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All About Car Restoration
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All About Car Restoration

CAR RESTORATION HOW TO

Classic Car Restoration First Step: Disassembly

You've managed to get your classic car restoration project home and parked in an appropriate location for disassembly. All your tools are handy, there's lots of lighting and your camera and clipboard are within reach. So where should you start? Well, with your camera, of course!

A big chunk of car restoration is about memory — you have to remember how things were before you begin to take them apart. Given that most car restoration projects are multi-year endeavors, it helps if you begin by taking photos of the entire car from all four sides. Make sure you get detailed pictures of all trim pieces, door gaps (clearance to body), window moldings, trunk and hood gaps, and all four wheel openings. Then take photos of all interior details, including the complete dash layout. Don't forget the headliner and rear deck. Afterwards, shoot the engine bay from the front and both sides, making sure every component is detailed (you will forget where everything went).

If the car can be raised it will be easier to shoot the entire underside. If not, reach underneath as best as you can, but don't ignore the task. You need to record the suspension layout and the way the car sits. Note any discrepancies or missing items on the clipboard.

1965 Series 1 XKE as we wheeled it into the garage

1965 Series 1 XKE as we wheeled it into the garage


Let's Take This Old Car Apart

It's almost time to start disassembly, but first make sure you have some plastic bags, tape or string and a dark marker. As items are removed you should put small ones in the bags and tie up bundles of larger ones, marking clearly what they are. Okay? Here we go...

First comes the trim

Expect to spend at least a day doing this.

Removing bumpers and large trim pieces is the easy part. They are generally held on with bolts and nuts, so get out the wrenches and crank away. If fasteners are rusty, heat them with a propane torch until red, then they should break loose. If they don't, the bolt is likely to shear off, but don't let that worry you. You'll probably replace the hardware anyway.

Rusted-on screws can be driven out with a sharp cold-chisel, by setting its point nearly tangent to the outside diameter of the screw and hammering lightly to get a "bite" into it. Continue hammering and the screw should start turning. If that fails the only course is to drill it out, using small bits at first and then larger ones until you equal the fastener's shaft diameter.

Put the bumpers aside (after removing integral parking lights, etc.) and start removing hood ornaments, side spears, side trim, rocker panel trim, lettering and miscellaneous trim items. If you're an experienced classic car restorer, you fully realize how valuable trim pieces can be. Never pry off trim items unless you know how it's done. Study each piece to determine if it's held on with clips or screws (some use both) and take your time to avoid bending anything. Trim items are almost always the most expensive things to replace. Keep all parts to be re-chromed in one area and stainless parts in another. Keep mounting hardware in plastic bags and mark carefully what they are. Draw layouts of hardware placement on a sheet of paper if necessary.

All the glass has been removed.

All the glass has been removed.


For many car restoration projects, window trim can be some of the hardest to remove. Specialized clips and extruded shapes hold them to the rubber moldings and they are easy to bend. Obviously, any trim piece that overlaps another will have to be removed first. "A" pillar trim pieces frequently are screwed on underneath door weatherstrip, so look carefully. Bundle and mark all trim pieces, particularly noting which side. Many pieces look identical but are shaped to fit only one side.

By the time you finish, the car will look pretty ugly. Headlight surrounds, grille, tail lights, etc. will be gone and much of the car's styling cues will be gone with them. Take a photo or two, then mark on the clipboard which pieces need repair, re-chroming or replacement.

Glass

This will take about one day.

Now you want to remove all the glass, the most fragile part of an automobile, so let's be careful to avoid breakage. Windshields are fairly easy to find, but rear windows and some side glass is more difficult.

Start with the windshield. Since the exterior trim is already removed, all you have to do is remove the interior trim and then release the rubber molding from the body. If the car is old and the molding all dried out, it will tend to fall apart. If not, the rubber has to be lifted from the body flange that it surrounds on the outside and inside. Pry it up in one spot to see how it's adhered, then use whatever tools you have to release the molding's grip on the body flange all the way around the opening.

