Dreaming of doing a restoration? Read this to avoid a nightmare

Seriously, do not pass Go and do not collect $200 until you’ve considered the time and the cost and the labor involved

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E-type restoration
A classic Jaguar E-type roadster arrives at Sport and Specialty Restorations...
The same Jaguar, but now after months of talent and time and money have been poured into its restoration | John Saccameno photos

Let me set the stage. You are looking at the car you always dreamed of owning, let’s say, just for example, it is an Austin Healey 3000 and it seems to be a solid example of the model. You have always wanted a Healey 3000 and this specific example will need a restoration, but the price seems right and it doesn’t look like it would take much to make it great again. 

Besides, you have some extra money right now and are sure you can handle it, and you have always wanted to go thru the process of having a car restored to perfection. You even tell yourself, “Who knows, I bet I can save some money on the restoration and do a lot of the work myself.”

Heck, you have done tuneups and other things to cars in the past and you think if you just take you time and with the help of a good manual, there are likely a lot of things you can accomplish. 

The car is being offered for only $20,000 and it still runs and drives, though not very well. You are sure you can buy the car, restore it and at some point sell it for much more than your costs to buy the car and restore it and make some extra money. Why not buy it and go for it?

STOP RIGHT THERE! Do not pass Go and do not expect to collect $200.

This is a story I hear over and over again. I’ve also fallen victim to this pipedream.

However, car restoration is not for the faint hearted and it is never — I repeat — never inexpensive. There are no bargains on restorations, only bad restorations or good restorations. There is also no such thing as a driver-level restoration. There is only one way to restore a car and that is completely. Any car that is described as partially restored is likely to have had a brake job and a fresh coat of paint, and not a bare metal respray just a scuff and a new paint finish over the old one. That is not a restoration. 

Yes, there are a number of shops that will say you can restore your car inexpensively and will give you a quote for say $25,000. Do not believe what they tell you. If you go this route one of two things will happen, either you will get a bad quality job or you will have the shop owner calling you every few weeks to tell you that again your car’s restorations requires more money. This is what people in the industry call the elevator ride. 

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If what you want at the end is a restored car, you go to a reputable shop and get your car restored. If you simply want a driver-level car, buy one and enjoy it and stop reading now. If, on the other hand, you have enough disposable income and really have wanted to restore a car to as good as it was new, please continue reading.

Some things are obvious, others aren’t revealed until the car is taken apart and the paint is removed
The Jaguar after its disassembly
Just one example of repairs needed after the paint is removed

Car restoration is a time consuming, stress inducing, labor intensive, and expensive endeavor. If that does not sound like fun, stop reading and don’t consider restoring a car, or more importantly buying a restoration project you cannot afford. If the car is so special, why didn’t the seller restore it in the first place? Likely because after they messed around with it a little and got a few quotes from good shops, they were scared away.

Let’s start with the last bad idea first. If you are looking to have a car restored with the idea of making a few bucks at the end, you are 99 percent of the time likely to be quite disappointed. If the car is a Series 2 XKE, a TR6/MGB/Healey 3000/Porsche 914 or anything other sub-$100,000 car, you are never likely to make any money on the deal and will almost assuredly be upside down in the car after writing your first check. Cars of this ilk never make sense to restore.

On the other hand, if you love the process of bring a car back to its former glory, have a specific emotional attachment to a specific car — for example, your father owned it new — and have the disposable income to write some big checks, restoring a car might be the right decision.

But say the car in question is an Aston Martin DB4 GT, or a Ferrari 250 series car, or even a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS, if you bought these cars for a lower price it may well make sense to consider a restoration.

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The difference between these cars and the others listed above is that no matter what car you choose to restore, be it an Aston Martin or a Triumph, they all take time, and lots of it, to restore. Sure, Triumph parts are much less expensive than Aston martin parts but the amount of paid for labor is the same. 

According to Paul Russell ,from highly respected Paul Russell and Company (the restoration shop with more concours wins than any other in the world) the average restoration of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster takes a minimum of — are you sitting down — 3,500 hours. Do the math, at a very reasonable and hard to find labor rate of $80 dollars an hour, that adds up to $280,000 in labor alone. That does not include parts, materials (paint, sandpaper, chemicals) or machine shop time. 

Even a more average model car, say a Triumph TR6,  is likely to take around 750 hours in labor. That at the same labor rate equals $60,000 in labor.

