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Thinking the Project Through

By Bob Earls

Before you set out on a restoration project, you have a big decision to make. How much do you intend to do? This question is critical because it informs every decision from this point onwards. If you don’t want to do much work, you need to factor that into the make and model you choose, the particular car you select to restore, and when you say the project is finished. There are no right or wrong answers to this question--just honest or foolish ones.

There’s an old joke in the car hobby about the guy who set out to change his car’s air filter (or something else equally trivial) and ended up performing a frame-off restoration. The story goes that he figured, “I might as well rebuild the carburetor while I’ve got the air filter off.” At each stage, you can get drawn farther into the project; often farther than you originally intended to go.

As you think your project through, remember that what you can achieve will be dictated by your abilities, the calendar and your bankroll. You can save some bankroll if you have time and abilities, or get a good result without time or abilities if you’ve got a big bankroll. Either way, it’s a tradeoff.

Most people approach the idea of restoration with a make and model in mind, and many already own the car in question. So although some of those decisions are likely already made, I need to make you aware of certain caveats so you won’t be surprised half way through the project.

100 points, 95 points, or just a nice driver?

Concours (also called Concours D’Elegance) car shows judge restorations for originality, completeness, and quality on a points system. 100 points is a perfect car. In theory, every aspect of the car is just as it was on the day the car rolled off the assembly line. In reality, 100-point cars are often significantly better than the day they left the factory.

At a concours, judges start with 100 points and deduct points for flaws, incorrect equipment, and low quality work. For example, you might lose a quarter-point for a worn piece of carpet or for using the wrong cap nut on a fitting. Larger flaws, like having the wrong radio installed, can be worth several points. Top concours winners sweat every detail, and major awards are won and lost over the tiniest flaws.

Now, 100-point cars are wonderful and they certainly have their bragging rights, but bear in mind that to take a 95-point car to 100 points can cost as much as the first 95-points. The difference is painstaking accuracy and attention to detail, and most people won’t know that difference.

100-point jobs will require everything to be redone, body off, down to the last nut and bolt. A 95-point restoration generally wouldn’t require the body to come off. A 95-pointer is just a really original, well-restored driving car. Most “drivers” will fall in the 80-90 point range. They’re safe, reliable, comfortable, and look worn just enough to give them some history and personality.

There’s no shame in having an 80-point car that runs and drives well. Most people are more impressed by what a car is than by the last 10% that separates a concours-winner from a driveable car. Furthermore, 80 point cars win local, regional, and even national car shows that are not concours on a regular basis.

To Body-Off or Not to Body-Off?

Body-off restorations are a lot of work and can open up a Pandora’s box of problems. I don’t recommend doing it unless you’re going for a 100-pointer, or unless you notice body mounting problems that need to be addressed. I usually remove only the “front clip” (hood, front fenders, inner fender panels and radiator support), the doors, rear fenders, and the deck lid.

Thinking through the body-off question is important because answer determines whether you wind up with an enjoyable project or a basket case.

Before you begin, you need to decide if you are going to do just a couple of things to bring your car up to where you want it, or if are you going to do the whole thing stem-to-stern, top-to-bottom. Take a look at your car, or jot these ideas down as decision factors while you shop for a candidate.

Does the car need only a bit of interior work and some basic engine or mechanical work? If this is the case you’re in luck and you’ll undoubtedly be successful. You’ll be able to drive and enjoy the car between repairs so you won’t forget why you got involved in the first place.

If you’re looking at a much deeper project, you need to decide if you are going to do the whole thing at once or in stages. By this I mean, will you tear the whole thing apart at once or do you want to concentrate on just one area at a time and finish that aspect before moving on to the next? This is the question that creates potential basket cases.

Each method (tear-apart or area-by-area) has its pros and cons. Simply disassembling a car is easy and tempting to do. Many times people will start with the best intentions, but they get frustrated or disillusioned when they see a stripped-bare car sitting in their garage, month after month, surrounded by boxes of dirty parts. You can avoid that mental pitfall by being organized and realistic about the time involved in a big project. More importantly, be realistic about the amount of money involved.

If you’re a restoration rookie and want to avoid the ”bare body syndrome” then you should do things in stages. That way you’ll always have a relatively complete car staring at you. You pull off one item, clean it, overhaul/restore it, and put it back on. Then move on to the next item. It’s also a little cheaper because you won’t be doing as much as if it were an all-or-nothing job.

The Universal Restoration Truism

Some people who have never restored a car will find this rule hard to believe. If you find yourself thinking it can’t possibly be true, ask someone who has performed a complete restoration and take their word for it. Here’s the rule:

”Whatever you estimate it will cost or how long you think it will take...DOUBLE IT.”

Also bear in mind that estimates involving dirty, rusty pieces of metal are always subject to revision. Broken bolts happen and they can rarely be removed with an “easy-out”. And a part that didn’t need to be restored but needed to be removed to get to a part that does is always susceptible to damage. These all come under the purview of “Murphy’s Law.”

Remember as you work that the journey of a restoration is as important as the results. This hobby is about taking tender loving care of an old machine. If you don’t really love the work, you’re much better off buying a completed car.

