Guidelines for Starting and Completing a Car Restoration Project
We get emails all the time, asking us for a step-by-step guide to perform a car restoration. Many people get started and become intimidated by the myriad of individual projects facing them and soon find themselves wondering if there's some magic "formula" for the task. Well, we don't know if there's any such formula out there but we thought we'd put together a chronological outline that would help keep the project on course. Here goes...
- Clear a space and position the car carefully. It will be there a long time, so think about which way it faces, access around it, etc.
- Remove the battery and empty the gas tank. If the fuel is relatively fresh put it in your other cars. If not, dispose of it according to your municipal regulations
- Take lots of pictures!
- Remove the bumpers, then all chrome and stainless trim pieces including windshield and window moldings. Create a hanging rack on your shop rafters for these long, fragile pieces, separating them according to whether they need re-plating, polishing or replacement. Start listing everything on a clipboard sheet. If possible record whether you need to replace or repair a part. Put a ? if it's not obvious.
- Remove the glass and store carefully.
- Take pictures!
- Remove the seats, front and rear.
- Remove door trim, interior trim, headliner, carpet
- Take pictures!
- Mark wire locations on dash instruments. If entire dash can be removed, do so with instruments mounted. If not, remove each instrument and place in boxes for cleanup, rebuild, etc.
- Take pictures! Pictures are invaluable to you when putting your car restoration project back together, and also if you decide to sell your restored car, you have documentation to show your prospective buyer that the work was actually done. You get the idea, so this is the last time we're going to mention this...
- Remove hood and trunk lid, then doors. Before removing any of these, scribe around edges of hinges to help remount them later. Store everything carefully.
- Remove engine and transmission, after draining fluids. Separate them and position for rebuild or send them out to machine shops.
- Remove body, if car has full frame. If not, remove rear axle and position body on jack stands.
- Remove front and rear suspensions, marking orientation.
Depending upon how adept with tools you are, all of the above will have taken roughly 40 hours to accomplish. Nothing has been restored or repaired yet, just disassembled. Now, on to the actual car restoration...
There is no hard-and-fast procedure for doing all the individual tasks involved, but you can separate the overall project into four parts: mechanical, electrical, body and upholstery. It is best to work on electrical and upholstery projects in your basement/home workshop and mechanical and body projects in your garage. If you only have one work space, try to set up two separate areas. That way, you can work on two different things at the same time. When weather or parts availability stops progress on one, switch to the other. Eventually, everything will be finished and you can reassemble the car in reverse of above.
The Car Restoration
- Send parts off to be re-chromed
- Send engine/transmission to machine shop if you're not rebuilding them yourself
- Using your clipboard notes, order all replacement parts in one complete package to optimize discounts from suppliers.
- Strip, clean, repair and paint the frame (omit if unibody car, for obvious reasons)
- Replace or rebuild front and rear suspension on frame (this will be done later on unibody cars. You want to paint the body first and then rebuild/reinstall the front and rear suspensions on the subframes.)
- Start to strip paint off body, top and bottom
- Weld in new metal, prepare body for painting. Depending on the body work done, you may want to test-fit the part while it's still in primer. If a professional shop is doing all this work, send body off to them.
- When engine/transmission are rebuilt, install in frame (or put on home-made test stand) and run them several times to work out the bugs.
- Rebuild the rear axle and install on frame (later if unibody car).
- Reupholster the seats
- Rebuild/repaint/replace the instruments, radio, heater box, etc.
With the body freshly painted and everything ready to reinstall, start with the mechanical parts. If the car has a frame, everything is pretty much installed already. Otherwise, put in the engine, transmission, drive shaft, accessories, cooling system, etc. Test everything out before putting on the hood. A good order in which to proceed is as follows:
- Install wiring harness
- Replace the dash and all instruments and attach wiring. Test as much as possible with voltage source (battery, charger, etc.)
- Fit out interior trim, carpet, headliner, accent pieces, etc.
- Install front and rear glass
- Re-hang doors
- Install door glass, then trim panels and handles
- Install seats
- Fit out trunk area
- Install bumpers and exterior trim
This should give you a general outline of the car restoration process. There are variations, of course, and you will come upon problems and opportunities that will cause you to alter this checklist. The important thing is to carefully think through your approach to each step of this process.