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Vol. 2, No. 16
August 8, 2004

Auto Restoration: Where To Begin
by Ken Wilson

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage

Is there a right way and a wrong way to restore a classic car? Certainly there is! Today's amateur restorer has more information available to them than ever before on how to make repairs at home, what does and doesn't work, and which things are best left to professionals. However all too often we find restorations in progress where mistakes have been made that could be very expensive to repair down the road.

For instance, when you begin with a car that's deteriorated, you need to make sure it's a good candidate for a restoration. Cars with rusty or bent frames need to have repairs made to the frame before anything else is done. You must make sure the structural integrity of the car is stable, or everything else done is a waste of time and money. A car that's unsound structurally is unsafe. It should not be driven on the road, it should not be jacked up, you should not work underneath it, and it should not be trusted. We've seen Thunderbird Convertibles come in with frames and bodies so deteriorated that the doors couldn't be opened, the body had literally sagged so much that the doors were wedged shut by the front fender and rear quarter panel. We've seen other cars that were one pothole in the road away from having the frame fail, with the car not being able to support its own weight any longer, due to the rear shock absorber top supports literally eaten away by rust. In fact, we couldn't tell what prevented the car body from hitting the pavement it was so bad! Vehicles in this condition are best stripped and sent to the crusher, painful as that may be. The only exception should be an extremely rare car, or one with so much sentimental value that money is no object, because restoration costs can easily double on seriously rusted cars. We also have to wonder why a car with so much sentimental value would be allowed to deteriorate in the first place.

We've heard people say that anything can be restored, and that might be true given an endless supply of time and money. Most restorers have a budget to stay within, and most would prefer to be able to drive the finished car before they're too old to really enjoy it, so these are very realistic considerations. Quite often, the car intended to be restored ends up being a parts car for another, due to structural problems that are discovered after a purchase. This is not the ideal time to discover structural problems, especially after a lot of time and money has been spent, but this is often the case, since many cars can't be inspected thoroughly before purchase. This is especially true of cars that have been sitting so long they've actually started sinking into the ground! What lies beneath the soil line can be badly deteriorated, although that isn't always the case. We've been surprised a few times at how well preserved a car can be, even though it's been neglected for decades.

So where do you begin when restoring a classic car? Is there a particular order to the process? There is, and we're going to list the steps, in order, below:

1. Make sure the frame and body are structurally sound. Any rust through or crumbling metal must not be in areas that affect mechanical, body rigidity, body mounting, or suspension support areas.

2. Make sure the brakes are in proper working order. Brake lines must not be bent or corroded, all flexible rubber lines must be replaced, and brake fluid must be flushed and refilled with fresh fluid. The types of brake fluid typically used in classic cars actually attract and absorb moisture, so brake components can often corrode from the inside out. YOU MUST BE ABLE TO STOP YOUR CAR, REGARDLESS OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES, so brakes take top priority after ensuring the car is sound enough to restore.

3. Steering and suspension components must be attended to immediately after the braking system is done. The car must steer where you guide it, and it must have good shock absorbers and springs in order for the driver to maintain control of the car under all road conditions. A car that bounces, leans excessively on turns, or suffers from loose or sloppy steering is unsafe, and should not be driven.

4. The electrical system is next. Wiring harnesses and connections should be carefully inspected for problems, and repairs made before installing a battery. Don't connect a battery without making an inspection of the wiring first, to do so risks burning up a harness, or shorting out electrical components. Locate and clean all ground wires, as they play a very important part in the overall performance of the electrical system. Bad grounds can cause some very strange things to happen, so spend the time now and save yourself a lot of time and frustration later. Install new battery cables, they are inexpensive and critical to a properly functioning charging system. For safety's sake, always wear safety glasses and turn your face away when connecting a battery, as they CAN and DO explode.

5. The fuel system is next. Remove the gas tank and clean it out. Do this in an area with good ventilation and no chance of any sparks. Wear something to protect your hands and face, old gas can be very caustic. Flush out the fuel lines, check for wear and/or corrosion along the full length of the lines, and remove and rebuild the carburetor. The gaskets and seals in the carb are old, and you don't want it spitting fuel on your engine. Install a new fuel filter as well. Depending on the condition of the gas tank, it might need to be replaced or coated before it is filled up with fresh fuel.

6. Now you need good tires. Even if the tread looks good, tires can still be unsafe. Do not take a chance with your safety, or the safety of others by driving on old tires. Replace them, and if you aren't going to be driving the car much during the next few years, install the most inexpensive set you can find, new bottom of the line tires are better than old top of the line tires. Make sure they're balanced and that the wheels they're mounted on aren't bent, rusty, or damaged. For more information on tires, read Car Tires: Appearances Can Be Deceiving.

At this point, after completing everything listed above, the car is ready to be driven short distances safely to determine what other mechanical systems might need additional attention. You will likely still need to replace the radiator and heater hoses and clamps, flush out the cooling system, change the transmission fluid and filter, change the engine oil and filter, replace the fan belts, spark plugs, air filter, and all other normal maintenance items. Save yourself future headaches and install a new gas cap and radiator cap as well, these things always seem to get overlooked during the initial mechanical start up, and can cause strange problems down the road.

Continue to go through the mechanical and accessory systems to make repairs as needed, you will likely need to repair or replace the radiator, alternator, regulator, starter, starter solenoid, master cylinder, brake vacuum booster, water pump, fuel pump, fan clutch, shock absorbers, and anything else that can deteriorate with age. You want to get as much of this as possible out of the way before tackling any cosmetic areas. Careful as a repair shop may be with your new upholstery and paint, damage is likely to occur, and its best to have as much as possible done prior to any cosmetic work, since cosmetics can be easily damaged, and having to go back and make repairs can be frustrating and expensive.

7. Interior trim should be the next thing you do. Make sure to tell the trim shop what your expectations are before the work begins. If you want to make sure the pleats on the cushion line up perfectly with the pleats on the seat backs, tell them before work is started. If you want them to match exactly the amount of puffiness between the pleats, or the thickness of the piping, they need to know this before hand.

8. Paint is usually best left for the very last, although if a car has a convertible or vinyl top, those things are generally the last to be installed. Allow plenty of time for the paint to cure before exposing it to water or any type of environmental fallout. Cars with vinyl tops will benefit from additional drying time before the vinyl top is installed. This will provide a better surface under the vinyl, and will be more resistant to rust in the years ahead.

Tip: Make sure the paint under the vinyl roof is of the same quality as the body of the car, and make sure any cutting of the vinyl material is done only after something metal is placed between the car and the vinyl. You don't want a careless trim shop employee scratching your paint when he trims the vinyl top to fit. We've seen this happen, (often at the factory when the car was built), and years later rust will start showing up under your vinyl top moldings.

9. Install exterior bumpers, chromed items, stainless trim, moldings, etc., after paint has had time to cure. You don't want to scratch your new paint because a piece of trim slips while it's being installed. Take your time, and protect nearby areas when installing trim pieces, as sharp edges can scratch paint faster than you can blink your eyes!

All too often we've seen people begin a restoration on a car where important safety issues are overlooked in an attempt to make the appearance of the car more acceptable. This is absolutely the wrong thing to do! Shiny new paint and sparkling chrome won't be of any value when your brakes or steering fail. And a car that isn't mechanically sound, left at the side of the road because it won't run is an invitation to theft or vandalism.

You will appreciate your classic car so much more if you tend to the safely and mechanical things first, then deal with appearance items. The true joy of owning and driving a classic car comes when you know it works as good as it looks, and that it will safely get you where you want to go and back home again.

Copyright © 2004 Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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