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Think your project through before you start
  • Make sure the car you purchase is as complete as possible
  • Double your dollar and time estimates
  • Consider an 80-point car that runs and drives well instead of a complete restoration

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t choose an obscure make and model for your first restoration
  • Don’t choose a make and model without checking parts availability
  • Don’t take on a restoration if you can’t handle many hours of parts cleaning and repair
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
Author photo

1946 Packard: Full Classic or Resto Rod?



Thinking a project through can be a tall order...

Choosing the Popular Restorations feature car was fun. Since I got to choose the make and model, I picked one of the cars that I used to own as a teenager--one that would bring back good memories. As I drove the Packard from Sacramento to Portland I had plenty of time

1946 Packard Custom Super Clipper 7 Passenger Sedan

to get re-acquainted with driving a large 1940s car.

Once in Portland I sought out advice from a couple of local restoration shops. One said right off the bat, “You don’t want to keep the original steering do you?” Another said, “Well, you can go either way. On the one hand your Packard is a Classic Car Club of America Full Classic and that is a significant distinction. But on the other hand it’s not like you’d be modifying the last one in existence.” After talking to some Packard owners, I was advised that: a) I really should try to preserve a car that was in such nice condition; b) Once restored, the Packard suspension and steering would be quite good, especially for a 1946 vehicle. And the steering would be much improved with the new radials. Also, that a restored drive train would be very reliable.

I decided then to keep the car a classic and restore it to original condition and have never regretted it for a moment.



Custom Automotive Restoration, Inc.

By Jeff Zurschmeide

Don Hawkins and Chris Veenstra
3400 SE 122nd Avenue
Portland, OR 97236

PR: Before someone tears into a car, what should they be thinking about?

DH: When you find the car you’re going to restore, before you take the car apart, make sure that it’s as complete as possible. It’s going to save you a lot of trouble in the long run, especially if it’s a rare car. Go and find one that isn’t missing any parts. Any parts can be restored, redone, replated, straightened etc. It’s important to have all the emblems, all the trim.

PR: What are the unexpected areas of restoration - for example, do you need service records and documentation?

DH: If you’re restoring a car to original condition for showing, people like to look at the original documentation. If it’s a real Super Sport Chevelle, people like it better if there’s documentation, because there are so many clones.

PR: As someone thinks through their project, where should they place body and paint? Should it be at the beginning, or towards the end?

CV: Body and paint generally goes towards the end of the project, so you don’t ding it as you work. When we do put it back together, if you’ve bagged and organized everything correctly, it goes back together easily.

DH: In a shop like ours, we can do several operations simultaneously, which is harder to do if you’re on your own.

PR: What about parts cars? Should a restorer think about acquiring some parts cars?

DH: It’s sure beneficial, depending on the rarity of the car. We restored a 1965 Toyota, and they brought us 3 whole cars, because the parts were going to be hard to find. We were able to pick the best parts from each car.

PR: Should people also think through whether they’ll be 100% factory correct restored or slightly resto-mod with some new and upgrade parts?

DH: Most people will change their minds at least once in the process. A lot of the “budget jobs” we do, we’ll get it apart and the parts we’ve worked on look great, and then the customer decides to do the rest of the car, too.

PR: How can people make their restorations easier by thinking the project through?

DH: When they’re choosing a vehicle, choose a car where you can go right to the Internet or a catalog and buy all the dash knobs and parts. If you’re a car just because you like it, be prepared to restore a car that only you like, and parts can be hard to find.

PR: Is there anything to think through that’s surprising, that people wouldn’t normally consider?

DH: Well, on that Toyota restoration, we couldn’t find wheel bearings. Most manufacturers use real standard size bearings. They use commonly-produced parts, and you can usually go to NAPA and get them, but we had to re-use the old bearings because they just weren’t available. Also gas tanks -sometimes they look great on the outside and they’re shot on the inside.

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

Martin Thaddeus
How to Restore Classic Car Bodywork
Veloce Publishing, Paperback, 2004-09-27

This book goes into detail about all facets of body and frame metalwork, with detailed, photo-rich procedures for such tasks as wheel arch and door sill repair. Hammer and dolly, pick and file techniques are explained and illustrated. This book does not cover paint prep or mechanical issues - this is strictly “panel beating.” This book was written and published in Britain for a British audience, but is perfectly applicable to American restorations.

Lindsay Porter
The Car Bodywork Repair Manual: A Do-it-yourself Guide to Car Bodywork Repair, Renovations and Painting
G T Foulis & Co Ltd, Hardcover, 1985-05-01
This is a good comprehensive manual that is not limited to metalwork, but also covers repairing dashboards, trim, and gauges, and also covers adding accessories to a car such as roll bars, mud flaps, feelers, and so on. The book uses many black and white and several color photos to illustrate all its procedures.

Ron Fournier
Race and Custom Car Metal Fabricator’s Handbook
HP Books, Paperback, 1987-01-01

This book covers all aspects of custom metal fabrication. While not aimed at the restoration market, if you find yourself having to create your own replacement pieces, this book has good information on tools and techniques.

