Thoughts on Restorations

Restoration (noun): The process of repairing or renovating a building, work of art, etc., so as to restore it to its original condition.

Over the weekend I was talking to a friend about my write ups of cars on the market and they asked why I was somewhat critical of some cars and forgiving of others.  I thought about it and decided I am usually critical of cars that are described as restored but lack the level of details in their description a restored car should have, and I’m easy on cars that are just, well… used cars.  I guess I’m also critical of cars where the ‘restorer’ should have been more sympathetic to the originality of the car, and work done would better be described as customization, modernization or some such, than restoration.

Henrik sent me this picture with the note: “Check out the fog lights”.  I also noted the ‘eyelids’ on the headlights. This is a car that, if it turned up in project form to be restored, requires some particular skills, including appreciation for the history of the car.  Restoration would likely be defined as returning it to the historically significant form seen above rather than it’s as-new form.

The first question you should ask is: why buy a car to restore rather than buy one that’s already done?  Answers to this will vary from person to person but boil down to: the enjoyment of the tasks and challenge; to have one that’s ‘done right’; to spread out the cost of the car (the expense of improvement activities becomes the ‘payment’); to make money or because there is only one and it’s not restored and you want to show it at Pebble.  There are other reasons -feel free to comment below and tell why you have undertaken restorations.

Anyone who has shopped for a classic sports car knows the scope and result of restorations varies widely -even wildly.  There are failed restorations, where you get a partially (or fully) dis- or re- assembled car and some boxes of parts.   Rolling restorations, where the car is improved while driven, as a way to rationalize the undertaking or expense, and probably to keep from getting off the path and lost in the trees.  There are cosmetic restorations that are like rolling restorations done all at once -new tires, a coat of paint, a carpet kit, new drivers seat upholstery and maybe a clutch, rings and some new brake hoses.  There are mechanical restorations that become rolling restorations -where some initial push is needed to get the car rolling -usually an engine rebuild and some brake work.

So many factors come in to play during the undertaking of a restoration, and so many small decisions are made whose sum directly influences the quality of the result, that in most cases comparison is meaningless and the cars have to be viewed as individuals, which makes aggregate valuation complicated.

A car you might consider restoring.  Lots of parts present -lots of, um, work to do.  What are you good at?  I’m good with soap and water, and it would probably improve this car.

The factors that come into play are mainly the resources of the restorer and the attributes of the car itself.  Resources include budget, skills, time, space, endurance and vision.  The important attributes of the car include pre and post restoration value, parts availability, overall complexity and starting point condition.  Each restorer is going to come to the table with a set of resources and these need to be matched to the attributes of the car in order for the restoration to be successful.

If this is the beginning -you need to be able to see the end.  Lots to do under this car.

There are three basic types of restorers: those who write checks to professionals with an agreement detailing the deliverables and schedule; those who use their own time and skills; and those who fall between the two -with some skills and some check writing abilities.  Checkbook restorers are more likely to approach the process as a business transaction and view the undertaking scientifically, though the car they choose to restore dictates many of the terms.  When choosing the car to restore they will likely balance their desire against market forces because they know that two cars in the same condition, with the same parts availability are likely to cost roughly the same amount to restore but be worth quite different amounts when completed.  The value of a restored Porsche 356 versus a restored Triumph Spitfire illustrates this.  There is the occasional checkbook restorer who is doing a car for sentimental reasons (Grandpa’s gold 1974 Mustang II automatic), but even they usually know their ‘investment’ will never be realized if they decide to sell.

Skills taking the car apart are under rated.  Details like what this fastener and washer is, where it goes and how it hold on what it holds on need to be documented.  It’ll be months before this part or its replacement goes back on.

These will go through the parts tumbler, get plated, then stored separately in the ‘finish washer’ and ‘screws’ compartments.  Note that they use a button head with a countersunk type finish washer.  This detail would have you scratching your head some afternoon in the future if you didn’t take this picture and write this note.

Restorers who rely on their own skills entirely are rare because of the time it takes to hone the required skills.  Usually they are comfortable with some aspects the jobs demands, like the mechanical restoration, but decide to leave the other needs like paint and upholstery to experts.  When the services of experts come into play the do it yourself restorer becomes a sort of foreman, managing the restoration.  Those who fall between the two -well, fall between the two.  Stuff gets done quick with them, because they are prepared to farm out tasks they can’t accomplish.

The results of a restoration are dependent on so much that the outcome can’t help but be as varied as the path.  So what do you take away from this?  Know your strengths -whether check writing or block sanding; define your desired outcome -your success criteria,  when is your car the car of your dreams?  Only you can define this.  Know yourself and what pace you can tolerate for things seeming to not get done.

Know what you want, know how much it will cost to be the car you want it to be and know how much patience you have for getting it there.

I make knowing all these things sound easy, but they are not easy to define.  Add 20% to the costs you calculate and the schedule and you probably wont be too surprised along the way -especially if the car was taken apart by someone else a long time ago.

Never restored a car?  Think about what I’ve said above.


13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Restorations

  1. Your comments regarding dis-assembly skills cannot be overstated! I did a lot of documenting when taking my Sprint apart – only to realize, later on, that it was definitely not enough.

    • The black Sprint I’m working on was taken apart 10+ years ago, with all the parts in torn up crappy boxes. LOTS of little stuff went missing! I have a new appreciation for taking things apart and labeling. That said I’m getting pretty good at recognizing even the smallest, most mundane of nuts and bolts.


  2. I restored my 101 Giulia Spider to be the best I could make it and its good to say it will now survive for many years, now not only myself but others can apreciate the beauty of this car.
    one of the problems with our old cars, especialy here in the UK is that there are not many left on the road that will simply just cleen up, its usualy a case of raising the dead.

    • Maybe a roll call of unrestored ‘drivers’ is in order. I’ll start: My Sprint has had fixes done as needed but has been basically functional for 90%+ of its life.


  3. My mini cooper is only partially disassembled and yet it is difficult to understand where everything goes. I spend hours on line and looking through books, reading etc. just trying to understand all of the parts and where they came from.
    It is difficult to imagine the task you have taken on with a car that came in pieces. A friend of mine had all of the original Guilietta, and Guilia factory manuals. These manuals were very explicit in their descriptions of the cars, including hardware. If you know of someone who has these I would highly recommend making a few copies… If you are not able to locate them let me know and I will contact Ron. It is the digital age, maybe he could put them onto “the cloud” somewhere for you to visit.

    • I have the parts manuals. They are very helpful, but seem to fail whenever I have a specific question about a fastener.


      • I would guess they would use “whatever” was sourced the month your car was built. Alfa specific parts have nice drawings.

  4. There was a 56 AH on Bring a Trailer recently. They photographed everything as they diassembled it. An index was developed for each picture. eg. PHOTO 1, upper lh door hinge.
    You could have sold this as a restoration manual!

  5. I bought a fully functioning, assembled 750 spider, and even I understand the pain and confusion. It has taken years for me to become familiar with these cars to the point where I occasionally recognize a part on my car that originated from a later series. Sometimes I leave them in place, and just source the correct part for the stash. Other times I am more of a stickler. Whatever our individual situation may be, part recognition is an essential matter…

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