Once you have released the molding — inside and out — go inside the car and start to pry the inside lip of the molding away from the flange, pushing it to the outside of the car. The windshield will start to move to the outside. Carefully pry evenly all around the inside, gently pushing the windshield out. Don't pull from the outside. You might stress the windshield and break it. When the windshield breaks free, leave the rubber molding on it and store it away in a safe place.

The rear window is removed the same way as the windshield, as are any other "fixed" (non-opening) side windows. Store everything safely away.

Vent window glass is always easier to remove after the window assembly is taken out of the door. To do so requires the removal of the door trim panel to gain access to the mounting hardware for the bottom pivot (or crank) of the vent window. Once the window is off, the glass can be removed from the metal channel using razor blades, box cutter or other thin, sharp knives to separate the glass from the fabric/adhesive material holding it to the channel. Of course, if the channel and glass are in near-perfect condition, leave them alone for later cleaning and polishing.

A naked door. Take plenty of photos to help you remember how to put it back together.

A naked door. Take plenty of photos to help you remember how to put it back together.


Side window glass is held in a bottom channel that is raised and lowered by the opening mechanism (manual crank or electric motor). On some cars the channel can be removed from the mechanism while in the door, but in others the entire mechanism must be removed. Since you are restoring the car anyway, we strongly recommend removal of the window mechanism so that any repairs can be made before re-installing the glass. Take photos of the mechanism in the full-down and full-up positions before removal and study your shop manual for hardware location and steps for removal (remember, you will be reversing this procedure during re-installation). Mark the assembly according to which door it fits and store it away. Make appropriate notations on the clipboard.

Removing the Interior

Allow a long day for this task, maybe two.

The hardest part of door trim panel removal is figuring out how to remove the window cranks and door lock handle. These are typically splined (inside geared teeth fit over matching geared teeth on the shaft to which they are attached) handles that are held on by spring clips or removable pins. Special tools are available that make removal easy, but consult your shop manual to find out which fasteners you have. Dental picks and hooks bent from coat hangars work quite well in removing spring clips, but always consult your shop manual for specific removal details.

Door panels are held on by specialized spring clips or screws, or both. Remove the trim screws, then gently pry the panel away from the door with a flat, wide tool such as a putty knife. You should be able to see — or feel — the spring clip locations. Pry the panel loose as close to the clips as possible. Behind the panel will be some form of vapor barrier, either special paper or plastic, held on with a caulking material or adhesive. Peel it away and save it for re-use or as a pattern for a new one. Don't forget to take photos.

Now it's time to remove the seats, front seat(s) first. It's best to remove the entire seat, including the adjusting track, so lift up carpet or rubber floor covering until you see the tracks, mounting hardware and electrical connections for power seats, if any. Seat tracks are mounted with bolts at one or both ends. These bolts may be accessible from the inside of the car or from underneath, depending upon manufacturer. Remove them any way you can, whether using a wrench or, in the worst case, a grinder. Leave the tracks on the seat frame(s) and remove the front seat(s). Rear seats are usually easier to remove, since almost all are bench seats.

The bottom section is typically removed first, and is held in by either spring clips, bolts or some easily-accessible fastener. Once released, the seat is easy to lift out and remove. The rear back section usually is kept in place with a couple fasteners at the bottom and a hangar of some sort at the top. Follow your shop manual and remove it.

Next, remove any interior window trim from the side windows, plus any rubber door/window seal that hides the headliner. Older cars have interior "windlace" made from cloth. Remove this carefully and mark it and the seals as to location and orientation. The attaching folds of the headliner should be visible at this point, so start peeling it loose all the way around the inside perimeter of the car. Once loose you should see the metal ribs that hold it up (manufacturers of newer cars just glued the headliner on cardboard and, in turn, glued this to the roof). These ribs are either sprung into place or held with screws at the ends. Remove each rib in turn and leave them in their respective places on the headliner. The reason for this is that each rib is a specific length and curvature. Roll up the headliner assembly for later cleaning/replacement. Take a photo or two and don't forget clipboard notes.