Eddie Paul
Eddie Paul’s Custom Bodywork Handbook
Krause Publications, Paperback, 2005-10-19

This book covers the process of custom metalwork for show and movie cars. Obviously, there’s a lot of skill and experience behind the book that can’t be expressed, but this is an interesting read. Not strictly applicable to restoration, though.

Clockwork Media Pty Ltd
Bodywork: A Comprehensive Guide to Repair and Modifications
Clockwork Media Pty Ltd, Hardcover, 2001-07-06
This is an Australian publication devoted to wild custom bodywork. Well-illustrated, but probably not the best choice for a restorer. Other books on bodywork and paint are just as detailed with less emphasis on major modification.

John Pfanstiehl
Automotive Paint Handbook: Paint Technology for Auto Enthusiasts and Body Shop Professionals
HP Books, Paperback, 1998-08-01

This is an excellent resource, with plenty of detail provided by paint manufacturers and professional tips based on experience. Basic prep and painting is covered in detail, and extra information is offered on custom paint styles and techniques.

Dennis W. Parks
How to Paint Your Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2003-10-12
This book is an excellent choice for the restorer who plans to paint his or her own car. The text covers modern paint chemistry, offers air pressure drop tables, and covers often-overlooked areas such as masking and paint gun settings. The bodywork section is light compared to some other books, but offers great details in surface preparation and paint application technique.

Pat Ganahl
How to Paint Your Car on a Budget
S-A Design, Paperback, 2006-06-30
This is a great basic paint book. If you just want to throw a nice coat of paint on a car, this book will tell you how to do it. If you are going for the complete 100-point absolutely perfect show car paint job, this is not your book. Basics of bodywork are covered, as is paint prep and the sanding/cutting/blocking process. Paint jobs at several different levels of commitment are detailed in step-by-step procedures.

Larry Lyles
Revive Your Ride: Secrets from a Body And Paint Restoration Pro
BowTie Press, Paperback, 2006-04-30

This is a great book about the bodywork and painting process. Clear directions and well-supported rules for a quality paint job are laid out for the amateur. Lyles does a good job of explaining why the rules for a good paint job are correct.

Martin Thaddeus
How to Paint Classic Cars
Veloce Publishing, Paperback, 2005-08-28
This is a very basic book. There are only 5 pages devoted to panel beating and metalwork, and not much more than that to many other topics. All in all, not the best book for the do-it-yourselfer.

Pat Kytola, Larry Kytola
How to Paint Flames
Motorbooks Intl, Paperback, 1990-11
This book describes several processes for painting different styles of flames on cars. While not a restoration book, it’s loaded with great photographs and provides good information on custom painting in general.

Don Taylor
Automotive Upholstery Handbook
California Bill'S Automotive Handbooks, Paperback, 2001-11-02

This is the book to have for upholstery work. The author provides illustrated step-by-step instructions for virtually all necessary restoration procedures from rebuilding a seat to creating a convertible top. Tool tips and custom work information is also provided.

Dennis W. Parks
How to Restore and Customize Auto Upholstery and Interiors
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2005-09-29

This book primarily focuses on creating custom upholstery and interiors for hot rods, but the basic practices are all the same, and the techniques apply well to any restoration job. Seat uphostery, dash, headliner, and interior panels are all covered.

Don Taylor
Custom Auto Interiors
California Bill'S Automotive Handbooks, Paperback, 2003-11

This is a fun book, full of color photographs that illustrate the process of creating a custom interior from scratch. Although the emphasis is on custom work, the same principles will apply to restoration, especially if you are in the position of having to re-create a stock-looking environment, rather than installing reproduction pieces.

Jeff Lilly
How to Restore Metal Auto Trim
Motorbooks, Paperback, 1997-07-12

This is the book to have if you do a lot of trim work. Sections cover safely removing trim, marking flaws, repairing flaws, sanding and buffing, and unusual trim pieces made of copper, brass, aluminum, and so on. The book is photo-rich and includes detailed instructions on repair and restoration.

David H Jacobs Jr
Ultimate Auto Detailing Projects
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2003-09

This book covers detailing in a series of easy projects, such as using a clay bar, cleaning wire or mag wheels, trunk detailing, and so on. The book is divided into chapters based on the area detailed, such as “Under the Hood” or “Tires and Wheels” and includes many photos and detailed instructions for a solid detail job.

Don Taylor
Automotive Detailing: A Complete Car Guide for Auto Enthusiasts and Detailing Professionals
HP Trade, Paperback, 1998-06-01

This is a good basic book that covers all the bases of automotive detailing. With several chapters on paint care, the rest of the book looks at each functional area of a car and offers instructions for detailing. Also covers detailing as a business.

James Mann
How to Photograph Cars
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2003-01-26

This is a great book if you want to take professional-quality photographs of your cars. Good photos are critical to judging in some shows and concourses, and can add to your enjoyment of your ride. This book has it all, with a special section on restoration photos.

External Links

BankRate.com has an interesting article: Top 10 collector cars under $30,000.

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