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Why Your Classic Car Restoration Never Works Out the Way You Plan

Tips to Save You Time and Money

Published April 11, 2018

When you are preparing to start classic car restoration, there is nothing you want more than to get that car on the road. The trouble is, most people will make several common mistakes which slows down the process. Here are some reasons why your classic car restoration might not work out the way you plan.


Not Enough MoneyClassic Car Restoration - cash

Many people will begin the process of restoring a classic car thinking they can do it cheaply. If this is your current mindset, you should probably know now just how wrong you are. Obviously, prices will depend on the level of restoration you are doing. If a car only needs a new paint job and a few upgrades, it will cost you less than restoring a rusty old classic you found.

Let’s take a quick look at an example of what a classic car restoration could cost:

Project Car Acquisition Costs – this could be your smallest expense or largest depending what kind of car you choose. You could go to the junkyard and pay as little as $100 for a bare chassis or you could pay new car prices buying something mostly done from a private party. Some people forget that purchasing a salvage car from a junkyard also means having to deal with the expense of having a salvage title.

Restoration Preparation Costs – If you are planning to create a show car, there is a lot of restoration to do that you might not be thinking of. From stripping the frame to be blasted and re-plated to cleaning every nut and bolt, you are looking at a big expense.

Parts and Labor – Many people don’t keep track of how much each part is going to cost and they also don’t factor in the cost of labor which, at a specialty shop, can be a good chunk of change.

Finishing – Don’t forget to factor in the painting and body repairs which can tack on another couple thousand easily.

Bottom line – Be prepared to spend a lot more than you budget for. I’ve never met an enthusiast that didn’t overspend when restoring a classic.


Not Enough TimeTime is money - not enough time

Ask anyone who is planning a classic car restoration how long it will take them and you will most likely hear a ridiculous number. That’s because they commonly think there are going to be no issues regarding the job. Even when you think it will only take 50 hours, it is always best to figure on double or even triple that time. If it gets done sooner, you’ll have something to brag about!

Remember, restoring a classic involves a good amount of technology, tools, and expertise; it isn’t just about elbow grease. You could spend hundreds of hours on your classic car only to find that it still isn’t done right. How discouraging would that be?

Before you start your project, make sure you are going to have the time to commit to it; no matter how long it takes. Be honest with yourself. If you are going to be distracted by work, family, or other life commitments, maybe now isn’t the best time to take on a new classic car restoration.

It Stopped Being Fun

Broken down car in grass

I know you are thinking that the restoration couldn’t possibly become less fun than you are planning on it being, but it will. There are going to be times throughout the process that you just become downright overwhelmed. Other times, you’ll battle being miserable and frustrated. At the end of a day, you might even find that it just isn’t satisfying you the way you thought it would.

That’s the reality behind classic car restoration. Ask anyone that’s done it.

So aside from the fact that your project is going to be a money pit that consumes all your time, what will you do when you don’t see progress? What are you planning to do when the results aren’t what you expected? This is the point where many people give up on their classic car project and simply walk away from it.

If you can find it in you to have some enjoyable moments throughout the work, consider yourself lucky. That’s not the norm for most enthusiasts who have gone before you. Don’t let that discourage you from starting. If you can go into it knowing that it isn’t about fun and that it will be exceptionally difficult, you just might make it through.

Having No Plan

The plan is the most important part of the process. First, you need to plan on what car you’ll buy. Will you have access to the parts you need? Are they affordable? Once you get the car, you’ll have to decide which parts are being replaced and which can remain original. This also requires a plan.

Then, you need to ensure you have the equipment, tools, and space needed to complete your classic car restoration. Unless you are outsourcing the work, you are going to need a lot of tools. Plus, you need a space big enough to hold all your gear until the work is complete.

Here are just some of the tools you’ll need to get started:

– Pliers
– Wrenches and sockets
– Screwdrivers
– Drill and bits
– Sheet metal scissors
– Floor jack
– Electric tools such as a voltmeter and air compressor
– Wire brushes
– Engine stand and crane
– Grinder
– Jack stands
– Blowtorch
– Welder
– and more!

If you don’t have the tool you need in the middle of a project, you’ll either need to buy or rent one. This isn’t one of those auto jobs that you can grab some duct tape and WD-40 to fix. You need real expertise, skills, and equipment to make it happen.

Do yourself a favor and write out a plan ahead of time. Then, prepare for many detours along the way.


cluttered garage

This goes hand in hand with your plan. If your environment is disorganized, you will have a hell of a time building a car. Clutter can make anyone crazy, especially when you can’t find what you need. Throwing parts around on the shelves in piles might seem like a good idea at the time, but it only leads to trouble.

Consider getting your area organized before starting any classic car restoration project. You can purchase some disposable food containers varying in sizes. Then, load them up and mark what’s in them. From here, they will be easy to stack and find what you need when the time is right.

