Skip to content

Nineteen Fifty Meets: Charbel Habib

 Published: 28 June, 2022

Last week, I got the chance to interview Mr. Charbel Habib, a classic car aficionado in the entire sense of the word. An engineer by training, Charbel’s true passion has always and will always be history. History weaved with a love of cars that you witness as soon as you walk through his front door.

From vintage film cameras to classic racing flyers, all the way to an enigma machine, Charbel’s love of history dominates his home, putting on display a passion that he’s fostered since a young age.

Like every true car enthusiast, Charbel sees in vintage cars a blast from the past, a way to relive an ambiance that marked a specific historical era. He’s specifically fond of the 60’s and 70’s and for good reason, as you’ll see in his answers below.

But for now, let me just briefly introduce Charbel Habib, a man who’s elevated his love of cars to the next level, taking part in extreme races around the world while creating a car restoration business that’s unparalleled.

We spent hours chatting, in what started as an interview before turning into a laid back conversation with someone I found extremely fascinating.

Can you tell us more about yourself? Where does this interest in cars come from?

I've had a passion for history for as long as I can remember and this applies to objects as well. For me, it’s not about cars, it’s about history. Since I was a child, I always loved everything related to history, but I got into engineering because I also like mathematics and physics, and its monetary benefits outweigh that of a career in history.

My research into history then led me to cars. We have a habit here in Lebanon, as a culture, of not paying a lot of attention to our history, which isn't the best of ideas.

I believe that the only way to avoid repeating the same mistakes is to look back at what went wrong previously. You will make a lot of mistakes in your life, if you don’t look back. So preserving history as a means to improve our society and culture is super important.

Now I know that my love of the history behind cars isn't to improve the society, but because I love it. But at the same time, I love doing something that contributes to society, I love doing something that has a purpose. By showcasing the cars, It shows to people that if you preserve an item from the past, it's value is only going to increase with time and you'll end up cherishing and loving it. This will encourage people to preserve their old belongings, and when this happens, they will start looking at all aspects of their own history; and this in turn, will improve their lives. That is the social purpose of having a collection.

What got you into restoring cars?

To build a classic car collection, you need to start with one car. And if you're not experienced enough you will discover very quickly that you have a problem that you'll need to repair.

Since I'm into construction, I know my way around mechanics and machinery so I went ahead and bought the first three cars, one of them was so bad that I had to start to restore it from scratch. It was a 190SL. The second was a Jaguar e-type series 1. The third one was a car from 1932, not a very important one. These are the cars I started with.

When it comes to classic cars, not every old car is a classic car, every important old car is a classic car. So it has to have been important at a certain period in time. It must have achieved certain milestones in its days. So an average old car in its days is still average to this day, even if it’s 100 years old.  When you look at history you look at the achievements a certain item had back in the day.


Was it a long-term plan that you had? Did it start as a hobby? Is it turning into a business? Do you offer this service to clients?

No, once I started buying cars, it went from one car to another car and to another car. The collection grew, and when you start having a collection, you will need to have a space to showcase them and you will need to have your own garage to repair the cars.

It’s not smart to start with a car collection without having a workshop. So as soon as I started, I had already built my workshop, it can now attend to 10-15 cars at a time. We have over 12 staff members, working on the cars. And now we are in the process of preparing the showroom.

We love going out with friends and drive. It’s a group of friends that are all car enthusiasts that own classic cars. We like to drive through mountain roads and terrains, we take the cars to events, share our love with people.

After I restored a couple of cars for my personal collection, then the burden of keeping a staff was hard. So the best thinking that we had was to start restoring 2 or 3 lines of cars for personal clients.

The 190SL, e-type Series 1, and Porsche 356. These are the only 3 cars that we restore to sell. We buy the project car, we keep the project car, and when time comes, we start restoring and then sell it. When we sell it, we pay the staff for their hard work, and we make a little profit that we use to maintain the whole collection.

We do not restore cars for people, you can’t give us your own car and tell us to restore it, we buy the car, we restore it and then we look for a buyer. You can even buy it during the restoration process, by paying a deposit. Our experience with our clientele is special, we offer everything to give them the best experience possible and assist them throughout the process. From the moment the client walks in the showroom until he drives off the lot with his vehicle.

What cars are you currently working on? Can you tell us more about the restoration process?

We are currently working on two 190SL, and one e-type. Those are the three cars currently in the garage for commercial sale. For our collection, we currently have an Alfa Romeo Guilieta Veloce, an Abarth Zagato 750 and a Maserati Mistrale.

In parallel, we also work on maintaining the cars. There’s always at least 2 cars from the collection coming in for maintenance.

What we do is the grounds of restoration, which we call knot & bolt restoration. We don’t do medium process restoration. So first we buy the project car, which must be complete and authentic and with matching engine and chassis.

It shouldn’t have been tempered with. It’s a car that is genuine, the parts on it must be 100% correct. And we know how to recognize an original car from a mile away. The bodywork will usually be very bad, which we don’t care about too much.

We don’t care about the upholstery either, whether its rotten or not. What we care about is the correct, original instruments and parts.

Once we bring the car in, we tear it down completely naked, down to the chassis. We remove all the panels that are damaged. Either we fabricate new panels or we buy new ones.