The Dash — Now Or Later?

It ain't pretty...tags, diagrams, photos...they all are necessary to help you get it all back together.

It ain't pretty...tags, diagrams, photos...they all are necessary to help you get it all back together.


This can be done in a few hours, but allow plenty of time.

We recommend removing the dash components now. Instruments, the steering column and other accessories can be taken into your house for restoring or sent off for this work, out of harm's way.

Peel up the carpet and any floor insulation. Lay everything away to be used for reference, patterns, etc.

First off, remove the steering wheel, horn ring, etc., from the column. Consult your shop manual for the correct procedure, and don't lose the parts. Next, remove the glove compartment door and inner pocket, then the radio and under-dash mounted air conditioner (if any). Your shop manual will tell you how to access these components.

Now for the instruments... Many sports cars, British cars and 1930s (and older) cars had removable dashboards that could be taken out as a complete unit. That's handy, but whether instruments come out all at once or individually, you have to disconnect the wiring. Do so carefully by drawing a layout of the backs of all the instruments on a sheet of paper. Mark each connection on the drawing as to wire color, connector-type, etc. Also, mark the end of each wire as to which instrument it was connected, using masking tape. There's an awful lot of wiring behind the dash, so take your time and take some photos. Store everything away safely.

That's it, now the interior is gutted, except for the steering column, brake/clutch pedal assemblies and heater/blower box. Follow your shop manual and remove these components. Things look pretty ugly at this stage, but that's how the process unfolds.

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Next, Remove The Drivetrain

Here comes the heavy stuff of classic car restoration. Be sure to allow several days and be sure to use proper equipment so that you don't strain muscles. Don't get too tired.

Before removing the running gear you will have to make sure the car is placed where it's going to stay for some time. If it's in the way now it will really be in the way later, so settle on its resting location before continuing.

First, remove the battery. If it's relatively new, put it aside under a bench or in a shed. If not, get rid of it, because it will be long dead by the time you are ready to hook up again. Next, remove the hood. It will most likely be mounted on its hinges with 4 (or more) bolts. Someone needs to hold it up while you remove the bolts, otherwise it will slip and damage the body or one of its corners. If there is no help available suspend it from the rafters/trusses using some rope. Its latch is a good point to hang it from, but you can always run the rope around the hood. When the hood is off place it out of harm's way.

Next, drain all fluids out of the engine and transmission and discard them in the appropriate manner (most jurisdictions have facilities for disposal). Remove all the accessories from the engine and place them in boxes. Use one for parts to be replaced (water pump, fuel pump, horns, belts, hoses, brake master cylinder, etc, almost always need replacement) and another for those to be rebuilt and restored (generator or alternator, carburetor, fan, radiator, windshield washer, voltage regulator, wiper motor, etc.)

Keep removing engine compartment items until the sheet metal bay is cleaned out. Disconnect all electrical wires, but mark each one's location/purpose (if you know it) with a piece of masking tape (use simple markings, like: Coil +, Wiper motor ground, Regulator "F", etc.). The engine bay should be completely stripped-out. Take a photo.

Now you are ready to go underneath to remove clutch hardware, exhaust pipes, speedometer cable, reverse switch connections, grounding strap, shifter assembly, driveshaft, etc.

Note: you should consult the shop manual specific to your vehicle. You really need to know the exact removal sequence, because some items that may need to be removed might not be obvious. Shop manuals are available for most classic cars. Look for them online.

Most vehicles allow you to remove the engine and transmission as a unit, but your shop manual will say so if this is not the case. When ready, all that's left is the removal of the motor mount and transmission mount bolts (Beware! Have a floor jack or jack stand positioned under the transmission before removing its mount, because its weight will otherwise send it crashing onto the floor or on you if you are underneath.)