It’s also important that you remember to keep all the old parts you take off the car. You won’t want to get rid of these until the restoration is complete. They are going to come in handy for reference reasons and could save you a bunch of time.

Not Doing Enough Research

man doing online research

This isn’t just about the car or the parts you buy, but more importantly, the shops you use. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve seen burned by using less than reputable people to work on their vehicles. This includes engine builders, plating shops, body shops and upholstery facilities.

Before you agree to let anyone work on your classic car restoration, you must validate their reputation. Read forums or talk with others in your community. Visit the shop and ask to see some examples of previous work. Then, be sure to ask them some questions, such as:

– How long does it take to get the work accomplished?
– What quality of material do you use for the jobs?
– How experienced are your techs with working on my type of car?

Your best bet is to find a shop that is familiar with working on your specific car. Then, they’ll already know all the ins and outs so there should be no surprises.

Failing to Get an Estimate


It’s important to remember that performing classic car restoration is completely different than maintaining your daily vehicle. That’s why it is so important you know up front what you’ll be able to accomplish yourself and what you’ll need professional help to do. If you expect to need a professional for any circumstance, you are going to want to find a reputable shop up front. This isn’t a job you can take to the local lube.

It isn’t abnormal to take your car out of town to find what you need. After all, there aren’t that many people skilled in the art of classic car restoration. It still amazes me at how many people will turn over their car without a signed agreement or written estimate. It’s those same people that end up burned time after time.

I don’t care how well you know someone or how good their reputation is; a humble handshake means nothing. This isn’t the time to show how much you trust someone. It isn’t abnormal for a shop to suddenly have selective memory once they have your car and your money. At that point, it’s simply their word against yours, and you are at their mercy. If they aren’t willing to give you a written agreement, it’s time to look for another shop.

Using an Unsafe Support System

I’ve seen people do some pretty stupid things when it comes to supporting their muscle car chassis during a restoration. People think any object will work; from the milk crate to blocks of wood. Safety is king when it comes to classic car restoration. After all, your life is valuable.

I understand that not everyone can afford to purchase a rotisserie, but even a quality set of jack stands is attainable by most. Stay away from hydraulic jacks or sheet metal jack stands. They are dangerous and I have no desire in knowing you got maimed.

Once you find the right support, follow these simple tips.

– Take your time to place a stand at each corner of your vehicle.
– Get your body as high as you can.
– Check the stability before you get underneath.

Purchasing an Unknown Engine

The engine is the main component of your restoration, but many people don’t take the time they should on research. Many people purchase a used engine without ever knowing what’s inside. Then, they knock it apart and find cracked cylinders or castings and the block isn’t salvageable.

If you are purchasing a used engine, you must know its integrity. It is always wise to ask for a purchasing clause prior to shelling out the cash. This gives you the chance to inspect the engine and confirm its condition first. If you don’t know what you are looking at, take someone with you who does.

Not Protecting the Paint

As you are putting your project back together, it’s very likely that there could be some damage done to the painted body. Thankfully, there doesn’t have to be. When you receive the painted body back from the body shop, your number one priority should now be paint protection. Otherwise, you could have to do the entire paint job over again – at your expense.

– Keep the vehicle covered when you aren’t working.
– Put a heavy layer of padding under your cover.
– Move anything that could fall on it and do damage. (bikes, trash cans, lawn equipment, etc.)
– When working on the car, keep the painted surfaces covered up.
– Don’t work on the car when you are frustrated or in a hurry because mistakes can easily be made.
– Act as if you were a neurosurgeon at all times – take that level of care in everything you do regarding the car.

Other Classic Car Restoration Tips

restored GT500

Now that we’ve given you lots of warning as to why your classic car restoration could go wrong, we’d like to share some tips on how to keep it on track.

– Be prepared for things not to go your way.
– Have a plan together for dealing with setbacks.
– Take your time and be patient. This process won’t happen quickly.
– Set aside triple the amount of money you think you’ll need.
– Set aside triple the amount of time you think you’ll need.
– Research and interview all the shops you will use for the process.
– Try to have fun!

restored Corvette

Before beginning any classic car restoration, ask yourself these questions:

– What is my budget?
– Do I have the space I need to complete this project?
– Where will I store the car?
– What is my timeframe?
– Do I have all the tools and skills I need to complete this task?
– Should I take some training courses before I begin?

When you are looking to start a classic car restoration, it helps to get involved with some other people that have already been through the process. They can help you avoid common pitfalls and give you tips for success. You can start by watching this video first. The guys from the Classic Car Restoration Club discuss how to pick your ideal project vehicle. Enjoy!

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Brian Jones
About Brian Jones

I am an ASE Certified Master Tech, but spend more time with my awesome family now than I do on cars. In my spare time, you'll still find me playing with tools, cars and many other "manly" gadgets.

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