 BMW F10 M5 with Competition Package and a 1981 Jeep CJ8 Scrambler. The M5 was a beautifully refined rowdy animal that was a blast to drive.  The CJ8 was a passion project that I ended up impeccably restoring to a "Concours level 100-point" restoration. 


BRIAN: 
What’s your dream road-trip or off-road challenge? And of course, what are you doing it in?

CHRIS:  I dream of driving cross country in a modernized and restored classic Jeep SJ Wagoneer or Cherokee. Eventually, I will make that dream a reality. A few years ago, I made another dream road trip a reality. My wife and I followed the Avett Brothers tour through New England seeing a show almost every night for a couple of weeks in the 2015 BMW M5. That was epic!


BRIAN: 
You’re now hosting the Classic 4x4 podcast. What made you start it, and what do you hope your listeners will get out of it?

CHRIS:  Throughout my professional career, I had a mentor that always gave me great advice and direction. One day he said to me, "You should do a podcast about those classic 4x4s you are always talking about, you would be perfect." I looked into it and quickly realized that there are a limited number of podcasts talking about classic trucks and 4x4s and almost none of them were interview style.

Fortunately, I have made some amazing and influential friends in the classic 4x4 community over the years. I started reaching out to them to see if they would be willing to be interviewed and the reception and willingness was immense from the beginning.  I recorded a small arsenal of episodes over a few months, dropped three as an intro launch on October 4th, 2022 and drop a new episode every week on Tuesdays.

So far the reception has been amazing and it has broken the top 25 charts for automotive podcasts on several podcast listening platforms.  That is how the Classic 4x4 podcast was born!

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BRIAN:  Besides the podcast, you chronicle your builds on your Instagram account, @Overlandbythesea. How has Overland by the Sea evolved, and where would you like to take it from here?

CHRIS:  It has evolved outside of just chronicling my collection and restoring just Jeeps. I just finished restoring a 1987 Land Rover Santana 2500DL, which is the Spanish built version of the Solihull, UK built Land Rover Defender 110. Though Jeeps will always be the core of my collection, I'm going to continue to acquire other classic 4x4s like International Harvester Scouts, Toyota FJs, Ford Bullnoses, Dodge Ws and Ram Chargers, and Chevy K5s and Square Bodies.

Also, it has become my persona as the host of the Classic 4x4 podcast.  Recently, I have been approached by a few people that admire the high caliber, but budget conscious, restorations I have done for my own collection. A friend of mine just finished building a beautiful home in our beach town and nothing goes better with a new beach house than a classic Jeep. He approached me to build him a Jeep, our visions aligned, we came to a mutually beneficial agreement and I'm in the process of restoring a 1985 Jeep CJ7 for him and his wife.

My restoration projects have always been for my own collection, but throughout that process and over many years, I have developed deep and mutually respectful relationships with some very talented automotive craftsmen and artisans. Trust me, I have come across some hacks that promise the world, don't hold themselves accountable, and poorly or don't execute. I refuse to work with anyone that operates on that wavelength, as it is far below the standard I hold myself to personally and professionally.

I have come to realize it would take years of trial and error for the average collector and enthusiast to develop a process and build relationships with top notch body shops, upholsterers, specialty mechanics and parts suppliers. As a result, there is value in the process I have built, the relationships I have developed and the experience I have gained from restoring classic 4x4s for my personal collection.  I could see Overland by the Sea becoming a brand that builds and restores bespoke classic 4x4s on a contract basis for other collectors and enthusiasts.


BRIAN:  Tell me more about your restoration of the ’87 Santana

CHRIS:  The 1987 Land Rover Santana 2500 DL was a fun project! I wanted to embark on a classic Land Rover 110 or Defender 110 project, but while researching them I quickly realized that the Solihull, UK built Land Rovers are almost all right-hand drive, the TDI engines are notoriously unreliable along with other core components.

