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Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
11/24/14 12:37 p.m.

It’s such a simple question: What’s it cost? In the world of classic cars, however, it’s one we spend a lot of time either obsessing over or ignoring completely.

We obsess over it at auctions, where the prices of even common collector cars like Mustangs and Triumph TRs approach $40,000. We think that’s crazy, but isn’t that just another way of saying we conveniently ignore the flip side of that purchase cost? I’m talking, of course, about the cost to restore a car.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on that flip side restoring our Mini Cooper project car. When I first looked at this car, the owner was asking $10,000–and boldly told me that it was worth $25,000 when it was done. I explained to him that he was absolutely right: Once I bought his car for $10,000 and put another $25,000 in it, it would be worth $25,000.

He sheepishly cut his asking price in half and I bought the car.

Fast-forward a few years, and we are nearly done restoring this cool little numbers-matching 1967 Mini Cooper S. On the plus side, in concours condition it is now worth more like $40,000; on the minus side, it was (of course) way rougher than we originally thought. We just got finished with nearly 200 hours of welding and fabrication just to make the shell perfect again.

That’s the nature of restoration costs: They’re nebulous. They grow over time. They also tend to stay hidden, since a reluctance to face bad news (or one’s spouse) means the receipts are often hidden, ignored or lost. Even if they are tracked religiously, they rarely include the costs of sorting a newly rebuilt car.

It all adds up to this: Not many of us really know what it costs to restore a car. That’s especially true for those of us who do at least some of the work ourselves. We don’t calculate how much time we spend in the garage, and how would we assign a cost to it if we did?

Nevertheless, let’s try a little math here. So we bought a Mini for $5000, and spent $10,000 at Mini Mania for parts. Let’s not forget the used door and other pieces we got from Heritage Garage–better add another $1000 there. We spent a few thousand in machine work doing the head and rebuilding the transmission. We bought Vredestein tires and Koni shocks; this set us back another $1500 or so. We spent another $2000 rebuilding the rest of the suspension, since we decided to stick with the original displacers. A paint job is going to set us back $5000, and that‘s only because our paint guy takes real, real good care of us. We got a new wiring harness from British Wiring, an insulation kit from Quiet Ride Solutions, and we had the original heater rebuilt by Ron Jernigan. Chock up another grand or two. We sent the gauges to Nisonger, and while they come back perfect every time, that cost a few bucks as well.

Add this all up, throw in the additional $5000 in miscellaneous expenses that I know this car will need before it is done, and we have a grand total of nearly $35,000. Right off the bat, we’re $10,000 over the $25,000 cost I quoted the original owner when I bought the car. We always seem to underestimate costs–plus, as we have mentioned, although this car was very original and had all its numbers matching, it had been ridden hard and put away very, very wet.

At least I can comfort myself with the idea of a $5000 profit on my projected $40,000 sale, right? Yes and no. Notice that we haven’t talked about labor. Along with my buddies Jere and Tom, I have some 500 hours in this car already. At $20 an hour, that’s about $10,000. At a more realistic $50-$70 shop rate, that’s a cubic crapton of money. And if this car was more complicated, like the Sunbeam Tiger project we did a few years ago, that number would be more like 2000 hours.

Obviously, my accountant would tell me that none of my hard work makes any sense. Going to auction and buying a nicely restored Mini at auction for top dollar looks like the deal of a lifetime, right?

Not so fast. We haven’t figured in my savings on therapy costs, and let’s face it, a good shrink charges more than even the most expensive shop rate. And since most of us crazies would spend our time (and money) on some other bad habit if we weren’t out in the shop, I consider myself money ahead for every hour I spend there.

Back in the real world, though, if you’re a bottomline kind of person, purchasing finished cars is the way to go. If you can get a car at club-newsletter prices, you’ll win big, but even if you pay all the money at auction, you’ll still save time and dollars over trying to restore it.

If, however, you are like me and you do this because you love it, then you can’t put a dollar figure on what you get out of bringing old cars back to life. I have restored more than 40 cars in the last 30 years, and as I near the finish line with our Mini, I am already getting excited about the 1958 Tornado Typhoon I’m going to do next. After all, I’ve spent way more on stupider stuff.

Read the rest of the story

rconlon HalfDork
11/24/14 3:45 p.m.

Tim: This is even more complex than you make it. A big part of the restoration and its cost is related directly to your work with the magazine and this offsets much of the insanity. It is justifiable insanity, if you will, and CMS is better for it. To others, this project could be justified by building the best restored Mini Cooper and $60K is the cost that they are willing and able to spend on an expensive hobby. I think any good professional shop would have jumped at the chance to restore your car for $60k. I suspect that their efficiency would make such a deal profitable for them. I purchased my Fiat in 1999 and set a budget of $100 per month for purchase, parts and upkeep. I could buy a new Kia for that but, I did not want a Kia but neither did I expect an award winning show car. After about 180 months (60,000 miles), I have about $7500 spent on or under the car and a lot of hours of labor. I have no good answer for someone saying that the Kia would have been a better choice other than it is something I wanted to do and the Fiat is a fun car not my only family car.