Stop!

This baby's heavy...as always keep shop safety in mind.

This baby's heavy...as always keep shop safety in mind.


Have you decided on how you are going to lift out the engine/transmission? Have you figured out where to put them when you take them out? Will you be able to move them around? If these questions don't have good answers, take a break...

Don't proceed until you've answered the following questions:

1. Are the necessary lifting tools ready? If you're using a crane, is it adjusted properly to lift the weight? If using winches, "come-along" or other lifting devices, are they properly supported and positioned?
2. Do you have enough overhead clearance to get the engine/transmission out and over the car's body?
3. Do you have help? You will need at least one extra pair of hands during removal.
4. Have you drained out the oil, remaining coolant and transmission fluid?

Okay, now you can follow your shop manual's removal procedure. Once the engine/transmission is out, make sure before you lower everything onto a dolly or stand or floor that it will be supported properly. Many oil pans have been crushed because the engine's weight wasn't distributed well.

While you have the lifting equipment set up, separate the engine from the transmission. Doing so makes their temporary storage easier and will facilitate lifting the engine onto an engine stand (these can be rented, but we recommend purchasing one - less than $50). Some restorers disassemble the engine right away, or send it out for rebuilding. We recommend waiting until the entire car is stripped out.

The Rear End

This should take less than half a day.

With the engine and transmission out and removal of the driveshaft (front wheel drive cars excluded) all that's left of the drivetrain is the rear end. "Solid" axle cars have the easiest rear assemblies to remove, since the entire thing (differential and axle shafts and wheel hubs) comes out as a unit after uncoupling the rear springs and shock absorbers, along with the parking brake cables and hydraulic lines. Independent-rear cars have more complex suspensions that may have to be disassembled in parts.

Before any removal, however, make sure the car's body is supported safely so that the rear axle and suspension can be removed without interference. Consult your shop manual for the appropriate procedure and don't forget to take pictures as you go, but remember always that these components are heavy. Don't attempt to lift them out without the help of a jack.

Take the time to remove the brake components from the rear axle or suspension. These will be placed with the front brake assemblies.

Suspension

This work will take several hours.

After removal of the rear suspension, it's time to move to the front. Caution! Don't disassemble anything until you consult the shop manual. Whether the car uses coil springs, torsion bars or struts, the suspension is under tremendous compression. Removing a few bolts without releasing compressed springs can result in terrible injuries or death, so read — and understand — all the steps in your shop manual before continuing.

Many older classic cars have leaf springs, front and back. But most have coil springs in the front. If that's the case, you'll probably have to rent some sort of spring compressor tool to remove them...so plan ahead and don't get impatient. Keep the springs, shocks, tie rods, idler arms and other suspension parts together and marked. Keep the car's front axle/spindle with the suspension components also, but separate the brake parts (drum, rotor, backing plates, etc.). You'll want to keep all brake items in a container for rebuilding.

What Now? Wiring, That's What.

The car's looking pretty awful at this stage, but that's the way it's supposed to be. It's probably showing lots of flaws and rust, and you might be wondering how you'll ever get it back together. Don't worry, it's easier than you think, so let's get to the wiring harness.

Most wiring harnesses consist of three major sections: the engine bay, dash and rear feed. Start with the rear end. It's the least-complex of the harnesses and usually consists of wiring for brake/turn signal lights, reverse and license plate lights, fuel gauge sending unit and trunk light. Find and mark all connections and note the routing of the main bundle. Remove it, working up toward the dash.

Next, remove the engine bay harness. On the majority of vehicles this harness is detachable from that going into the dash, but in either case you need to mark all the connections, note the routing and roll it up, working to where it connects (or enters) the dash. You will frequently find splices, breaks and other amateurish "fixes" done by previous owners, but don't attempt to do anything about them now. Just remove the harness carefully. Take before and after photos.