Through my research, I came across a bunch of information about a decades long relationship that Land Rover had with agricultural manufacturing company Metalurgica de Santa Ana, eventually renamed Santana Motors, out of Linares, Spain.  At the time, British Leyland-owned Land Rover was always operating on the verge of bankruptcy and their Solihull factory was a mess and couldn't meet the demand for Land Rover vehicles around the world. The two companies entered into a decades-long licensing agreement where Santana would build Land Rover vehicles in Linares, Spain under the name Land Rover Santana to be sold in Spain and exported to the African, South American and Middle Eastern markets. Land Rover "complete knock-down kits" were shipped from Solihull to Linares, where Santana assembled and built Land Rover vehicles for decades.

Given Land Rover Santanas were exported to much harsher and more demanding markets, Santana used its agricultural manufacturing background to improve upon the Solihull "complete knock down kit" Land Rovers it was building to make them more reliable and resilient. Though the snobby Land Rover purists will deny it to the end, Spanish-built Land Rover Santanas tend to be more reliable, resilient and better-built than Solihull-built Land Rovers. When Land Rover Solihull released the 110 Wagon, eventually becoming the Defender 110, it started using TDI engines, lighter axles, coil spring suspensions and a few other modernized components. Land Rover Santana realized that those unproven changes would not and ended up not standing up to the harsh and demanding African, South American and Middle Eastern export markets. They created the Land Rover Santana 2500 DL, informally known as the Series IV, which is a clone of the Solihull built 110 Wagon/Defender 110, but the 2500 DLs retained the more reliable Series 3 2.5NA Rover diesel engines, heavier axles and more resilient parabolic leaf springs to improve reliability and accommodate the harsher export markets.

Land Rover Santana did adopt the modern 5 speed transmissions and dual range transfer cases used in the Solihull built 110 Wagon/Defender 110. Other than a few other small enhancements like a larger oil filter, Hella wiring harness, dual safari roof windows and larger brakes, the Land Rover Santana 2500 DL is just a more reliable and resilient Solihull built 110 Wagon/Defender 110.

As I started to uncover all this information, I ended up forging a relationship with a US-based gentleman that operates as a low volume dealer importing high quality, low-mileage and all-original Land Rover Santanas from Spain to the US.  Through him, I acquired my impeccably clean all original 137k kilometers (approximately 85k miles) 1987 Land Rover Santana 2500 DL.  It had lived on a dry Southern Spain nut farm before being imported and starting its new life in New Jersey.

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Spain is not only dry, so it was rust free, but they have very strict annual inspection requirements that document every vehicle's mileage each year and require it to be kept up and maintained to pass inspection and continue to be registered and driven.

After meticulous exterior and interior restoration and mechanical reconditioning, I have a beautiful Land Rover Santana 2500 DL, which, unless you have a trained eye and in-depth knowledge, most think is a Land Rover 110 Wagon or Defender 110.

Since I started with such a clean base for the project, it just needed to be brought back to life cosmetically and cared for mechanically.  The body was refurbished and painted by a specialist with experience refurbishing and repairing aluminum bodies, knew to use the correct epoxy primers and was a true artist of a painter to avoid paint drips around the rivets and hard square body edges. While the body work was being done, my upholsterer custom upholstered the original seats, upper dash and center console with marine leatherette, piping and threads. I use marine-grade products in all of my restorations, they just hold up better over time.

The original carpet was replaced with custom-cut diamond plate vinyl flooring. I added some creature-comforts and details like front and rear paired JBL Play 4 Bluetooth Speakers, RAM Mount phone mount, a Mountney wood-rimmed steering wheel and aluminum shift knobs and door trim pieces. My stereo guy was the one that recommended the paired JBL Play 4 speakers for music and Bluetooth phone capability. I will remember what he said to me forever, "Bro, we aren't gonna be boys anymore if I bang you out for a $10,000 custom stereo that is gonna sound like shit in this fishbowl when $300 worth of JBL Bluetooth speakers mounted in the right places are gonna sound way better!" Though creatively spoken, he was right!

