Classic Car Restoration – Should I? Shouldn’t I?

Classic Car Restoration

By Richard Stern

This question comes up time and time again, and to be honest there are no right and wrong answer about which is best – buy a fully restored car, or a car needing restoration. More importantly is the question of whether you are able to restore a car, or are you willing to invest the time and effort in learning the skills to do the job? Finances will have quite an impression on the route you choose to go down also weigh up the pro’s and con’s.

Restored Car option

The decision to buy a restored car is, or at least should be, the painless way into classic car ownership. Buying a car that you can step into and use, show or whatever is a fun and quick way into the driver’s seat of a classic car. If it has been restored correctly, there is no reason why it should not be a reliable to cruise around in, basking in the glory of proper retro style while everyone else sits in their euro dustbins. All classics need their fair share of ongoing TLC, and servicing must not be skimped. So long as things are in decent fettle this shouldn’t however be too much of a burden – check oil and water levels, tyres and so on, follow the guidance in the original factory handbook, and you should be ok.

If you are short on patience, or time, to see a project through from crumbling ruin to showground masterpiece, then buying a pre-restored car can make a lot of sense. You’ll also be able to find out early on if a particular car is really for you, without having shelled out thousands on its restoration, only to hate the thing when you set off down the road.

Being mercenary for a moment, it won’t come as a disappointment to realise that the cost in bringing your chosen car up to A1 condition probably far exceeded the actual price of the car when you bought it. Not in every case of course, but most (and definitely if a restoration company was charged with restoring the car on behalf of a previous owner). How many older Jaguars received open-chequebook restorations in the late 1980s/early 1990s, were stashed away in cocooned, air purified bubbles, yet now are worth half what was paid in their restoration? Of course the home-restorer doesn’t focus on the total cost of restoring a car for themselves, much of the enjoyment being the taking of some old junk pile, and, with skill plus adequately deep pockets, returning it to life. But there is no denying that buying a (properly) restored classic, should work out cheaper than buying a wreck and doing it up yourself, or (especially) paying someone to do it all for you.

There are however downsides to buying a car that had all its woes attended to already. The biggest potential risk is this – has the car been restored correctly? This single question raises issues of whether correct practices have been used in repairing the bodywork and running gear. Have correct specification parts been used? Have parts from other models, or even other makes of car, been used instead to cut corners? In some cases new parts are simply not available, so compromises have to be made, but only if safety is not negatively impacted.

If you are lucky there will be a history of photographs showing the work done to the car during its restoration, but these can only serve as a guide to the work done – cameras CAN lie. A photograph of a beautifully primed rear wing for instance, can suggest that beneath the glossy paintwork there is millimetre-perfect wholesome steel with no trace of filler in evidence. The truth is beneath the layer of filler there could be untold bodges, rusty metal beaten-in and plated over, several square feet of freshly laid filler, skilfully carved into an approximation of the correct shape. Use any such photos as a guide, but don’t use them as an excuse not to check the car over properly anyway.

If something should happen to break on your car, will you know how to fix it? If there are garages locally who understand older motorcars, you might entrust your classic to them, otherwise you’re left to fix it yourself. Anyone who restores their own car will 1) have a much greater understanding of how it all fits together 2) have first-hand knowledge of the standard of work that is hiding beneath the bonnet, or under shiny paint work. Many restorations are done superbly, with an eye on preserving originality in both patina, and parts used, in the reconstruction of a car. Small percentages are little more than tart-up jobs. If they are sold, and priced, as such then there isn’t much to quibble about. But if an old dog has had a quick facelift thanks to a tub of quick-setting bog and a tin of aerosol, and then is sold as a ‘restored’ car, the new owner can expect problems very soon after. Be suspicious of cars that smell of fresh paint, and have overspray on body fittings. Base your judgement of a restored car on the manner and style of the vendor, as much as on the actual car itself. If the seller seems like a bit of an “Arthur Daily”, either tread very carefully, or run in the opposite direction. Unless it is an ultra-rare car, there will be other better examples to choose from. Rarely is rushing in and buying the first example that you find a wise choice, although most of us do it anyway!


Taking on an un-restored car.

