You’ve been batting around the idea of restoring a classic car for a while and now the time is right. You’ve never done this before but know some people who have. You’ve heard some real horror stories and wonder if they’re true. How do you get this process started?
It usually starts with a vehicle that has some significance in your life. Maybe it was a first car that you wish you kept. Maybe it’s a first car you did keep but it’s been on blocks in a relative’s garage for a few decades. Maybe it’s the incredibly cool muscle car that you always wish you owned. Whatever the inspiration, you now feel the need to do it. Good for you!
I’m going to go over some basics that should get you on the right track. Some of this may sound a little discouraging or scary at first but it’s important that you go into this adventure well informed and with your eyes open. Spoiler alert-the real world car restoration process is nothing like what you see on the TV shows. There will be ups and downs along the way, but with thoughtful planning and realistic expectations it can truly be a fun and rewarding process.
BASIC PHILOSOPHY ON RESTORATIONS
Anything is possible given enough time and money. Unfortunately most of us don’t have unlimited quantities of either. Restoring an old vehicle or building a custom is an incredibly complex process that can test the limits of anyone’s patience and budget. Some first timers in this hobby go through a very expensive learning curve. You’ll hear the phrase “I’ll never do that again” from the people who’ve been through one of these expensive lessons. In the worst case scenario, the vehicle is never finished and sold for a major loss. It’s a shame because it doesn’t have to be that way. Many people have wonderful experiences doing a restoration and have a beautiful piece of history to show for it. You just need to go about it the right way. You don’t have to be wealthy to restore a vehicle. You just need to go about it intelligently and make sure you stay in control of the project.
PICKING A SHOP
If you have a nice vehicle that just needs a paint job, any reputable paint and body shop will do. If your vehicle just needs some engine or mechanical work, your favorite mechanic has got you covered. However, if your car needs to be restored, you need to take it to a shop that specializes in restorations. There is a huge difference between repairing and restoring a vehicle. Very few paint shops are also restoration shops. The two operate on completely different business models. In the past, paint and body shops would also do restoration work but it has become increasingly difficult to make money doing “restos”. As a result, most body shops make their money with the quick turn-around insurance claim work. Your resto project will die of old age in the back corner of their shop. They typically won’t have the resources to deal with the complexities of doing a full restoration.
Check out several shops before you commit. Is the shop clean and organized? Do the people working there look like they are really putting in some effort or are they playing with their phone while on the clock. Are the people you see working on the cars people you’d want to have working on yours? Do they demonstrate care when working around the cars? Is the shop licensed and insured? Your best bet is to use a shop based on the recent experience of someone you trust. If your reference had work done several years ago, see if the same crew is still working there. Some shops have high employee turn-over and the finished product will reflect that. Will the shop let you talk to the people actually doing the work or can you only talk to the front office people? Are they open to you stopping by unannounced? Will they provide detailed photo documentation of your project? Will they provide you with a highly detailed accounting of your labor charges or just an hour total? These are the type of questions you need to ask when picking your shop. Also make sure your personality is compatible with the shop owner and employees. You’ll be entering into a long term and costly relationship with this shop. It’s very important that you can get along with and communicate easily with them.
The smartest thing you can do before you start is set a firm budget and plan to grossly exceed it (you probably just went “huh?”). I’m being serious. There are so many unknowns when restoring a car that you can’t possibly anticipate them all. Every one of these “unknowns” has a cost to it. Many people start out by saying “I have a $20K budget”. The question I ask next: “Is that the absolute maximum amount of money you can spend?” If the answer is yes, then you can’t plan the build based on $20K. There will always be hidden costs so you need to factor those in up front. I would tell a person with $20K maximum to invest that we need to plan their build based on a $15K budget. We then figure out how much we can do on the car for $15K and prioritize the list. If we get lucky and there aren’t too many surprises during the build, we can tack on some extra items at the end. This all takes some planning and a strategy but that’s what a good shop will do for you. I know scaling back at the beginning might knock a few things off your wish list but you’ll be happier in the long run. This strategy will get your car finished or at least functional. The important items will be taken care of and you can always do the other things as your funds permit. There is nothing worse than having your vehicle 80% finished and running out of money. These are the “project cars” you see for sale on Craig’s List.
There are times where a person’s budget just won’t get them to the end point they want. This is when you have to have a resto shop you can trust. Some shops will tell you they can do the project with no trouble for that price knowing full well they can’t. They bait the customers in with low bids to get the car in the shop. Once your car is apart in their shop, you’re essentially a prisoner. Next thing you know they’re telling you about all the “unexpected” problems they found followed by how much more money it’s going to cost you. The risk is all yours. If you can’t come up with the money they start charging you storage fees or worst case, take the vehicle. A reputable shop will explain the different costs and what can be done for your budget. Sometimes this means having work done then taking the car back until you free up some more funds. Find a shop that will work with you. The bottom line is “beware of low bids”. If the price sounds too good to be true or way out of line with other bids, walk away.
