9 Common Restoration Mistakes

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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