NOHOME SuperDork
11/24/14 6:46 p.m.

A subject that is near and dear to my heart and one that I have looked into.

In broad terms, a car is a car is a car, and will require 1000 hours (give or take 200 hours) of labour to pull apart, go over each component and put it together as new.

How much is being paid for that labour is the big question.

If we restrict ourselves to the more popular classics like Mustangs and British stuff, even the systems are pretty predictable: say 2k for suspension&brakes, 7k for drivetrain, 3k for interior, 3k for shiny chrome bling and 2,012 for stuff you never even thought of. Toss in 1.5k for paint materials.

Where it gets complicated is if we start to count the cost of the tools.

ggarrard Reader
11/25/14 9:34 a.m.

I think our esteemed Publisher/Rock Star summed it up best when he said: "Not so fast. We haven’t figured in my savings on therapy costs, and let’s face it, a good shrink charges more than even the most expensive shop rate. And since most of us crazies would spend our time (and money) on some other bad habit if we weren’t out in the shop, I consider myself money ahead for every hour I spend there."


rconlon HalfDork
11/25/14 10:26 a.m.

There is more. How many restorers actually acquire a project and then immediately set to work on it? My experience is that they do this maybe once with their first car and then get one or two projects-in-waiting stored until their time comes. These are the ones who restore cars for their hobby. Much like Tim has intimated, the Cooper is the flavor of the month but then the next one is waiting and something after that. Storage could be considered also a cost but then the right car (like a Dino) stored for 5 years could be the next big profit maker. I think the restorer group likely hits the holy grail of making a profit a few times but that is not the goal.

NOHOME SuperDork
11/25/14 11:14 a.m.

Compared to playing golf as a hobby, nothing car guys do is even remotely stupid or a waste of time and/or money.

Rupert HalfDork
11/25/14 12:37 p.m.

Tell it like it is! None of us will admit what we actually pay for our car hobby. If fact, other than for warranty or ownership issues I've always refused to keep receipts. In case a significant other is listening or checking into the accounts!

But, if it will make you feel any less guilty. I've also played with planes and boats over the years. Either of those hobbies will make almost anyone who plays with cars except Jay Leno seem like a cheap skate in comparison!

ggarrard Reader
11/25/14 3:29 p.m.

Rupert... A friend opinions that any amounts that might be shared with your significant other should only be 50% of the actual costs as that is all they are entitled to. My wife never asks costs but does suggest that any new vehicle to be added to the fleet require that another be let go. So far I haven't been held to that requirement :-)

friedgreencorrado UltimaDork
11/25/14 8:20 p.m.

"Obviously, my accountant would tell me that none of my hard work makes any sense. Going to auction and buying a nicely restored Mini at auction for top dollar looks like the deal of a lifetime, right?"

Tim, ignoring for the moment your fantastic comment about 'tool therapy', consider this: without folks who put so much effort into doing this stuff, there'd be even fewer examples of that car still living. I saw this on BaT today, I can't help but wonder if the difference is between folks that would do the work themselves and folks that won't (or can't), and just throw cubic dollars at it. I suspect that emotional stuff is the root of either kind of behavior.

That being said, at least one more car survives, regardless of how it came to be. And I'm cool with that.

EDIT: Forgot the link to BaT. Datsun Z that needed a ton of dough to get welded back together. http://bringatrailer.com/2014/11/24/big-number-restoration-1970-datsun-240z/

TR8owner HalfDork
11/25/14 10:04 p.m.

What's that old saying about restoring an old car. Figure out your cost and time and be very generous. Then multiply by two.

Tom1200 Reader
11/26/14 1:06 a.m.

