Last updated: February 2020
The Complete and Unequivocal
Classic car enthusiasts are a breed apart. If you are the kind of person who dreams of restoring a vintage vehicle as well as driving one, then it’s important to have a plan in place.
From finding your vintage car in the first place and sourcing vital replacement parts to choosing the right garage and buying the best tools, there’s a steep learning curve involved. For the majority of classic car enthusiasts, this is a once in a lifetime labour of love.
This complete guide to classic car restoration is intended as a starting point for beginners who are thinking about taking the plunge.
The great news is that there are many classic car groups around the UK. You’ll often find events taking place across all four corners, locations where manic Mini motorists, faithful Morris Minor fans and American classic car nuts rub shoulders and share tips.
They’re well worth getting involved with if you are thinking of becoming a vintage car owner yourself, not least for the fantastic vehicles that are often on show. You’ll get to know many people who have already taken the plunge and restored their own cars and that knowledge is invaluable.
This is a big, big question and you need to consider it carefully. Of course, a lot depends on what type of car takes your fancy.
An even more complicated question you need to answer at the same time is how large a restoration project you want to undertake. An old MG that needs repanelling and some new suspension is a different challenge to a corroded old Rolls Royce Phantom that’s been stuck in a back yard for the last twenty years.
Your choice of classic car will also define the expertise you need during your restoration. With a common classic like the Morris Minor, there’s plenty of expertise to draw on. Something rarer will mean that you’ll have to hunt around for the right advice and a garage that can help you with the restoration.
The most popular classic cars in the UK include the Mini, Jaguar E-Types, Mercedes, Morris Minors and American cars like Chevrolets and Corvettes. In the end, your choice may come down to personal taste but there’s also the issue of availability and your budget.
A car that is in poor condition may well cost less but it’s also going to take more cash to put it right again.
By the way, if you’ve always wanted to own Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang from the movie Bullitt, just note that it recently got sold to a mystery buyer for $3.74 million.
Some people buy a classic car or decide to restore one because they have a passion for it, others are looking for an investment. The latter is a challenge and success depends on a range of factors. There’s a good deal of activity on the classic car market at the moment but that hasn’t always been the case.
You have more chance of making a decent profit over time if you are restoring a classic rather than buying it in decent condition. You may still have to put in plenty of money to get it to operating condition and this factor needs to be taken into account. It’s important to do as much research as possible so you have a realistic idea of what can be achieved.
You’ll need to factor in restoration costs but also ongoing maintenance to keep your ride in tip-top condition. While Stirling Moss’s old Ferrari sold for $38 million in 2014, your investment is likely to be measured in thousands rather than anything above six figures.
Can you restore a vintage vehicle if you have absolutely no experience?
The answer is yes but it’s going to largely depend on your commitment and how willing you are to learn. This is truly a labour of love and one which most of those close to you, including family and friends, will find mystifying.
Be prepared for a steep learning curve and the fact that this is going to take a lot longer than you actually think. It’s always really, really useful to have a garage to call on that has a lot of experience dealing with classic car restorations and can help you out with the bigger jobs that require specialist equipment. There aren’t large numbers of them but they are worth getting to know.
As we said before, joining in with the local classic car community is a good idea as there is often a wealth of knowledge and skill that you should be able to draw on.
If nothing convinces you not to undertake a monumental task such as a classic car restoration, you have just become part of an exclusive club. Be warned, it is likely to be highly addictive and become your way of life in next to no time.
The first step is to find the car that you want to restore. Yes, this is largely a matter of personal preference but it’s also about availability. Classic cars are rare on the ground. You might be lucky and find one left to you in an old aunt or uncle’s will and that’s the reason you’re considering restoration.
For others, the best place to find classic cars is online nowadays. You’ll find listings on sites like eBay and you may even pick up a bargain or two. Businesses like Classic Car Auctions regularly hold sales and you can often pick up a bargain.
Whatever method you choose, it’s important to never buy sight unseen. The last thing you want is a restoration that is well beyond your capabilities or one that isn’t quite what you were looking for.
