Piston Slap: Sometimes All You Need Is a VIN?

Relic Restorations

TG writes:

I like this column and I’ve been racking my brain for a good question. I finally have one. (I could always use more like this, so everyone please email me questions at pistonslap@hagerty.com – SM).

There is a lot of internet lore out there that you can assemble an entire car from scratch from mail-order parts. I believe this has actually been done for a ’69 Camaro, and this may be true for a handful of specific model years for a handful of specific model—but generally it isn’t the case, particularly for body panels.

I have a ’65 Impala SS, of which there were 200K built. If you go more general to just a ’65 Impala, the number is 800K built. As I worked through my body woes, my mind was blown on exactly how many rusted body sections that my car had which are completely unobtainable. I ended up firing up the ol’ MIG and pushing through it one little piece of metal at a time, but what are the options for custom-fab body parts? Think trunk seal gutters, window frames, etc.

So who out there has gone this route, and what generally does it cost?

Sajeev answers:

See the photo above? Those 1967 Mustang fastback bodies are part of a plan to recreate the iconic Pony Car for modern times. And they only need an owner to provide a VIN from a 1967 Mustang to make it road legal. The company behind it is Relic Restorations, but I’m not here to promote them.

No really, I only mention them because their owner works firsthand with every type of restoration vendor in this space. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put them into three buckets. You’re gonna dip into one of these buckets if “firing up the ol’ MIG,” as TG suggested, is not a choice.

Dynacorn classic car bodies mustang
Dynacorn Classic Bodies

Bucket #1, traditional vendors: These are the names you’d commonly find at a SEMA show, and they regularly get media coverage by the hot-rodding side of automotive journalism. While their products may never apply to a “not Camaro/Corvette” Chevy like TG’s Impala, sometimes buying reproduction sheet metal from a place like Dynacorn is your best bet, as it already has some of the correct bends, holes, and shapes for your project because of platform interchangeability.

This was absolutely the case for my Fox chassis based Project Valentino, as rust underneath the battery tray was cheaper to fix when I handed aftermarket patch panels for Fox Mustangs to Relic Restorations’ metalsmiths. The quality was decent, the price was right, and it saved me a lot of labor cost in the process. A big win all around.

Burtz Model A engine block casting
Burtz Block

Bucket #2, factory direct suppliers: You really got to have your act together and your wallet open if you want do a short run of any reproduction part. You can’t make just one part, so organizing a group buy with fans of your vehicle is ideal. While I don’t have any specific prices, they would be irrelevant anyway as commodity prices, labor rates, shipping costs, etc. change quite regularly. Just know that it will be exponentially higher than buying something off the shelf and metalsmithing it to fit.

You will likely hire a specialist contractor that can work with factories in China/Taiwan on your behalf to get a batch order of parts designed, manufactured, and shipped to you. Which still requires you to create a digital version of whatever you want to make. That work isn’t necessarily easy at the quality levels required for a factory to utilize for production, so an experienced professional might be needed. But don’t take my word for it, as we discussed this previously with new engines made for Ford’s Model A.

Even if you can find a suitable manufacturer in the USA, the same steps will likely apply. After discussing the finer points of this with a former boss/friend with experience in managing contracts like this, I’d consider this option a last resort for most folks. Though it could be a great idea for someone replicating parts for modern classics with a potential upside in future restorations; Tesla Model S and X restoration parts anyone?

3D printing facility
3D Natives

Bucket #3, 3D printing: This is the most likely avenue for reproduction parts for low-volume restorations like the aforementioned ’65 Impala SS. If a part cannot be found by any other means, perhaps the pieces on your project car can be scanned into a digital image and printed into a 3D hunk of plastic. Since we are still talking about sheet metal for an Impala, the printed product can be used as a die for reproductions.

Once you have a plastic die, it can be replicated in metal, which can make the sheet metal bits by anyone with a large enough press. Well, in theory, as that’s usually a big ask for someone owning a press. And this is still cost prohibitive, thanks to the equipment and talent required to make a 3D rendering. Perhaps fiverr or a “makerspace near me” search can break down some barriers, or this is the time to learn to 3D print in your own home.

What’s my advice? Don’t bother restoring a car like Project Valentino or any non Muscle/Pony/Sports car with a large following. Buy the project-worthy Mustang, Corvette, etc. and enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor for a classic car restoration that everyone can appreciate.

1983 Lincoln Continental Valentino restomod
Sajeev Mehta

If you can’t follow my advice, welcome to the club. We feel your pain and we are always looking for qualified fabricators to fix our rusty junk. The good ones never come cheap, and that might be reason enough to learn to fabricate in your spare time.

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.



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    Hmmm, I must have misinterpreted Sajeev’s gist in the article. I thought he was trying to convince you buy body panels, trim and other parts to turn the ’65 Imp into a fastback Mustang since repro parts were so readily available…

    In Michigan, you don’t necessarily need VIN to get a title for a car. There is a process for titling an “assembled vehicle”. I’ve done this twice for cars I built from scratch. The process is described on the Secretary of State website, and you can download the forms.

