How To Decide Which Car You Should Restore

Choosing a car to restore
Step 1, Choose a Car to Restore. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Are you ready to buy and restore an older car? After confirming a 100 percent yes answer to the first question the next decision is figuring out which automobile to restore. Choosing the right muscle car, vintage automobile or classic pickup truck is so important, we've decided to dedicate a comprehensive article to help you consider all of the possibilities.

Picking the car isn't as easy as you may thing. This is especially true if you’ve never fully restored a car before. A quick and hasty purchase without proper research is not advisable for novices or even experts. We suggest that you put pencil to paper and ask yourself these tough questions before you put your pen to your checkbook and make that purchase.

What Are the Top Five Cars You Would Like to Own

We always suggest that you have at least five makes and models of cars on a short list for a possible restoration project. As you go through the following questions, you’ll be surprised how quickly the desirability factor of an automobile can diminish under close scrutiny.

The initial cost, availability of parts or the difficulty level of that particular restoration can have you scratching vehicles off the list quickly. Also, consider if the car is worth a full restoration. It's important to prevent your dream car from turning into a nightmare.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

Your best education about a variety of brands is available at classic car shows and auctions. Talk to the owners about their car’s design flaws and what they did to remedy them. Ask how easy or difficult the car is to maintain. Inquire about the availability of reproduction or factory parts.

Look at all the cars very closely, and you may find yourself admiring a model that you never considered before. Just be sure that you have actually driven the cars you place on your top five. What may look like a really cool car while parked in your garage could be a wrestling match for you to drive.

Of course, you have to remember that older cars don’t handle or brake like newer cars. If you keep them all original, they won't have the creature comforts you have come to enjoy on your modern transportation. Do yourself a favor, don't restore a car that you won’t have fun driving.

What do You Plan to do With Your Restored Car

This is where we need to take a deep breath and gaze into the future. What do we want from this automobile when the project is finished. Are we going to use it for fun or for profit? Restoring a car for investment purposes will play a big role in deciding your purchase.

You need to find a car that's as close to original as possible, especially one that has matching numbers on the engine, body, frame and transmission. Restoring the car’s original parts will help secure its future value. Sourcing parts from similar makes and models should be held to a minimum.

If you’re looking to restore an older car to fill the role of a daily driver or used more for fun than turning a buck, a solid car becomes more important than the level of originality. A solid car that has a little rust a straight and accident-free body and decent bright work will save a lot of time and money on a restoration project.

How Much of the Restoration Can You do Yourself

If you're not handy around the house and have never changed the oil on your car, then you'll be hiring someone to do the work. It's important to be realistic about finding accomplished professionals to do the heavy lifting for you. This will make for a very expensive restoration. In fact, you might be better off buying a completely finished car.

Automotive systems found in vehicles produced in the 60s and 70s can be intimidating to some home mechanics. First timers may want to look at the more straightforward 40s and 50s engines and electronics found on vintage automobiles. Key factors on the affordability scale are then driven from your ability to do the work, and what you think you should pay for services rendered.

Research the availability of quality shops for the specialized restoration work required. Also, verify reasonable costs for hourly shop labor charges and of course, the availability of replacement parts. The reasonable price criteria are directly related to the numbers of cars built in the model you have chosen and the network of clubs from which you can gain intelligence for their sourcing.

How Much Money is in the Budget

Here is a sobering statistic. Only 30 percent of restoration projects get back out on the road. This is mostly due to the lack of funds for completion. It is a rare occasion that we find a restoration project costs us less than expected. Unfortunately, this holds true even if you generously pad the budget for unexpected repairs or part replacements.

Once you've made a complete inspection of the car, make a list of all the repairs or replacement items necessary. Don't forget to include the tools you will have to buy to do these repairs. If the engine doesn’t start, don’t assume that it ever will and put that repair on the list.

Source parts and get quotes from professionals to complete the restoration before you make an offer on a classic car. The inconvenient truth behind automotive restoration is that the vehicle you buy for $5000 can cost you $25,000 to restore. This becomes an issue when you discover the resale value comes in around $21,000 despite a high-end restoration.

Where Will You do the Work on the Car

If you think you can just put your main transportation outside and restore your classic in its parking space, think again. Once you start taking the project car apart, you will find that it takes up much more room than your main ride did. Parts that come off need be stored in an organized and documented fashion.

Before you know it you’ll have boxes, body parts, and bright work with no place to put them. This can cause damage and loss of the original and valuable parts. There won't be much room in the budget to purchase things you didn't expect. If space is limited, consider a smaller car like the British built Triumph Spitfire or even a micro car like the BMW Isetta. These cars can offer some very thrifty thrills.

Why Do You Want to Restore a Car

If you think this is a silly question to ask, you obviously have never fully restored an old car. Restoring an older automobile with the goal to get it back to its former glory and on the road again, is a labor of love. However, it can also be rewarding and a great deal of fun. Every time you come up against a nut that won’t budge or find that a part needs fabrication, you'll need to remind yourself of this.

We suggest you make the reasons for restoring this car a mantra and repeat it constantly. This will help when aligning your newly painted doors back onto its hinges and trying to get them to close. This prevents the obligatory profanity from flowing during this part of a restoration.

We’re not trying to scare you away from restoring a car. We just want you to understand that there are frustrating moments in the process. It’s like golf. Do you break your golf clubs into tiny pieces when you shank the ball left into no man’s land? Then this type of project might not be right for you. When setbacks begin to pile up remind yourself you’re supposed to be having fun. And this is how to restore a car, you enjoy yourself along the way.

Edited by Mark Gittelman