It’s difficult to offer tips for such a big undertaking. A lot will depend on the amount of restoration that is required to get your car on the road and your own capabilities as a mechanic. If you are complete beginner, we advise choosing a vehicle that only requires relatively minor restoration work to be carried out.
If you dream is to bring an old wreck back from the brink, however, here are some useful tips to bear in mind:
Many common classics have a club somewhere in the UK and it’s a great place to get support and guidance. Even for rarer cars, you should be able to find a niche group that understands what you are going through. With social media an platforms like Skype, you don’t have to limit yourself to the UK either – going further afield, especially if you opt for a really rare car can widen your options.
The one thing most classic car restoration buffs agree on is that the learning curve is steep and challenging. You’ve got to be prepared to learn from as many resources as possible. That’s why it’s helpful to have a buddy who’s been through the same process. That’s if you can find them.
Restoring a classic car requires space and you need more than a cramped garage. You’ll also need a pretty wide selection of tools including an impact wrench, air compressor, paint stripper, grinder, auto jig and maybe even a car lift.
Obviously, this is going to cost a substantial amount of money which is why you need to consider what work you want to offload to a third-party specialist.
You may be an ace mechanic and have all the skills you need. Most of us, however, will need the safety net of a specialist garage that we can call on when needed. You probably won’t have all the equipment you need so that’s another reason for forming a good relationship with a nearby classic car garage.
The older your classic is, the more difficult it will be to find original parts. With any restoration, there is a trade-off between what is desired and what is actually achievable. That means you need to bite your lip and compromise on occasion.
One mistake newbie classic car restorers make is having too high expectations. It’s important to be realistic, for example, about how much time and money a particular part of the restoration is going to take. Try to keep your feet on firm ground at all times.
One of the biggest challenges beginner classic car enthusiasts face when restoring a vehicle is keeping the costs under control. That’s why it’s important to build a network of experts that you can trust and call on when needed. Hopefully, they won’t steer you in the wrong direction.
Our advice is to understand what work needs undertaking and to set aside cash for the jobs that are going to cost excessive amounts. Be prepared to bargain more often than not. Haggling is a good skill to have if you are restoring a classic.
There’s no point repairing the engine if the frame is rusted and can’t hold the weight. With any classic car restoration, there’s a natural order to things and it’s important to have a good plan in place from the start.
It’s a good idea to put together a calendar of work that needs to be done and when you want to achieve each step by.
You will be forgiven for going at your restoration hell-bent for leather because you’re so excited about getting to the end. This is a mistake and generally means you don’t get the restoration completed properly. Don’t be frightened of taking a break and stepping back. Coming to the challenge of restoration with a fresh mind is the easiest way to ensure you end up with a fully functioning vintage model by the end of your process.
One thing we can say for sure is that your restoration will take longer than you think. Don’t cut corners because you are in a hurry.
Once your restoration is complete, it’s important to have a full inspection by a qualified mechanic to make sure it’s ready for the road. This should go beyond the simple MOT. With any restoration, there may be the potential for problems further down the line.
This is also a good time to put in place a regular maintenance regime to keep your classic car in top condition once you start taking it out on the road.
We’ve touched on what tools you need to carry out a classic car restoration but it’s worth going into greater detail. First of all, if you don’t own a decent toolset it’s undoubtedly going to grow considerably as you move through your restoration.
Our advice is to buy the best quality you can – low priced tools generally deliver low-quality results.
If you are doing most of the restoration in your own garage space, here is the bare minimum you will need:
This is actually just the start – for each job, however, you need to make sure you have access to the right tools. Never try to use a tool for something other than its intended purpose.
Once you’ve got all the tools together, your garage is ready and you’ve bought the classic or found it in a backyard somewhere, it’s time to start your restoration.
Each car is going to be different, of course, but these are the some of the basic steps you are going to come across and which you will need to address if you are carrying out a full restoration:
Perfect planning prevents pretty poor performance (or words to that effect). Don’t rush into the first job without having a plan sketched out for your restoration. First of all, you need to have an idea of what you want your classic car to look like when you have finished. This can also be a great motivating factor. Search online for images and pin them up around the garage.
