How to find, plan and tackle your next project

Photograph Courtesy Ferrari

Restoring a car sounds almost glamorous, even noble: You’re going to rescue this old machine and make it right. Rescue it from years of neglect and mismanagement. Together you’re going to tackle mountain passes, enjoy weekend getaways, and watch sunsets worthy of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. On rainy days, you’ll polish fenders and pick rocks from the tire treads.

Then the reality of a full restoration sets in. And by reality we mean the commitment of both money and time. And by money and time, we mean a lot of both.

That said, the goal of this article is not to reduce the number of restorations. Rather, our hope is that some frank talk will reduce the number of restorations that don’t get completed. All of those ads selling cars that are 95% complete? Those are unfinished restorations. Each one represents another car off the road, another car that’s now worth pennies on the dollar.

Another car that, likely, will never be made whole again.

Photograph Courtesy Ferrari

Setting Attainable Goals

Why are you doing this in the first place? Because we’re going to level with you: Restoring a car is likely not going to make financial sense.

“A lot of guys, in today’s real world, don’t realize what labor costs,” says John Kraman, lead commentator for Mecum’s TV coverage. “These old cars are unpredictable.”

It’s that unknown that can turn a “simple restoration” into so much more. Once you open up a fender, Kraman observes, you can find rust. And a lot of it. Or a botched repair done decades ago. Or who knows what.

Carl Heideman, owner of Eclectic Motorworks, a restoration house located in Holland, Michigan, adds another unpredictable variable to the pile: the quality of the replacement parts.

Bumpers are a good example. Carl says if he and a customer decide to replace the bumpers rather than re-chrome the existing ones, three sets of reproductions will be ordered. The hope is that one set–and maybe after mixing and matching some individual components–will be good enough to use. Who’s going to be responsible for the shop time and the shipping? The customer. (On the plus side, he notes, at least those reproductions are available.)

Photograph Courtesy Ferrari

Look at the side bar for Paul Dierschow’s advice on paint. It’s not cheap. And this is all before you factor in an engine rebuild, interior redo and even a new set of tires.

Bottom line, Carl says to budget six figures for a full restoration, even on a “simple” car like an MGB.

Is a full restoration ever worth the time and money? Yes. “If it’s a dream car and it’s a keeper, then it makes less difference,” Mecum’s Kraman notes. Some people, Carl adds, also just enjoy the restoration process. There’s the thrill of finding the car and bring it back to its original glory.

Finding the Right Restoration Project

Not every car is worth saving. There, we said it.

We’ve been practicing what we’re preaching. Know why we’re not going to restore the T-series sitting in our pole barn? Because we can buy a pretty good driver in the mid-teens.

Photograph Courtesy Eclectic Motorworks

We also have an early-’70s MGB sitting around and, after thinking about it, we’re going to pass on that one as well. We’d just rather put the time and money into restoring an earlier, pull-handle car. Both cars would cost about the same to redo, but one will be worth more at project’s end.

Let’s talk Jaguar E-Types for a minute. A rough Series 1 roadster will cost more than a later 2+2 car, but it will also be worth a lot more after the job. Some Porsches are worth more than others; same with Corvettes, Camaros and nearly everything else. Before falling in love, see what the market holds.

Transportation and Insurance

You’ve found the right car, sent funds, and need to move to the next step: retrieval. Here you have three main options: hire a dedicated hauler, wade through the brokers, or plan a road trip.

We have been involved with all three. A dedicated hauler will likely seem like the most expensive option up front, but in our experience the car will be fetched by someone who will take the time to inspect the car before it goes in the truck–and notice that we said “truck” and not “overloaded fifth-wheel trailer towed by an older pickup.”

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Brokers seem to range from reputable to pirates. With either method, the car will at least have to roll.

What about a road trip? Do you have the time and are you up for an adventure? If so, this is all part of the experience, right?

Another reality: Is your restoration project properly insured? What if it gets stolen? Or the building burns down? Or the floodwaters rise?

“While it might be tempting to assume your project vehicle is safe and sound without its own policy while under restoration, the reality is that it could actually be severely underinsured or not covered at all,” explains Jonathan Klinger, Hagerty’s vice president of public relations. “Most homeowner policies do not provide coverage for restoration projects, as they are ‘better covered elsewhere.’ A collector insurance policy provides guaranteed value coverage for the car whether it’s in the shop or on the road. Hagerty even goes so far as offering the Vehicle Under Construction endorsement, specifically tailored to automatically increase a car’s value while it’s being actively restored.”

Putting Together a Successful Plan

Once we get a project home, we pause for a few. It’s tempting to tear into things, but first we clean and document everything.

The cleaning part is easy: Get the thing up in the air and break out the pressure washer. Release the critters before rolling the car into the shop. Get rid of the stinky stuff.

Then photograph everything. The camera on your phone is likely good enough; use it and go nuts. Photograph subassemblies, casting numbers and any and all details. These photos will help you put things back together, and having those part numbers handy will help when ordering parts.

