How Car Restoration Works

A 1970 Plymouth Cuda convertible at auction. See more pictures of custom cars.
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Picture your dream car. Maybe it's that Mercedes-Benz convertible you've always wanted. Perhaps you covet an SUV with heated leather seats and a cutting-edge navigation system. Or you might dream of something fast and exotic, like a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche.

But for some people, dream cars don't come from the present or the future, but the past. Your dream car might be that 1955 Chevy Bel-Air your brother had in high school, your dad's old Sunbeam Tiger or that Pontiac GTO you always wanted but could never afford. Maybe it's that classic Mustang you sold when you had kids and have been pining over ever since.


For those of us whose dream cars come from yesterday, we can't just walk into a car dealership and buy one. At the same time, buying a used car that's three, four or even seven decades old can present a whole host of mechanical problems. Is the engine in good shape? How about the transmission and electrical systems? In addition, the upholstery inside and the paint outside may be in questionable condition.

But if you have some time, money, and lots of ambition, you may want to consider car restoration. Cars aren't built to last forever, but restoration can breathe new life into an older vehicle and make it look and run like new. This makes the car more valuable at a sale or auction, guaranteeing its collectible status.

The restoration won't be easy. The job -- and its cost -- will depend on what car you've selected and how much work needs to be done. But if it's done correctly, auto restoration gives everyday drivers a chance to tool around in a classic automobile as if it had just come off the dealer's lot the year it was made.

Fortunately, the Internet has made the art of restoring cars more accessible than ever. Many companies offer parts online for older and obsolete vehicles. Weekend mechanics also have access to all kinds of guides and expert advice on restoration. So, if you've ever thought about restoring that old clunker in your backyard, now's a great time to give it a shot.

In this article, we'll go over the basics of car restoration. We'll talk about a few of the steps involved, and what it takes to transform a rusty wreck into your dream machine -- inside and out.


Car Restoration Basics

Car restoration has become more than just a hobby. It's a thriving business that's fed by automotive clubs, auctioneers and everyday car enthusiasts who want to experience the thrill of driving a vintage car like it's brand new.

The first step is choosing a car you want to restore. Again, consider your personal dream car -- if you had a time machine, what car would you bring back to the future? When we hear the term "restoration," we often think of the classic American car from the 1950s, 60s and 70s -- those are the cars that many auto enthusiasts grew up lusting after. However, any type of car can be restored, from classic BMWs to the iconic DeLorean sports cars of the early 1980s (speaking of time machines). Still, keep in mind that the more obscure and rare the car is, the more difficult and expensive it will be to find parts for it [source: Second Chance Garage].


There are a number of questions you should ask before buying a car to restore, including:

  • Does it run safely on its own?
  • What works and what doesn't?
  • Is there rust or leaking?
  • What shape are the tires in?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • Why are you selling it?

[source: Second Chance Garage]

Of course, restoration means more than just making a vehicle's exterior look nice. A full factory restoration involves replacing nearly every part on the car with a newer, better working one, from the gauges in the dashboard to the lining of the trunk walls. In many cases, restorers aim to be as historically accurate as they can -- that is, making the car look exactly like it did the day it rolled off the assembly line.

Also, make sure you have the right tools for the job. You'll need tools like clamps, hammers, screwdrivers and torque wrenches, among many, many others, but you also may have to buy things to cover incidental jobs like sanding, welding, buffing, polishing and painting [source: AJ General]. Again, you can find out what tools you need for the job in guide books and on various Web sites.

In the next section, we'll look inside the car and find out what it takes to have a top-notch restored interior.


Restoring the Car's Interior

The scope of your interior restoration job depends on your car's original condition.
Nash Photos/Getty Images

Before we discuss the logistics of restoration any further, let's pick a car to use as an example. For this purpose, we'll use a 1965 Ford Mustang to explain some aspects of the job at hand because it's a popular car with plenty of parts readily available on the market.

Even if a car looks perfect on the outside, if you step inside and the upholstery is torn and the gauges are falling out of the dashboard, the restoration job can hardly be considered complete.


The work required depends on the condition of the car. For instance, a Mustang that's been carefully cared for in a garage since the 1960s will obviously need far less work than one found in a junkyard. This means that you need to take stock of what you need. Does the car need all new seats, or do the current ones need to be re-upholstered? Can the switches and gauges on the dash be fixed or do they need to be replaced? What about a sound system -- do you want an entirely new radio with modern capabilities like a CD player or will you go the purist route and re-install the original factory radio?

