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Classic cars:
6 important things to consider before restoring a classic car

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May 13, 2019
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Who hasn’t seen a lovely old classic bowling down an A road with the roof down and thought about restoring a classic car? Only those who have done it know the time, effort, money and heartache that can go into restoring a classic car. Unfortunately, many people rush into a project only to find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew – or even been sold a money pit.

Before committing to a restoration project there are a number of important things to consider, from time and money to how you feel about a given model.

We spoke to father and son Trevor and Simon Parfitt of Scott Automotive to help you ensure you have thought about your restoration project properly and choose the right one. The family-run team restore, rebuild and prepare vintage, rally and racing cars and have done so for more than 20 years. As such, the duo has worked with people on hundreds of projects – including rescuing those that have gone horribly wrong – so they’re experts in restorations of all types, from the every-day to the unique.

Do you care about the car?

There are many reasons to undertake a classic car restoration. You might want to bring back a car from your childhood, own your dream car from a favourite film or even want to make a profit from selling your restoration. Getting started with your first restoration can be a challenge, and Trevor suggests that an emotional connection to the model is what will drive you to see it through to completion.

Doc Shepherd’s A40 Farina, lovingly restored by Trevor and Simon

Do you have the time?

“The first thing to do is ignore the television programmes that say you can do this all for nothing, in two weeks,” says Trevor. “The TV shows that suggest you buy a bucket of dust and turn it into a wonderful finished car for a few quid in a week – it just doesn’t happen like that.”

Classic car restoration is a time-consuming process. While some projects might only need a few Sundays spent cleaning and rebuilding an engine, other projects can take thousands of hours over many years. Are you prepared to devote the hours it takes to sanding, rubbing, searching for parts, talking to people and driving around to collect parts or have work done?

Car restoration is about the journey, not the finished product. You must have the enthusiasm and the drive to keep going even when it all stacks against you. Old cars are stubborn, they fight you, parts are hard to find, nuts shear, bolts rust solid, the list goes on. Restoring a car is a joy, of course, but there is no escaping the fact that you’re essentially going into battle with said car. You need to prepare yourself for that. It’s easy to maintain motivation for a working car – you just take it for a drive. A car with no engine and missing panels – that’s a much bigger ask.

L-to-R: Simon showing us the panels they purchased from the original factory for the Porsche 356; a tool drawer that any restorer may have; Trevor describing why the BMW in the workshop is so rare (it has windscreen wipers on the lights).

Do you have the right mindset?

Are you a finisher? Are you impatient? Trevor says it’s important to assess whether you are the kind of person who should take on a project that takes hours and hours – especially when progress can be slow and you have little to show until later on.

“If you’re meticulous and like to get things right, you’ll end up with a nice job,” he says. “Many first-timers get frustrated by the slow progress. I’ve known people who get obsessed with paintwork because it gives the appearance of progress, whereas it’s really all the inner workings that you don’t see in a finished car which take up most of the time.”

Simon adds: “If it’s a five-year project, you can spend three or four years doing all the groundwork before you actually throw some paint on it and start to see a finished car.”

Classic American muscle car parts are surprisingly easy to come by in the UK.

What is your budget?

Classic car restoration can get very expensive, especially if you fail to correctly gauge the size of the project when you buy the car. This is why it’s important to decide how much you want to spend on the restoration and buy a car that fits the budget. We’ve created a handy guide to help you make the right decision on your project car early on.

“You can buy a good little classic that might need a few things done, for £5,000. You’ve just got to go out and find it.”

A budget of £10,000 to £20,000 will allow more options. “You can find all sorts of things for that,” says Trevor.

For those on a small budget, it’s best to choose a simple car for which expertise and parts are plentiful – for example, a Mini instead of a De Tomaso Pantera. Car restoration cost can further be controlled by the amount of work that you are prepared to do yourself. The higher the budget, the more work you will be able to outsource and the more ambitious your project can be.

The stripped De Tomaso Pantera bottom and left, and an example of a finished model.

