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Choosing a Candidate

By Bob Earls

A lot of what you’re going to look for in your prospective dream machine depends on what you’re able to do yourself, what you can afford to have done, and what’s available. I’m going to be intentionally general about this because each car is going to be unique. I’m not going to tell you in this article how the myriad problems can be solved. Know that every problem can be solved, but we’re trying to limit them before you own them. This is where having someone along who knows what they’re looking at can be worth sacks of gold in the long run.

Unless you are looking at the last example of a particular make and model in existence and you absolutely have to have it and you know someone who loves doing bodywork, never buy a rustbucket! This single item can instantly suck all the money from your bank account and require a second mortgage on your house. One of the problems with rust is that it loves to hide. It will show up in places you didn’t know existed. It can hide beneath Bondo. It can hide from knowledgeable professionals. Don’t knowingly buy one.

Unless you’re looking at a very exotic car, almost all mechanical components are available, or at least “makeable.” Parts such as pistons, bearings, valves, springs, gaskets, and the like are pretty much available or adaptable to most engines. Water pumps are rebuildable, as are generators and starters and fuel pumps. Transmission and differential parts can be tough to find on older cars. Most suspension and brake components are available.

Exterior and interior stainless trim pieces can be extremely difficult to find, so make sure the car has it all and it’s in the best shape possible. Most chrome on older cars is applied onto pot metal. Chrome can be one of the single most expensive outlays of money on a restoration, and most of that goes to labor to polish the surface smooth. The more and deeper the pits in chrome the more expensive it’s going to be. Some popular cars have a very solid repro industry making new pot metal pieces. They’re lucky because most classic cars don’t have new parts being made.

Upholstery can be redone, usually accurately, on any car. Some have complete kits available.

A good dashboard, trim and gauges is a real plus. Glass can be a problem on some cars, particularly windshield and back glass. Flat glass is easily replaceable.

If you have the luxury of being able to look a car over thoroughly, note its problem areas and research prices, and locate parts and shops to fix those problems then you’re way ahead of the game. If not, then it’s your best guess. Either way, with an old car it’s a crap shoot. Buy the best car you can afford!

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Always choose a car that you want to be part of
  • Choose a car that is as complete as possible
  • Try to find a car where the hard work has been done
  • Look for rust in the rocker panels behind the wheel wells
  • Note a prospective candidate’s problem areas and research parts and repair prices
  • Buy the best car you can afford

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t buy a rust bucket
  • Don’t choose a car that is rare or unusual unless you want a real challenge finding parts
  • Don’t choose a car with missing or extensively damaged exterior and interior stainless trim pieces
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
Author photo

1946 Packard: Was it the right candidate?



Making the choice for the Popular Restorations feature car was a perfect example of Bob Earl’s sage advice: “Buy the best car you can afford!”

I looked at only two Packards before buying the 1946 Custom Super Clipper Eight Seven Passenger Sedan.

The first was a 1948 Seven Passenger and was in very nice condition. The seller had put it on eBay but it’s reserve was never met. The car was local and he had included his email address in the ad so a month or two later I arranged for a showing. I took it for a test drive and the drive shaft seemed out of balance and the chrome looked a bit faded. Otherwise it was in pretty good condition, having been partially restored about five years before. It was one of those situations where the seller wouldn’t say how much he wanted, forcing me to make an offer. The logical choice was to start low so I blurted out, “How about $12,000?” He shook his head and said he was thinking of something more like $19,000. That car could have been near perfect for a total investment of less than $25,000 which would be pretty fair if you like seven-passenger Packards.

The second candidate was the Popular Restorations feature car. It was just like a Packard I had as a teenager and that made it seem a little more special. Also, the 1941-47 Clipper body style, inspired by Howard “Dutch” Darrin, is a lot more classic. As the sales brochure notes, “Packard distinction is magnified in the Custom Super Clipper Sedan for seven passengers. Its completely new body combines lordly dimensions with superlatively fine custom treatment of details.” The ad copy writer must have had a smile on his face when he or she wrote that!

1946 Packard

Dennis Adler’s Motorbooks Classics book, simply titled Packard, says the 1948 model looked as if the stylists “had stuffed an air hose up the tailpipe of a 1947 Packard Clipper and blown the car up like a balloon,” earning it unattractive nicknames like “Bathtub.”

1948 Packard

To be fair though, the 1948 Packards did sell reasonably well, and won the “Fashion Car of the Year” award from the Fashion Academy of New York and “Finest and most beautiful car in the show,” at Calcuta, Colombia.

Unless the objective is to actually go through the restoration process, I know it makes more sense to buy a car that is nearly the quality I want for my end objective. As a rule, it costs a lot less to buy someone else’s restoration than to restore it yourself. But in this case the objective was to do a complete, high-quality restoration and the time and work were well worth it.



Custom Automotive Restoration, Inc.

By Jeff Zurschmeide

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

PR: If a restorer knows what make and model he likes, how should he choose a candidate car?

DH: Find one that’s close to being done already - as good as you can afford.

PR: So it’s better to spend $15,000 on a mostly-finished car than $500 on a basket case?