Planning covers everything from the tools you need, the people you are going to use to help with the restoration, the budget and timescale you want to work to and the amount of research you are going to need to do.
The biggest part is setting out your plan of action – what you are going to do first, what you are going to leave until last, what jobs need you to take the car to a local specialist garage and what you can complete yourself. Give yourself a realistic time to complete each stage of the restoration.
And write it down in detail. Don’t scribble a few notes you won’t be able to decipher later, give each stage a heading and a list of tasks to complete. This is your blueprint and it’s essential. Don’t forget to include budget estimates so that you can keep your costs relatively under control.
Now it’s time to take a deep breath and start stripping your classic car.
Here’s our most important tip to date: Your smartphone is your friend. Document everything you do by taking photos. That means snapping the initial state of the car part that you are working on and creating a document of where everything goes. In addition, label parts that you remove and where they go and keep them in order.
This is fairly extreme in the way that the car is dismantled and many vintage car restorations won’t need all of the steps included here. It’s just to give you an idea of the order in which you should do things.
If you are going to need rare replacement parts it’s also a good time to start reaching out to classic car communities to see if you can find these.
The next big step is stripping off the bodywork and removing paint. This can be a big job and it’s a long one if you are doing it by stripping off with, for example, a wire brush on a grinder. Sanding and paint stripper may be effective on some parts but they will not clean difficult areas properly.
The easiest way to get the whole car stripped is with blasting or an acid dip. This will need to be done professionally at a specialist garage and could cost around £1,000. It’s only when you have properly stripped the car that you can identify any problems underneath. The trouble is that paint can actually cover a multitude of sins.
If you have bought an old car, the likelihood is that you’ll now spot parts where there are dents and dings as well as rust and other damage. You can use a mix of approaches to fix these but many will require specialist skill. One option is to cut out the damage part and replace it with a steel patch. Simply treating corroded metal might be easier to do but is no more than a stopgap.
Some parts may be so damaged that it’s sensible and cost-effective to simply replace them or have them refashioned. In the end, most cars will require at least some filling.
The final step is to paint and seal the metal using an etch primer. As with any painting, it’s important to make sure that the surface is clean and clear of dust. The next step is to use a high build primer. This needs to be sanded down once dried before the various parts are painted.
This is a particularly rewarding time in classic car restoration as you can be begin to see, at last, things taking shape.
Once the bodywork has been repaired and resprayed, the next big job is turn your attention to the classic car engine. You need to make a decision on whether you want to recondition or upgrade, perhaps to a more fuel-efficient engine.
Upgrading certainly involves finding a new engine that fits the model and which is suitable for it. If you are doing this, one of the most challenging problems is going to be remodelling the engine housing as well as how the rewiring fits into the new structure.
Most people go for reconditioning as they want to maintain as much of the original design as possible. Reconditioning can involve something as simple as replacing seals and restoring parts like the water pump and timing belt if the engine is in reasonably good condition.
You may also want to get specialist input at this stage to check which parts are worn out and need to be replaced.
As we said earlier, replacing like for like on certain classic cars can be challenging. Some models like the Morris Minor or Mini have a fairly regular supply source because there are still a lot on the roads. Other cars are more difficult. This is where compromise often comes into the restoration process.
Cleaning and repairing involves removing items such as the alternator, power steering pump, air conditioning pump, manifolds and cooling pipes which can be pretty messy and time-consuming. Again, make sure that you photo everything and label parts so that you can get everything back together again. Some parts may need to be sent away for professing stripping down and tolerance testing and it’s important to do this if you don’t have the expertise.
It’s a good idea (a very good idea!) to rebuild your engine out of the car body as it should then fit in as before. This might sound simple advice but it’s surprising the number of classic car restorers who have gotten it the wrong way round.
You’ve done all the big tasks and your car is beginning to look as good as new. There’s still a lot to do, however. You need to put in the brake and fuel system and deal with the suspension. Then there’s the wiring and putting in the cooling system.
The final jobs are fitting the exhaust system and putting in the glass before reinstalling the upholstery and any comfort upgrades that you may have decided to include (such as a dashcam or new alarm system).
