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So you bought your first classic car. Now what?

This beginner's guide to restoration will make sure it's (almost) all pleasure and (almost) no pain

Published July 5, 2013
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By Patrick Smith

You’ve seen them at car shows, on the silver screen, even outside your favourite restaurant on view from the patio. The classic car: you’ve longed to buy one and there are several restored beauties available, but the cost is prohibitive.

So what’s your alternative?

Buy an aged classic that needs some work. It’s a cost effective way to enter the hobby and allows you to personalize the car.

If you’re new to the hobby you’ll have plenty of questions about what kind of car to buy.

The answer depends on a couple of things, such as what condition the car is in and what you want to achieve with it. A good classic car purchase for a first-timer is one with a lot of support in the hobby. Vintage Mustangs, Camaros and Trans Ams have a large supply of parts and lots of knowledgeable owners to turn to for restoration and maintenance advice. If you’re into sports cars, the MGB, Triumph TR6 and Austin Healey 3000 all have strong parts supplies and experts to help get your car looking and running great.

Looking for a classic to restore? Try searching here

For the first-timer, the car should be a running example that needs minor work done. Cars that need chassis repairs, major body and engine work will be too much for a newbie to tackle. Avoid the restoration projects and basket cases the first time out. Although the price is attractive compared to finished examples, you’ll spend as much time, and possibly more, returning it to new condition.

You should sit down and decide what’s important before buying. If you want to be on the road and enjoying the car, buying one with minor needs makes sense.

I use the one-out-of three rule.

For instance, a solid car with good engine and drive train but worn-out upholstery is a good project because interior kits are available, are easily installed by the hobbyist and the car isn’t off the road for long stretches while being worked on.

Another variation is a car with good paint and solid body but that needs an engine rebuild or some work to get it going again.

Yet another take on the theme is a car that’s drivable but needs to be redone to make it perfect.

You can take it as far as you want to go, from minor upgrades for safety and convenience to a “rolling restoration,” in which the car is redone while being driven.

There’s no shame in driving a car with older paint and a worn interior. Original cars with “patina” and “whips”  (works in progress) have gained a strong cult following in the classic car hobby. Often you’ll see a crowd around one just as large as those around a restored show queen.

I bought a 1980 Trans Am Special Edition as a project car and did a rolling restoration. The first year I concentrated on getting the engine running and roadworthy. I drove it with the original paint and interior.

The next year I had the body and paint redone, including the decals. The interior came last, and the whole process was a lot of fun.

If you want to restore a car but don’t have the resources to do it, you could use a restoration shop. Make sure to ask around, at car shows or anywhere you see people driving a classic you admire.

Often you’ll discover that one shop is known for paint and bodywork, another did the mechanicals and still another shop handled the upholstery. There are shops that do it all but they’re in the minority.

The good ones usually have a reputation and aficionados in the hobby know who they are. What you’re looking for is consistent answers from a variety of people about a shop or person.

You’ll know you’ve found a good shop when you find someone who answers your questions honestly and thoroughly, when the shop is well maintained and when you don’t get the brush off when you drop by unexpectedly.

Once you’ve found the car you want, here are some tips that will help keep the project fun and prevent your first car adventure from being your last:

  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Buy the car you love, not one you think will make a fat profit. It should be a happy experience, not a stress-filled venture where you’re wondering if you’ll make money.
  • Go to shows and ask who did the work on cars you admire. Most people are happy to share their stories with you. Once you’ve gathered some names, talk to them about your car, what you want done and ask for their opinion and for referrals.
  • Join a club dedicated to your model of car.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be restored in one year.
  • Make it your own. If it came from the factory with drum brakes and no radio you can add those comforts. Some upgrades like power steering and disc brakes improve the car and make it more desirable to others.
  • Don’t be afraid to drive it. They were built to run. Taking it to the cottage won’t hurt it and bugs can be washed off. Cars are replaceable, the memories made with them aren’t.

Have more restoration questions? Email them to wheels@thestar.ca and use “Patrick Smith” in the subject line.

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