12 tips for better project car management

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

Restoring a car is more than just the grunt work. You need to have a game plan, too. While there are many mental aspects to classic car restoration that are no doubt best left to highly trained psychiatric professionals, here are some quick tips regarding the organization, timing and motivation required to properly tackle the job.

1. Determine the Scope

One of the first decisions you need to make is whether you want a rolling restoration or a full, ground-up redo. There are pluses and minuses to each plan. A rolling restoration is less daunting and easier to manage. It will also usually require less money, or at least spreads expenditures over a longer time period. On the downside, don’t be surprised when you can’t access everything as you’d like. Also, a rolling restoration can be very frustrating because it’s often tough to mark a stopping point. Personally, we have gotten to the point where we like to strip a car and then fully rebuild it. Even at our frantic, deadline-driven pace, a full restoration takes about a year–and that’s mostly weekends and evenings, with the paint and final blocking farmed out.

2. Have Enough Space

A disassembled car seems to take up three times as much space as an assembled one.

3. Disassemble Only as Necessary

Sure, you have to take a car apart to restore it, especially if you’re doing a full ground-up job. However, you don’t need to take it all apart at once. We leave subassemblies together until it’s time to tackle them, meaning things like the dashboard, drivetrain and suspension corners remain intact until we are ready. The reasons for this approach are manifold. First, it is easier to stay motivated when you’re focused on completing only one thing at a time. Second, it is easier to remember how things go back together if they have only been apart for a short while rather than years. Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is that this approach seems to make the entire restoration less daunting, since there are fewer small pieces to face.

4. Order Parts in Advance, but Don’t Go Overboard

Inventory control is a science, both in business and in project car management. If you order parts too early, you risk losing them or becoming unable to return them should you need to–but if you wait too long to order parts, the restoration can grind to a halt and you can find yourself spending more than you had to, since over time prices tend to go up and not down.

5. Take Pictures

Now that every cellphone is a camera, you really have no excuse not to take a lot of photos–like, a lot. And don’t lose them, either. Once you’ve documented everything, then you can start to disassemble, bag and label pieces and parts.

6. Slow Down to Go Fast

Taking apart the car is the easiest–yet one of the most critical–stages of a project. Yes, it’s hard not to get excited–after completing some 50 restorations, we still forget and jump ahead–but it is critically important not to disassemble components before you’ve properly documented things. Do as we say, not as we do.

7. Take Notes

We’ll make a preliminary shopping list while disassembling the car. At this stage we can usually figure out about 90 percent of the parts we’ll need to complete the restoration. This gives us a head start on our hunting and gathering.

8. Save Money on Parts by Not Rushing

If you have a plan and a schedule, you’ll have time to query club members, cruise the swap meets, wait for sales, find the best deals, and combine items for efficient shipping.

9. Be a Loyal Customer

Managing a restoration parts source is hard enough without customers running to someone else to save 50 cents. Pick one or two shops and become a loyal customer. You’ll find those shops to be friendlier when you need advice or a favor, and their knowledge is usually worth far more than what you’d save by bouncing around the cheapest sellers.

10. Remember, Shipping Matters

Ordering parts individually can get very expensive thanks to the shipping costs. That’s why we try to compile bulk orders, especially in the early stages of a project. As the job is winding down, we try to keep those final miscellaneous needs to just a single order per week. At all stages we keep the timeline in mind to minimize expensive overnight shipping charges.

11. Understand That Costs Are Surprisingly Similar

A Jaguar XKE may be worth 10 to 20 times more than a Triumph Spitfire, but the restoration costs aren’t proportionally higher. Regardless of make and model, restoring an engine, suspension or even interior is usually relatively inexpensive, simple and straightforward. Rust repair and paintwork are often the most expensive and time-consuming parts of a restoration. We are not suggesting that you not restore the Spitfire, but if you’re looking to have some equity in your finished project, be aware of your restoration expenses and do the math to determine how they relate to the car’s final value. And speaking of money, while coming up with $25,000 to $50,000 to fully restore a car sounds daunting, breaking that total figure into a monthly budget can help ease the pain.

12. Be Realistic About How Long It’s Going to Take

Don’t even start the project until you can commit a year or two of 10-hour work weeks to it.

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Vigo UltimaDork
5/27/18 9:33 p.m.

The only things i know of that look anything like that are DeLorean and Lotus parts.  My interest is piqued.

1/7/19 1:20 p.m.

     My best projects have come from other guy's stalled projects. I recently put an early Morgan +4 flat rad on the road for about 25% if what it would have cost to buy a project car and restore it from scratch. I've restored a total of 5 cars and am restoring another currently. I actually think that I'll come out ahead on a couple of them. My biggest money pits have been a Porsche 912 (before prices jumped up) and a Triumph TR6. You make money when you buy the project, not when you sell the car.

     That being said, resurrecting or restoring old cars is a blast whether it make financial sense or not.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
1/10/19 8:22 a.m.


You are very wise to realize this.

Canuckblues None
3/28/19 7:14 p.m.

One thing that I find lacking on the 12 Tips List are Tools.

I lot of car lovers think they can do there restoration with the tools that they curently own.

By the time you have all the tools you need to finish your project eg. Welders,Engine Lifts Sand Blasting Cabinets to name a few.The cost involved can be a much as the project car or more.This would also effect the amount of space needed to store the project car and would put a strain on most house hold garages.


Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
6/16/22 12:14 p.m.

In reply to Canuckblues :

We have written other pieces and done videos on tools needed for restoration.

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