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Wilson's Auto Restoration Blog

Where to Begin When Restoring a Classic Car

classic carYou want to restore your classic car so where should you begin?

It sounds like such a simple question, but you will find that it is one of the most important questions to answer to ensure you properly restore your classic car or truck.

The first considerations are all about your expectations of the final result.  Do you want just a car that looks great that you can take out for a cruise from time to time or are you trying to restore the car to its original condition?  Will your classic restoration project require work on the engine and mechanical components like the drive-train, exhaust or suspension or is it simply a cosmetic restoration that you are after?

Often it can be your budget that helps to answer these questions, so deciding a rough idea of the project necessities in order to fit your budget is the first place to start.  When evaluating the needs of your project, be sure to start with an inspection of the frame and mounting supports that provide a sound and stable vehicle structure to work with.  No point in investing in a killer paint job if the car is dangerous to drive.

Once you are confident that the structural integrity of the car is intact you are going to want to follow a simple work flow to make your restoration goes smoothly.

Start with addressing mechanical and engine repairs that need to be done.  Paint and interior can easily fall victim to accidental scratches, stains and other damage when working on the mechanical repairs.  Leaving the cosmetics till the end of the project eliminates any of these concerns.

For the non-cosmetic restoration phase we suggest starting with the braking system.  Check for any corrosion or bends in the brake lines, replace any parts that are not up to par.  Replace any of the flexible rubber lines as well if they show signs of wear and tear.  Be sure to flush the lines and replace with fresh fluid to help guarantee the car will stop when you want it to.  Maybe it is us, but we think the ability to stop is pretty important.

Next inspect the suspension and steering components to make certain that the car will ride and steer correctly.  Any car with poor steer and suspension is unsafe to drive.  We have heard too many stories of car owners overlooking this step until it is too late.  Second to braking, we believe that being able to safely control the direction of the vehicle is paramount to the safety of your car, yourself and to others in your path of travel.


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Now that you are confident that you will be able to steer and stop your ride, it is time to give the electrical system a thorough once-over.  Be sure to check all wires, harnesses, connections and grounds.  Check everything before you ever hook up the battery.  A faulty wiring system can cause significant damage and add a lot more time in repairs if it is not operating correctly.  We suggest installing new battery cables as they play a critical role in your electrical system working right.

Checking the gas tank and fuel lines should be next on your to do list. Remove the tank from the car and drain any old gas (which may now have become varnish).  Be sure to do this step in a well-ventilated area and use protection for your eyes and skin as old gasoline can be very harmful and highly combustible.  We hope it goes without saying to do this away from any sparks or open flames.  Be sure to check the full length of the fuel lines for any sign of wear or corrosion.  Bad fuel lines are not only dangerous, but can make quite a mess of your vehicle as well. Rebuilding the carburetor will finalize the steps necessary to restore the fuel system.  Seals and gaskets in the carburetor often deteriorate over time.  A properly tuned carburetor is essential for the engine to run well and efficiently.

Inspection of the engine block and parts like the starter, alternator, master cylinder, manifold, etc. is also a good idea.  You may be able to get by without replacing any of them, but if one of the parts is obviously in bad shape or you find a leaking gasket you will want to replace it to avoid the risk of being stranded on the side of the road in the future.  Having an engine that runs well is highly suggested before ever backing out of the driveway to keep any damage from occurring.

Chances are you will also need to complete common maintenance like flushing the radiator and transmission fluids, change the oil, and replace any heater hoses or belts that show signs of aging.  You will want to replace the air filters and spark plugs so everything is fresh.  You may also consider replacing the radiator and gas caps as they are inexpensive and can cause mysterious problems that can be overlooked when diagnosing the problem.

At this point you are almost ready to take your classic for a short spin to evaluate any other mechanical issues.  Before you back out of the driveway give a close inspection of the tires and wheels for any bends in the rims or cracks in the sidewalls.  Old tires may look sound, but can still be ready to blow out.  We suggest putting a new set of rubber all the way around.  They don’t have to be the best tires available; in fact, an inexpensive tire will do for the time being to keep the budget in range.  The fact that they are new will be enough to keep you safe on the road in comparison to the old ones.

Fire up the motor and drive your car around the block a few times and pay close attention to any suspicious noises or other indicators of problems.  If you hear or notice any mechanical problems we suggest re-inspecting the engine and other mechanics of the car and addressing those before moving on to the cosmetic rehab phase of your restoration.  Once you have your new paint you are going to want to avoid as much mechanical repairs as possible.

Now that you have everything “under the hood” taken care of it is time to move on to making your dream machine look its best.  There is a difference of opinion on tackling the interior or the paint first.  Some believe that paint should be the last step to avoid any accidental scratches or scuffs, but we believe that the interior should be last to avoid any chance of paint over-spray staining your new dash or upholstery.  Be sure to allow your new paint job to cure before continuing with the interior restoration.  It is surprising how easy it is to create a blemish.

Before you can apply primer or paint you will need to make sure that the body is prepped correctly so that the paint is able to adhere well and leave a smooth finish.  The first step in prepping for paint is to remove any rust that is on the body or other paintable surfaces.  We offer an excellent article to help on removing rust for your classic restoration project to get you started.  If the corrosion on the body is too deep to simply remove, portions of the body may need to be replaced with fresh metal.  Fabricating new sections of a body or frame to replace rusted out holes requires a fair amount of skill and experience to get it right.  You may want to seek professional assistance for this unless you have done this before and are confident in your abilities

After all rust has been removed you will want to check to see that all dents are removed and that the body has been sanded down enough to leave a smooth surface to paint.  Any defects or imperfections in the body will be amplified once you put a coat of paint on it.  If you are unable to pull or hammer any of the dents out completely you have an alternative solution.  Body filler can be used to fill in small dents to create a smooth surface.  The amazing thing about body filler is that it can be easily removed and reshaped again if you have any difficulties sanding it down into the correct shape or texture.

Painting your car may be another step that you should heavily consider leaving to a professional.  Professional painters will be able to inspect your body work and let you know if it is ready to paint or still requires a little more sanding or body filler.  Paint shops will also have all the right tools to create a high-quality finish.  They are going to have a paint booth, high pressure paint sprayers and the tape masking skills to avoid any overspray.  Painting a vehicle outside of a paint booth is not recommended as you can create quite a mess with overspray and also allow for contaminants like dust to land on the wet paint.  If you have a paint booth at home, excellent masking skills, the proper sprayers and the ability to use them, then by all means save yourself some money and paint it yourself.

Chances are the interior will be restored by a professional as well unless you have experience with doing it yourself.  Be sure to consult your upholstery guys and make sure they are fully aware of what you expect from them.  Nothing worse that receiving your interior only to realize they used the wrong material, colors or that the stitching isn’t what you were hoping/paying for.

The last step is to attach the bumpers and any other chrome trim to the exterior.  Remember to take your time and to protect your paint even after it has cured.  Chrome and even plastic trim can easily cause a blemish in the paint.  You have come too far now to let a simple mistake ruin your perfect paint.

We hope that we answered all of your questions on where to start and how to proceed with your classic car or truck restoration.  If you think we left anything outlet us know in the comments below.  Restorations can take a lot of time and effort so remember that before you start making the project look pretty make sure you first make a budget and plan of attack.  Even more important is to assure yourself that the frame and vehicle structure are solid.  You don’t want to have a cherry looking classic collapse to the ground as soon as you put it in drive or hit your first pot hole.

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