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Many classic car enthusiasts like the idea of restoring one. Some actually do it. Of those that do, many bite off more than they can chew. It’s not rare to discover hidden problems as you begin to dismantle a car – this can often mean increased costs or that the restoration has to be abandoned completely.
To help the process run smoothly, we visited experienced restorers Trevor and Simon Parfitt from Scott Automotive at their premises in Red Lodge, Suffolk. The team have decades of experience restoring everything from unique racing cars to American muscle cars and British classics, some from little more than a half-rusted chassis.
Preparing to restore
How to prepare
Preparation for any project of this size, scale and value is essential and there are lots of things to check and ready before you start. For example, speak to the car club and/or someone who has experience in car restoration to ask what you might need for your particular project, from knowledge to tools and space. But don’t go into it thinking that this will set you up completely. Every car is different, and every car has hidden secrets. This is where specialist forums and magazines are good, as they may be able to tune you in to common bodges and horrors that you might find along the way.
A restoration can be done in a normal-sized garage, but not having enough space can be inconvenient and may cause unnecessary delays.
“If you rub down a particular piece to stop it going rusty, you’ll need to spray over it to protect it,” says Trevor. “Then you need to do another piece, and when you’re finished you’ll need to rub it all off again before you start on the next thing, so any extra space you can find comes in useful, as it allows you to work on more pieces at once.”
Furthermore, space is the key to productivity. Many a project has found itself buried in the garage. If you have to dig the car out every time you want to work on it, or you find yourself clattering your elbows and knees, you’re going to lose motivation. An organised, clear space is an absolute must. The space then becomes for the car, rather than for junk.
The most essential tools are ones that you may already have: spanners, pliers, hammers and screwdrivers. These tools will allow you to pick apart and reassemble most classic cars. “For more specialised tools, there are companies such as Frost that make all sorts of useful tools that don’t cost a huge amount to buy. Also, buy a telescopic magnet – you’ll thank us when you drop a nut or bolt deep into the engine bay!
“There’s a particular thing called an English wheel,” says Trevor. “It’s a very expensive piece of kit, and it’s what panel men use to bend and fold curved panels. You probably won’t make an E-type out of it, but if you need to make a little piece or repair a bump, you can. They also make little things called shrinkers and stretchers, and they make lots of body type tools.”
Heavy duty, specialised machines can be essential at certain points, so you will need to find someone with those tools to get work done when your project requires it. For example, Trevor has a very rare machine that allows the angles of small elements to be measured precisely for parts that need to be made.
“Most restorers won’t buy these large and expensive pieces of equipment, but you can find professionals who have them to work on specifics.”
This machine costs £1,900 and some restorers buy them for specific projects and sell them on afterwards.
How to know what needs to be done
Trevor and Simon confirm that the internet has become the most essential tool for finding out what you need to do and how to do it when it comes to vintage car restoration – from car club sites and forums that share manuals to ‘how to’ videos on YouTube.
“You used to have to go and buy a workshop manual,” says Trevor. “And they’re still nice to have, but today all the information is so readily available on the internet.”
“The important thing to remember is that there’s always someone who can help you and who knows what needs to be done. Someone will have done the same restoration project before, and finding a person with experience of your particular car is invaluable.”
Ask them the model’s weaknesses, particular areas to check. You should also ask a professional to look at the car and give you a list of things that need doing (even if you think you already know). This will allow you to plan what you will do and what needs to be done externally – also aiding budgeting.
Choosing people to do the work
It’s important to choose the right people to work with, as mistakes can be disastrous: costing you money and time – or even ruining the car completely. Someone may know more than you, but they still might not be the right person to tackle certain aspects of your restoration. And it’s essential that anyone you approach is qualified to do that particular work on that particular model.
The availability of parts and panels is one of the most common issues for first time restorers. Without doing research, it’s hard to know which cars will have parts that are easily available and which will have parts that are much harder to acquire.
“You would think it’s easier to find parts for UK cars but that’s not always true,” explains Trevor. “Parts for MGs and Minis are always around – but they’re probably the exception. In fact, there’s probably more support for American cars in the UK.”
“The number of American cars that you can buy absolutely everything for here in the UK is far greater than UK cars. You can build a brand new Mustang, Camaro or Corvette if you like. Volkswagens are also well supported, especially the campers and the Type IIs.”
Choose a car where the parts are well supported in your local areas so that you don’t get bogged down trying to find them or having to have them made specially. Again, the internet is an essential tool for finding and buying parts and many car clubs operate simply as parts dealers for restorers. You can also take a look at our guide to choosing the right restoration project for help finding the perfect vehicle.
Trevor adds that, when you do find parts, it’s good to buy extra ones so you can maintain the car in the future.
Some parts aren’t readily available and you may have to make them. This isn’t usually as daunting as it sounds, but it’s important to have a clear idea of your own skills and limitations before you begin. While you may not be able to make a wing, lots of basic elements – washers, discs, plates, nuts and other threaded items – can be made with simple tools and materials.
“If it needs to be cut, filed or drilled – then you can make the part,” says Trevor.
“Any part can be made if you have the skills and tools required but it’s best for first-time restorers to buy or have someone else make any larger or more complex pieces. For example, casting is something that you might want to leave for someone else if you don’t have experience in it.
“You might be able to make small parts if you can weld, but it depends on the quality of the welder you buy, your abilities and what you want to learn.”
