Angie's LIST Guide to
Classic Car Restoration

While the definition of a "classic car" will vary depending on the person or organization, there's no doubt that Americans have a special affinity for repairing, restoring and enjoying classic, vintage or unique automobiles of almost every era.


(Photo by Brandon Smith)
(Photo by Brandon Smith)

Classic car restoration

Similar to how not everyone agrees on the definition of a classic car - for example the Classic Car Club of America's definition of a classic only includes particular models built before 1948 - not everyone agrees to the exact definition of classic car restoration.

For many people, classic cars can come from a wide range of makes and eras and, similarly, the term restoration can include a wide range of repairs, from simple steps to make an older car more road worthy all the way up to a full restorations that recreate a vehicle's factory-original condition.

Other popular restoration projects include restomodding, the practice of restoring a vehicle to like-new condition but also adding new components such as newer, safer brake, suspension or steering systems, conveniences like stereos and air conditioning, as well as more powerful and more fuel efficient modern engines and auxiliary components.

MORE: Read More about Auto Sales and Financing

Research and inspections

If you're interested in becoming a classic car owner, or restoring or repairing a classic, vintage or older vehicle, researching the vehicle and the possible restoration outcomes are the first steps to ensure your time, money and effort are well invested.

One of the easiest ways to learn more about a particular make or model is to find a car club. For every auto style, and almost every make, there's an organized car club with specific knowledge that can be applied to your restoration project. A club's network can offer a deep pool of restoration knowledge and access to hard-to-find parts, and most clubs don't require vehicle-specific ownership to join.

Questions to answer before starting an automotive restoration project:

1. Why do I want to restore a classic or vintage vehicle?
2. How much am I willing to spend on the starting vehicle?
3. How much am I willing to spend on parts, labor and restoration services?
4. What work can I do myself? What areas of the restoration require professional expertise?
5. What will the vehicle be worth when the project is finished?
6. How often will I use the vehicle? Where will it be stored when not in use?
7. How much will it cost to store, maintain and insure the vehicle?

Pre-purchase inspections

What you don't know can hurt you and your pocketbook, so before you buy a vintage or classic car, have it inspected by a reputable shop with experience in your vehicle's era, make and model.

What may appear to be a perfectly preserved icon of its era could easily have hidden problems such as frame, body or engine damage that may not be visible to an untrained eye. A pre-purchase inspection will cost some money, but consider it money well invested if it deters you from making a costly restoration mistake.

Hiring tips

Unless you're an automotive professional yourself, you're more than likely going to hire at least one professional or company in the course of an automotive restoration. Whether they're a specailist or a generalist, follow these 10 tips to help ensure you get the most value for your money:

1. Learn as much as you can

The more you learn about the vehicle, the better. If you’re into more rare vehicles with limited production runs or those with extensively researched pedigrees, check a potential vehicle’s ID number against a registry site before you buy.

Online forums and local clubs are another great source of information.

2. Get a professional’s opinion

Another essential to-do before you buy a vintage car: Get it inspected by a reputable shop or an automotive inspection professional.

Even if it costs hundreds of dollars on an inspection for a vehicle you don’t purchase, “You’ll save money in the long run because the car may not be worth repairing or painting,” says Phil Marratta, owner of highly rated Danrr Auto Body in Fox River Grove, Ill.

An inspection can also reveal common and costly problems such as frame damage or chassis rust that may not otherwise be visible until the vehicle undergoes disassembly prior to restoration.

3. Visit the shops

Unless you’ve got a particular professional in mind, visit a few restoration or specialist shops within driving distance before you make an investment.

• Look around while you’re at the shop. Is it clean? Well organized? While not every shop will be perfectly ordered or have a floor you can eat from, but a well-organized shop can mean there's less of a chance of missing or damaged original parts.

• What’s the security like? Is there a fence and adequate nighttime lighting? If your vehicle will be there on a long-term basis, you’ll want to make sure it’s safe.

• What kind of other projects are taking place at the same time as yours? Are there any completed restorations you can take a look at?

4. Check out the business’ background

It’s always a good idea to take a look at shop’s portfolio of finished projects and call on references to get an idea of how other customers’ projects unfolded. You’ll also want to make sure to ask about the shop’s warranties or guarantees on the work.

5. Plan out the entire project

If you’re doing a total restoration, it’s likely there will be many specialists involved from start to finish. Planning ahead for specialists for engine work, painting, chrome, and the interior and upholstery, can help provide more realistic expectations of the time and cost. You may also save money by hiring specialists individually rather than having one do-it-all shop subcontract work to specialists.

6. Invest in the best

Planning out a project in phases by specialty can also give you the opportunity to budget for high quality work.  “Set a budget early and be careful, you better pick a car you’re in love with if you’re going to do a restoration,” says John Matthews of Vintage Specialties in Gettysburg, Penn. “You don’t want to start with a finished car that’s only going to be worth $10,000 - you’re going to have gobs more money into it than that.”

“People don’t do this because it’s a good idea, you have to have some kind of passion about the vehicle,” says Andrew Bradley of Bradley Restoration in Mount Vernon, Wash.

7. Make sure you get a written contract

As mentioned, a vehicle overhaul won’t be cheap, so like any major investment, make sure the parameters of the project, including the parts and materials to be used and the price and estimated completion dates for each phase are in writing and in as much detail as possible.

8. Pay in installments

Even if you trust a particular shop, you’re better off paying only for work only after it's completed. For smaller specialty phases of the project, make sure you’re satisfied with the work before making payment.

For full-scale restorations, paying the entire amount upfront is not recommended. Most reputable shops will happily accept a deposit to start the project and regular installment payments as the work progresses.

Ask for a regular itemized bill that lists the purchased parts, the labor completed and at what stage the vehicle is in.

9. Stay on top of the project’s progress

Along with regular billing, keeping up regular communication is one key to knowing your project's status and estimated completion date. Whether it’s checking up via project photos sent by email or a dropping by personally for a visit, the more often you're in touch with the shop, the less likely its you'll get a disappointing surprise.

10. Get plenty of documentation

Speaking of project photos, if you’re hiring a shop for a major overhaul, get as much documentation as possible of each step, repair or upgrade. Have detailed photos emailed to you for regular project updates or ask for a full set once the work is completed.

Having step-by-step photographic evidence of each needed repair, customization or upgrade not only provides a chronicle of your vehicle’s journey, it can also be additional buyer’s selling point should you decide to sell it down the road.

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