The Rover made a quick stop at my trusty suspension shop to have the parabolic leaf springs reconditioned, new Old Man Emu shocks installed and a laser alignment for good measure.  Then came the biggest surprise of restoring a Land Rover: finding a specialist mechanic that actually knows how to work on them! Most people think parts are hard to come by and expensive, but you just need to know where to look and shop them for the best prices. There are a bunch of US-based parts suppliers and what they don't stock the European parts suppliers stock and can be DHL shipped to your doorstep in 2 days. Fortunately for me, the currency winds were in my favor due to out-of-control US inflation, so it was actually cheaper to buy my parts in Europe.

Now that I had all my parts it was time to mechanically recondition the vehicle with new synthetic fluids, change the filters, flush the brake and cooling systems, new brake components, belts and hoses. After a failed attempt with a now former trusted mechanic that promised the world and never delivered, resulting in the Rover sitting at his shop untouched for 6 weeks, I found the right guy for the job.

Through a referral from a local Ferrari collector, it turns out there is an excellent classic foreign car specialist about a half hour away from me that has extensive classic Land Rover experience. After waiting a few weeks for him to fit me into his schedule, the mechanic inspected the Rover, gave it a clean bill of health and recommended a front axle swivel ball rebuild and locking hub repacking in addition to the reconditioning work I wanted performed.

All the work was performed perfectly in the time frame he defined from the beginning. Then it came time to pick the Rover up, pay the bill and that is where my biggest surprise became a reality. Specialist foreign car mechanics with in depth Land Rover knowledge that actually do what they say they are going to do are insanely expensive! If I had done the same work to one of my Jeeps, it would have cost me about 80% less at my local Jeep mechanic. That said, the shop I used was worth every dollar, I would recommend them to anyone and use them again if I embark on another European project.  From start to finish the whole project took me about 4 months, I drove it all summer and had a blast!  Most people don't believe it only took 4 months, but that is the value of having long-standing, deep and mutually respectful relationships with the craftsmen and artisans that you depend on to perform the restoration, refurbishment and reconditioning work.  I have had my fun with it and now it is time to make room in the Jam Pad and move it on down the line to the next caretaker to enjoy and love it like I did.


BRIAN:  What will fill that Santana-sized spot in the Jam Pad? And, what's your dream project?

CHRIS:  I'm currently working on a 1982 Jeep Wagoneer for my own collection and a 1985 Jeep CJ7 for my buddy, but I'm hunting for a Bullnose Ford. 1980 to 1986 were great years for Ford truck design, especially for the Bronco and F-Series pickups. Eventually, I will find the right Bronco, F-250 or F-350 to make my own, restore it and add it to my collection.

My dream project is to build my wife a fully restored Emerald Green Pearl mid 60s to late 70s two door Jeep SJ Cherokee.  She drove an Emerald Green Pearl 1995 two door Jeep XJ Cherokee Sport when we first met and I would love to build her a classic Jeep.

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BRIAN:  What is the oddest or most challenging project you’ve undertaken?

CHRIS:  Definitely my 1965 Jeep CJ5a Tuxedo Park Mark IV project!

Fortunately, the person I bought that from had mechanically restored it to perfection. He was just done with it and didn't have the time or resources to complete the cosmetic restoration. Cosmetically it was a mess, but I bought it with all the replacement panels that it needed and it had all the rare Tuxedo Park specific chrome hardware, including the super rare flip-up rear license plate bracket and rare option and mythical 70/30 split bench seat.

About halfway through the bodywork, I quickly realized I should have swapped the tub.  Don't get me wrong, the body guy did an amazing job cutting out and repairing the rotted metal, rebuilding a body mount and replacing the hood and tailgate.  All of that could have been avoided with time and money saved by just using a replacement steel tub, which is relatively inexpensive and easily obtained. 

Once the body was done, painted in the beautiful retro Jeep color, Empire Blue, all the chrome hardware refurbished and re-chromed and the bench seat reupholstered, it was time to reassemble.  Carl and I spent countless weeks, days and hours reassembling that project in the Jam Pad.  Once it was finally done, I hopped up into the driver's seat and was elated to take it for its inaugural drive!  That is when I realized the 10 inches of greater wheelbase I was used to with my CJ7 combined with me having the upholsterer bolster the bench seat with extra foam was going to be a problem!  I'm 6'4" and I didn't fit in it!  I drove it a couple of times, parked it in the corner of the Jam Pad and felt guilty that it was just sitting there unappreciated. So I moved it on down the line to the next caretaker. It is in an Iowa lake community now and the new owner sends me a picture every once and a while of his family enjoying it on a nice day.