    Basically, you need a police inspection, and proof that you paid the sales tax on all the parts. The police inspection mandates a few basic safety items, like lights, wipers, washers, seat belts and high beam indicator. The police are really interested in whether or not you stole the parts. If you keep receipts, you’ve got no problem.

    The secretary of state wants to make sure you paid the sales tax. Again, keep the receipts. If you bought arts out of state, and paid the sales tax there, you are still responsible for paying Michigan sales tax. I generated a spread sheet of everything I spent on the car, and gave the SOS te spreadseet. That was good enoug.

    In about 10 minutes, the clerk generated a Michigan VIN. It’s still a 17 digit VIN, but it starts with MI, and ends with the date it is issued. They also generated a temporary title. With that, you can insure and license the car.

    After about a month, someone from the main office came by with the permanent title, and to make sure he vehicle actually exists.

    Th fee for the title was $25, as I remember.The license plate fee, in Michigan, is based on the cost of the car when new. In my case, the license plate fee was based on the total of the expenditures on my spreadsheet.

    Your state may vary, but I suspect that there is a process similar to this in every state.

    New Jersey has a similar process available. One difference is that you pay the difference between NJ sales tax (called a “usage tax” in this case) and any sales tax you paid to another State. You also have to be able to prove the parts weren’t stolen, which pretty much rules out buying much from private parties on eBay.

    Or you can buy a car out of the junkyard, and use the dash and the door jamb somewhere on your build, scrap the rest, and….TA DAAAA!

    The real truth her is will the cost to reproduce specific parts be more than the value of the car being restored?

    I saw a Mini Cooper that was made all from restoration parts and the cost was about twice at that time of the value of the real car.

    Same on reproduction of parts. If there is low to no demand for the car the values are just not here to support reproduction in any way. You then would have to submit to restore a car just for the love or nostalgia of it like the first car you owned or such.

    As cars become more modern, complicated and plastic it has really played a big role in making some cars much more difficult to restore even printing.

    Group buys on low value cars are trough as even if you are lucky to get a part made many will not have that much in their cars and are unwilling to pay the price of the parts.

    Also junk yards do not sit on cars like they used to, Due to EPA issues most strip, stock or scrap many parts. Some cars the best thing to do is buy a parts car and get what you can from it.

    Some cars are great as you can get anything but many you can get little or if you can the cost out weight the value of the vehicle.

    Before you restore spend the time to investigate the parts available and cost.

    Completely disagree here. If you are worried about the value of the vehicle after it is completed vs. the cost of the parts, then maybe you need to consider a different hobby. It might be better for you to invest in mutual funds.

    Agree. Unless of course this isn’t a “hobby” but an “avocation”: e.g. – flipper. My car will never be worth more than the sum of its parts, let alone the investment in labor I (and my daughter) personally put into it. But that means absolutely nothing to me for two reasons. 1) it was built for love and not for profit, and 2) I’ve no intention of selling it, so “what it’s worth” is meaningless.
    Do I know what cash outlay I made to build it? Sure. I kept the receipts. Do I care that I could not recoup that amount? Not in the least.

    John B,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. So VERY much of what we see from our host’s articles swirls around money, money, money. As in, how much of the green stuff can I pocket when I decide to sell? This “hobby” has always been for the love of the vehicle. A real metal, glass and rubber reminder of better days gone by, or ones to come.
    How many golfers say “I made 200 bucks selling my 5-year old clubs”?

    Body panels are one thing. Trim is another. If you have a Chevelle or a Mustang, most trim pieces are reproduced so that your shiny new paint job isn’t ruined by damaged or missing trim. But what about cars that aren’t so well-represented? The old adage is true: buy the nicest one you can, whatever it is. And, if you’re looking for a project, buy the one on which someone else has replaced the panels and gotten burned out.

    Not only can you get a Camaro and Mustangs, with fully new bodies, you can get 28-31 Ford Model A’s and ’32, ’33, and ’34 Fords, you can also get a completely new 55,56 and ’57 Chevy cars, made from complete new materials. You just need the cowl from a real car.

    I don’t know if this is where the rumor started, but it is true that you can build an entire new aircraft around a “data plate” from an old one. At least, the EAA claimed this to be the case as late as 25 years ago. IIRC, the AOPA also made the same claim.

    You can buy a a complete shell for an MGB or Mini made from original tooling. I’m not sure if Heritage Parts offers a VIN but a cheap rust bucket with a clean title and a buch of money produces a like new car since pretty much anything for those cars is available repro or NOS

    I’ve done both, and each has its pros and cons for sure. One’s resources (monetary, skills, workspace, tools, time, etc.) can help determine the path. But if one is able, the immense satisfaction of building one from “a shell” can outweigh the investment of said resources, IMO.

    My impression has been repro companies bought the used tooling for out of production parts from OEMs for scrap prices, then ran lighter gage stock to get the most life from the already-worn tools. That would be why repro parts were thinner and never fit perfectly. If that’s so, there’s no telling what tools are stacked up in back lots of manufacturers, available for acquisition with some time on the phone….I didn’t think sheet metal could be formed on 3D printed dies but if so that seems a breakthrough for short run parts.

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