While getting to work on an engine may seem intimidating, Trevor explains that it is one of the easier things to mend. “If you can follow the instructions and know how to use basic tools, they are not that complicated to work with. If you’re competent with spanners, measuring and cleaning things, then you can restore an engine.
“When you take apart an engine you should have the parts chemically cleaned. This is something that you may choose to have done in an engine shop where they have proper chemical cleaners.”
Engine diagrams and guides as well as information on things like torque settings and how tight your nuts and bolts should be is readily available on the internet for many classic cars.
Trevor says that while stripping, cleaning and making a few engine parts is eminently achievable, if you need to rebuild a whole engine, it might be best to ask a specialist. “You can often find complete rebuilt engines readily available and you can simply trade in your old one with an engine shop. Normally, if you go to an engine rebuilder like Ivor Searle in Soham, you can just take your old engine, say: ‘I want an A Series’ and if they haven’t got one in stock, they’ll rebuild yours. They’ll have most Ford engines in stock, for example, completely rebuilt.”
Bodywork often turns out to be the hardest part of a restoration project, as it requires skills and tools that most hobbyists won’t have. Most people can use a screwdriver and some will learn to weld, but generally only specialists can beat panels.
As Trevor explains, the car body is the area where most unseen problems can emerge – especially if you didn’t have expert eyes looking at it when you bought it. “With E-types, because of the design of the cradle, dirt and rubbish builds up on top of the cradle by the axle, which then forms a complete arch across the back and the fuel tanks. That means when you drop the back axle out and you take the cradle out, you uncover three things more than the thing you went in to do! Your project list gets longer and that can happen a lot with bodywork.”
The availability of replacement panels depends entirely on the car. When Trevor restored ‘Doc’ Shepherd’s A40 Farina, it took him some time to find panels for it. And when he did, he bought all he could to make it easier to keep the car in good condition in the future.
Other cars will have body panels widely available. “Some of the panels are available, but not all of them by any means. Original ones are still turning up and we buy them whenever we can,” Trevor explains. “The Camaros, MGBs, MG Midgets, Sprites, Minis, are just some of the cars where finding panels isn’t an issue. First-time restorers might want to look into some of those cars to eliminate the issue of finding panels right from the beginning.
“Fitting panels can be more complicated. If the panels are bolted on, it’s generally not too much of an issue. Cars with monocoque bodies – such as the E-Type and A40 – require welding, and you will want to leave fitting the panels to specialists unless you have welding experience yourself. If you’ve got a car that’s welded, the bodywork is always much, much harder.”
“Rot can also be a problem. It’s just a matter of finding new panels to replace rotten ones.” Trevor shows us a De Tomaso Pantera which needed new panels for essentially the whole bottom half of the car, including the doors.
Simon explains that many first-timers make the mistake of painting their car too soon.
“People want it to look nice straightaway, so the first thing they do is paint it and it’s the wrong thing to do. Painting is usually one of the last things you do – because you don’t want to drill holes through a painted finish if there’s more work to be done.
“A lot of people are frustrated by the speed of their restoration and painting it feels like you’re making progress. It’s best to have a running car before finishing it off with paint. We often strip cars to a completely bare shell, and build it completely to a running car in bare metal dry. We make sure every hole has been drilled and all wiring runs fit prior to stripping it all back down to a bare shell for painting.”
“The mechanical components are usually easier to work on than bodywork”, says Trevor. He explains that you’re more likely to find these parts and installing them can usually be done using the tools an amateur enthusiast might have. If there are more complicated mechanical issues in your car – or you’ve just got stuck – you can always have an experienced mechanic do as much or as little as you want.
Trevor says that classic car electrics are something that first-timers can take on, as long as you’re comfortable with basic tools and following instructions, but you can also get someone to do them for you.
“Electrics can still take time and money, but dynamos, alternators, starter motors – they’re all repairable.”
Complete looms – electrical circuits – are also commonly available for many classic cars, and can be bought and installed by a specialist. When complete looms aren’t available, looming a car yourself is possible for first timers to do, but can take considerable time and detailed work.
“You can get wire, you can buy connectors, there are enough circuit diagrams to show which wire goes where – it’s all doable. If you buy a little kit with the right tools anybody can do it as long as they’re methodical and they get the right things in the right places.”
Trevor warns us that upholstery is something many first-timers are underprepared for as it’s not something that’s essential for the operation of the car. Doing upholstery well is a very difficult job: “The structure of a seat is actually quite complex and you’ll need a specialist to get it right.”
For some classic cars, interior kits are still being manufactured and you can simply buy what you need. “These can cost £2,000 to £3,000 depending on the model. You will then just need to put in the interior yourself or pay for someone to do it.
“You can buy complete E-Type, MGB, Sprite and Mini interiors. There are upholstery companies who manufacture covers in all the colours with the springs and everything.”
If you really want to work on the upholstery yourself, you can learn the skills needed, such as stitching. You will need to also get some specialist tools because: “the materials – leather, piping, foams – are heavier than ordinary cloth and your home sewing machine won’t be able to cope with it.”
There is a wide range of materials and skills you need: “It’s having the grey hessian mat material that will give you support under your seat. And the foam that sits on top of that to have the comfort. And then there’s springs and the elastic straps that go underneath that.”
Protecting your project with insurance
For first-time car restorers, insurance is often placed far down the list of priorities. However, it can be one of the most valuable steps you can take to protect the value of your car – 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. Get in touch with a specialist insurer such as Adrian Flux who will be able to give you agreed value cover, or take a look at the rest of our classic car insurance policies.
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 Choosing Your Next Classic Car Restoration Project.