Last, take a few deep breaths and start on the dash harness. This will be the most complex one, with the greatest number of wires. Also, many manufacturers used difficult-to-reach clamps and mounting straps to hold the bundles. Photograph everything first, then start at the passenger side of the dash and work toward the driver side. Note locations and routing carefully, taking your time. Note any bundles that travel along the transmission tunnel (backup light switches, neutral and reverse switches, etc.) and take them out also. Gather all the harnesses together and make your decision at this point whether to replace all of them, re-wire the appropriate sections or make a new harness. Put everything aside for now.

The Body, At Last!

I think we would all agree that this vehicle has been 'dis-ass-sem-buld'

I think we would all agree that this vehicle has been "dis-ass-sem-buld"


There are three general types of bodies: body-on-frame, unitized (or semi-monocoque), and monocoque. What you do now depends upon what you've got...

Body-on-frame vehicles (most old cars made before 1960) utilized a rigid, full-length frame on which the running gear and body were attached. These vehicles are the origin of the term "frame-off restoration," so called because the body can — and should — be removed from the frame. (Corvettes are still made that way). Removing a body is fairly easy, believe it or not.

The body is mounted on the frame with bolts, isolated from each other by rubber, leather or metal mounts. Consult your shop manual for the locations, or just look carefully. These bolts can be removed in any order you desire, but don't lift off the body just yet. First, you must remove any detachable (that is, bolted-on) fenders, trunk lids, running boards, etc. If you don't they will bend out of shape when the body is lifted.

Next, figure out where the body is going to end up. Did you set up saw horses or build a wooden fixture? Did you allow enough space? How are you going to lift it? Are you going to use the engine crane (good idea) or a winch or have you gathered a few friends to help lift it (another good idea, since the body at this point only weighs a few hundred pounds)?

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If you are using mechanical lifting devices, attach lifting cables/chains/ropes to the frame mounting points (use the mounting bolts) and lift the body slowly and carefully. If using a number of people, make sure only one person does the directing. Multiple "coaches" will ensure dropping of the body. Make sure wherever the body is placed that it is securely held down and stable. Remember, you will be working on, and under, it.

Before removing the body/frame mounts, make notes where each one goes and whether any shims were used. These will have to be replaced exactly as original when the car is put together.

The bare frame can be stood up or leaned against a wall at this point.

Unitized (semi-monocoque) bodies have either partial frames or sub-frames (frames bolted or welded to each end, used to hold engines and rear suspensions). A Jaguar XKE is an example of such construction. From the firewall back the car is one solid shell, and frames are bolted to it in the front. Onto those frames are mounted the engine and front clip (body shell). Mustangs, Camaros and many other cars are semi-monocoque.

Taking apart such a vehicle is fairly obvious. Just remove the fenders, clip, etc., then the frames, leaving the body shell. Don't forget to take pictures and note where any shims are installed.

Monocoque bodies are complete, welded shells that utilize sub-frames to carry engines and rear axles. These are the easiest to dismantle because once everything is removed there is no further work involved. Porsche cars are monocoque, as are many others. Since there is no frame in a monocoque car, the body itself is the structure. Rust, therefore, is a critical structural flaw on these cars and must be repaired correctly.

What Now?

Well, that's it for the disassembly. Take a rest and get ready for the long-term part of the restoration, the dismantling and rebuilding of each and every component. A typical mid-60s car has about 8,000 individual parts, and every one of them will pass through your fingers. As we mentioned, classic car restoration is a multi-year project. Take your time and do it right. Unlike in the car restoration programs you see on TV, there's no reason to rush things.

You should now decide which components you'll take inside your house to your workshop and which will stay in the garage, which will be done in good weather and which over the winter, etc. We recommend keeping one "outside" project and one "inside" going at any one time. That way, you won't get bored or hung-up on any one thing and weather won't affect progress. Have fun!

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