DH: Yes. Unless money’s not a problem and you’re in it for the experience, you should try to find one where the hard work has been done. You can save quite a bit of money if you just have to go through the engine or just do the paint. But whatever you choose, you should always choose a car that you want to be part of. It makes the process a whole lot more interesting, because it will take longer than you expect. It’s not a quick or easy process.

PR: Is it a lot more trouble if you pick a car that’s rare or unusual?

DH: You’ll spend more time looking for parts, and more money for the parts, and sometimes the parts may not be available at all. In that case, make sure that you buy a car with all of the parts in place. It should have every knob and door handle, even if they’re rusty and corroded, because they can be fixed.

PR: Let’s talk about barn finds. Is there anything to look for or run from if you’re looking at a car that’s been stored?

DH: Look for the one that hasn’t been under a leaky place in the roof. You can find one that looks in pretty good shape, but if mice have been living in the back seat, their droppings can rust out the floor under the seat. If you’re not good at wiring, remember that mice and rats love to chew on the insulation around the wiring. Maybe there are two cars you’re evaluating, and one has a good dash with good gauges but it has dents and body rust, where another one has a perfect body, but the gauges are missing. Pick the one with the good gauges. Those are hard to get, and rust and dents in the bodywork are easy to fix.

PR: Are there other parts to look for?

DH: If there’s aluminum trim or windshield parts, make sure the metal’s not too pockmarked. Also grilles -if you find two identical cars and one’s got a good grille but the body’s banged up, buy that one. You can put a lot of money into a grille. That’s also true of stainless trim, it’s almost always fixable, but it has to be there. And don’t try to repair stainless trim yourself! You can ruin a piece easily, and you should hire a professional to work on it.

PR: Are there big clues on the outside of a car to what you’ll find inside the car?

DH: Convertibles, unless they’ve been stored inside, are going to have rust.

CV: Always look at the rocker panels and behind the wheel wells. Sometimes people will just put bondo over the rust and paint it. It’ll be OK for a year and then start to come up. Look carefully at those areas.

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

Tom Benford
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Restoring Collector Cars
Alpha, Paperback, 2004-08-03
The first 150 pages of this book are dedicated to the process of finding and deciding upon a restoration project and determining your restoration strategy. This part is covered in detail, and covered very well. The last 50 pages or so cover what to do with your car after the restoration is done, which leaves just over 100 pages to cover the actual work. For example, the chapter on engines assumes that the basic mill is in good shape, and simply covers tuning, carb adjustment, and freshening the engine bay. This is not a step by step mechanical manual - but it offers some of the best coverage on every other aspect of restoration.

Matt Joseph
Collector Car Restoration Bible: Practical Techniques for Professional Results
Krause Publications, Paperback, 2005-10-14

This book covers it all, from buying a restorable car to the finishing touches. And in between, it touches on every part of the car, from sheet metal repair to engine internals. If you were to have just one book as a guide, this would be that book. The book is photo-rich and provides both procedural details and collected wisdom from experienced restorers.

Greg Donahue
How to Restore Your Muscle Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2005-11-07

This book covers all aspects of restoration in detail, with a focus on the special issues found in 1960s and 70s muscle cars. From car selection through engine and interior restoration, this book is full of photos, illustrations, and step by step procedures. Examples are given from all domestic automakers. Reviews have been generally positive, for example (from AutoWeek): “With clean vintage muscle cars skyrocketing in price, this second edition has good timing, providing updates on parts sources and restoration techniques. We didn’t use the book to restore a muscle car, but we found it clear and concise, with user-friendly disassembly diagrams and 1,300-plus step-by-step photos, from choosing tools and which muscle car to restore, to completing the restoration.”

Jim Richardson
Classic Car Restorer's Handbook: Restoration Tips and Techniques for Owners and Restorers of Classic and Collectible Automobiles
HP Trade, Paperback, 1994-11-01

This book covers a lot of ground in comparatively few pages, and while it has step-by-step procedures, the steps are often large. This book is a good choice if you want to understand the restoration process and all the pieces you’ll touch. However, it’s not sufficient to be your main guide to the restoration process.

Burt Mills
Auto Restoration: From Junker to Jewel
Motorbooks Intl, Paperback, 1980-06

This book is a nice overview of the process, but does not go into great detail about restoration procedures. A good choice if you’re wondering what is involved in a restoration and want to know more before making a commitment.

Tom Brownell
How to Restore Your Collector Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 1999-12-24

This book has a great deal of information on selecting a potential project car and setting up the workshop, plus a lot of detail on cleaning, stripping, blasting, derusting, bodywork and trim restoration, but comparatively less (just 1 chapter) on engine and mechanical restoration and 1 chapter on brakes. The book includes many nice color photos, however, and would be a good addition to a restoration library.

Dennis Adler
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2004-07-23

Dennis Adler’s 2004 edition covers the history of the Packard automobile from 1899 until 1958. Included are new color photos of more than 50 models and over 125 black and white photos from museums and private collections.

Forward by Jay Leno.

External Links

ProRestorations.com has a good article titled, “What car should or should NOT be restored, and why?”

GuildClassicCars.com has the following article: Layman’s Guide to Restoration Part 1 - New Project

Also at GuildClassicCars.com is an article on classic car buying

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