9 common restoration mistakes–and how to avoid them

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Restoring a car is a risky proposition.

While TV shows and auction coverage make it look like it’s quick, easy, and without risk of financial loss or frustration, that’s rarely the case. Most restorations require hundreds to thousands of hours of work, an upside-down amount of money, and a timeframe that can stretch on for years. Sure, they have their highs, like the day of purchase, the day the paint is done, the first start of the engine, and the first drive. But they’re also filled with lows, like bad news about unnoticed damage, budget overages, and plain, simple mistakes. The mistakes are probably the worst part.

Buckminster Fuller had it right: If you can learn from mistakes, you’ll be smarter. While your own mistakes probably teach you more, learning from other people’s usually costs less. Take some time to study these nine common restoration mistakes. Hopefully your restorations will see more highs as a result.

1. Starting With the Wrong Car

Unless you’re up for a big, expensive challenge or you’re sentimentally attached, the right car is almost always the nicest example you can find. Rust, missing parts, collision damage, or extreme wear and tear make a car cheaper to buy but usually much more expensive to restore. Searching carefully for a good example will speed your restoration and keep your budget intact.

2. Not Driving It First

Most restorations start with a dream–an idealized view of what the final product will be. The problem is that most restorations, no matter how well executed, are still just old cars when they’re done.

Compared to modern cars, most old cars don’t run as well, stop as well, handle as well, or have the amenities we’ve grown to love. Try to drive your car, or at least a similar example, before diving into the restoration. Find out if you don’t fit, it’s too hot, it’s too slow, or the smells get to you. Some of these things can be dealt with during the restoration, and you can budget time and money accordingly. Others may have you consider a different type of car. Either way, waiting until it’s over to find out you don’t like your car is a mistake you don’t want to make.

3. Rebuilding the Engine Too Early

Our rule is simple: Don’t rebuild the engine until it’s time to put it back in. We’ve seen too many engines rebuilt early in the restoration only to sit and degrade in a dusty corner of the shop. Not only that, but an engine rebuild sucks a lot of money out of the budget.

If that money gets spent early, it sometimes means cost-cutting in important areas, like paint and body. You can always paint a used engine, put it back in, and pull it for a rebuild later. Try redoing the budget bodywork because you spent too much too early on your engine.

4. Skimping on Metalwork and Paint

We just dropped a hint about this one. You can redo just about any mechanical job with a little time and a little cash, but redoing substandard bodywork is pretty much like starting over.

Bodywork is usually the most expensive part of the restoration, and too many people try to keep down costs by cutting corners. It’s a false economy–the only way to save on bodywork and paint is to start with a solid car and make sure the work is done properly. If you’re not doing the work yourself, see our next point.

5. Not Checking References

Whether you’re trusting a full restoration to a shop or just subbing out a few things, it’s essential that you check references. Note the plural, as one reference is not enough.

There are three things to ask past customers: Did the shop perform quality work? Was it on budget? Was it on time?

If it wasn’t quality work, walk away. If it wasn’t on time or on budget, that may be okay–quality costs time and money, after all–but you’ll want to plan for these curveballs.

The most important references are for the metalwork and paint. In these cases, you should not only talk to past customers, but attempt to see their cars. A little due diligence goes a long way here.

6. Buying Parts Too Early

This is a corollary to our engine advice. Too many people stock up on thousands of dollars’ worth of parts well before they need them.

These parts then get damaged in storage, go missing, turn out to be the wrong ones, or once again suck important funds from the budget at the wrong time. We’ll let you in on a secret: Yes, there may be a sale, but there will probably be a sale next year, too. Buy your parts just in time and in appropriate bundles to save on shipping and keep the project moving. But don’t buy parts you aren’t ready to use.

7. Forgetting Why You Started

Without goals, restorations fail. Hopefully, your first goal is to have fun. Beyond that, you may want to get awards, go for great drives, say you did it yourself, or meet like-minded people.

But if you forget your goals and get too hung up on schedules, budgets, problems or other distractions, your restoration will risk major failure. Keep those goals at the forefront of your mind, and adjust things quickly when you stray. (And you will stray!)

8. Skipping the Sorting Stage

We believe that most cars billed as “restored” are really about 50 to 100 hours from finished. Sure, they look nice and drive pretty well, but are they sorted?