From day one I have kept every receipt for Datsun, I also have kept track of all the parts I sold. My tally also includes race entries, gas ,tires and gaskets. Why did I do this (besides being mental)? I did it because when I started racing motorcycles I saw guys spend stupid amounts of money that they couldn't really afford to spend, they'd race two seasons and then it would all be over. As I decided to be a racer as a kid, it was 15 years before I actually got to do it and so I wanted it to last. Also who would pay $35,000 for a Datsun 1200 or Pinto or Spitfire etc. then sell it for a tenth of that because either they burned out on the project or the wife burned up over the project. From 1986 to June of this year I'd spent just shy of 23k for the bikes, cars, trailer, tow vehicles entries everything. This represents 5-6 track events and 8 autocross events annually. My recent F500 purchase adds close to another 4k to this.......this equates to 30k in 30 years and that is pretty cheap hobby. My spend is higher now as I earn much more than I used to so I longer need to wheel and deal on parts to pay for my habit. Of course I still do it on the cheap. My approach is kind of the polar opposite of Tim's, I'm not doing high profile projects. The color of the Datsun is known as mis-tint red, the auto parts paint store had a gallon of red that was a mis-tint, it very close to what I wanted but at $26 for PPG the fact that it wasn't the exact color is fine by me. My project's directions tend to be dictated by major costs; If the original motor is trash and I can get an upgraded version that bolts in cheap so be it, this is how the Japanese home market motor ended up in the 1200. I sprayed tank on my vintage MX bike with rattle cans, it is not the exact Yamaha yellow but looks very good. On the F500 we are doing some vinyl graphics to clean it up, my wife is an artist and vinyl is really cost effective. As for labor I do not count my labor, frankly fabrication ability is not worth much, as the point of sweat equity is the free labor. I will pose one question who counts the gasoline used fetching parts or other indirect costs like tools, chemicals etc? We could go on forever as to the real costs with things like amortizing the cost of the shop into each project etc.

So the long winded answer to Tim is "yes it's worth every penny"

Rupert HalfDork
11/26/14 11:34 a.m.
TR8owner wrote: What's that old saying about restoring an old car. Figure out your cost and time and be very generous. Then multiply by two.

I think it'd be more accurate to figure your estimated costs by a factor of two or three. Don't even think about counting the time!

racerdave600 SuperDork
11/26/14 5:21 p.m.

I'm pretty far behind most of you in that I've only restored 3 cars during my 51 years. But Tim is spot on. With all 3, I underestimated the cost by at least 2x, not including labor. And in all circumstances, I had the help of a marque specialist friend that would lend a hand should I need it. I figure that alone saved me many, many dollars. Labor costs I always considered as free, since I had to be doing something, and otherwise it might be spent in front of the TV.

My last project car was a driving, but rough around the edges, 240Z. But after stripping it, I found more rust than I wanted to deal with and cut it loose. I still want another one, but I will pay for a good one to start with.

Tom1200 Reader
11/26/14 11:38 p.m.

Those of us living in the desert are lucky as we usually do not have to deal with much rust. A rusty car will devour a budget very quickly. On our old 65 Galaxie tow car the spot where the rear quarter joined was very poorly repaired but I new this when I bought it. The work was only really noticeable when the trunk was open but the interior was very good. We used it for 2 years and when the tranny gave up the ghost sold it on. Point being I try to buy running projects and should something really ugly and costly turn up I sell it on. Most of my projects have been bikes but whether it's a bike or car I make a list and check prices for everything on the list as well as big ticket items. If it is beyond my threshold pain I will walk.
Some things can't be found until the car is stripped but I think part of the issue with the budget doubling is during the warm glow phase folks fail to look at the car objectively. Also making a car an 8 is pretty cheap but it's the leap to 10 that seems to blow out the budget.

NOHOME SuperDork
11/27/14 10:08 a.m.
Tom1200 wrote: Also making a car an 8 is pretty cheap but it's the leap to 10 that seems to blow out the budget. Tom

There is a line that gets crossed as soon as paint and/or bodywork is required. There are very few classics that won't leave you upside-down financially if you have to do this work.

That said, this is a hobby, and we should not expect full refunds when we move on anymore than a golfer would expect to sell his scorecard for what it cost to play the round.

If you want to play this game for cheap, buy cars that were WELL restored five years ago. You can expect to pay less than half of what it cost to restore. Drive and care for them until you find someone that wants it more than you and sell. Repeat as necessary.

maj75 Reader
11/27/14 10:37 a.m.

Restored well is the key. I see so much crap that is advertised as "restored" it is ridiculous. Easy to find advertised as restored, actually restored is a lot harder.

My pet peeve is "barn find". That really means it is junk but I'm asking restored money for it.

Somebody else said it earlier, the time spent is going to be the same regardless of the car, the secret is picking a project that has parts availability, and has a hot market. As stated elsewhere some makes and eras are just more desirable. I know a family that is into prewar Chryslers. They spent a fortune on acquiring and restoring cars when the market was hot in the 70s. I doubt there is much of a market for those type cars any more. Like the BLC discussion, the market isn't there. The folks who love these cars are getting a lot older and aren't as actively into collecting. In fact, they are looking to liquidate or God forbid estate sales.

Assuming complete cars, it would cost the same to restore a base '69 Camaro V8 as it would to restore a Z28 or a COPO 427. The return is obviously better on the HP cars after restoration.