Let’s get a second opinion. I asked John Saccameno the owner of Sport and Specialty Restorations, who last year completed the restoration of what the Jaguar Club of North America voted to be the finest XKE restoration in the US.. He figures that a car like an MGB or TR6 or Healey 3000 would easily take a minimum of 600 hours of labor and that’s only if the car does not need any extensive bodywork or fabrication. That adds up to at least $48,000 in labor.

Russell said that the first thing he asks a client before a restoration is, “What are your plans with the car. What are you going to use it for?” 

If the answer is that they just want a nice driver car, he always recommends simply buying a car that is already done and fulfills their needs. Saccameno echoed Russell and said he talks more than half of potential customers out of doing a restoration. 

So, when should you restore a car? Russell and Saccameno recommend a restoration for those customers who have an heirloom car, something that has been in the family a long time and has become more a member of the family that just a car. They also recommend restorations for cars that are important, for example, a car that was displayed at the 1965 Geneva Motor Show or a historic vehicle with unique features.

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An exception both note, however, is the customer who, regardless of the car they are restoring, simply loves the process of bring a car back to the way it was when new.

The Jaguar restored and ready to return to its owner

If your plan is to make a lot of money from the car when it is done, this most likely is not going to happen. Sure, you can do this, but it either takes a buy that is so low as to be under market price for even a project or an incredible amount of luck and usually a bit of both.

Finally let’s move to the idea that you can do much of the work yourself. This can work, but first ask yourself a few questions. How experienced are you in mechanical things? Are many of the car’s needs things you are able to accomplish properly? YouTube videos can be a help, but do you have the skills as well as the tools to accomplish the job? 

Next, do you have the space needed to do the job? You can do this in your garage you will be amazed at how much space parts will take. Finally, do you have the necessary time to do the work? If the answers to all of these questions is yes, then you might consider this path. 

However, keep in mind that it will cost more in time and money than you expect. A good rule of thumb is to budget that time and money out as best as you can and then add at least 30 percent to such figures.

So, if after reading this you are still considering restoring a car ,then by all means move forward. If not, don’t be glum but consider a new paint job to improve your car’s appearance — but again, go to a reputable shop.

By the way, our next story will help you in your quest for reputable and reliable restoration businesses.

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Andy Reid's first car, purchased at age 15, was a 1968 Fiat 124 coupe. His second, obtained by spending his college savings fund, was a 1966 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2. Since then, he has owned more than 150 cars—none of them normal or reasonable—as well as numerous classic motorcycles and scooters. A veteran of film, television, advertising and helping to launch a few Internet-based companies, Reid was a columnist for Classic Motorsports magazine for 12 years and has written for several other publications. He is considered an expert in European sports and luxury cars and is a respected concours judge. He lives in Canton, Connecticut.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I fall into the category of thinking stuff like this can be done reasonably, and have tried my hand at restoring a car. It is a heartbreaker, and you never are satisfied of what you tried to accomplish. You sell the car, lose all kinds of time and money, and realize that the time spent could have been used to find a decent car that you could drive and enjoy. Later on, I found two cars to make one, and went to my restorer. He sat me down and told me what a bad idea that was, to find a decent shiny car that ran and drove, and would be happy to take my money if I was so inclined. He talked me out of the idea, and I never looked back. My bucket list of cars I never owned is much smaller these days, and I will decide if I want a decent example that needs next to nothing and is fun to drive occasionally. It takes a good part of a lifetime to reach that stage in having the sense to spend what you can afford on a good example.

  2. I have restored a 1987 BMW 325I convertible, paid $1500 for it, had a small rust spot repaired and new paint job done by a reputable auto body company in the area, than I did the mechanical work, replaced water pump, timing belt, head gaskets and adjusted the valves and some additional small things for $500, for a total of around $3000, the car is great to drive, looks like new, and is mechanically excellent, next project is a 1988 Volvo 240 DL sedan, I picked up for $900 that just needs a few surface rust spots taken care of, brake booster and steering pump replaced, runs excellent, but will do a new paint job in the next year. love those old cars

  3. Excellent article, and spot on! Been a mechanic for 50 yrs, if you want a driver, buy a driver. If you want to experience the process,it will cost more and take longer than you think! But it can surely be done. It will become a lifestyle for awhile! Good luck!

  4. Great article and advice. I recently had restored a 1968 Camaro which is a family legacy car along with a 1957 Lambretta Scooter. In both cases 3 years and expensive. There is a 1963 Alfa rattling around our family that I will definitely leave to my cousins. To your point, when it came to my dream car, a 1965 Corvette, I found a beautiful well cared for driver,paid the man and drove away happy.

