6 affordable ways to dress up your project car

Kyle Smith

Once I have a project car working like it should, I find there comes an odd stagnation period in which nothing is broken but the total package doesn’t yet fit my vision for the finished product. In this strange space there is a lot of interesting and satisfying work to be done, without having to pursue the nuclear option of a full cosmetic restoration. Here are six simple jobs that can transform your project in reasonably little time and without much difficulty.

Engine turning

This is a whole firewall, but even when done to small trim pieces it can give a nice custom touch. Brandan Gillogly

Nothing looks old-school cool like engine-turned pieces. This method is best performed on aluminum, but can be done to other materials as well. The process involves a turning abrasive to create a consistent geometric pattern over a part or panel. There are kits for achieving this finish, but it’s often as easy as chucking something flat with Scotch-Brite or similar abrasive glued to the end and carefully pressing it into your part while turning the drill. It’s most easily done with a drill press, but I’ve seen it successfully applied by hand with a hand drill or even a valve lapping tool spun between palms. A fun little trick to have in your back pocket for the right project, and at minimal cost.


Brandan Gillogly
The lettering was a nice touch on our Swap to Street Model A. Kyle Smith

Little touches go far when looking to differentiate a popular car. A small pop of color in just the right place can really draw the eye. A personal touch—like your name above the driver’s door handle, or having the emblems replaced with hand lettering—is a unique element. A good pinstripe artist can knock it out in an afternoon, too. Most pinstriping like this can be polished off if the proper materials are used, meaning no damage to resale if you are worried about that kind of thing.

A good deep clean 

Get your interior as clean as you can. A spotless interior can really change the feel of a car. Kyle Smith

I had to include something that is basically free to this list. Getting rid of random items rolling about your floorboards and trunk, along with giving all the surface a good vacuum and wipe-down, is the easiest way to take a crunchy project car up a level. Showing you care about your car goes a long way. Get out a little polish, wax, and your stack of microfibers and get your ride shining as best it can. Chrome don’t get ya home, but a clean ride never hurt anyone.

New wheels

A set of wheels took my Corvair from a mid-century economy car to something far sportier. Kyle Smith

Changing wheels might be the fastest way to alter the personality of your car. Taking off a set of stock steelies and mounting up your favorite aftermarket wheel (or even a different set of OEM wheels) can be done in just 30 minutes. The right size and tire combination can lend even a vintage economy car a modern flair, or make it perform better thanks to reduced unsprung weight. There are plenty of photos floating around the web of various cars on different wheels, so search around and pick your favorites.


Heat has a way of ruining most finishes in an engine compartment. From exhaust manifolds or headers to front drive accessories or mounts, discoloration and oxidation happen fast. Even high-temp paints can cook off. A ceramic coating like Cerakote is much more durable and resistant to discoloration. I had a set of headers done for my Corvair and the before/after is dramatic and also long lasting. So much so that I recently sent out parts for a Honda motorcycle engine to get done. This does require removing the parts and either going through the process of prepping an applying the spray-on finish yourself or mailing it to someone to do that process for you. Either way, the end result can be phenomenal.

Vinyl wrap 

A fresh paint job really dresses up a car. That’s also quite expensive and time consuming. The joke about “paint jail” exists for a reason. That’s why it’s worth looking into vinyl if you want to dress up your car on a relative budget. Changing the color of your hood, roof, or decklid is an afternoon project and cost under $100 for materials. Do your research here though; it is very easy to get overconfident and end up with a wrinkled mess, and professional installation for one panel might not cost as much as you think. The best part? You can easily peel it off and restore the original look.

Have an idea that isn’t on this list or photos of before and after any of these modifications? Drop it in the Hagerty Community below.

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