A complete interior restoration job usually involves completely vacuuming out the car, removing the floor panels and inner door panels, thoroughly cleaning the inside with a solvent or other cleansing solution, taking out the old seats and re-installing the new parts you've ordered piece by piece. You also have to carefully clean and restore smaller parts like the glove compartment and sun visors [source: Mustang Monthly].

Luckily, restoration doesn't have to break the bank -- that is, if you're smart about it. Door panels sometimes can be saved and restored if the vinyl is undamaged. Chrome spray paint can touch up the chrome trim inside the car. Also, every part doesn't necessarily need to be ordered brand new. In fact, you could find many parts in a scrap yard [source: Mustangs and Fords].

We've covered the inside; now, let's take a look at the exterior. In the next section, we'll discuss restoring your car's outer surface.


Restoring the Car's Exterior

They say first impressions last forever. On any car, the first thing you notice is the way it looks on the outside. If you're going to restore a car with the intent to sell it at an auction or other event, it had better have a top-notch exterior or it won't get noticed.

An exterior restoration means more than just a new coat of paint. Depending on the state of the car, a full restoration means stripping the whole car down to the bare metal underneath. Usually, restorers will remove every body panel from the frame of the car and remove any traces of old paint, often via chemical treatments or sandblasting. The panels are then coated in a gray epoxy primer before they are repainted piece by piece and placed back on the car [source: Central Florida Customs].


Rust is one of the most expensive issues you might face when restoring a vehicle. You can expect some rust, often hidden under the paint, as a result of the car's age. While some rust can be sandblasted away, there are times when you'll have to decide whether to repair an exterior part (a fender, for example) or replace it entirely. In places where rust is affecting just one part of the panel, you may even have to cut away the rusted part and weld in some new sheet metal [source: Cain].

Once the car has been primed and all the rust removed, it's time to paint the car. The exciting part of this is that you or your restoration shop can do whatever you want. Want to add some racing stripes or flaming graphics? Go for it! If authenticity is what you're shooting for, many automotive stores offer original factory paint. For popular muscle cars like the '65 Mustang, you can find a wide variety of original colors on the market [source: Muscle Car Club].

The exterior job doesn't just end with rust removal and new paint. Think about all of the parts that comprise the outside of a car -- door handles, mirrors, the windshield, the gas cap, headlights, taillights, bumpers, hood latches and more. All of these things need to be examined and repaired or replaced as necessary.

In the next section, we'll look at one of the most difficult and exciting parts of car restoration -- restoring the engine.


Restoring the Powertrain

The restored engine of a 1923 T-Bucket hot rod, on display at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Los Angeles.
Sebastian Artz/Getty Images

People loved classic muscle cars like our '65 Mustang example, mainly because they were fast. Sure, many of them looked great, but it's quite likely that fewer people would remember them if they were slow. Therefore, one of your most important restoration tasks is to rebuild or replace the car's engine.

First, start by completely dismantling the engine. Fuel pumps, carburetors, cylinder heads and compressors -- everything must go. As you did with the car's exterior, examine each part and see what needs to be repaired and which parts need to be replaced.


The ease with which you can find parts for your car's engine varies from model to model. For instance, you can find parts for your Mustang just about anywhere, but if you decide to restore something a little more unusual, like an older European or Japanese car, finding the parts you need might require a little more searching.

You can rebuild the car's original engine if you desire authenticity. However, if it's more of a personal project than something you'd sell at an auction, there's nothing wrong with installing an entirely new motor. Why keep that old 289 cubic-inch V-8 in your Mustang when you could upgrade to a 428 cubic-inch Cobra engine? With a so-called crate engine, also available online and from various parts catalogs, you can custom build your dream car with ease.

Restoring a car is a big undertaking. In fact, this article barely scratches the surface of how difficult and involved the entire process really is. It's not something to begin unless you have plenty of time, money, and know-how. But if it's done properly, you can bring a car back from the dead and up to its original factory specs -- or you can build your own custom machine. In any case, why pass up the chance to finally drive your dream car?


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AJ General. "Automotive Restoration Tools & Accessories."
  • (July 6, 2009)
  • Cain, Skip. "Rust Never Sleeps." Team Camaro. (July 6, 2009)
  • Central Florida Customs. "Quality Classic and Muscle Car Restoration." (July 6, 2009)
  • Muscle Car Club. "Paint Restoration Tips." (July 6, 2009)
  • Mustang Monthly. "Ford Mustang - How To Restore An Interior." (July 6, 2009)
  • Second Chance Garage. "Car Restoration And Classic Car Collecting: How Do I Get Started?"
  • Smart, Jim. "Ford Mustang Interior Restoration Budget Interior Tips & Restomod Tricks." Modified Mustangs and Fords. (July 6, 2009)