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Estimating Costs

By Bob Earls

Here’s a quickie course on how much a restoration really costs. Sit down -- before you fall down.

Have you ever looked at the tall prices that restored cars often command and figured there was a big profit built in? Sad to say, there’s little to no profit in performing an exacting restoration. We’ll look at each area of restoration and try to give you some idea of the costs to get it done right.

But bear in mind that we’re talking about the highest quality restoration -- suitable for a trailer queen. If you just want a nice car to drive, you can bring it in for substantially less.

Without including bodywork, a decent paint job will run between $3,000 to more than $10,000. Can you get one cheaper? Sure you can. Do you get what you pay for? You bet you do. Bodywork can also run up a big tab quickly. If a car has 2 coats of paint, it should be stripped to bare metal before you add any more. Labor rates for stripping are generally between $40-$60/hr. See our restoration education page for some information on how you can learn to do some of this work yourself.

A complete engine overhaul, done right and not counting removal and installation will generally go between $1,000 to $5,000, but can reach $10,000 for rare, unusual, or 12 and 16 cylinder engines. Machine shop labor is around $60-75/hr., and shop labor is $50-$75/hr.

An engine overhaul does not include peripherals such as water pumps, starters, generators, fuel pumps, carbs, chrome, porcelain parts, and so on. Each of these requires a separate restoration or replacement, and the costs can mount up depending on the scarcity of the parts in question.

A single pipe exhaust system, front-to-back, will cost about $400. You cannot generally take this job to a standard exhaust shop because they won’t have the materials or designs to restore a vintage exhaust as it was delivered with the car.

Manual transmissions can run $500-$1,500 to be restored, and automatics cost $600-$2,500. The good news is that the transmission is often the best-kept part of the car. You might get away with replacing the fluid and the seals and giving it a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint.

Brakes can set you back $250 for re-lining a simple set of shoes to $1,000-$1,500 for a complete overhaul, including the master cylinder and all slave hydraulics. Vacuum-boosted systems are a particular concern, and can be expensive to replace if the vacuum diaphragm has been torn. In general, disc brakes cost more for the manufacturer to make, and cost less for you to restore.

A complete interior kit can be had for $700-$6,000, depending on the make and model of the car. But interiors are labor-intensive, and so labor to install them can run into an additional $400-$3,000. Custom interiors will set you back $2,000-$16,000. Shop rates vary from $50 to $85 per hour. Interior prices vary greatly based on materials and complexity. Obviously, an MG TC costs less than a full classic Packard.

Wiring harnesses cost between $500-$1,000, and labor to install them can run another $500-$1,500. It’s critical to get the installation done right, and this is an area that is often not well-documented. It’s most helpful if you have an original or well-restored car to use as an example. That’s hard to get in a commercial context, so you may end up saving some money by doing this work yourself to get it right the first time.

Plating is highly variable. There’s a huge difference between the chrome on a 1958 Buick Roadmaster and a 1949 Chevy. All the chrome (including the interior) on a ‘49 Chevy would probably cost $1,500, while the Roadmaster could cost $10,000. It’s expensive because there are so many steps involved with each piece.

The bottom line price of your restoration depends entirely on the make and model you choose, the specific car you select, and the level of detail and quality you put into the restoration. Take your time at the beginning of the project and be willing to perform much of the installation yourself. It’s the hourly shop rate for labor you could have performed yourself that can really get out of hand.

To assist you in pre-planning your restoration costs, we’ve developed a Restoration Worksheet. The worksheet includes all of the automotive topics documented here at PopularRestorations.com.

Each functional area of your car is covered, and the worksheet includes entries where you can list your specific restoration tasks. For each task you can note who’s doing the work, how much it costs, and how long it takes. You can create an entry for parts as well as services.

The idea is that you can use the worksheet to get a rough idea of the total cost and time involved in your restoration. If your total exceeds your budget, you may want to revise your objectives. In any case, you can use the worksheet to schedule your restoration so that parts arrive and services are completed in a timely fashion.