And so to the other half of the argument, buying an unrestored project car, rather than taking the easy option. The big advantage with most project cars is that you can usually see exactly what you are getting, warts n all. Unless it has suffered a season of bodging already, with a bit of luck all the problems will be clear to see. Some tarted up and ‘restored’ cars are little better than full restoration projects, once the layers of paint and chicken mesh have been hacked away, so there is a lot to be said for finding an original, un-messed with car, rather than one that has received a cursory facelift. Long term, both will probably need similar amounts of work anyway, so why pay over the odds for a shiny, but poor, example, when a good honest project can be found for a fraction of the cost?

Don’t get hoodwinked into paying over the odds for a car just because it is old. Do your homework, see how many similar cars are making (in good and bad condition) and use this knowledge to get the car for a decent price, or else walk away. The final cost of the car, once restoration has been done, will most likely exceed its market value anyway, so if you can get it for a good price at the start, you may as well claw back a few pounds while you can. The battle-hardened restorer, all grimy of fingernail and oiled of brow, will always be happier running a self-rebuilt car knowing the standard of work that has gone into it, either by themselves, or carefully chosen specialists (most people have to farm out the odd job, and this will need to be factored in to any restoration budget).

By now, things are looking good for the ‘buy an unrestored car’ argument and, in many cases, this is rightly so. Either purchase a ruin with a view to doing it yourself, or else lookout for a minter, and buy that. Middle-market cars, if I can call those cars that are shiny but of questionable ‘real’ condition this, are where the risks are.

But, and it’s a big but – buying a project car needing lots of work does mean some serious commitment will be needed by its lucky new owner. The time required to restore a classic is nearly always under-estimated, as is the cost. You could easily draw up a timescale and budget, double both, and still fall short of the final outlay of funds and time. Plus, as already outlined, the value of the end result will rarely cover the costs involved in getting the car finished. Don’t take on a restoration project solely with a view to making a quick buck, unless you know all the skills that will be required to bring it back to life. As already suggested, those with tight schedules and plenty of family commitments may need a reality-check – do you “really” have the time to see even the simplest of restoration jobs to the end? How about the financial side of things – do you have some spare cash to throw at the rebuild of a car? A look in the classifieds, or on auction sites, would suggest that many projects are enthusiastically snapped up by fired-up old-car fans, stashed away in the garage, then left to moulder while distractions such as offspring and reality TV shows take up all the spare time. Getting in above your neck happens to most people who have had a few classics over the years, me included.

If you think you’ll have the time to do a project car justice, make sure you start with a sound base car, and not something that hasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of being finished. Perhaps the worst cars to buy are those that have been casually dismantled, with none of the parts labelled, shunted between different garages and lockups, then left outside, vandalised, and then put up for sale with half of the parts missing. Finding all the tiny parts that make a car whole can be a drawn out, and often dispiriting, affair, so when assessing a project, I’d always recommend someone to pick a car that is untouched and not yet dismantled. If nothing else it will make reassembly easier, as you were the person to take it apart and hopefully you made notes as you did so?! Remove one section at a time, restore it, replace it, then move onto the next section, is the best way. Don’t pull everything apart all at once, as you’ll end up with a garage full of bits and no clue as to what happens next. It can be a bit overwhelming too, seeing a mountain of parts all over the place, all needing work. Do a bit at a time, that way it seems like much less of a mountain to climb.

So, at the end of the day it comes down to what you like doing, and what you want an old car for. If you want to enjoy a classic, taking it to shows etc from day one, rather than getting engrossed in its workings, or are short of time to take on a major project, buying a good restored example may well be the way to go. A low mileage, mint, one-owner car can also be a good choice for this category of buyer. If however you are the kind of person who likes to resurrect something that others think is beyond rescue, are patient, and have a steady supply of cash to pour into a project (some of which probably wouldn’t be recouped if you sold the car on, even when finished), then an untouched, but original, project car could be the more rewarding option. But whichever road you choose to go down, do your homework first.

1 thought on “Classic Car Restoration – Should I? Shouldn’t I?”

  1. My brother loves old cars and has always been interested in restoring one. I like your tip to start with a sound base and something that you think you can finish. I will pass this article on to him. Hopefully he can get started soon. Thanks for all this great information.


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