Dave Burnham is desperate to retire. One of America’s best Citroën mechanics and restorers — perhaps the best when it comes to the byzantine hydraulic systems used on models like the Traction Avant and the DS — Burnham has built his reputation through 40 years of dedication to the brand. His shop, Dave Burnham Citroën, sits about 30 minutes west of Albany, NY and maybe 20 feet from his house. It’s full of customer cars in various states of repair, plenty enough to keep him busy for years.
That queue could be even longer if he weren’t actively shooing away new clients at every opportunity.
Instead of taking on more work, Burnham is ready to shrug off the weird-car mantle. There’s only one problem: Nobody seems to be willing to take over the shop and carry on his legacy. Without an heir to this very specific Francophile throne, Burnham’s treasure trove of knowledge and troubleshooting skills will disappear into the ether — not to mention all the spare parts and specialty tools he’s gathered over the decades.
But there is some good news: Dave Burnham is willing to turn over the keys. If someone comes along who wants the opportunity, Burnham will hand off the shop, the parts room, and access to his 40 years of amassed knowledge. All you need to do is commit to treating his customers right, and pay Burnham a little rent every month.
Dave Burnham is what you might call a glutton for mechanical punishment. An avid time-trial racer, instead of building a mainstream race car like a Miata or an E30 BMW, he competes in a 1984 Maserati Biturbo. It sits on coilovers he pieced together himself and breathes through an aftermarket EFI setup, replacing the finicky factory carburetors.
He’s also an ice racer, but instead of the usual Impreza or Golf, Burnham hits the ice in a custom-built, tube-chassis race car with a wing big enough to make a sprint car jealous. He actually built two of the things, one front-wheel drive and the other rear-wheel drive, both sharing common ancestry: Citroën power.
Dave launched his business in 1986, picking up the pieces of the Carmichael Citroën dealership in Albany, NY, after it abruptly shut down. Burnham, who ran the dyno at Carmichael, acquired all the specialty tools and a fair few spare parts to start and, well, et tout le monde connaît la suite. Since then, his business has grown by word of mouth, happy customers who’ve told others about the small shop in Delanson, NY. His cars have been featured in television shows, displayed at the Lane Motor Museum, and even starred on the runway at New York Fashion Week.
He’s done everything from minor mechanical needling to near-concours-quality overhauls, like this meticulous rebuild of a 1964 DS19 that Hemmings called a “remarkable restoration.” Look at the before and after and I think you’ll agree. He’s currently trying to get a customer’s 1959 2CV back on the road. “Twelve whole horsepower,” Burnham mused when I visited his shop in early spring. He told me about the difficulties in fabricating steel bodywork to replace what so often rusts away. “It’s 12-thousandths-thick steel. You breathe on it and it warps.”
It’s not just Citroëns. Burnham also specializes in Maseratis made during the unfortunate era in the early ‘70s when Citroën had a controlling interest in the company. What could be more reliable than a 50-year-old Italian car with French hydraulics? “It’s dumb stuff,” Burnham told me. “The headlights go up and down hydraulically. The pedals actually move hydraulically. And there’s the switch to make the headlights go up and down. It’s a hydraulic switch. If the hydraulics don’t work, they won’t turn on a pressure switch up front that makes the electrics work, so they won’t light up.”
George Dyke, editor at Citroënvie, president of Citroën Autoclub Canada, and a bit of a Citroën collector (“I’ve pared it down to a dozen at the moment,” he muses), first became a customer of Burnham’s back in 1994, when he got himself a DS that “needed pretty much everything.” Dyke managed to get the car operational, but knew his limits. “I’d heard of Dave’s reputation even then,” he told me. “And so I took the car down to Dave and had him do everything it needed to get back and be a really beautiful car mechanically.”
Citroënvie, one of the biggest online destinations for the brand’s faithful, profiled Burnham in 2004 and called him “one of the foremost experts on Citroëns in North America.” Since then, as other shops have closed down and mechanics have passed on, Burnham’s prominence has continued to rise. “Competent Citroën mechanics are really hard to come by over here, and a Citroën is not a car you want to just hand over to anybody,” Dyke told me. “Particularly the DS, with the hydraulic suspension and all the other components. Dave understood that and he really wanted to get into it, and he’s really brought a reputation for the whole marque at this point.”
