Auto restoration is much like going on an overseas trip, in at least one distinct way. Any veteran traveler will tell you the old adage: for a major trip, pack your clothes and the anticipated money you intend to spend, then unpack half of the clothes and double the money! In a restoration you’ll need plenty of both…
First, Budget Your Time
No matter what you think might be the case, a full restoration of virtually any vehicle will take you two years or more unless you give the car to a professional restoration facility. Even if you are retired and can work on the project every day the total time necessary (typically 1000-1500 hours for experienced hobbyists) to take a car apart, restore each component and put it back together, will drag out.
It should, so let it! After all, this is a hobby and it’s supposed to be fun, right? More to the point, rushing a restoration always results in the expenditure of more money. You lose the ability to patiently “shop around,” pay higher fees for services and find yourself buying on impulse. If you’re not having fun you’re doing something wrong.
Now, The Money
Keep Track Of Expenses
Get a folder and throw all receipts into it. Staple a few sheets of lined or accounting paper to the inside of the folder and write down each expense as it occurs. Keep a running total on the bottom of each sheet. Knowing what you’re spending at all times keeps you budget conscious.
Your time is worth nothing if you’re not earning money during those hours. Don’t fool yourself into justifying paying someone else to do basic work by thinking: “it’s not worth my time.”
Anyone who has ever done a full restoration will tell you that 80% of the work is cleaning. That includes stripping, wire brushing, scraping, solvent-cleaning and any number of dirty, time-consuming tasks that are required to get each component ready for refinishing, polishing, etc. Doing this, not to mention taking the car apart in the first place, doesn’t require much skill or experience. Therefore, you can do all this yourself for the costs of the cleaning materials. That’s an instant savings of thousands of dollars.
Many first-time restorers buy the cheapest car they can find, only to find extensive rust, missing parts and a host of other unpleasant surprises that end up costing a lot of money. You can minimize this by buying the most car for the money, not necessarily the cheapest. Rust and missing trim cost the most to restore, so always, always buy the car that is as rust-free as you can locate and is as close to100% complete as possible. If a good candidate is missing trim items, deduct the full price of replacements from the asking price. Always take someone (preferably disinterested) with you when you look at a car. Walk away if the seller balks on your offer.
What Level Of Restoration Are You Looking For?
Concours restorations cost much more than show-level and “driver” cars because, obviously, these restorations must be nearly perfect. That means serious expense all the way through the project, so before starting make sure you do some soul-searching. Ask yourself what you really intend to do with the final product and stick to the plan.
What Percentage Are You Doing Yourself?
Very few hobbyists do full restorations by themselves, frequently “subbing out paint, upholstery and mechanical work. Believe it or not, you are fully capable of doing more on the project than you think. You can remove and tear down the engine and take it to the shop. The same is true with the transmission and rear end, so don’t pay someone to do it for you. You can remove the seats and reupholster them as well. It looks hard, but if you buy pre-made covers and seat foam you will find it rather easy and rewarding to do the work yourself.
There are a lot of specific things you can do yourself in a restoration project, so don’t plan on having anything done until you’ve taken the car apart. The act of disassembly will familiarize you with the car’s workings and give you the confidence to attack jobs you thought were too daunting. Besides, even if you botch a particular job it isn’t going to cost any more to have it done than it would have in the first place.
Don’t Buy Anything Yet!
It’s incredibly easy to start taking a car apart, listing what items need to be replaced as you go, then ordering those parts right away. While it seems you are “spreading the costs” over time, what you are really doing is spending too much; way too much.
Take the car apart, list the items to be replaced, and continue disassembly until there is nothing left. That should leave you with about 10,000 individual parts and a long list of stuff you need to replace. Contact all parts suppliers who specialize in that vehicle and send them the complete list. Make sure you tell them that the lowest bidder gets the whole order. When you get the bids you will be amazed at how much you will save. Even if you have to take out a loan to get the whole order you will have saved at least a thousand dollars on the project.
Conclusion: Time Is On Your Side
When it comes to staying on budget the most important advantage you have is time. Working “smart” through the project, as described above, is half of the “battle-of-the-budget.” The other half is time or, specifically, exercising patience when you temporarily run out of money.
Rather than getting in debt at a particular juncture, just stop spending. Work on parts of the project that only cost your time and labor, then resume spending when there’s available money in the account. In the end you will have had the most satisfying experience and no regrets.
Les Jackson is an engineer and syndicated automotive writer whose “Ask Dr. Crankshaft” articles appear weekly in a 256 newspapers and associated websites. He has been published in Car & Driver, Modern Maturity, Auto Week, Road & Track and scores of specialty and industry magazines. He tests and reviews approximately 100 new vehicles each year. He is Co-Host of “All About Cars,” a weekly radio show on the USA and Cable Radio networks, and Editor in Chief of Second Chance Garage, the internet’s first auto restoration website. A true “hands-on” individual, he has personally restored 16 classic cars over the past 30 years, performing all the work himself. Les is past-president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a recognized expert on automotive engineering, safety and the industry as a whole.