No Restoration Is Complete Until the Car Has Been Properly Sorted

Photography by Carl Heideman

For the past few years, you’ve poured your life, soul and wallet into restoring your classic car. So far, things have gone pretty well. You’ve done most of the work yourself, hiring only a few professionals along the way when you haven’t had the time, skills or equipment. 

The day finally comes when you go for that first ride, and it’s quite a thrill. But the adrenaline soon wears off as one fact becomes apparent: The car isn’t quite up to your expectations. 

Subconsciously, you table the project. You drive it every now and then—you might even take it to a few shows and pick up some awards—but the reality is that you question whether all that time, energy, and cash was truly worth it.

This scenario is all too common. 

Of course, there are many variations on this theme. Sometimes it’s an at-home restoration, other times it’s a complete professional job, but the bottom line is that many classics end up this way. You’d think that hundreds—sometimes even a thousand—hours of work would lead to better results, but too often reality doesn’t match the dream.

There is good news: It’s rare that such disappointments are due to a failed restoration or shoddy execution. Usually they’re the result of stopping the work just a little too soon. Sorting should be that final step.

Sorting is really just a kind term for fixing mistakes and making adjustments. When we restore a car, we like to set aside about 10 percent of the budgeted time and money for this process. Generally speaking, the most important part of a restoration is not the first 90 percent of the job, but the last 10 percent. That 90 percent must be done well, of course, but topping it off with the sorting process makes it all worthwhile.

Take a Deep Breath

We’re not going to get too touchy-feely here, but it’s important to begin the sorting process in a stable psychological state. Like it or not, restorations are emotional processes and can be very trying on your mindset. 

If there are family members involved, the emotional aspect can be even more significant. Perhaps you like the car a lot more than your spouse does. How can you admit that it’s not perfect? And even more importantly, how can you admit that you’ll have to go even further over budget to fix it? 

Denial is a common response to these questions. The trouble with denial is that it often brings the car home on a flatbed. If the car isn’t right, all the denial in the world isn’t going to fix it.

So, acceptance is the appropriate response. Even before you finish the restoration, accept the fact that you’re going to need to sort it out. Mistakes will be made, but they can be fixed. Sure, they’ll cost you some time and money, but that’s better than being frustrated with your work, not having a reliable car, and tying up a bunch of effort in a garage queen.

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

When you’ve stared at your car for hundreds of hours and know every detail of its build, seeing the big picture can become difficult. Many times, it’s hard to sort a car until you can see the forest for the trees. We’ve found two pretty simple ways to help you change your perspective.

Instead of installing a proper bonnet stay on our Midget project car, we had been using a broom handle for the job. We remedied this issue in just a few minutes by reinstalling the factory part.

One is to let someone else evaluate your car and provide some feedback. Tell them to be honest. Give them the keys and have them take the car on a long drive or two. Then, have them go over the cosmetics and come up with a list of issues. They’ll be much more objective than you—after all, it’s not their time or money at stake.

The other method is to take a few steps back and then do the evaluation yourself. This means taking a break and staying away from your project for a few weeks—maybe even a month. You might even want to get started on your next project. Whatever you do, make sure you take a long enough break to be able to evaluate the car objectively.

Let the Sorting Begin

Now comes the good part. If you have the correct mindset, sorting is fun. You’re the detective, and your car is the case. Your job is to find out what’s going wrong and then fix it, and the best way to do that is to drive.

When we sort a car, we do most of our diagnostics on the road. We simply grab a notepad and head out, usually starting with some short trips. Every time we stop, we pop the hood and look for problems. Then, we jot down every rattle, squeak or annoyance encountered. 

The bad chrome on a couple of our Midget’s switch bezels (left) bothered us every time we looked at the dash, so we upgraded to some new switches (right) for just under $60. 

When we get back home, we see which of these problems we can  cross off the list. Many of them just require a little tightening or some minor adjustments. With this strategy, you’re likely to end up fixing problems as quickly as you can find them. Not only will you get the satisfaction of making tangible progress, but each drive will get a little more pleasant as the issues disappear.

Don’t forget the simple stuff; checking the obvious is sometimes the hardest part. Is there oil in the gearbox? Did you tighten the lug nuts? Will the hood fly open on the highway because the safety catch isn’t adjusted? 

Treat every part of the car as suspect and make sure it’s correct. An amazing number of freshly restored cars suffer damage due to very simple mistakes. Don’t let yours be one of them.

Going Deep

We recommend performing this preliminary drive-and-fix routine for 50 to 200 miles. Then it’s time to get deeper. Sorting isn’t just about rattles and squeaks; it’s also about safety and reliability. 

To begin our in-depth analysis, we get the car in the shop and put it up on jack stands. The wheels come off first. We start with a thorough inspection of the brakes and suspension, making sure that everything is as it should be—no leaks, no loose or binding components, and no misadjustments. Then we look around under the car to make sure everything’s perfect.

While we’re under there, we have tools at hand so that we can quickly tighten every nut and bolt. It’s always amazing how many things can use a couple turns of the wrench after those initial shakedown miles. The exhaust will usually need some tightening, as the initial heat cycles will loosen the mounts and joints.

Before we put the car back down on the ground, we bleed and adjust the brakes and, if applicable, the clutch. We also double-check the fluid levels in the gearbox and axle. Often, they’ll need a little topping off as the lubricant finds its way into the crevices of the components. 

Once the car is back on the ground, we tackle the electrics. We start by testing every light and electrical component to make sure they’re still working. Once this is done, we tighten every connection and double-check every plug, much like we tightened and checked the underbody. 

We also take the time to make sure that everything is neatly routed, sometimes repositioning wires or adding cable ties in the process. 

