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Auto Restoration

So, I get asked all the time about my cars and restoration work. Specifically, people are interested in input about cars they would love to have and whether they should restore them or not. It's never something that I really want to say, but I generally suggest that you do not try to restore your dream car. Instead, you save your pennies and buy one that's already been done.

This being said, I think that I've only ever had one person listen to me. :) So, consider yourself warned. Now, we'll proceed. The first step to auto restoration is a reality check: assessing your skills.

Melba says,
"He's right! Just go buy one and take me for a ride."


In the most general of terms, people fall into four categories when it comes to mechanical aptitude and experience. Please note that within these categories there's a wide range of skills.

The Absolute Novice
The Absolute Novice has never worked on a car before. You might fiddle with your lawn mower. Your tool kit is comprised of a few wrenches, screw drivers, and a big hammer. You've got a lot to learn and it's not hard if you're willing to learn. Aside from a lack of experience, you'll wind up finding that many of the skills are advanced enough that you'll need to farm out work.
The Weekend Warrior
The Weekend Warrior can change their oil and air filter. They may be able to do more advanced things like spark plugs. You understand the concepts behind a motor, but still have your maintenance done by a professional. You are a few steps beyond the novice, but still have a long way to go.
The Shade Tree Mechanic
You maintain your current vehicle: replacing alternators, batteries, etc. Sometimes it's done right, Sometimes it isn't. Regardless, you have just enough skills to hack together a final solution that allows the car to continue running. You may even own a Haynes/Chilton manual for your vehicle. When it comes to body work, paint, interior you're still a little lost. You will totally overestimate your abilities. :)
The Restorer
You do not fear sandblasters, welders, paint guns, body hammers, engine hoists, and micrometers. You probably have a cannister of used motor oil in your garage awaiting recycling. You may not have ever done a full rotisserie restoration, but you have had at least some experience with engine rebuilding, body work, paint, wiring and interiors. You have a relatively good idea of what you're getting yourself into.

Once you consider your skills, it's then time to consider the other two major factors of any restoration: time and money. The reality that we face in any restoration is that these three items are the constraints by which we all live.

  • You can have it fast and cheap, but not good.
  • You can have it fast and good, but not cheap.
  • You can have it good and cheap, but not fast.

Note, that cheap is always a relative term. :)

Dealing with constraints

Now, we all have different constraints. What is most important at this stage is assessing what your specific constraints are and how to work with them. For most of us, it's safe to assume our greatest constraint is money. If this were not the case, there would be many more people driving around in brilliantly restored vehicles. For example, were money no object, my daily driver wouldn't be an aging Ford Explorer. :)

Now, there's one final "secret" constraint: Space. I've read many books about auto restoration over the years, and it seems like this basic item is never covered. I learned the hard way on my first restoration project that a car in a disassembled state occupies a volume significantly greater than one in an assembled state. You're probably sitting there going, "Well, duh!" But the reality is that if you've never completely dissasembled a car you'll be extraordinarily suprised how much space it really takes.

On to Getting ready for your project

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Contents copyright 2008, 2009 - Jody F. Kerr

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