Restoration do’s and don’ts from the experts
Interest in Preservation Class cars continues to increase, and collectors face difficult choices in deciding whether to restore classic cars. The issues are complex and investment significant, so we asked a panel of experts how to proceed.
David Burroughs was the driving force behind the Bloomington Gold Corvette annual gathering for 25 years. His judging program encouraged owners to achieve Gold Standard for their cars via ongoing advice, and he precisely defined “survivor” cars.
- Appreciate that your options are broader than just preserving or restoring a car, and include conservation, rehabilitation, and repair. Understand that preserved vehicles have superior mechanical integrity over restored cars.
- Photographically document your vehicle where you find it, during sequential disassembly and reassembly. Don’t get a pre-purchase inspection after you bought the car.
- Learn the difference between historic and hobby vehicles. You can’t compare a 1955 4-door Plymouth with no motor to a Mario Andretti Indy winner with replaced front suspension, faded paint, and its race engine. That deserves preservation and conservation.
- Don’t restore a car to please the judges or the crowd. Also, it isn’t about you. Pebble Beach shiny would erase the historic connection between Andretti and his Indy winner. It would become a replica. Restoration should be a form of preservation. Many cars are actually historical artifacts – they just look like cars.
- Examine individual parts and do point-by-point replacement. Each car has a different story. It’s a historical document you could destroy. Don’t ask a restorer if a car should be restored, get multiple opinions before making any decisions.
Miles Collier is a lifelong automotive historian who has conducted a series of symposia on preservation technique and theory since 2000. He founded The Revs Institute in 2009 to study the impact the automobile has on society.
- Don’t underestimate the magnitude of any project in terms of time, money or aggravation.
- Don’t view all restoration shops as interchangeable. Understand there are “horses for courses.”
- Realize that getting a project from 90 percent to 95 percent makes the difference between a wonderful car, and garbage. The last 5 percent will take 20-25 percent of the effort.
- Don’t customize the car with a color change, “better” motor or transmission. That’s OK if you’re never going to sell it, but otherwise “original” is what creates the demand.
- Buy the best example you can find; don’t start with junk because it was cheaper. Pay what you need to pay. Restoring a nice original car that is complete and presentable is a sixth – and very big – mistake.
Kevin Mackay is a nationally known, outspoken Corvette expert, who founded Corvette Repair Inc. in New York in 1985. He is a Bloomington Gold Judge, and NCRS Master Judge, and has advice for owners and restorers.
- Do the research before you put money into a car. Check the documentation, VIN and trim tags, and look for a good clean title. Is the drive train original? Don’t spend $100,000 on a car with reproduction or replacement tags, as a stolen recovery.
- Jerry Seinfeld’s Volkswagen just brought $120,000 because he's a celebrity, but if you have a base motor VW worth $10-15K it doesn’t pay to spend more than that on a restoration. Make sure your car warrants a frame-up restoration – which can take 2,000-3,000 hours – before you spend the money.
- Use the right materials. Fixing a crack in a fiberglass car involves grinding it out and using fiberglass and resin to repair it. Bondo will last 30-60 days before it cracks again. With metal you must cut out the panel. Applying bondo over rust is a big mistake; rust will return and haunt you later.
- To find the right restorer, check his reputation and referrals and consult well-known car clubs. Go to the right specialist. I’m a Corvette specialist. I don’t work on Ferraris or Panteras and I wouldn’t take a Corvette to somebody who does.
- When you get an engine rebuilt, always dyno it – if it’s going to blow up, have it happen on the machine, before you’ve spent 200 hours installing it and detailing it. Have a professional adjust the engine and break it in properly.
- Make sure the body parts fit: hoods, moldings, taillights, door handles, headlight doors, bumpers BEFORE you paint the car. Test fit things two or three times. The quality of the paint job depends on the bodywork.
- Find out the car’s provenance. Ideally, you want a one-owner, low-mileage survivor, with documents. But we had one car that had 23 owners, which is possible if a car is older and the owners only kept it a couple of years each. It was important, so we hired a private eye to trace it.
Diane Brandon is a Rolls-Royce expert, and the only woman judge at Pebble Beach. She served on the board of the RROC and represented the Bentley Driver’s Club in the U.S.
- Research the car you’re interested in, buy the books, join the single marque club and go to shows to find something that makes your heart sing.
- Avoid cars which are not original, have stories (especially from dealers) or no documentation. Don’t buy a car with so much damage you’ll be underwater when you’re finished, or a car that’s so over-restored you’ll have to start over to make it right.
- Don’t buy a right-hand drive car if you drive on the right. Don’t buy a car whose basic equipment doesn’t work properly. Avoid “quickie” paint jobs (too shiny, overspray, orange peel), or with an incorrect interior.
- Do you want to drive your car or show it? If you want to drive it, find the best original example you can, with thorough provenance. Repair it mechanically, but let its appearance show evidence of the passage of time, without appearing neglected.
- If you plan to show your car, choose your restorer by reputation and referral. Choose appropriate paint colors (preferably original), and correct interior materials. Repair when possible, replace only what must be replaced. Gather appropriate documents; avoid non-original accessories. Drive it so you’re familiar with it.