“You can have someone who’s never picked up a spanner in their life but can afford to get somebody to do the work and help them achieve their classic car,” says Simon.

Cars that have parts that are widely available will save you time and money during the restoration process, as you won’t have to track down parts or pay for them to be made. Trevor says a Mini makes a great first restoration, because it is mechanically simple, parts are widely available and it’s a popular model – many people have lots of relevant knowledge if and when you need help.

Car clubs and the internet are invaluable for gauging how much time, money and skill is needed in restoring a car. It’s important to remember that if problems come up the restoration, costs and time can spiral – so leave some room in your budget and schedule for this.

“So many projects fail when the problems come. They seemed like a good idea at first but when the problems are uncovered people give up and either scrap it or sell it,” says Trevor.

Another consideration you need to make is that small things add up. You might look at the parts you need – £200 for a wing, £300 for glass – and think that’s in budget. But then there’s a £20 for window rubbers, £15 for primer, £10 on nuts and bolts, a few quid on some wiring, so on and so forth. It very quickly mounts up, so you need to be prepared for that.

 

A cautionary tale

“One customer bought a beautiful Bentley T2 for next to nothing – he thought it was a bargain.

“The braking system of the car has hard pressure hydraulics, which get hot when operating and swell the inner liner of the brake system, and the car has 13 brake points that are lined with a particular material. Because of this, the pipe closes up and the brakes stay on… which you’ll one day discover when you put your foot on the brakes and they don’t release.

“Eleven of the pipes are easy to change, two of them need you to take the engine and gearbox out. Our customer found that this basic, easy-sounding job to release the brakes costs £6,000 pounds. So it wasn’t such a bargain.”

What are your skills?

Assess your skills and what you’re prepared to learn to achieve your restored car. Many people learn skills such as welding, machining and body repair – there are courses for these in many colleges. “It’s all a matter of commitment level and time – the time you can put in, the money you can put in, and it all hangs on that.”

Many aspects of restoration can seem (justifiably) daunting. Trevor explains that it’s best to split the task into parts and then decide how little or how much you can do yourself – anyone can undertake important work such as cleaning and polishing while paying for someone else to do more technical work on the car.

“The one thing absolutely anybody can do is to get some detergent and a rag and clean something. Anyone can take the thing apart and get cleaning. Then you can give it to a machinist or a repairer or you buy the new parts and put it back together again.”

You might initially choose to buy a car that is just a bit tatty or rundown that could do with a clean and a tune. If you finish well and fancy something more challenging, you can always do that for your next restoration. According to Trevor, bodywork is often the most challenging part, and the engine and mechanicals more straightforward. Select a project that matches your abilities and appetite – and you can always pay for someone else to do any bits above your skill level if you have the budget for it. Seeking the advice of experienced restorers and/or the car clubs will help you make the right choice that fits within your budget.

What do you want to do with your restored car?

Trevor advises that you should consider what you want to do with the car when it’s finished – even before you choose the model. If you want to sell it, it’s important to consider how cost effective the restoration will be. If you’re not focused on selling, you may just need to consider how and where you’ll keep the car.

“You can spend £20,000 restoring a car that’s worth £5,000 when it’s finished,” Trevor says. “Are you prepared to do that? It all makes a difference: your passion, your funds, what space and room you’ve got to restore it and keep it.”

One disabled customer wanted his classic racing car collection converted so he could race – note the throttle in the steering wheel.

Conclusion

There’s plenty to consider when restoring a classic car, but most enthusiasts would agree that it’s well worth the effort. Once you’ve decided to take on a new project, there are a couple more steps before preparation can really begin:

  • Have an expert look over your potential purchase before buying – look out especially for bodywork and engine problems that can be expensive to fix
  • Work with an experienced restorer to define what needs to be done
  • Check the qualifications of anyone who you want to work on your car
  • Insure your project correctly

While Adrian Flux won’t be able to help you restore a classic car, we can help you to take care of it with our classic car insurance policy.

For more tips in this series, read Choosing your next classic car restoration project and Classic car restoration tips for beginners.

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