restoration and major repairs
Either you bought it as a restoration project or, after many years of use (or disuse) it’s time for some major repairs. As our interest in the AACA community is to keep antique vehicles as original and authentic as possible, we always encourage an approach that keeps your vehicle in its as-built condition. “Restomods,” or the upgrading of major components with modern versions, are not covered here.
Restoration and major repair work falls into a few categories which are covered below. Each has its own specialists. You may choose to work with a full-service restoration shop that covers all areas, or handle some of the work yourself and only farm out those you’re not comfortable doing yourself. If you don’t find what you need here, please contact us via our Contact page (in menu at top of page), or Post in our Forum.
- How Much of the Work Should You Do Yourself?
- How To Choose A Restoration Shop
- Body & Paint
How good do you want it to look, how well do you want it to run, and how much time and money do you have to spend? More importantly, what are your skill levels and, if you haven’t done it before, how much time do you have to learn and how will you do that?
As Hemmings said about the amazing car pictured to the left, “It typically takes a dedicated restoration shop and plenty of blank checks to turn out national award-winning restorations, but Richard Harding managed to take the inaugural AACA Zenith Award for the most outstanding restoration of the year with just the six years he spent restoring his 1928 Auburn 8-88 Speedster himself, except for paint and upholstery.”
While that’s certainly unusual, it does show what is possible.
On the other hand, a lot of folks take on a restoration project and, due to lack of time, money, or skills, it ends up more like the next picture on the left, i.e. in some state of disassembly, waiting to be rescued by the next owner. Were you to personally tackle a project such as that, you should figure to invest at least a couple thousand hours to complete it (that’s equivalent to a year’s full time employment), even assuming you farm out big items like engine rebuilding, upholstery, body work and paint. That includes time to disassemble, catalog all the parts, figure out which need to be replaced and finding those parts, packing and shipping items to chrome replaters, as well as refinishing items from nuts and bolts to chassis components, and then putting everything back together. If you decide to tackle the body work and paint yourself, that could add another 1,000 hours depending on the condition of the car.
This is such an enormous topic that we refer you to some very good independent (i.e. not written by a restoration shop) sources that are highly recommended. Hagerty is one of the largest insurers of antique vehicles, and Hemmings is one of the oldest and most trusted sources for just about everything in the hobby.
The paint job is one of the first things people will notice about your antique, so much effort and expense often go into this part of the restoration process. It’s also an area rife with scams involving cheap repairs that fall apart after a year or two and lousy paint jobs that can be spotted miles away by an expert. Since an educated consumer is a smart one, we’ll cover some of the basics here.
PREPARATION – this is the key to a good paint job and involves a lot of work. The actual application of paint is very quick. Most of the time and cost in producing a great product is in preparation. Here’s what that entails.
- All trim pieces, glass (windshield, etc), door latches, emblems, etc. must be removed from the vehicle. Anyone who suggests they can mask these off with tape is going to give you a finished product that will never win any awards at a judged show. It’s just not possible to eliminate the lines that will show when painting is done. If you’re looking to save money, this is one task it makes a lot of sense to do yourself.
- The body must be stripped down to bare metal. Everywhere. Any place 2 panels join and are welded together, you will have to drill out the welds, separate the panels, and clean each one. Otherwise, it is likely some corrosion (aka rust) is hiding there and will quickly break through any new paint job. When it comes down to how to do this, e.g. sandblasting, chemical stripping, or sanding, you should stay away from the first two. Sandblasting and chemical stripping will always leave residue behind which can eventually cause problems with the paint.
- Any areas that have rusted through will need to be replaced with new metal. That may be done with a replacement panel (e.g. fender) or partial panel, or in some cases will require a metal patch, or complete fabrication of a new panel. What this means is you CAN NOT bring your antique, which likely has rust issues somewhere, to a “paint shop.” The facility you use must have the ability to create new pieces of your vehicle’s body from sheets of metal, bending as needed and welding them properly into existing body parts. This is a skill that hasn’t been taught in years, and most “collision shops” are not able to provide this service.
- The process of “painting” does not begin with paint, which is only the final of many steps of preparation. There are fillers and primers, and a laborious process of sanding to eliminate all imperfections. Any almost invisible seam, imperceptible dent, or other imperfection will be magnified once paint is applied, so every single inch of the car must be carefully checked for these prior to application of finish coats of paint.
The above process is even more time consuming than it sounds and, even if there’s not much metal repair needed, a proper job can entail 300 – 500 hours of work. Multiply that by the shop’s hourly rate, add a couple thousand dollars for materials, and you have an idea of what’s required for a top notch “paint job!”
