Classic cars have been an American passion since the 1950s, and as anyone who works on these automobiles can tell you, it's a hobby that demands a lot of time and attention. Tracking down replacement parts, repairing the body and rebuilding the engine can all be labor intensive. Ultimately, in an art that includes a lot of self-teaching -- for many, its own reward -- it can be hard to let go of all that effort and investment if the car can't be saved.
Unfortunately, sometimes a car is a goner, and there's little you can do to save it. There are some obstructing factors and undeniably harsh facts that can be hard to recognize when you've spent time and money on what may not seem to be a dead end.
Let's look at some rules of thumb and warning signs you can use to help discern the hard-won victory of a beautiful showpiece from a never-ending money pit.
As with any hobby, tracking down parts and information is a huge draw for many classic car enthusiasts. Now, with the Internet establishing helpful communities of hobbyists, and connecting parts seekers with helpful dealers and sellers, this part of the project is easier than ever, both when starting your repairs and seeing them through to completion.
But the hard truth is that nothing lasts forever, and sometimes a mint-condition replacement part is simply not a possibility. It's important to know and understand the market value of your finished product, as well as the parts you've discovered you need, to make sure you're not chasing your dream down a rabbit hole.
When you love something, every tiny step along the way seems like a victory. It's important to look at the bigger picture, especially when trying to track down and purchase a particularly difficult-to-find piece of machinery. The excitement of the chase can add up faster than you may realize. Create a realistic budget, check out the stories of your fellow enthusiasts and stay realistic as you build your machine.
One danger in rebuilding a classic car is falling into the trap of what some call "Washington's Ax" syndrome. If you're not familiar with the story, it's a bit of a shaggy-dog narrative in which first the handle and then the blade of George Washington's famous ax are replaced, resulting in an ax that was once completely historically accurate, but is now just an ax with all-new parts.
In terms of car restoration, there are certain areas where simply replacing parts and panels can go too far. A warped undercarriage, totaled frame or similar large-body details can seem easy to fix, but when dealing with such large pieces of metal, it's often the case that internal stresses over many decades can destroy the body so fully that what appears to be a show-quality machine is nothing more than a thin memory of the car's original state.
It's important to stay in touch with your original plans for undertaking this project: Are you after a street-legal vehicle you can drive? Are you looking for a classic show or collection piece that doesn't move? These decisions are essential at the outset and should remain at the forefront of any financial decisions that you make.
One place the Washington's Ax problem comes into play, other than the body and frame, is in the large-piece panels that make up the roof, sides and other coverings of the car's insides. Since you're repairing and rebuilding your machine in order to be looked at, it can be easy to overlook the quality of these panels as long as they're unwarped and can be painted in a pleasing way.
But often, especially in very old models, it can be difficult to find panels that haven't been nearly rusted through. Repairing these damaged parts can be tricky, and most of us have neither the skills nor the inclination for doing the large-scale metalwork necessary to repair them. Even tracking down better versions and having them shipped can become difficult and costly, thanks to their size and scarcity. Remember that back doors, hoods, sides and roofs are all exposed to the elements for decades, and finding the perfect piece could verge on impossibility.
Keep your budget in mind, and, once you know you've searched enough to stick to it, give yourself the option of reevaluating your project. It's not giving up if you decide the expense and labor aren't going to be outweighed by the pleasure you'll get from completing the project: It's just smart.
Much like furniture often comes packaged with its own Allen wrenches and similarly specialized assembly equipment, these classic models can sometimes demand a specialized or outdated system of tools to be repaired and renewed. While a handy workman can figure out ways to make do, for the novices among us it's possible that jerry-rigging a solution in pursuit of a better look or faster fix could end up costing more than the time it takes to understand the way a machine or engine was built in the first place.
We're not suggesting that you seek out period-appropriate tools -- that would be cost- and effort-prohibitive in most cases -- but that you remember where your classic came from, why and how it was designed, and how to take those factors into account when determining how you're going to rebuild. If you don't know the "why," it will be a lot harder to make sense of the "how," and in the end you could damage your project --or even yourself -- by making assumptions.
One of the most vexing issues with classic car restorations is the simple fact that wheels and tires can vary so much across the years. Tires are the only parts of any vehicle designed to wear out, which means that finding a suitable match can be one of the most difficult parts of any project. Once again, it's important to keep in mind exactly what you've started on this project in order to accomplish: Is it to have a car to drive, to exhibit, to preserve or just to show off?
There are as many reasons to begin with this tradition and hobby as there are cars on the road, and you should let this impulse drive your budget and the expenses you're willing to take on. Obviously, a street-legal vehicle is less likely to be 100 percent mint once all is said and done, but you could spend a lot of time trying to find an acceptable substitute for something like a tire or interiors. Whether or not you're willing to slide a little on authenticity, or pay more for it, depends entirely on what you want out of your car once you've completed the restoration.