If the car is a runner, we’ll drive it for a bit, making a list of things that need to be addressed. We’ll also ask ourselves a hard question: Will we truly be happy with this car after all of the work is done? Best to cut losses earlier rather than later if you’re going to realize that you don’t fit, aren’t enamored with the driving experience, or just aren’t really meshing with the machine. It’s okay to jump ship.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Assuming you’re still in love and ready to start the restoration, now you can take things apart–but not too quickly. As usual, Carl Heideman shares a methodical process to this step:

  • Here are the tools we used for disassembly: patience, shelves, good boxes, plastic bags, camera, notebook, service manual, parts catalog and marking pen. Wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, and hammers help, too.
  • We’ll first go to our local discount store and spend about $100 on 25 assorted plastic bins. Cardboard boxes are free and will work, but they don’t hold up well over time or if they get soaked with the various things that ooze from car parts. We think the extra expense of the reusable plastic bins is worth it. We like the clear bins because you can easily see what’s inside them.
  • We start at the front of the car and remove subassemblies one at a time, starting with the stuff that gets in the way of other stuff. This means the hood and front fenders come off first so we can more easily reach the stuff under the hood.
  • As we remove each smaller part, we put it in a plastic bin. We also put the associated fasteners in a resealable plastic bag, label the bag, then put it in the bin. The bin then gets a label on it, like “Midget Pedal Box” or “Midget Brake Calipers.” Later, we’ll go to each plastic bin to rebuild and restore the components inside. Then the components will go back into the bin until it’s time to put them back on the car.
  • We also keep our notebook, camera, service manual and parts catalog handy. Before we put the parts in a bin, we take pictures of the parts in appropriate positions to show details that will be necessary for reassembly. We check the service manual to see if its instructions will make sense in the future. If not, we jot down appropriate notes in the notebook. Finally, we go to the appropriate section of the catalog and highlight parts we’ll need to order for the restoration.
  • Within 4 hours, the car will look half disassembled. At the end of about 20 hours, it will just be a shell with a shelf full of parts behind it and some larger parts nearby: engine, gearbox, fenders, doors. At the end of about 40 hours, everything will be organized. We’ll know what parts we need and be ready to move on to the next step, the actual restoration process.

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Project Cars and Restoration articles.
More like this
6/24/20 9:10 a.m.

Perfect description of the process. Seems more aimed at the professional shop/customer experience but it is pertinent to someone doing this at home.


For the home builder, I would emphasize the time thing: you are about to launch into something that will require at least 1,000 hours of your free time. If this is your definition of fun,and you think that your family will let you get away with it, then god bless and enjoy. If you are doing this mainly so that you can drive the finished good, it probably wont end well.


An irony of this game is that oftentimes the people who enjoy the restoration process don't have a lot of time or patience for the finished product. Its just a car, and you probably already have a very competent modern car in the driveway. What you want at the end is to exercise your new skills and new tools on the next project. Money and space to get going on the next one dictate your next move.





TreDeuce New Reader
12/20/20 7:51 p.m.


Cash & Commitment. 

Plan to farm it out, the restoration, plan on committing thousands of dollars. Easily a $100,+++.

  Doing most of it yourself. Plan on commiting thousands of dollars and hundreds to thousands of hours.  You just can't be as efficient with only a few hours a day dedicated to the project.  And that is where many self restoration projects falter and fail, especially if your married, have a family, and other interests.  Finding the time to move that project along in a timely manner is hard to do. And it gets harder and harder as time goes on and the dream and commitment fades.


Whether restoring an airplane, boat, house, or vehicle. Or building an airplane, boat, or house, you have to have it in you to commit to a certain amount of productive hours every week and forget doing anything else till the goal is met.


And paint, done right is the hardest, dirtiest part of the project. Rebuilding an engine is a walk in the park compared to paint prep.


Torqued New Reader
12/20/20 8:51 p.m.

When I took my MGA to our nearest restoration/custom shop, he told me that I could save quite a bit of money if I could do most of the dissasembly myself.  In fact he would prefer it that way.  Now I think I know why.  Rusted fastners!  I have spent many many hours trying to remove rusted nuts and bolts without damaging the component I'm removing.  Example: The MGA has wooden floorboards and screws with captive nuts in the framework.  That wood retains moisture and every screw in the floorboards was badly rusted.  The phillips head screws would strip with an impact wrench.  Or the head would twist off leaving the broken stob in the frame.  There were moments (OK hours) of frustration, but that was tempered by the feeling of satisfaction when I finally get it right.  I guess that is why I keep at it.  It does feel good when it comes out right! 

frenchyd PowerDork
12/21/20 9:19 a.m.

In reply to Torqued :

I know that a restoration takes about 2500 hours for me to do*I know because I've done so many. 10 complete that I can think of off the top of my head. 
A race car project is the same amount of time even though it's massively simpler in appearance and complexity. 
The difference is between a car that will rarely if ever be pushed to its limits. Versus a car that will constantly be pushed at its limits and possibly beyond. 
A restoration visual inspection is suitable. Racing calls for much closer examination. Magnaflux  or penetrations dye.  Careful precise measuring, and documentation. In addition for every hour of track time spent 4 hours of maintenance is called for. 
        2500 hours is more than a years worth of full time work. Work done after putting in a 50+ hour work week.  Plus commute time.  
* part of that is I do everything. Including body work, paint work, engine work, I even used to do a lot of my own machine work. Upholstery,  projects that are normally farmed out. 

diecuts New Reader
1/17/24 1:46 p.m.

Restoring a vintage vehicle is indeed a committment to time.  I spent ten minutes a day for 32 years on my MGSA Tickford Drophead foursome, doing everything from repairing the cracks in the engine block, painting, interior, all fun stuff to do, even at ten minutes a day.  Right now, working on a 32 Packard shovelnose roadster, it's year 14, perhaps it will be  done this year, perhaps not....not having a deadline makes it stress free. .....:}.   Improvements often add to the restoration time, like adding a 12v LED lighting system to the Packard.   What makes it fun is inviting many friends, retired, bored, want to get their hands dirty, to help work on the project. Everyone leaves with a 'job well done' attitude....even if nothing really gets done....:}

ddavidv UltimaDork
1/19/24 7:17 a.m.

It's been said many times, but worth repeating:  buy the best car you can find, and never, ever buy a rusty project car. Repairing rust is the biggest time and money suck there is. 

You'll need to log in to post.

Our Preferred Partners