A good restoration ends with a lot of test-driving and list making. The lists will note rattles, things that don’t feel right, parts that don’t fit correctly, and cosmetics that need attention. They may even include a big job, like removing the drivetrain to fix something. You may be out of money or sick of working on your car, but sorting makes a decent restoration into a great restoration–and can save you from a bad restoration

9. Not Admitting Mistakes

This is it, the big one: If you’ve made mistakes in your restoration, admit them, learn from them, fix them, and move back to your goals. Don’t get hung up on why you made the mistake. Get hung up on how to get back on track with the lesson you learned. You’ll be wiser and happier for it.

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rsikes None
11/28/18 4:39 p.m.

As a shop owner,  all I can say is YES x 9!  Spot on! Great article!

TexSquirrel New Reader
11/28/18 4:39 p.m.

10. Losing momentum

I have a friend who has been restoring his 196x Ford Mustang for at least 20 years.

It is setting on a rotisserie waiting to be completed...someday

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
11/28/18 5:08 p.m.

Thanks, Ralph and TexSquirrel. It freaks me out how many stalled restorations I see in my travels. Most blame it on money, but the hard work cost very little on a restoration, if you are doing it yourself.

theonlyiceman53 New Reader
11/28/18 5:25 p.m.

Great article.  Focus is really the biggest thing in completing a restoration.  It's easy to stay focused during the first phase of readying the car for bodywork but after the reassembly begins it is hard to keep your eye on the ball.  I find that I start looking for the next project when I'm about 80% done with the original one!  That makes it really hard to stay focused on the first one.   I won't take on a project if it requires a lot of money.  Of course what exactly is a lot of money?  My wife thinks I spend a lot of money on cars but I don't!

bklecka New Reader
11/28/18 5:56 p.m.

I have have hauled home many cars that I parked in my shop did some exploratory disassembly on and decided that the job was beyond my skill set or price range to do a proper restore and sold off. Now I am focusing on my SVT Focus, clutch and suspension finished. Timing belt, brakes, wheels, tires and finally paint. There are plenty of small, one hour or so inexpensive jobs I can complete so I keep thinking that I am making progress on the project while I find the funds for the next large job (timing belt and water pump). I chose this car based on your recommendation in several GRM magazine articles. 

Donatello New Reader
11/30/18 11:21 a.m.

More on point #7: A money saving tip is to decide beforehand how deep you want the restoration to go. You will save heaps of time and money if you decide intentionally to not be a perfectionist and ignore some of the flaws that you (and probably only you) notice. And you will worry less about taking your car to the track.

On point #8: Get a few other people to drive your car too. A mechanic specializing in the car you are restoring can fast-track diagnosing some issues. My wife who is no mechanic at all does a very good job at pointing out why my car still dives like an "old car". Thanks honey, I didn't even have to ask you to do that for me, lol. Now that my classic has most of it's squeaks, clunks, bad smells and other quirks I had been willing to put up with all gone I do enjoy driving  it more.

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
11/30/18 6:48 p.m.

How about Rule 3a:  Don't disassemble the car until it's time to disassemble the car.  Lots of people tear the car apart and do a poor job of cataloging what goes where.  If it's not a full body-off or rotisserie job, perhaps doing one section at a time (like,say, the rear suspension) and reassembling it would serve the first-time restorer far better than ending up with a pile of parts in the middle of the garage floor with a forlorn-looking body on jacks.

914Driver MegaDork
12/1/18 7:09 a.m.

11.  (my nemesis) Bouncing around too much!  Spend a few hours in the garage on something, next time go do something else, a month later everything is 1% closer but nothing gets done.

Pull a fender, bang it, smooth it, prime it, set it aside.  Next.

maj75 HalfDork
12/2/18 10:00 a.m.

#1. If you can’t afford the nicest version of the car you want, you almost never can afford the cost of restoration.  It’s a thing on the C3 Corvette forum.  Guy wants a C3 Corvette, but won’t spend money for a running driving example.  He’d rather spend $3000 for a pile of crap than spend $8000 on a good runner.  Project takes years to complete or more likely never gets finished and is parted out.  Funny how those guys think their time isn’t worth anything.  My time is worth $$$.  I’d rather have a car I can drive and improve than wait years and $$$ to drive.


NOHOME UltimaDork
12/5/18 2:21 p.m.

In reply to maj75 :

True up to a point...Wont work for me. I am in the hobby for the project, not so much cause I dream of driving and maintaining the finished product. I consider my time spent on the car in the same way that others consider their time on the gold-course; money well spent. Not like you get to sell the scorecard for a profit after the 19th hole is completed.



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