The Fuel Issue
One of the most exciting, infuriating and informational parts of car restoration is getting to know your engine intimately. We'll talk about the ins and outs of engines a bit later, but you should think seriously about the kind of fuel your car will need once it's up and running. Emissions regulations, gasoline or diesel makeup, and the other factors in getting your car going should all be major considerations.
Remember, a car is not equity: It's an ongoing expense. A reconditioned model is no different; in fact, it represents even more ongoing costs and repairs than a more recent vehicle. Depending on how often you plan to drive or exhibit the vehicle, you could end up with major changes to the car's fuel system, which means changing out fuel lines, the way the engine runs and even the way the car's electric system works. All of this should come into account before you've laid down the first dollar on your hobby machine.
While many large insurance companies have guidelines as far as insuring your classic car, it's worth remembering that you're also now an antiques buyer, for all intents and purposes. You're insuring the vehicle not only as a car, but also as a collector's item. That brings in a host of other questions, concerns and things to keep in mind. And if you'll be driving the car, that means taking on additional insurance premiums.
Keeping the car in good shape at all times should help you avoid some costs, but one thing you can't skimp on here is the cost of ensuring that all your hard work, time, and investment of money and labor are protected. You'll be paying this insurance as long as you have the vehicle, which makes it another necessary ongoing expense.
Have a good look at your insurance provider's Web site, compare prices, and make sure that you're looking at apples-to-apples comparisons for the kind of machine you want to have at the end of the project.
Your local and state safety laws should be pretty clear from their applicable Web sites, but make sure you're very clear on the requirements if you're looking into street legality for your vehicle. For many, this step doesn't really come up until they're close to completing the rebuild -- but you should have a good idea of what the final requirements are going to be before you even start. More than one hobbyist has seen his dreams -- whether for using the car daily or simply riding in a classic car parade -- dashed by the seemingly last-minute needs of the state.
Areas to keep in mind for this part of your project budget include everything from fuel source and emissions to safety regulations like mirrors, brakes and indicator lights. The law of the road is intended for day-to-day drivers, not classics, and in pursuit of street legality you could find yourself making changes you're not happy with.
Almost any regulation is something you can eventually meet, but if you ruin the look of the car or it takes away from what attracted you to the project in the first place, you might end up feeling ripped off. Be very clear about what you want from this car, and make sure you understand the rules and laws by which you'll be allowed to have it.
As with panels and body damage, you must keep in mind that your car's internal machinery is both a useful part -- it makes the car go -- and a classic piece of engineering in its own right. For many of us, engine reconstruction and repair is the main draw. There's nothing quite like the feeling of reconnecting everything, double-checking spark plugs and fuel lines, then turning that key.
However, it's important to keep in mind that the engine itself is a very complicated and efficiently designed collection of steel. Damage that's difficult -- sometimes even impossible -- to see can make the difference between a champion driving machine and a yard ornament -- or worse, a safety hazard.
Make very sure your engine block is undamaged, all the parts are in working order, you've replaced every tiny part that needs replacing, and it's not leaking or dripping anywhere. The engine is one of the main focus points of any reconstruction, but because it's the most complex, it's also the easiest to get wrong. Most of us imagine ourselves buffing the new paint job or waxing our "baby" on the weekends -- but truly tending to your vehicle's needs and making sure it's kept up means treating that engine like a princess.
The Three Rs
To make sure you're putting in the right amount of money, care and time, just remember to follow the classic hobbyist's rule of the three Rs: reuse, repair and replace. In that order!
To maintain the link with history that drew you to this machine, you'll need to think seriously about which parts of the car can be kept alive and shining, and the passion of the classic car enthusiast means being smart about exactly what can be kept intact -- or in other words, reused.
Next, there's repair. That can mean patching textiles or panels, machining a worn part or even just giving the engine a good steam-cleaning. Once you've determined what's worth keeping and what you can repair, you can do the hard work of admitting which parts are beyond help, then start looking at local junkyards and online marketplaces for your replacement parts.
Remember, this project should be a fun use of time and an expression of your passion. You -- and your car -- deserve better than a frustrated last-minute decision or shortcut.
For more information, check out the links on the next page.
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- Associated Press. "Automotive catalytic converter theft on the rise." USA Today. July 6, 2008. (June 8, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-07-06-car-theft_N.htm
- Classic Cars. "Give Your Pride and Joy the Ultimate Destination it Deserves." March 23, 2011. (June 8, 2011) http://www.myclassiccars4u.com/2011/03/give-your-pride-and-joy-the-ultimate-destination-it-deserves
- Kurutz, Steven. "That Car Is Only 20. Why Give Up Now?" The New York Times. Jan. 23, 2004. (June 8, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/23/travel/driving-that-car-is-only-20-why-give-up-now.html
- Wheel Scene. "Classic Car Repair." Tsavo Media. 2011. (June 8, 2011) http://www.wheelscene.com/car-repair/classic-car-repair.aspx