The floor of the car alone can cost up to 10,000$. That is the most difficult part of the process, the metal work. This part takes about 5 months. After that the car will go in for a new coat of paint.

In parallel, mechanical work is also taking part. All the parts are being dismantled, cleaned, repaired, restored, coated with a layer of epoxy.

The engine is being completely reworked, transmission, suspension, everything is reworked as new. Once the car is painted, it will go to the third floor, which is where the assembly happens. After all of that comes the cosmetic part, like upholstery which is outsourced. This is when the car leaves the workshop.

But to make sure it’s up to our standards, we buy the leather ourselves from Europe, sewed and ready to go. Finally, we take the car in numerous test runs. We run the car for 300 km to have ample time to analyze every aspect of the car. Everything I outlined takes almost a year, so we try to fit in around 4 cars simultaneously.

What are the main challenges that you are facing in this line of business?

In this line of business, everything is challenging. In every part of the process you encounter something new and unexpected.

Think about the intricate and delicate part that we use for example. Let’s say you have a bolt, rounded, head bolt, with a specific thickness, specific height, and you have to find that bolt, you can’t decide to use something else. It has to be the exact bolt that was used in the factory 50 or 60 years ago. We are always researching authenticity.

You are also working with local sub-contractors. Our mechanics don’t do everything, our sub-contractors take care of the zincing for some of the parts, the powder coating for some of the parts, the chroming, the upholstery, and the engine repair.

For the engine, we dismantle and send it out to a specialist who will assemble the engine and make sure everything is back to original. So we have 5-6 sub-contractors, and that is apart from the supplier. It's a lot of different things that have to come together as one to bring the machine to life.

Any tips for someone who wants to start restoring his car?

My tip would be, don’t be cheap! Don’t buy and think you will do it yourself. Think of a certain garage, with an experienced mechanic that will do the job for you. You’re in for a big mess, believe me if you do it yourself. You need a specialist that will work on the specific car, and you also need financial flexibility. So it’s better to buy a car that's in good condition in the first place, and enjoy it. Don’t buy something and think you will restore it by yourself. Save yourself the trouble!

You recently participated in the Peking-Paris rally, can you tell us more about that? Where did the idea come from? What challenges did you face? How long was the race?

You know, when you have a classic car collection, you start to think about the idea of participating in international rallies. And there are so many going on all over the world. And all of those rallies are mostly endurance rallies, not speed. It means that your car has to endure the whole process of that rally, it's a marathon not a sprint.

And the car has to be stock and original, exactly as it came out of the factory. So you are driving a car that is 60 or 80 years old, on a 40-day journey, and you must reach the finish line. It’s a big challenge.

You are sometimes driving up to 15,000 km. Once. we drove from China to Paris, passing through Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and France; with an amazing drive through the Alps. Mongolia was all off-road. Out of the 15,000 km we had 5,000 km that were off-road. Half of the rest of the 10,000 km were going up and down the Alps. While going up the Alps, your engine will overheat, and when going down the breaks will overheat. So you encounter difficulties throughout the race. And you have to drive for 10 to 11 hours every single day. You sleep in tents for 10 days, and the remaining 30 days are in different hotels.

I shared this experience with my co-driver who was a mechanic who was a massive help. We went with a Porsche 356 for the rally, and Porsche Centre Lebanon helped us a lot. At every city we reached, we had the Sunday off. We used to go to the Porsche dealer there and they would open the garage for us. So Porsche international, through our Porsche dealer in Lebanon were very interested in the story.

So they offered us assistance all throughout the race. They wouldn’t do the repairs for you, but they would give you all the tools and equipment needed. Imagine, in Switzerland, on a Friday evening, they opened their doors for us.

If you can't finish the race, you're basically screwed because you'll need to get the car back to your country. Organizers will give you the number of a tow truck that will lift the car, but from there you are all alone. You have to find a way to bring the car and yourself from Mongolia, for example, back to Lebanon. And you are alone in the desert. Some people slept in the desert for 4-5 days inside the car with wolves everywhere around, it was crazy.

Can you tell us more about your car collection? Do you have a favorite? Did you renovate all of them?

Well my car collection is not focused on one specific brand. It is however focused on the era of the 60s and 70s, which I'm very fond of. I don’t have pre-war cars, which is anything before 1945. We also don’t have modern classics or veteran cars, which is anything before 1908. The veteran cars are mostly appreciated in the UK.

In terms of brands, I own Porsches, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Jaguars, among others. I also have a thing for micro-cars, which is a type of vehicle constructed mainly in the late 50s and 60s before production stopped in the 70s. These cars are economical, tiny as Europe was coming out of the war and had to make a lot of micro-cars for the masses.

I honestly don’t have a favorite, each one has a different character, and they are special for different reasons.

What are the next steps for Zerock Private Collection and Classic Lebanon? Are you planning to race again?

We're working now on our showroom, which should be done by the end of the year. Hopefully it'll be a beautiful space to display our collection. We're also working on some restoration projects while expanding the sales aspect of the business, perhaps even entering the American market.

We are also preparing some cars for endurance rallies and I have my eyes set on two rallies. The tour of India in 2025 and the endurance rally of Japan in 2024.

Older Post
Newer Post
Close (esc)

Don't miss out!

Join the Nineteen Fifty Community and subscribe to our newsletter to receive exclusive deals, offers and much more!

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now