Classic Car Restoration 101: Do Your Homework
There's no doubt that owning and driving a beautifully-restored classic car is a very pleasant thing to do. Everyone notices you go by and whenever your "treasure" is parked it becomes the object of endless conversation.
While ownership of a classic car is nice enough, if you were the one who performed the car restoration the sense of personal achievement and satisfaction is downright intoxicating. The hundreds of hours of meticulous cleaning, rebuilding, painting and installation pay for themselves when the car comes to life and transports its owner to a parade, show or a pleasant drive.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize you with some of the important considerations that must be addressed in order for such a car restoration project to come out successfully. Many would-be classic car restorers have become disillusioned by the heavy costs in time, space, equipment and money. This is almost always due to improper research and planning (or none at all) up front, so here are some basic guidelines to consider before starting your car restoration project:
The Classic Car
Surely, everyone would like to own a Duesenberg or Bugatti but even if one came your way it might not be the right candidate for you. More likely, it would become a "money pit". The simple fact is that the car you wish to restore must be one that holds some fascination for you. It could be like the one you owned many years ago, something your parents owned or one you've always wanted. There has to be some emotional tie to your car restoration project. Don't settle for a car in which you only have a token interest. Auto restoration is a labor of love, not a scheme to get rich. Don't ever attempt a restoration with the short-term goal of turning a profit. It won't happen. Besides, you can make more per hour by turning burgers at McDonald's. In fact, you can almost always buy an already-restored car for less than doing one yourself.
Finding the car
The classified ads are one source for classic car projects, but specific publications such as Hemmings Motor News list thousands of collector cars by type and by year. Join a local car club devoted to the brand you've chosen to learn from its members. That club will also be able to provide an endless source of information and advice during your restoration project. The most common piece of advice anyone experienced will give you is to buy a solid, complete, rust-free car. Missing parts for many classic cars are expensive and rust can be a nightmare.
Space, the final frontier
You need a garage or some other enclosed space if you expect to do an classic auto restoration. A carport isn't really enough, since the thousands of parts on a typical car — when spread out — occupy large areas. You also need a place to actually work on these parts, like a basement workshop. If you don't have a generous friend who does, look around for a hobbyist who maintains a shop and rents space. If that fails, put your plans on hold until circumstances change.
At a minimum, you must own a good selection of screwdrivers, pliers, socket and open-end wrenches (metric, if your car is foreign), sheet metal scissors, drills, wire brushes and electrical tools. During the restoration you will have a need for an engine crane, engine stand, floor jack, air compressor, jack stands, grinder, torch, welder and many other specialized tools. It's better to rent these tools as needed unless you are confident you will use a given piece of equipment enough in the future to justify its purchase. Some of these devices require learned skills, so it might be better to hire out certain tasks or find a club member who will do it for you.
How Much Time Does It Take to Restore a Classic Car?
A typical "frame-off" restoration of a common, mid-'60s pony car will take at least 1,000 hours of your time. Add to that any time spent learning specific techniques (or undoing mistakes), and you can quickly run up another few hundred hours. The point is, a classic car restoration is a long-term project which is endlessly rewarding in the doing — so long as you are not in a hurry. As long as you assume the project will take at least two years it can be approached philosophically. Take pride in completion of individual components as you go along rather than looking at the overwhelming amount of work still to be done. If you can't control your patience, forget the project and buy someone else's already-restored car.
Get your finances in order and try to research what your restoration might cost (here again, club members who have already done restorations will be of great help). It will surely end up costing more than you estimated, but at least you can undertake the project with a clear knowledge of the magnitude of investment required. How much you ultimately spend depends upon how much of the work you perform and how badly deteriorated the car was in the first place. Aim you sights at the proper level. Show-winning restorations look that way because a lot of money was spent achieving perfection (typically these cars are far better in every way than the original ones). On the other hand, like-new "drivers" are less costly to accomplish and allow their owners to drive them without worrying about a few nicks and dings.
If you are married, consider what your family might feel about the choice of a project. Avoid conflict from the start and use the project as a family bonding exercise.
Purists will say that a classic car should be restored to exactly what it was when it left the factory, including exterior and interior colors, options, etc. True, cars that are shown for national ranking awards do have the highest value (museums and high-end collectors want them absolutely original) but the real world is very different. When your car was produced it was offered with many options and colors to appeal to the greatest diversity of tastes. When you restore the car, build it as you would have ordered it from the factory in the first place. Choose the colors and options you would have wanted back then. The finished car should please you, not the next buyer. Sure, the car won't be worth quite as much money at selling time but the enjoyment you got out of it will more than make up for the difference. In the minds of most restorers there is nothing more pathetic than a flawlessly-restored "trailer queen" that is dragged from one show to another and never started or driven. Automobiles were meant to be used and unless yours is the last, document example of a particular car in existence, restore it to your tastes.
Of course, changes in family status, income and health can cause the abandonment of a restoration but if you do your homework up front it is extremely likely that you will see yours to completion. Those hours spent performing the work pass by quickly and those "skinned-knuckle" episodes are always balanced by the occasions where you have come up with a very clever solution to some vexing problem. In short, restoration is a great challenge but a wonderful hobby.
As an old restorer once said, "If you didn't build it with your own hands, is isn't really yours."