In addition to the paint, you will also be looking at repair of bumpers, trim, and other items. This usually involves both the deterioration of underlying material, which is often fragile “pot metal” that is hard or impossible to repair, and the application of a new chrome finish. There are very few suppliers in the entire country who can do a concours quality restoration of such items so, if you are particular about the results, you are well advised to shop carefully and ask around a lot before choosing one. Fortunately, for popular collector vehicles, reproduction pieces are readily available, and it will always be less expensive to purchase those than to restore original items, though some reproductions may not be up to the highest standards.
The “drivetrain” consists of all rotating parts that make the vehicle move, namely the engine, transmission, drive shaft, differential, and rear axle (for rear wheel drive cars). While some of these may be serviced separately, it’s common to do more than one at the same time as these components are all connected together and removing one usually requires removal of others.
Find a reputable engine builder who has experience with your exact engine. If we’re talking about the ubiquitous small block Chevy, or flathead Ford V8, that’s pretty easy to do. Any V12 or V16, and even many straight 8s, are another matter, and for something like that you will likely be shipping the engine to somewhere else in the country to find said expert. Don’t let anyone tell you something like “all V8s are basically the same” because the only sameness is the number of cylinders! All engines have peculiarities in design and construction, even ones of different years from the same manufacturer, and a reliable and long-lasting rebuild requires knowledge of these. Valuable and repeated advice from AACA forums on the subject include “You get what you pay for” and “Never use a shop that knows nothing about your motor.”
Before talking about the cost of an engine rebuild, let’s first explain what’s involved. Note we’re not talking about a minor repair, e.g. of a broken valve or piston or worn bearing, but the goal of an “as new” or better complete overhaul. This involves:
- Complete disassembly and cleaning.
- Inspection of all parts to see what can and cannot be reused. While it may be easier to just replace everything if you can get the parts and afford the cost, this is not possible with some engines that will require custom manufacturing or exotic repair of pistons, camshafts, and other parts.
- Machining of reusable parts to factory specifications.
- Repair of any damaged parts to be reused (e.g. cracks in head, block).
- Trial fitting of all parts. It’s not uncommon to assemble, check tolerances, disassemble, and repeat several times.
- Final assembly and, if desired, bench (dyno) testing.
As to cost, there’s no way to know that for certain until the engine has been completely disassembled and inspected, unless you make the worst case assumption that everything needs to be replaced, in which case you should probably start looking for a replacement engine. Popular engines in reasonable condition can be properly rebuilt for less than $5,000. Rare ones, and most any with 12 or 16 cylinders, can easily cost 5 to 10 times that amount.
Manual transmissions are very simple devices, especially compared with automatics, and are easy to rebuild. Unless gears or synchros are broken or excessively worn, the main cost will probably be to rebuild the clutch.
Automatics, on the other hand, require the same advice as given above for engines – find someone familiar with the one you are rebuilding. There are enormous varieties of automatic, and semi-automatic, transmissions and you probably should not send your Ultramatic to someone who has only worked on Dynaflows.
Driveshaft, Differential, Rear axle
These parts usually require no more than a good cleaning, inspection, and replacement of seals.
In the case of the more common body-on-frame construction, the suspension components are usually addressed with the resotration of the frame. This includes springs, shocks, wheels, and steering parts. Most work involves cleaning and preparation for either paint or the more durable powder coating or special plating to maintain originality if desired. Shocks should be replaced or, for those older vehicles that had them, rebuilt.
Tires are a topic of discussion regarding the substitute of newer radial ply technology for original bias ply tires. While most judging will accept such substitute, you may occasionally run into those who do not. Another tire issue involves the fact that antique vehicles are driven so few miles that your tires will likely rot out than wear out. Most experts recommend replacing tires that are more than 10 years old, regardless of how they look. Any tire with signs of cracks or deteriorating rubber must be replaced immediately.
This aspect of restoration breaks down into 2 distinct categories. Either you have a vehicle for which reproduction interior pieces are available, or you’ll have to find a specialist to reupholster the car for you. It’s easy to price the former, but the latter will depend on availability and cost of materials, and how fancy and luxurious an interior you are trying to replicate. A leather interior on a high end vehicle could easily cost $20,000 or more to do.
While you may be content to drive down the road with no idea of your engine’s temperature, oil pressure, or amount of gasoline in the tank, it does bring your vehicle to a higher level of quality to have all of them working. Repair of gauges is obviously a specialty, and you should research to find the vendors with a good reputation for quality work done on a timely basis. With newer vehicles, it often does not cost a lot to repair a whole gauge cluster, whereas with older vehicles (e.g. pre-war) it can be prohibitively expensive. You may be able to repair some of the older instruments yourself, especially if you can find information on how to do it. This is especially true of popular vehicles such as Model As, and a lot of other makes used similar technology.