Before you fix that patina-clad fender, know you may be opening Pandora’s Box

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1971 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet RM Sotheby's

When my shop, F40 Motorsports, takes in a car for a full restoration, we always assume the worst. That means we expect to find hidden rust and shoddy previous work—that the car will need everything, in other words. But even for projects that are supposed to be small, sometimes once you start, the scope just gets away from you. Mission creep sets in, and the next thing you know, the job is bigger than you ever imagined.

At last year’s Greenwich Concours, there was a prewar Jaguar that had once been owned by radio and TV personality Dave Garroway. I’d previously heard about the car from its owner but wasn’t interested in buying it. Once I actually saw it on the Greenwich lawn, complete with period modifications and a marvelous patina (including a few nicks and scratches), I loved it. I purchased the Jaguar on the spot, and I had no plans to restore it.

During the summer, I had a party at my barn. To prepare, I’d moved the Jaguar and several other cars out of the space. After the party, as I started putting the cars away, without asking, a guest thought he’d help me by moving the Jaguar. On entering the barn, he turned the wheel too hard and hit the wall, denting the fender.

At the shop we removed, repaired, and reinstalled the fender. Although it was fairly quick work and came out great, once the fender was back on the car, the new paint didn’t match the existing patina. We then refinished the rear fender, so at least that side looked consistent. But that didn’t work, either.

Now I’m taking the car apart and doing a full cosmetic restoration, which was never the plan. On the bright side, in doing research, I discovered that the car was originally a beautiful shade of gray, which I love. Soon, the Jaguar will be returned to its original color.

Recently, a friend asked me to find him a Messerschmitt so he could drive his young daughter to her first day of school in one. I told him I could just lend him mine, which he thought was a pretty good deal. I took the little three-wheeler out of storage, where it had been sitting for roughly six years, and got it running. But then I took a good look at it, and I didn’t like what I saw. The paint was flaking off, and the interior was worn. Now, of course, I’m going to repaint it and redo the interior. The engine is out so it can be cleaned and detailed, and the car is getting a new gas tank. When I offered to lend the Messerschmitt, I never figured I’d be getting into a complete restoration. But at least I can count on the tiny car to put a smile on one little girl’s face.

Often I get asked to “wake up” cars that have been sitting. Currently, there are six such projects in the shop. The big question is, “How far do you go?” My rule is that any recommissioning has to have mechanical attention. The car has to run, move, stop, and pass a thorough safety inspection. After mechanical repairs are complete, I ask the client to come and drive it. Almost invariably, they say, “I love it. What’s the next step?” I give an estimate for body repairs and paint with the caveat that once we start down that path, the client has to consider the chrome, glass, rubber, and interior. Inevitably, it turns into a complete restoration.

This scenario is pretty much what a client faced on a Mercedes 280SE cabriolet that had sentimental value. I told him we’d first take care of the mechanicals, and the interior and the top would come next—a step at a time, we’d be inching toward a full restoration. Once he found out the escalation of work carried a serious escalation in price, he said he just wanted to drive it. We agreed on mechanical work and a top, and he’s been enjoying it ever since.

Sometimes, projects like these remind me of when you decide to redo the bathroom in your house, and the next thing you know, you’re tearing the kitchen apart, repainting the outside, and landscaping. Before long, you have more money into the project than you can get out of it. Sound familiar?

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