PACIFIC, Mo. — He waved his hand over the Mercedes S550 sedan, casting a shadow on its silver surface.
The metallic paint shimmered with evenness. The gap between hood and quarter panel ran with uniformity. The finish lacked any hint of pit or protrusion.
"Can you tell?" asked Scott Witzig.
No, you couldn't. That was the goal: to erase damage in a way that defied detection.
Witzig has become so adept at achieving it that the blacktop street outside his body shop, Pro-Tech Collision Center, is often a picture of automotive extravagance in a place you wouldn't expect: downtown Pacific, a city with a median household income of less than $39,000, situated about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis.
The Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, parked against the backdrop of a pawnshop and a vacant lot, frequently cost more than twice the city's $153,000 median home value and inspire endless rubbernecking.
In an industry that regularly values production over quality, Witzig and his employees are craftsmen, highly regarded by people for whom luxury is a way of life.
"I have used a lot of body shops over the years," said Tom White, president of Aurora Technologies Inc., who owns about four dozen cars. "He absolutely looks at every detail. There's not a nut, a bolt or a screw missing that he doesn't fix."
At 50, Witzig still arrives for work at 4:30 a.m., finding fulfillment in the ability to apply the perfect paint job — an exactness instilled decades ago when having nothing taught him to take nothing for granted.
"I think that's where it starts," he said.
The son of a truck driver, Witzig grew up in south St. Louis County in a two-bedroom duplex with a few pieces of furniture on which he and his five siblings were rarely allowed to sit.
"It had to last forever," he said.
When Witzig was about 8 his father lost his job and started cleaning preschools at night to make ends meet, bringing along his brood to help.
"The whole family would do that just so we could eat," Witzig said.
Unable to afford new clothes, Witzig's dad scouted out Goodwill donation receptacles after dark, hoisting his kids into the boxes to fish out whatever fit.
As the years wore on, Witzig became well-versed in a fundamental economic truth: Scarcity equals value. He learned to take exceptional care of his few possessions: the two pairs of pants for the school year, the abandoned bike he commandeered.
After high school he entered a trade school, then landed a job at Boulevard Motors, a former Mercedes dealership on the western edge of downtown St. Louis. It was a good fit for a budding technician with an appetite for excellence.
Twelve years later, new owners bought Boulevard and announced that the business was moving. A body shop did not figure into the new plans.
"We had a crew, but no place to work," Witzig said.
So Witzig searched for one in the area to which the region's affluence had long been migrating: west St. Louis County.
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Growing suburbs could be picky. A body shop was an unappealing business. Witzig's plans were turned down by multiple municipalities.
He finally located a building in downtown Pacific, an old railroad town with a working-class ethos. He brought with him a crew of five from Boulevard, including younger brother Jamie.
Before long, Erwin F. Schwarz Ltd., a St. Louis-area high-end automotive boutique, approached him with the opportunity on which he would build his business's reputation: helping restore a 1970s Rolls-Royce Corniche.
"I saw it as the type of job you could hang your hat on," he said.
The car spent a year in his shop. He sanded and painted it, sanded and painted it again, applied a clear coat, and buffed it until the finish had a depth he could see into.
After that Rolls, Schwarz sent Witzig another.
"He has exceeded our expectations," said Fred Schwarz, who owns the business with his brother, Eric. "He knows there's right and wrong and no in-between."
Word spread, unleashing a cascade of other jobs on rare cars. Transport companies shipped him classics damaged en route to auctions. Ritzy dealerships sent him dinged-up demonstrators. CEOs and athletes hired him for $20,000-plus custom paint jobs on new cars.
"That building had been a car dealership for years, but I don't think anybody ever expected that we would see Bentleys and Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces and all the other classic, high-end cars parked there," said Greg Myers, president of the Pacific Area Chamber of Commerce.
Witzig has repaired the most historically significant of the classics (a 1954 Kaiser Darrin, of which only about 450 were produced) and the most elegant of sports cars (a Bugatti Veyron, a dealership demonstrator worth roughly $1 million). His shop has earned certifications in Mercedes, Bentley, Audi and Porsche, an uncommon achievement for an independent garage.
Along the way, Witzig has encountered some of the greatest feats of automotive engineering — electrohydraulic shift systems, magnetic suspensions, lightweight aluminum cores — but has resisted the urge to take joy rides.
With one exception. "I drove that Bugatti," he said.
"That's what it was for. So I took it for a rip."
On the street outside his garage, he hit the gas. The force threw his head back in the seat. The speedometer cracked 60 mph within a half block.
"Once you hit 100 mph it drops down and the windows go up," he said. "It was pretty cool."