Finally, we look for wires that are either too long or too short and correct them. If they’re too long, not only are they unsightly, but they might snag on something. If they’re a tad short, they run the risk of getting yanked from their connections. 

Most importantly, we make sure the battery is tied down. We’ve seen a lot of restorations where the battery has been allowed to flop around, potentially causing a fire.

While our Midget has handled very well, we’ve always felt that the rear end sat about 1.5 inches too high. We swallowed our pride and admitted that the rear springs needed to come back off. We sent out another set to a spring shop to have the pieces re-arched to our satisfaction. The springs in the rear of the photo are the ones we finally replaced, while the springs in the foreground are the correct height.

We found a small exhaust leak as evidenced by the black streak on the pipe. Slightly repositioning and retightening the clamp solved the problem.

Next, we move on to the engine bay. We torque the cylinder head, adjust the valves, and check the compression. We take notes on the compression and use it as a baseline for the future. We also make sure all the fluids are at appropriate levels, then pressure-check the cooling system to ensure there are no leaks. If any fluid levels are down significantly, we find and fix the leaks. 

Then we check the timing. Ideally, we do this job using a dial-back timing light and an assistant. We disconnect the vacuum advance and check the timing at idle, making sure it’s in spec. Then we have an assistant increase the engine speed in 500 rpm increments to ensure that the distributor’s centrifugal advance is working properly. Once the ignition passes inspection, we check the tune of the carburetors. 

Now it’s time to go back to the body. We check and adjust every hinged panel: doors, hood, trunk lid—even the glove box door. We want every one of these panels to click shut properly and then open without incident. If something isn’t right, we make careful adjustments. Restorations are judged by the quality of panel fit, and proper latching is very important in that respect. 

Then we make sure that all of the trim is tight and that the bumpers and grille fit properly. We occasionally decide that some of the marginal chrome should be redone or replaced; taking a break to separate the forest from the trees can lead us to decide that certain aspects aren’t quite up to par.

Our last stop is the interior. We make sure that all the gauges are working, all the interior lighting is functional, and all the switches are correctly oriented and snapping into position. We check the seat slides and any other adjustmentable components, ensuring that they move freely. Often, a little grease will cure any woes in this area. 

If our subject is a convertible, we make sure that the top goes up and down properly. A top that doesn’t fold correctly can get wrinkled or, worse, torn. We also check the visors, shift knob, and everything else we would regularly touch to make sure the components are tight and comfortable. For us, interior rattles are more annoying than anything.

Drive It Like You Stole It

By now, we should have found and fixed all of our car’s problems. Some issues have probably been simple to address—just a little tightening or adjustment was needed. Some have probably been more significant—maybe the carbs came back off or, worse yet, the engine had to be removed. But the effort and expense has undoubtedly been worth it, as the car should now be much more pleasant to drive.

Our last step is one more long excursion. This time, we drive the car hard, really putting it through its paces. We always make this drive in a safe place and in a safe manner—ideally, we take the car for a run at a local autocross or test-and-tune event.

After pulling the Midget’s rear drums to inspect the brakes, we found a gear oil leak. A little work with a file cleaned some burrs from the axle flange and fixed the issue.

During this drive, we accelerate and brake quickly to really heat things up and put everything to the test. When we accelerate, we want smooth running and an absence of strange noises. When we hit the brakes, we don’t want any dangerous lockups—like rear wheels first—or pulling in any direction.

Immediately after the hard drive, we like to pull out an infrared thermometer and take some quick temperature readings. We check the temperatures of the four brakes, making sure that they’re very close from side to side. We also take readings of the radiator in several spots, ensuring that it’s 10 to 20 degrees warmer on the inlet side than the outlet side and that there are no dead spots. 

We also check the temperatures of the engine block and cylinder head, making sure there are no hot spots. The exhaust also gets a temperature check. We make notes on each of our readings so we’ll have more baselines for the future.

Time to Enjoy

If you’ve ever wondered why so many cars are put up for sale immediately after they’ve been restored, you might now have a clue. Most of them aren’t sorted out, and their unknowing owners are selling in frustration, often losing 50 to 70 percent of their restoration investments in the process.  

But this won’t happen to you. You’ve gone the extra mile—that last 10 percent—and made sure your car is everything it should be. Now you can hop in and go for a drive, free from worry and disappointment. You’ve done what you set out to do.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Restoration and Shop Work articles.
More like this
View comments on the CMS forums
9/19/20 2:02 p.m.

I turned 16 in 1970 and bought a blue MG 1100 from Larkin Motors on 9th Street in Bradenton, Florida.  I got hired by them to be their errand boy and car washer - a  job that I loved.  In 1971 I traded in the 1100 for the 1968 MG Midget shown below (unfortunately, this is my only photo of that car).  Seeing the article above brought back so many fond memories and fun times that I had in that beautiful car.  The Primrose Yellow exterior with black interior has always been my favorite combination, and I love the stripped bumper with fog lights on the car above!  I wish that I had the skill to do these things, but it is not my gift.  I now get to drive a 2008 Miata MX-5, which is the closest thing to my old MG.



ID10T None
4/15/22 7:37 p.m.

I do the exact same thing with any used car or motorcycle I buy and the difference is often nothing short of amazing. The driving/riding experience is so much nicer not to mention the satisfaction of a job well done.  

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/21/22 9:30 a.m.

Yes, the sorting is the part of a restoration that makes the car truly enjoyable.

4/21/22 10:18 a.m.

This is also the reason you can get a great deal on a car that was restored like 5 years ago and the owner now wants gone cause it is not getting used.


Good article.

6/18/22 12:16 p.m.

Our Preferred Partners