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Choosing your next classic car restoration project

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May 13, 2019
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Many first-time restorers are daunted or discouraged by horror stories, but with the right research and preparation, a restoration project can be a fun and immensely rewarding pursuit. The important thing is to choose the right model in the right condition to suit your budget, abilities and available space.

To help you choose your next classic car restoration project wisely, we spoke to father and son Trevor and Simon Parfitt of Scott Automotive. The family-run team restore, rebuild and prepare vintage, rally and racing cars and have done so for more than 20 years.

What model to choose?

Choosing the right car will help you to maintain your interest in the project even through difficulties. While there are many things to consider before taking on a project, you need to consider what car you would actually like to drive or show off. You’ll have more enthusiasm – and stamina – for something you have an emotional connection with. “It’s the passion that will keep the project going,” says Trevor.

To start with, you might want to make a list of all the cars you’ve owned and/or loved and investigate which suits your skills, budget and appetite for restoration.

Trevor explains that the best place to start finding information about the cars you’re interested in is at the car club. “Clubs will have lots of people who can help you,” he says.

“People who have restored cars, engineers who have done it. They’re often car mechanics themselves, they know what they’re doing. They’ll be able to tell you about the pitfalls and expenses that those cars can have, which will help you know if the car is right for you.”

Maybe you want to own your favourite car from the movies

“Classic car enthusiasts love to share their experiences of restoring cars. Finding someone who has done a similar restoration before is invaluable. Everyone has to start somewhere, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help from other enthusiasts.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” says Simon. “People are sometimes too proud, because they don’t want to seem to be stupid, but there’s no big secret to what we (as restorers) do, so ask for advice.”

Buying your classic car restoration project

Don’t let looks deceive you! Well-painted cars can trick buyers into thinking that the car is in better condition than it really is.

“There are restoration cars for sale in showrooms and forecourts that look lovely from the outside because they’re painted and polished,” says Trevor. “But you open the bonnet and it looks like a rat’s nest in the engine bay. The underpinnings aren’t there.

“When you know which model of car you want, it’s a good idea to get a second opinion on the individual car you’re interested in before actually buying it”. An expert can detect a lot more potential faults in a car than a beginner – take a look at our expert tips for first-time restorers for some insight into the signs that can easily be missed.

As Simon adds, it may cost you £100 to have an expert look over it, but it’s money you’ll save in the long run, especially considering the potential costs of hidden problems.

Uncovering the truth

“Simon went with one of our customers to look at a Porsche 928 at a garage. It was great, looked nice – really lovely. The story we were given was that it was all original, never been restored, painted or crashed. Perfect.

An example of a Porsche 928

“But Simon looked around and, because he knows what he’s doing, checked the part number code on the rear bumper. He noticed that the part number on the bumper suggested the part was only two years old – so it wasn’t original after all.

“Simon challenged the guy – ‘what else isn’t original?’ He started telling Simon the truth: all the things that they knew were wrong with the car. The garage ended up replacing £3,500 worth of parts before the customer bought it. And for the same price. So it was well worth taking Simon.”

Killer filler and the acid test

Filler is a plastic paste that you spread and rub to fill out bodywork and give it a good-looking finish. However, overuse of it is a major problem with old cars that have had work done on them before, and can hide rust and corrosion in the metal underneath. “You can have a perfect looking car that runs well, but the whole thing can be totally rotten and held together with filler.”

Restorers like Trevor and Simon will often strip the car and dip the whole chassis in a tank of acid to get rid of filler so they know exactly what they’re dealing with – where the hidden problems are – so they can properly assess what needs to be done.

A car made of filler

“There was an instance where the dipper we know put a Hillman Imp in the acid tank and got nothing out.

An example of a Hillman Imp

“The owner took them to court, and said that they had wrecked his car. But they told me later that odd little lumps floated up, but the hooks came out with nothing on them. The car had just completely disappeared.

“The body of the car had been so thin and lacy as there was little of the original metal left. After previous careless restorations, most of the body was just filler. The acid just ate through everything. And that’s what can be hiding under some of these cars.”

Luckily, there is a clever trick to check a car for filler before you buy it. Trevor tells us that you can buy a strong magnet, put it in a rag and carefully place it in various places on the bodywork. If it doesn’t stick, then there is no metal – you’re just looking at filler. “It’s a simple, tiny thing,” says Trevor, “but it can save you a lot of money.”

“You can also buy a paint measuring tool for £400 that measures the thickness of the paint,” says Trevor. “By researching the car you know how thick the paint should be. Then go along the body panels and see if the thickness changes. If it’s suddenly three times as thick, the chances are it’s been resprayed, or there’s filler under there. Or, if you get no reading, there isn’t any metal – it’s just paint and filler.

“£400 might sound like a lot of money, but if you’re going to spend – and some people do – £30,000 on a classic car, all of a sudden it becomes worth it because you didn’t buy a wreck by accident. I bought one and I’ve already saved about ten times the cost of the meter.”

Checking the engine

Trevor explains that before you choose a vehicle for your classic car project, there are lots of tools you can use to check for engine problems. If you’re not experienced with engines yourself, it’s always a good idea to bring someone with more experience along to help. “There are things that people like us, mechanics and even enthusiasts with experience, can tell you. If you’re not a mechanic type, find someone to have a look at the car for you.

“You can use a compression tester, a tool you insert in the engine plug hole, to test the compressions of an engine. “It will tell you the condition of the rings and valves in the engine. You can also use a leak-down tester to see if valves are leaking, and you can take off the radiator cap and do a sniff test of the water to see if there’s any oil in it.

“You can tell a lot just from driving a car and doing certain things when you do. For example, try to start it with the brakes on, this will tell you if the clutch is slipping.

“Try starting the car from low down, in high gear, and see whether things start to shake and rattle, whether it’s pinking – it’ll tell you the condition of the cylinder head. There are so many things that we and other specialists can do with a car to check its condition.”

Under the hood of the Camaro

Whether you’re buying privately, at auction or from a garage, “it’s all about being prepared and not being afraid to ask for help,” says Trevor.

Those with experience love it when people are interested in their cars and are generally happy to help other enthusiasts begin their restoration journeys. “Most enthusiasts would rather see somebody go and buy a good car, than just be destroyed by losing a lot of money as well as their wonderful picture of this hope in the future and this lovely car.”

Protecting your project with insurance

It’s important to insure your project – whatever state it’s in. This is particularly important with restoration projects as you will be adding value to the project as you work on it.

A specialist insurer such as Adrian Flux will also be able to offer you agreed value cover. Many insurers only pay out the ‘market value’ of your car if you suffer a total loss whereas Adrian Flux assess your car and agrees cover for its true value, so you won’t get a nasty surprise if you need to make a claim.

Ask for advice on insuring your classic car restoration project. You can email us at [email protected] or call us on 0800 369 8590.

We hope you enjoyed this article and feel armed with the relevant skills and knowledge to pick the right project. For more tips in this series, read Things to consider before restoring a classic car and Classic car restoration tips for beginners.

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