Not all classic cars are made equal and some may need specialist knowledge and work carried out on them. Generally, the older the vintage vehicle, the more likely you are to need something or other made to order. This could include things like:
How long is a piece of string? That’s one answer that comes to mind. There are many factors that will affect your classic car restoration, not least the age of the vehicle and the condition it is in.
One garage put the cost of a full restoration at between £15,000 and £40,000 which probably doesn’t help much. The truth is that, until you know what work needs to be done on your car it’s difficult to get a handle on the budget.
We’re sorry that we can’t deliver a definitive answer on costs but they are notoriously difficult to gauge. All we can say is that a ‘light’ classic car restoration job could cost as little as £2,000. If there is major work that needs undertaking it’s going to be a whole lot more.
Much comes down to the amount you want to spend, the enthusiasm you have for the project and whether you want to make a profit or not.
You might be surprised that there are a few courses around for this rather niche undertaking. According to the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, the UK needs around 1,000 specialists in vintage car restoration. There are apprentices available and some courses are open to hobbyists who undertaking their own restorations.
It’s a good idea to search your local area to see if courses are being run but expect to have to go further afield if you want specific classic car tutorship. Contour Autocraft, for example, has a vehicle body restoration course they run.
If you can’t find a specific course designed for classic cars, it’s a good idea to find simple mechanic courses that will give you a good base knowledge.
The problem is that these courses generally run over a period of time and you have to wait to learn the skills you need. If you are relatively confident in your abilities but just want to know how to go about a particular job, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of resources online.
One place where you will find plenty of resources about classic cars is online. YouTube is also pretty good for before and after videos as well as tips and tutorials. These are often produced by enthusiasts, many are made by garages and mechanics and there seems to be a video for practically everything.
Take this tutorial for restoring a classic car steering wheel:
Or this introduction to restoring an old VW Beetle:
There are a host of other resources online for classic car restoration and they are well worth searching out.
The key to using the internet is to make your search as specific as possible. You will generally find an article or video to help you out if you look hard enough. Creating your own site for your restoration is also quite a good idea as it can attract like-minded people who you build a connection with.
The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs is another site to bookmark and has a number of different resources that could prove useful in your restoration.
Another thing you might like to look for is classic car events. These are held across the UK throughout the year and are a great way to mingle with enthusiasts from all walks of life. Some are formal events, others are more informal.
One thing you may find invaluable in your restoration is access to a specialist garage. If you don’t have one near you, searching out a mechanic with a good deal of knowledge and understanding of classic cars is important.
The garages that solely focus on classic car restoration are few and far between and they can be expensive options. For some repair work, however, they may be the only sensible option.
If you are choosing a garage that has ‘some’ experience of working vintage vehicles, it’s a good idea to start building a relationship with them from the moment you get your classic car.
Tell them what you are planning to do and ask if they will be able to help with certain jobs and try to get some understanding of what they are likely to charge. Also check out their facilities and make sure they have the right equipment to service your needs.
Restoring a vintage vehicle is no easy undertaking. That’s why most people who decide to devote their time (and sometimes their whole life) to renovating a crumpled old classic are often seen as slightly mad. You will certainly need to be prepared to learn new things and meet a whole bunch of challenges along the way.
Our key takeaway if you are considering a classic car restoration is really think things through and plan beforehand. Pick the type of car you are interested in working with and make sure that you buy a model that you are actually capable of renovating. It’s vital to be realistic about what you can achieve.
There are other things to consider apart from the car itself, not least the space that you have available. A large(ish) garage is desirable and you need the right equipment in place. Creating the right environment for your classic car restoration should ideally be done before you start.
Of course, you also need a good plan in place. If you don’t have much skill in the way of project management, it’s a good idea to get some training as this can make a big difference to your classic car restoration.
Finally, we can’t undervalue the benefits of reaching out to the classic car community. They are a great bunch of people and have a host of experience which could prove useful. Some have restored their own vehicles and they may well have plenty of advice to give a newbie.
While there are plenty of challenges ahead, the pride and joy that classic car owners get when that restoration is complete is difficult to describe. You may even find that restoring classic cars becomes something of a passion and you decide to invest in another vehicle.