I wish I knew what collector cars would be hot in 10 years, I'll bet that some are cheap right now. I've never made money on any car I owned. I play with cars because it keeps me busy, it makes me happy and my wife recognizes this. She could care less about cars, but knows its my thing. Thank God!

sanman HalfDork
11/27/14 1:43 p.m.

It really depends on the availability of cheap parts cars and to what standard you want the car restored. I recently purchased a hardtop sw20 that I am restoring slowly. It is a driver in need of some maintenance and a few cosmetic issues, but is rust free. It is also a popular color combo, red/black, so parts cars are easy to find. Right now is a good time to restore a 90s car as parts a readily available for cheap. 80s cars are starting to get tough to find and good ones are getting more expensive.enough decently clean 90s cars to put a very clean car together now. In a few years, it will be difficult and more expensive. Fox body mustangs and 90s japanese metal are at all time lows now. They are just old cars that add not able to be a DD, but not yet a collector car.

trigun7469 Dork
1/9/15 3:06 p.m.

After watching a episode of Wheelers and Dealers, and their budget of under $3k American to restore a Mini 1000, I thought it was so doable and wondered why prices are so different here (I realize the parts and cars are more plentiful in GB). After reading the realistic approach in the article, I have to laugh at my ignorance

Rupert HalfDork
1/9/15 3:50 p.m.

In reply to trigun7469:Don't feel bad. There are several Brit rides which are actually easier and cheaper to restore in the US. It's a matter of where the long term interest has been.

I've traded Brits parts for British cars I could get here cheaper for parts they could get there cheaper. I've also traded old wore out jeans for brand new Fair Isle sweaters.

gjz30075 Reader
1/9/15 6:50 p.m.

Geez, and here I thought this is just a fun little hobby.

genevamotorsports New Reader
1/9/15 6:57 p.m.

My wife and I end up on this conversation every time we watch one of the big auctions on TV. She dreams about her favorite "bubble trucks". She then asks when I'm going to get a 40-50's truck body and start the restoration for her. At this stage in my life I have the skills and the shop to do it. I try to explain to her that we could go to an auction and buy one for half of what we would have invested, not to mention the 1000's of hours of labor. "But that isn't the same. You didn't restore it for me."... I don't know what it will cost but I think I'm going to pay!

ronbros Reader
1/9/15 6:59 p.m.

after talking with many car guys, quick answer is a well done restore is around 50-100% more than the car will be worth(unless you own a car magazine).

Rupert HalfDork
1/12/15 9:41 a.m.

In reply to genevamotorsports:Lucky Guy!! Many wives don't even care what's in the garage unless it's "Hers."

kazoospec Dork
1/12/15 9:44 a.m.

I'm not entirely sure this only applies to restos. When I initially bought my Miata at $2300, it seemed like a steal. It was supposed to be an autocross/HDPE only, drive it as is, minimal investment car. Except that it needed a new top. And some bodywork. And, at 80K, it was due for a lot of apparently differed scheduled maintenance. And once the bodywork was done, it made sense to paint it. Of course, it still needed the stuff I knew it needed for autocross/HDPE - a roll bar, a set of Konis/sway bars and a decent wheel/tire combo. If I had CAREFULLY followed the plan, I could have probably done what I intended for about $3500. But I'd be driving a crusty looking pile of crap to events, and probably wouldn't drive the car at all as a DD. As it sits right now, I hate to think how much I've spent in time and money. I'm sure, with careful shopping, I could have replicated what I have in the garage more cheaply just by picking up someone else's completed project or even just a cleaner original car.

Part of the equation, though, is that at the time, I couldn't just walk out and plop down the cash necessary to drive away in a sorted, completed car. Unless you are fortunate enough to pay the going rate, in cash, sometimes a project is the only option. Sure, you could save a year or two and buy outright, but for me, that would mean I'd have missed two or three years of events and enjoyment. (If mine were a non-driveable project, I might feel differently about this part) What's more, even with the incredible search capacity of the net, its unlikely that what I ended up with would be exactly what I wanted. I think either pickiness or money (or a combination of the two) are why most of us "build our own". It rarely, if ever, costs less.

MichaelYount Reader
1/22/15 9:10 p.m.

About 4.5 decades of messing with cars under my belt. I've found this 'rule of thumb' works pretty well - whether it's my own project at home, or something gets hit and has to go to the body shop. Whatever my quick estimate of costs and time are -- double the cost estimate and triple the time estimate. The majority of the time, that approach ends up being pretty close. And it only took about 3 decades for me to learn to use the rule of thumb on time/cost BEFORE informing/negotiating with my wife for both resources. Quick study....not.

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