A final point: beware of fixed price bids on big restorations. The customer typically loses in these situations. As I’ve already mentioned, there are many unknowns with restorations. A shop typically doesn’t know what it is really dealing with until they take the vehicle apart. If a shop takes a quick look at your project and says “we can do that for $XX”, run away. The shop is not going to lose money on your project. They can’t stay in business that way. This leaves three possible scenarios: 1.They have over-priced the project excessively to cover any unexpected costs. In this scenario you will be paying for the worst case scenario, whether it happens or not. 2. They are baiting you with a low number to get the car in the shop and you will be hit with major upcharges. 3. They are going to cut corners to make it look like they did all the work while staying within your budget. You can see that the customer ends up on the short end of this deal in every case.
On smaller jobs it’s possible to give fixed price quotes. However, on major restorations most good shops can’t operate unless they do your work on a time and materials “basis”. This scares a lot of people because they feel like they are giving the shop an open check book. This is where trust, reputation and references become critical.
THE RIGHT STARTING POINT
The key to a successful restoration is starting off with a suitable vehicle. The first important point: Just because you got the car for free or cheap does not make it a good restoration candidate. Any vehicle can be restored but in some cases it just isn’t financially practical. It’s relatively easy to determine what a car will be worth when it is restored. Spend some time scanning the internet collectable car sites to get an idea of the value of a car you are interested in. Most people do not want to be “upside down” when the vehicle is finished. I’m talking about spending $40K to restore a car that’s only worth $25K when it’s finished. You always have to keep in mind that you may have to or want to sell it someday. There are cases where a car has major sentimental value. In these cases, preserving the vehicle is a higher priority than financial equity. That’s perfectly fine as long as the owner goes into the project fully informed.
The second point: what is the current condition of the vehicle? Cars with extensive rust can be very expensive to restore, and starting with an empty rolling shell of a car will also cost you a lot of money. Cars get really expensive when you have to buy and build them one part at a time. Ideally you want to start off with as complete a car as possible. It doesn’t matter if everything works as long as it is all there. Engines and transmissions are a well known quantity. If they’re bad the repair or replacement cost is pretty easy to determine. If the car doesn’t have an interior, on the other hand, it’s hard to determine how much it will cost to restore it back to original. Older cars have so many little trim pieces that can really run up a tab. In many cases you are better off buying a car with a good interior and a dead engine than one with a good engine and no interior.
Rare is cool. There’s nothing better than showing up at cruise night or a car show with the only vehicle of its type. But rare can also mean a difficult and expensive restoration. Rare cars have rare parts which are difficult to find and probably not being reproduced. Cars like Mustangs, Camaros, Chevelles and 50’s trucks can literally be built out of a parts catalog now. There are numerous companies specializing in supplying reproduction parts for these. Thinking of restoring an old Lincoln or non-American vehicle instead? You’re in for a journey. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You just need to go into the project knowing that it is going to be more challenging and expensive. The more chrome and trim on the car, the more the resto will cost you. With 50’s luxury cars, it’s easy to have $10K or more in re-chroming costs. These cars are stunning when they are finished but it doesn’t come cheap. So do your research before you jump in with both feet. Consult with a reputable shop to get an idea whether the car you want to restore is a worthwhile candidate.
The time factor on restoration projects can be just as frustrating as the financial side. As a general rule, it always takes longer than anyone expected. Unexpected problems, build complications and non-available parts can really make a mess out of a schedule. Just like with setting a budget, factor in extra time in the schedule for the unexpected and typical delays that occur with a resto project. If you need the car finished in twelve months for some special event, plan the project out to be finished in nine months. With many shops, if they know they have a year, they’ll pace the work to last that long not including the unexpected. When you are looking for a shop, find one that has a reputation for completing projects on schedule. If you see several cars lying around, ask the shop how long they’ve been there.
The most important thing you can do on your first resto project is stay involved. Some owners are very “hands-off” leaving the project in the shop’s hand and just shelling out the money. This is risky if you don’t know the shop and the craftsmen doing the work. Some shops don’t want the customers coming around and will even avoid having the owner see the car until it is finished. Stay away from shops like that. A good shop will welcome their customers and take pride in showing them the progress they are making. The customer’s enthusiasm is also a great motivator for the people doing the work. Nothing makes a car builder’s day more than having a customer thrilled when they see their vehicle being transformed (and then telling all their car friends about it).
written by Bill Moore, owner of Bill’s Auto Restoration