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Get realistic estimates for all parts and services you will require
  • Do your best to accurately assess how much labor you can give to the project
  • Use the PopularRestorations.com cost-estimating worksheet

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t engage in wishful thinking about your restoration budget
  • Don’t buy a car without some idea of what you’re getting into
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
Author photo

1946 Packard: Where the budget went awry



The Popular Restorations feature car is a good example of how quickly a car restoration can go over budget -- the original off-the-cuff restoration estimate turned out to be half the final cost. In retrospect it is not too difficult to see where the budget went awry:

  • Oversights (forgot to include a part or service)
  • Underestimates (underbid the costs of parts and services)
  • Surprises (ran into unexpected problems)
  • Outsourcing for Convenience (outsourced a repair for the sake of convenience)
  • Additions (added restoration improvements that were not in the original plan)

The first two categories of budget overrun could have been reduced by more careful planning and research. Surprises are difficult to plan for, hence the name. I found Outsourcing for Convenience and Additions the most interesting, at least from a philosophical perspective.

Often there is a discouraging time in the middle of the restoration process when the project looks too big, too time consuming, and too expensive. You realize that there were some other parts of your life you enjoyed besides auto repair. If you are married your wife is apt to remind you. If you give in at this point you’ll find yourself selling your dream car “in a basket” for much less than you have invested. That is where I found Outsourcing for Convenience to be helpful. I outsourced a few things I was planning on rebuilding myself such as the transmission, starter, and generator and was able to keep the project moving while I took a little break.

Outsourcing for Convenience can also make good economic sense. Although it was not in the original budget, I found I could take 50+ parts to the powder coater who would sandblast and powder coat them for under $200. The parts would have taken me over 30 minutes each to clean and paint which equates to about five dollars an hour for my time. I didn’t have to buy the paint and the powder coating is more durable. Unless your budget is very limited, this type of additional expense seems worthwhile.

The Additions category is also interesting. As the restoration progresses it is easy to end up wanting to do more than was originally planned. If you do a really nice job restoring the paint and chrome you may feel your restoration would be uneven if you didn’t go the extra mile on the interior. For example, by replating all the exterior chrome the interior can then look dull in comparison. And over the course of a restoration you may learn about things you can do to make your car nicer than you planned. I didn’t originally plan on adding extensive acoustic heat and sound insulation to the passenger compartment but a restoration mechanic told me what a difference it made on his (similar) restoration.

Here is the original off-the cuff estimate for the Popular Restorations feature car restoration:

$13,500 for the car
$5,000 for paint
$1000 for the body work
$3,000 for upholstery
$5,000 for the drive train
$4,000 for chrome
$2,000 for tires, brakes, and redoing the front suspension.

That would have been about $32,500 and the car would certainly have been worth that when it was done. Let’s see where and why the estimates were too low:

Identification and Purchase - underestimated by $3000 mostly due to oversight.
Overlooked were the tools to buy, storage, insurance, books and manuals, and costs for disassembly (baggies, batteries for the camera, solvents, etc.)

Cleaning - underestimated by $3272 mostly due to underestimates and additions.
Sandblasting chassis parts, walnut blasting the body, dipping the other body parts was expensive (mainly the dipping.) The original plan was not to go down to bare metal.

Chassis - underestimated by $1280 due to additions.
Powder coating the frame and having the master and wheel cylinders stainless steel lined is where most of this extra spending went.

Drive Train - underestimated by $915 due to outsourcing for convenience.
The original plan was to replace the synchro in the transmission in house. But the transmission would pop out of first gear when decelerating which required special Packard tools so it was sent to a shop.

Wheels - underestimated by $440 due to underestimates.
The original plan of $1000 for new wide whitewalls became $1200 with tubes, mounting, and balancing. One hubcap needed a replacement cloisonne emblem ($120). Sandblasting and powder coating the rims was $120.

Wiring - underestimated by $1510 due to outsourcing for convenience and additions.
The original plan called for replacing the (working) starter and generator bearings and brushes in house. Having them rebuilt (cleaned, painted, tested) by a professional was about $200. Replacing the wiring was unanticipated but necessary to protect against a fire.

Body - Exterior - underestimated by $4740 due to oversight, underestimates, and surprises.
Rubber products (weather stripping, etc.) for the glass, doors, trunk, tail lamps, door handles, etc. are surprisingly expensive. What originally appeared to be “surface rust” looked a lot worse after the body was walnut shell blasted. The rust repair was a big part of this category.

