Welcome to a world of blood, sweat and tears. Contemplating your first restoration project can seem completely daunting but these basic tips will ease you in gently and hopefully cut out a lot of frustration and heartache
You may have got to this point because your beloved classic has either been bought as a runner or has grown too tired to keep on the road without some major work. Or the only way you can afford to get the car of your dreams is to start with a basket case and put the hours in to bring it back to its former glory.
However you’ve got to this point, never fear. With a bit of planning, even the most complex of cars can be restored. If you understand the basics, know where to go for help and advice and are prepared to hand some jobs over to the professionals when you reach the limit of your abilities, anything is possible.
It may well be a world of blood, sweat and tears. But get it right, and it’s also one of pleasure and satisfaction. To make sure it’s more of the latter, here are our dirty dozen tips for first time restorers.
1. Join the club
There’s a reason you’ve been told that owners’ clubs are great so many times. The simple fact is it’s true. When you’re embarking on your first restoration, you really have no reason not to join the club for your car. Why? Let’s start with the fact that the club will be full of friendly people who are completely passionate about your car and a fair few of them will have been through what you’re about to do. Their experiences can save you a lot of time and money. They will know the cars and their weaknesses inside out. The club may well have their own stocks of spares which as a member you’ll get access too. Plus the bits they don’t have, they may well have the inside line on where to get them from. They’ll also be an endless source of encouragement and will take as much pleasure from seeing one of ‘their’ cars returned to its full glory as you will.
2. Be prepared to learn
Restoring a classic involves many processes, some of which you may already be well versed in, while others might be totally new. Aside from good old spannering – and depending on how much of the resto you’re prepared to take on – you’ll need to develop skills in bodywork and welding, paint, electrics, and even basic upholstery. You may well be able to pick these skills up from friends, family and fellow club members, but don’t discount learning from the pros. Many colleges around the country run relevant night classes or even full time courses. And learning how to do a job properly means that you’ll be able to do it right, first time.
3. Love your tools
If you don’t own a comprehensive tool kit, once you start restoring a classic you soon will. If you’re even contemplating a restoration, you’ll need a decent set of hand tools – spanners, socket set, screwdrivers, hammers, the list goes on. If you’re going shopping, buy the very best you can’t afford. They’re going to get a hard time, so buying cheap is a false economy. Low quality tools will slow you down. They break or just don’t work as they’re meant to. Once you’ve got your basic hand tools, you will soon want to add some esential power tools. A good angle grinder is a versatile and vital tool, especially when stripping down a rusty hulk. A good quality power drill and maybe even a decent capacity MIG welder should soon join the tool arsenal.
4. Enjoy small victories
The old hands (and many magazine articles…) will tell you to approach the restoration process in a sensible and methodical manner. This is so that you don’t need to do any job twice. Also, restored components can be easily damaged in storage. For instance, the best place for re-trimmed seats is inside your finished car, not perched up in the rafters of your garage. So they’re usually one of the last jobs to be sorted. But as a restoration drags on, it can sometimes be a massive moral boost to see just one aspect of the car in its finished state. This can be a tiny indication of how great the car’s going to be once it’s done. So whether that includes lovingly polishing the radiator grille or having the wheels blasted and painted, go for it. If it spurs you on and gives new energy for the job, don’t listen to anyone else.
5. Choose well
Think carefully about the make and model you want to restore. Any restoration is tough enough without the added complication of the whole process stalling because a certain component hasn’t been manufactured since 1963 and there were only five made back then. Serial, hardened restorers can be scuppered by poor parts supply, so if it’s your first time don’t make it any harder than you need it to be. Certain models have incredible after market support and you can buy practically anything you’re going to need, brand new and off the shelf. Nothing beats the thrill of turning up some treasure at an autojumble or on eBay, but the joy of trawling the world for basics like filters and brake parts gets very old, very quickly. Don’t go there. MGBs, Triumphs and VW Beetles are popular for many reasons, but not least that most parts can be found as easily as lifting the phone and flexing your credit card.
6. Buy for the right reasons
You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your car. Depending on how bad it is, you will be involved in every stage of buying, disassembly, sourcing parts and services, and then putting it all back together. So make sure it really is the car you want – make, model and spec. No compromises. Don’t be tempted by a classic you really don’t want. If you haven‘t found the right car yet, keep looking. And don‘t just buy on the basis that it might be a good investment. If you’re not completely into the car, there is nothing that’s going to get you through the long slog that awaits you. And without a doubt it will end up being moved on as an ‘unfinished project.
You have to face facts. Whether it’s a Mini or a Maserati, restoring a car is not a cheap hobby. Even if you do all of the work yourself, the price of components alone soon adds up. This isn’t such an issue when you’re doing the job in stages and you have a chance to replenish the piggy bank before starting on the next step. But you will always encounter a few surprises along the way. These may not be pleasant ones either – you may have heard the car running before you bought, but were you able to drive it? How’s the gearbox? Find the car. Look at parts prices. Get a figure for any professional input you’re considering. And once you’ve added it all up, add at least 30 per cent on top.
We can’t stress how much time a restoration can consume. There is a lot of work in just assembling a car from a bare shell to a roadworthy, working machine even if you have every component laid out in front of you ready to go like some huge Airfix kit. You will quickly learn that things rarely go to plan either. Parts might be difficult to source or take their time in arriving, or there might be delays in getting your components through a professional service. You might also fall into the familiar pattern of redoing jobs that were completed first. As you become more proficient, the standard of your earlier efforts are no longer good enough. So you do them again. Be realistic in how long it’s all going to take. Don’t take on a full resto and promise your daughter that it will ready to drive her to the church on her wedding day in three months time. You may be full of the best intentions. The car, on the other hand, will have other idea.
9. Know your limits
We all like to think we can create showroom paint finishes straight from the spray gun, or rebuild engines while blindfolded. The truth is, most of us can’t. The number of people who can complete every job required to completely restore a car to the highest standards are a very rare breed. If you’re not one of them, that’s okay. Just recognise your own limitations. Do as much as you can but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel confident about tackling anything. Ask around, get some recommendations and find the cash to get the job done by a pro. One more thing, certain jobs are just best handled by a professional and the best example is spray painting. You can spend a lot of time and money, make a lot of mess and have to handle quite toxic materials to just get a satisfactory result.
10. Keeping things in order
When stripping the car down, don’t forget to label everything and take as many photographs how components fit and, more importantly how the wiring loom and any pipework runs along the chassis and through the engine bay. The wiring behind the dashboard can look like a cat’s cradle gone loopy, so label and photograph all the connections each time a switch or instrument is disconnected. A handy supply of plastic zip top freezer bags is essential for putting small parts in and when listing the contents on the bag, always use a permanent marker.
11. Don’t give up
Don’t loose sight of the fact that this is meant to be a fun process. Nobody is holding a gun to your head to make you do it, so try and enjoy every stage. There’s always someone out there who has solved the problem you are facing and can often offer a simple solution to what seems a daunting stage of the restoration. The classic car industry has never been in better shape and pretty much everything you need is out there – from tools and consumables, quality parts for an enormous range of cars, advice and even training to gain those much needed specialist skills.
12. Enjoy it
We guarantee when you finally roll your completed project out of the garage for the first time you will look back on the restoration process with pleasure and a great deal of satisfaction. Yes, even that cold winter’s night you spent scraping off all the old underseal by torchlight. But be warned. Taking something broken and rusty and restoring it back to better than new condition is a highly addictive process. This may well be your first resto, but get through it and it won’t be your last.
Words by Gerard Hughes