When it comes to customers, Burnham has been trying to fight them off with a stick for years. His website flat-out states: “We are not taking any more work until further notice.” Look around at various Citroën user groups and discussion forums and virtually every post or announcement Burnham makes is peppered with qualifiers and disclaimers. Take this one from last summer, when Burnham listed a pair of barn-find 2CVs for sale. “Don’t ask us to restore them,” Burnahm says at the end of the listing, “I am way too tired.”
And yet, Burnham always seems to find time to help those in need. Last summer, a German couple shipped their European-market Citroën Jumper camper van to Canada and planned to drive it all the way to South America. They needed an oil change along the way, but no shop was willing to do the job on this vehicle that had never been sold in North America. Burnham found the time.
“There were times in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I didn’t have a battery phone,” Burnham told me. “I was chained to the wall, because the phone would ring 20 times a day and I’d answer every question or try to help, all people trying to get to work and they’re broken down.” Burnham said he’s sacrificed countless billable hours helping customers like this. “But everybody appreciates it. They think I’m a good guy, apparently.”
They do. George Dyke told me about the Citroën Rendezvous, an annual event that takes place in Saratoga Springs, NY, about an hour from Burnham’s shop. “People drive all the way from Florida for this event every year,” Dyke told me. That’s a long drive for a vintage French automobile, and every year something goes wrong for at least one attendee. “Inevitably it’d end up in Dave’s garage. They’d drag it over to Dave and say ‘Oh my gosh, can you help us out?’ And Dave would dive into it and get the car back on the road.”
Clearly, Burnham lives for this stuff, but every passion has a limit, and he’s tired.
“I don’t want to be out here every day,” Burnham told me, looking as worn out as the crimson Maserati Merak hanging indignantly overhead without an engine. “I’ve got three race cars. I’d rather work on them every day and take a walk. I haven’t played my guitar since 1986. I’d like to volunteer at Proctors Theatre and The Egg for performances, that kind of stuff. I don’t do any of that because I’m always working.”
Despite the disclaimer on his site, he still has a two-year backlog. “If I changed the website, I think the phone would ring non-stop,” he said. Clearly, keeping the pipeline full would be no issue for a new owner.
“I’d really like somebody to try to come in and take over and run the business. Eventually, put it all in their own name, get their own insurance,” Burnham told me. “I will rent this shop for a very low amount of money. They get all the tools. They get all the parts, books, everything related to Citroëns. It’s all here for them to use. And I’ll be in the house if they’ve got a question. It’s kind of an ideal thing, but absolutely nobody wants to take me up on it.”
What’s he mean when he says “very low?” Burnham told me he would ask for $1,200 a month if someone wanted to start by renting the shop. “Oh, and you get Alan,” he added — Alan R. Bentsen II, Burnham’s part-time assistant who also runs his own machining business, meaning he can make from scratch the hard-to-find fittings that old Citroëns require. Burnham and Bentsen try to rebuild and repair whenever possible, like a DS steering rack they just finished restoring for $700 that would have cost $3,000 to replace.
“It’s all pretty much fixable. But you gotta know how to fix it,” Burnham said. And that’s the best part of the deal he’s offering: Dave Burnham himself, just a short stroll away from the shop, available to tell you how to navigate any Citroën issue.
I think Dave is asking way too little. If you are sincerely tempted by what Burnham is proposing — as I hope at least one person out there is — I suggest you make him a more generous offer. After all, if you keep billing customers at Burnham’s current rate of $98 an hour, you’d cover the rent in a day and a half. Throw in access to the parts supply (Burnham says he’ll split the proceeds on any parts sales), plus Dave’s priceless knowledge, and it seems like a heck of a deal.
Perhaps more importantly, you’d have the opportunity to carry on a weird car legacy and become a part of a vibrant community. “The customers are just awesome,” Burnham told me.
Sound like a fun adventure? You can email Dave Burnham here. He’s standing by, just like always.