  5. Great article Andy! Your story made me think of my dad having his mother’s 1970 Nova, with the 4.1L Inline 6, restored. It was not in bad shape by any means — she drove it to work and church. But he did it right: He gave it to the shop where he was friends with the proprietors and trusted them (which kept it for a year) and gave them money when they called and asked for it. The car came back absolutely stunning. It frequently gets trophies at shows around the Green Bay, Wisconsin area and it is a nice memory of my grandmother. He did this for all the right reasons.

  6. I have watched my fair share of restoration shows to know these endeavors are never inexpensive and never quick. I would still do it with the right cars. Muscle cars.

  7. Restoration and nightmare are synonymous words. I’ve done a couple, including a fully stripped Corvette, and have told myself about half way through “I will NEVER do this again!” But, of course, I forgot everything and went for yet another. I’m convinced us car people are gluttons for punishment. And don’t even get me started on what it costs. Yowza!

  8. I’ve restored two British cars and am working on a third. If I wasn’t retired and love British cars this would not be a good game plan. You learn a lot of new skills on the way and enjoy what you are doing. Just do it( if you can)!

  9. I have a Countach thats in great shape a driver but not perfect,I thought I could throw $30 $40K at it and end up with perfect car, on going to a friend who is having his Countach restored, he is into £180k already and just has a pile of bits….. Think I will just drive and enjoy what I have.

  10. Being a mechanic and overall enthusiast all my life, I have come to the conclusion that there is a wide range of opinions of what “restored” means.

  11. Finally after messing with cars for well over 50 years I know the facts. This article sums it up pretty well. Many times I have purchased my dream car for a very low price and later realized that was the most expensive way to own that car. I am a mechanic, a mechanical engineer, a machinist, and dabbled in a few other specialties which I need to hire. First I learned never to restore a car that you can buy in good condition. It is always lower cost to buy the best car you can afford rather than the lowest cost one you can find.

    Also never buy a car that has one of these major faults unless it is so rare you can never find another one:
    1. Rust (it is always worse under the paint than it looks externally)
    2. Wrecked (the cost can be very large)
    3. Major missing parts (that also includes a basket case car because some parts are always missing)

    The only cars I would restore are ones that are so rare you could never find one for any price.

  12. I’ve done many and brokered restorations, mostly rod and custom projects. My first was at 15 in 1972, a 62 Impala. My family has been in the business since 1937 doing coach builds and custom cars too. I was pretty much born under dad’s 34 Chevy hot rod he built himself in the 50s.
    I was a custom pinstriper for 40 years and I’ve seen the misery people go thru to restore it themselves or have a shop do it. Whether you are doing the project or a shop does the build, the first thing on the list is to understand the vehicle, psychologically. and your own mind before ever beginning a resto.

  13. Don’ you guys and girls have fun in this sport? This is my personal opinion but to me, it’s about the cars. I don’t have a show car to my name. I have a bunch of cars and parts. But I’ve played with cars and motorcycles since I was 13 years old. Can’t write that big check but I can’t begin to name the really neat, skilled, smart and intelligent, interesting and locally and nationally well known people I have met. Fun? Couldn’t begin to buy all the fun I’ve had at car shows, races, hanging out in other’s guarages or playing with my own unfinished projects. I have had 73 fabulous yrs in the sport.

  14. I have done a full “frame off” restoration of two cars, 1957 T-Bird, 1966 Mustang convertible. I had the tools, knowledge and garage space to do these two cars. I did the T-Bird first, in 4 years and then the Mustang in 12years. This shows the effect of having a family can have on a restoration. I realized early on that I might be able to recoup the price of the parts I put into the cars, but never the value of my time. But I did these restorations as a hobby in my spare time (nights and week-end, vacations) so essentially my time was free, as I liked to do the work. Now that they are all done, I might be able to recoup most of the price of the parts for the T-Bird (it was in OK shape ) but not the Mustang (it was really rusted w/no motor). It is in my opinion, that unless someone wants to have and drive an old car as opposed to working on it – they should never consider a restoration. Buy the best car they can afford and guaranteed they will save thousands of dollars and several years of aggravation. A good rule of thumb for pricing a full restoration: Locate a fully restored car of your dreams, determine what it is selling for and then double the selling price. The guy who has a car restored never makes money selling it, the guy who buys it from him will make the money re-selling it. Notice that few car collectors buy “project” cars.

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