Body- Interior - underestimated by $5332 due to underestimates and additions.
Seat and door panel upholstery kits were not available because this is the seven passenger (stretch) version. It was $1000 to have the wood graining on the window moldings and instrument panel repaired and $1000 for acoustic and thermal products for the passenger compartment.

Finishing - underestimated by $14029 due to underestimates and additions.
Paint cost over twice the planned amount, in part, because the car is so large. If you have a choice, restore the smallest car you can! The chrome was 60 percent more than planned which included the interior parts. Stainless trim was about eight dollars per foot to be professionally buffed. Other additions included ceramic coating the exhaust to reduce engine heat in the passenger compartment, ceramic coating the brake drums to keep the brakes cool, replating the original fasteners, and undercoating the whole car with truck bed liner.

Assembly - underestimated by $2118 due to oversights.
Mostly miscellaneous parts. The six motor and transmission mounts were over $400. Also included were hoses and a fan belt, and hundreds of miscellaneous fasteners to replace rusted originals, including body trim clips.




By Jeff Zurschmeide

(Restoration Worksheet: View Download)

An interview with Jeremy Wilson, founder of PopularRestorations.com

PR: Why did you develop a restoration worksheet?

JW: Because I found that there are so many aspects of restoring a single car that it’s difficult to have all of them in your mind at one time. It needs to be written down.

It’s like shopping for a new house, and you try to imagine the dozens of things you want in a house. That might include a particular kind of patio, which direction the home faces, the number of bedrooms and so forth. But when you go looking for houses, it’s easy to walk into one and think “this house is great” and forget one or two of your major considerations. Restoring a car is a complex task like purchasing a house. You need to have it all on a list. It’s so easy to forget this or that aspect, and that’s one of the reasons people get in over their heads on expenses.

PR: How did you develop the worksheet?

JW: I often use Excel spreadsheets for organizing complicated projects. As I got started with my project, I organized the tasks of auto restoration in a more or less chronological order. I put the tasks into basic categories, such as Identification and Purchase, Cleaning, Repairing and Rebuilding, Finishing, Assembly and Maintenance. Because this is same organization I used for the table of contents here at Popular Restorations, it seemed logical to use that organization to create a restoration worksheet for others to use.

PR: How should people use the worksheet?

JW: By looking at a sample restoration worksheet that already has numbers in it, you can go through it and say “yes, I’m going to do this” and “no, I’m not going to do that” and add up what you’ve got and get a rough idea of what your restoration is likely to cost.

PR: Did you learn anything unexpected while you were getting the worksheet together?

JW: The worksheet is a result of the restoration that I’m doing. I had a number of surprises along the way, including learning just how many things I had to be concerned about. We’ve got articles on 63 aspects of restoration and practically every one costs something. So the volume of items to consider is a lot higher than I thought. Plus, many of the tasks on my list have cost 2, 3, or even 4 times what I thought they would cost when I started.

PR: Are there any other benefits to using the worksheet?

JW: Filling out the worksheet is a good way to stop and think ahead of time what vendors you’ll need to use. The worksheet includes spaces for vendor, description, cost, start date, and end date. We’re not using this worksheet only for costs, but also for scheduling.

For example, when a vendor told me that wiring takes 2 months lead time, I was able to enter a start date for wiring that was 2 months before I needed it. This helps save you from getting to a point where you’re making good progress and then you realize that you’re stuck because a vendor needs months of lead time! It’s good procedure call up your vendors at the beginning of a restoration and ask them what lead time they need to get things done. Then you can set up your expected start and end dates and follow a schedule that won’t get you into a jam waiting for somebody.

PR: So this not only helps you figure out how much your project costs, but it also helps keep your project on track?

JW: Yes, that’s true, but even with the best planning, any project with so many variables is going to have surprises. There will still be costs you didn’t expect and overruns on time. All you can do is your best, and using a worksheet will help you do your best.

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

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.

Burt Mills
Budget Auto Restoration: Low Cost, Step-By-Step Tricks for Rejuvenating Your '50s and '60s Cars
Motorbooks Intl, Paperback, 1990-05
This book is dated (1990) but can sometime be found on Amazon (used) for a few dollars -- and it contains some clever cost saving tricks.
External Links

If our Restoration Worksheet doesn’t go far enough for you, take a look at RestorationAssistant.com. They have project management software designed specifically for the auto restoration enthusiast.

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