The oddest part of that project was the Tuxedo Park Mark IV provenance and rarity.  Being a Jeep guy that researched and understood how special and rare the CJ5a Tuxedo Park Mark IVs really are, the market doesn't translate that into their values.  Even though I played it up and explained it in the marketing, no prospective buyer cared and it sold for around the same value as an impeccably restored CJ5.  The most interesting part of the project was the Warn Overdrive the previous owner had mated to the three speed transmission.  What a fun Jeep to drive!  I would start in 1st Direct, shift to 2nd Direct, engage the overdrive into 2nd Overdrive and increase the engine RPMs enough to shift and cruise in 3rd Overdrive.  Driving a dual stick transmission took some getting used to, but man was it fun!

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BRIAN:  What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the restoration business along the way?

CHRIS:  The average person can bring a classic car to 10 body shops for body restoration and paint and all 10 body shops will tell you they don't do that type of work anymore! The body shop industry has changed and insurance companies have destroyed the body shop business. Yes, newer automotive technologies and modern vehicles have played their part, but that type of change is a constant in any industry.

Body shops are gone and they are now called Collision Centers that replace plastic pieces and panels, most of which are pre-painted, that come out of a box from a wholesale distributor. They can't survive in this day and age without the constant flow of heavily subvented and controlled insurance collision work.

It's sad, the craftsman body men and artisan auto painters have died off and been replaced by technicians that take off broken pieces and replace them with new pieces from a box.  They have no idea how to straighten and refinish a steel body panel and certainly can't paint.  Fortunately for me, I have developed long-standing and deep relationships with some "old school" real deal shops.  They still have passion and love for classic vehicles, still have true craftsmen and artisans on staff and will supplement their insurance paid collision work with real bodywork.  Those relationships took years to develop, are constantly evolving and can only be started by a referral and whisper from a guy who knows a guy.


BRIAN:  What do you find to be the most satisfying part of your restorations?

CHRIS:  That's easy; The inaugural drive after checking every item off your to-do list when a project is complete in your eyes!  Driving them is the best part and why we spend so much time, money, sweat and labor to get them the way we want them!  Sometimes it is a crusty patina build or a 100-point concourse restoration, but if it makes you happy and it's where you want it to be, that's all that matters!


BRIAN:  What advice would you give to somebody aspiring to get into the restoration business?

CHRIS:  Technically, I'm not in the restoration business, but maybe sometime in the future that will change. For now, I am a hobbyist restorer and collector that buys and restores them the way I like them with love and passion. I have been very fortunate though when I do need to make room in the Jam Pad for another project, people seem to really like the way I build and style my projects for myself. When it comes time to pass them down the line to the next caretaker, they sell quickly and for strong numbers.

From that experience, the best advice I can give is to never cut corners, do it right the first time, it is all about mutually beneficial relationships and never tolerate poor work ethic, lack of accountability and execution from others! If you work with a mechanic, body shop, supplier or any vendor that over-promises and under-delivers or doesn't hold themselves accountable, never work with them again. Though finding and developing another vendor relationship takes a lot of time and work, I have learned it always happens for a reason and for the better. 

In that same vein, always treat the relationships and vendors that treat you well with the utmost respect, candor and always pay them on time and in full. Just like you evaluate your relationships, they evaluate their relationships too. If a good relationship/vendor/partner stops returning your calls or disregards or slow plays your work requests, blame yourself, not them. Did you raise your voice when there was a tough situation, did you not transfer money on time to pay them on time, what could have you done differently?

Download The Classic 4x4 Podcast.

Hear more from Chris Picconi as he hosts the Classic 4x4 Podcast with fellow classic four-wheel drive Jeep, Land Rover, Toyota, International Harvester, Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge enthusiasts. Get weekly interviews with 4WD enthusiasts, collectors and restorers discussing their background, experience, projects and collections.