General Restoration Tips

Last fall Hagerty launched the largest restoration-based survey ever conducted online. Over 4,000 enthusiasts logged on to share their experiences, opinions and to give advice. An overwhelming majority of those who participated have restored a car in the last five years. Here are some of the tips they offered regarding every aspect of the restoration process.


  • Think long and hard about the type of car you’d like to restore. Keep in mind that year, model and rarity of the car will affect its value, but be aware that the rarer a vehicle is, the harder it is to find parts. These projects are inevitably more expensive and time-consuming. If you’re restoring with selling in mind, look for vehicles with collectible characteristics such as convertibles.

  • Once you’ve decided on the year, make, and model, look for a car in the best condition you can afford. Cosmetic work tends to be quite a bit more expensive and time-consuming than mechanical restoration. The project will go much more smoothly if you start with a straight frame and a rust-free body – look for vehicles that come from warm, arid climates.

  • Research, research, research. Once you’re done researching, research some more. This is integral in making sure your project is a success. You should look into everything: the history of your particular car, factory specs and options, availability of parts and restoration services, average sale price. Find someone who’s done a similar project and pick their brain for advice. Ask an insane amount of questions – none are stupid. Scour catalogues. Immerse yourself in the hobby – join a car club and attend shows and swap meets. Buy a shop manual and read everything specific to your car that you can get your hands on. Knowledge is power.

  • Consider keeping a project scrapbook. Include a parts and supply list, ideas, and pictures of how you envision the final project. This will help you communicate your plan to others. Also include a “contacts” list where you keep names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of parts suppliers, restoration professionals, and friends who are willing to give advice or get grease on their hands. Write down a list of helpful web sites, too.

  • Know exactly what you want the outcome of the restoration to be from the start. Do you want a driver or a show or concours quality vehicle? Make a plan and stick to it, but allow some slack for unforeseen obstacles. Anticipate everything and be prepared for surprises. A good rule of thumb is to at least double the amount of time and money you originally think you’ll spend. Base your timeline and your budget on these more liberal figures and there’s less chance you’ll become broke and disappointed.

  • All good things are worth waiting for. Be patient. A quality restoration can easily take years. Be prepared to stall for the arrival of a certain part, or to wait for a restorer to have time to work on your car. Don’t get too discouraged if you miss your first planned outing with your car.

  • Enjoyment and love of your car and the hobby are the only reasons you should take on a restoration project. Often you will not recoup the full amount spent on the restoration when you sell it. The time and energy involved can be overwhelming and setbacks can be very discouraging. You must be able to rely on anticipation of the outcome and small successes along the way to keep you going.

  • Be realistic about the amount of time you can spend on the project. Don’t sacrifice time with family or restoration-free time for yourself. Consider your spouse’s needs, wants, expectations and threshold for whining (yours). Gentleman, buy your wife the jewelry before the project starts. Ladies, consider purchasing a car your husband likes and will be willing to help with.

  • The Internet is a valuable resource for researching and finding parts. Many car clubs have web sites equipped with chat rooms where enthusiasts can share knowledge and advice.

  • Consider investing in a digital camera to document your project. The instant results make it easy for you to communicate your progress with others. Technology is your friend.

  • Designate a bank account for your project. Pay cash out of this account for all parts and services. Do not spend “family” money or go into debt to finish the project.

  • When possible, get all the parts, or as many as you can, before starting – that way you won’t be put on indefinite hold waiting for a hard-to-find component.


  • Plan your project in stages. Break the work into manageable sections and don’t take the car completely apart at once if you can avoid it. Work to completion on specific areas such as the drivetrain, body, interior and suspension. Determine a daily or weekly completion schedule. Meeting intermediate goals will give you a sense of accomplishment and prompt you to continue.

  • Make sure your garage has ample space, lighting and ventilation. You’ll be amazed how much more space a car takes up when it’s apart than when its together. You’ll need enough room to remove the seats, dash, and engine and set them aside for many months. You’ll want to be able to have both driver and passenger doors open at the same time and still be able to walk around the car.

  • When doing upholstery with a kit, save old pieces for reference, take pictures and make notes or sketches so details, such as the exact location of seams, are correct when redone.

  • Hone your skills by taking a class at a local community or technical college in engine repair, body, and paint work. Learn to weld.

  • When dismantling your vehicle, take video and still pictures of each part, both on and off of the car. Bag and label each item as it’s removed. Have specific cabinets for all of your parts and make a list of what parts are in which cabinets. Pay attention to the order in which each part comes off and make notes about how it should be reinstalled.

  • Pick your battles – work around your strengths and farm out work in your weak areas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Consider the purchase of at least one “parts” car so you’ll be sure to have the necessary components.

  • Make sure you have the appropriate tools. Tools can be extremely expensive, so consider purchasing only the ones you will use often and borrowing or renting the rest.

  • Measure at least twice, cut once.


  • To save money, do a lot of the grunt work – removing and cleaning parts, sanding, and simple mechanical repairs, like brakes – yourself. If it’s grunt work for you then it’s grunt work for a shop and they still charge a pretty heavy labor rate. Be prepared to invest sweat equity in cleaning parts and prep work, and leave the more technical jobs to the pros.

  • Consider finding and supplying your own parts. This way you’ll know for sure you’re getting what you pay for. This should help you save some money, too, since many shops charge a premium for the parts they provide.

  • Attend car events and look for well-restored cars. Check out the paint and body work and ask the owners who they used. Solicit recommendations from fellow club members and friends. Ask about quality of work and timeliness.

  • Look into every shop in detail. Ask for recommendations. Ask to see finished projects and work in progress. Examine the state of the shop – is it clean and organized? Do the vehicles look like they’re being well-cared for as they’re being worked on?

  • Get everything in writing from price to start and completion dates. Detail the scope of the work so there is no confusion or miscommunication. Set intermediate goals and put those in writing also. Ask the shop owner to commit his signature to your plan. If the shop has its own contract, seek legal advice before signing.

  • Make sure your shop has the appropriate insurance coverage, so that you will be reimbursed if your car should be in an accident while under the shop’s care. The shop’s insurance will also protect you in the event of fire, natural disaster, or theft.

  • Be involved in the project at all levels. Visit the shop regularly and observe the work in progress. This will ensure you won’t be unpleasantly surprised by any work and your constant presence will pressure the shop to adhere to schedule. If the shop is out of your area, ask the restorer to e-mail you photos and progress reports on a regular basis.

  • Beware of shops that say they will get to your project in their spare time. Often this means that you might find yourself waiting years for completion.

  • Always plan on the highest bid being too low.

  • Don’t pay too much up front. General consensus is that any more than half is too much at the start.

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