Column: Restoring Cars Is an Emotional Journey

A restoration is more than just rejuvenating a car. It’s a trip through the senses and emotions. 

Every project has a clean side and a dirty side. Currently, I have four restorations going: I’m on the dirty side of three and, thankfully, very much on the clean side of one.

You might ask what a guy who works full time running a media company is doing with four active restorations. I would argue that I need to get things going to meet magazine deadlines, or that I need to get parts media-blasted and powder-coated before my supplier situation changes.

But the truth is I probably need to admit that I am in over my head and am trying to keep my nose deeply in the shop in order to help me forget that I can’t go anywhere right now because there is a pandemic raging. But I digress.

Some days I wonder if I’m getting a bit too old for the dirty side of a restoration. Dealing with long-frozen bolts and rust in the eyes isn’t for everyone. Then there’s the sweet, sweet scent of rat feces found in the backs of long-stored Bugeye seats, along with the symphony of grinders, wire wheels and media-blasting cabinets that team up to ruin your hearing for life.

Then there are the emotions that come with discovering a car’s true potential. Now, finally, you can see the project from the inside out. Most people might see a bare frame and a pile of parts, but you now have a vision of where this is going. You can do it. 

Or it can go the other way: After disassembly and cleanup, perhaps a car isn’t as pristine as you’d wished. Power through, sell it to someone else, or just pull a cover over it? I’ve been there as well. 

My soundtrack in the shop corresponds to these tasks. When I’m tearing up stuff and making noise, it’s loud, angry music: AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses and Social Distortion. 

And when doing fine, delicate work, I switch to more mellow music from folks like Chris Stapleton, Norah Jones and John Prine. This easier music soothes and coddles me as I gingerly reattach trim, install a new wiring harness or fine-tune the engine. 

Finally, after all that work–both physical and mental–it’s time to turn the key and bring it all back to life. Suddenly those long nights no longer seem so long. That first test drive around the block magically cures the burns, cuts and whacked knuckles. 

Now it’s time for drives on sunny days, races at the track, and rallies through the mountains. Looking back, that restoration was fun. 

But, for so many of us, another one looms. We find something that looks even more appealing: faster, rarer, sleeker. We pick up another rough junker and go through the whole vicious process once again.

Why do we do it? It’s certainly about more than just a car. Personally, I love the learning process as I find out more about the machine and–the big thing–the people and clubs who serve that marque. There are shops to visit, events to attend. 

So, it all makes sense, right? We restore to learn, socialize and, perhaps most of all, enjoy that sense of accomplishment. I’ve even told people it’s my way of recycling and helping Mother Earth, but that’s probably a stretch.

What are your favorite parts of a restoration? Is it the excitement of dragging home that new project, the painstaking process of putting it all back together, or the satisfaction of putting some chrome back on the road? I’d love to hear about it:

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