America’s love affair with old cars is well-established. For some gear heads out there they live and breathe restoration, but you do not have to be a bonafide gear-head to follow some simple steps to restoring an old car. The truth is anyone that can hold a wrench and that has a little time to dedicate to a restoration project can restore an old car.
If you want to get that old goat on the road following these simple steps to restoring an old car can have you burning rubber in no time at all. Once you learn the steps to restoring an old car, you will never look to buy new again.
Muscle Cars Are As American As Apple Pie
There is something that just pulls at the heartstrings of many people when you see a fully dressed GTO riding down the road, or a lifted LeMans, an old Vette with some cherry paint they make the heart go thump thump thump.
We love our American made muscle cars. For many people, the American muscle car era (1961-1974) is the representation of American motor cars at their finest. The term “muscle car” was coined in the 1940s, when Oldsmobile introduced the Old’s Rocket 88. Reviewers at the time described the earliest cars with V8 OHV engines as having “plenty of muscle”. The moniker stuck and became a familiar term for any vehicle that was designed with a high displacement VA engine.
Muscle cars between 1961-1974 were typically coupes that were designed with drag racing in mind. They are the consummate example of American engineering and style in motor vehicles. They are also referred to as ‘gassers’ because of the amount of fuel they can burn up.
By the mid-1970s muscle car production faded in the US because of the gas crisis. As people become more aware of the energy conservation, the muscle car designs were put on a shelf as compact fuel-efficient vehicles began to take their place.
Whether you are a fan of the Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologato (GTO) or you have your eye on that sweet 1964 ½ Ford Mustang with the 351 and drop top, simple steps to restoring an old car can put you behind the wheel of your fantasy car. There is no greater feeling than hearing those muscle engines purr.
Let’s Get Started-Step 1
Your very first step is to choose your project. The passage of time has made finding the perfect specimen for restoration is a little harder than it used to be. A couple of decades ago you used to be able to visit any auto salvage yard and find a row of old muscle cars just waiting for some TLC. Today, you are going to have to dig a little deeper to find the perfect candidate for restoration.
On the upside there are plenty of car clubs across the US that can help you find what you are looking for. Buying a classic car or an American Muscle car is not like buying any old used car. You have to consider the following:
- How hard will it be to get parts for the car?
- How original is the car?
The first steps to restoring an old car is choosing the car, but you really have to put the thought into which car you choose. Getting parts for your restoration may not be easy, but you certainly do not want to choose a vehicle that it is going to be nearly impossible to find parts for. Luckily it is a lot easier to find parts for American muscle cars than it is to find classic foreign car parts in the US.
How much “stock” is left to the car is another consideration. You want to buy that old rust bucket that is as stock (original) as possible. The car is more valuable, and of course, it gives you more opportunity to customize it the way you want.
Ideally you will find a classic that needs some automotive repair but has an engine that is still intact. If you have to choose between a vehicle that needs some extensive engine work or a vehicle that needs some extensive bodywork, go with the extensive bodywork.
It is always more important to focus on the go than to focus on the show. Auto body repair is easier than the work that you have to put into an engine or a transmission. If you run across an old car that looks awful, but still has all its engine and transmission parts, buy it.
Step 2: Finding Parts
Hopefully you found that old Plymouth GTX tucked away in a barn somewhere and you are ready to start the steps to restoring an old car. You are gonna need parts, lots of parts. Where do you start looking for parts?
There are a few resources for old car parts that you can start your search with:
- Online resources. Thanks to the internet it is easier than ever to find classic car parts. There are companies that specialize in classic car parts. You can connect with private sellers online. Start your search online.
- A local salvage yard. The old junkyards are still a good resource for old parts. You may have to dig around for a while, but you never know what you might find.
- Car clubs. There are car clubs for just about every type of muscle car. You can connect with like-minded people that are open to trades or purchase the parts you need from members.
Unfortunately, there are times you will not be able to find an exact match for your needs. What do you do? You find parts that will work even if they were not designed specifically for your vehicle. For example, you may need auto glass, but cannot find it for your specific model. You may be able to find a windshield from another model that either fits or that needs minimal modifications to fit.
Sometimes when it comes to older auto parts you have to get innovative. Of course, you can always have parts fabricated if you need to. Machine shops can work wonders, and solve a lot of your “hard to find parts” problems.
Auto body repair is always going to be easier to manage than the engine. Most everything inside and out of the car can be fabricated to look like original even if it is not.
Step 3: Start With the Go
One of the key steps to restoring an old car is to make sure you can make it go. Making sure the engine and the tranny is sound is vital. It can be tempting to work on the body while you work on the engine and transmission, but the fact it can be overwhelming, and it can cause you to lose focus on making sure the vehicle is mechanically sound. Think of bodywork as the icing on the cake. You got to bake the cake (get it running) before you can put the icing on.
While this may be your pet project, don’t be afraid to reach out for some help when you need it. For example, you need some new leaf springs installed or you need the heads machined. Take it to the professionals for that. It is just easier and will help you move through the project faster.
If you get caught up, consult an expert. Hopefully, you joined one of the hundreds of car clubs that are out there and you can just post your question to the message board and find your answers. Gear heads are very generous when it comes to information. You can find many easy to follow steps to restoring an old car by browsing club websites.
Put the money that you need to in the engine and the tranny, and you will never regret it. If you have to take a financial hit during the steps to restoring an old car, let it be on the parts that make it move.
Step 4: Once the Car Is Running, Get Inside
Once you have found the parts, made the repairs, and your new baby is purring, the next steps to restoring an old car is to restore the interior of the car. This part is relatively easy. These old machines were made the old fashioned way, without a lot of electronic parts.
For the most part, every part in the interior can be removed with a screwdriver, socket wrench, and a little upper body strength. You can strip down the entire interior in about 3 hours. Pull the seats out, pull out the dash, and check your floorboards.
It is not unusual to find the floorboards in need of repair. Some well-placed sheet metal secured with rivets can do the trick. How professional do you need the repairs to be? This is an important consideration during the steps to restoring an old car. For example, don’t laugh, this is a true statement, some people use tin cans to repair small holes in the floorboards. You do not have to pay for the sheet metal, or the professional to install it if you are not too worried about the look of things. You can always carpet it to cover up the top of the tuna can.
Sometimes, one of the key steps to restoring an old car is getting really innovative in making repairs. If your restoration project is all about the love of the car and getting it back on the road and not so much investment, its your car, do what works for you.
On the other hand, if this is all about the investment, pay to have the damage repaired the right way. Tuna can repair will reduce the value of the car.
If you are on the fence about whether or not you can manage to reupholster the seats, get a pro to help. Any furniture reupholstery place can do the job, just bring the seats to them. Upholstery can be tricky as a DIY project. Again, whether you DIY it or you take to the shop, is entirely up to you. Most enthusiasts will spring for the cost of a professional polished look.
What about that cracked dashboard? You have a couple of options, to repair a sad-looking dash. You can see about finding a replacement, you can cover the old one, or you can have one fabricated. Each option has some benefits, and each option has some drawbacks. Of the three options, covering up the damage is going to be the cheapest route. Having the dash fabricated is going to be the most expensive. Do what your budget allows.
Step 5: Finally The Exterior
Your next steps to restoring an old car, is putting that icing on the cake. Once it runs, and your interior is cherry, you can start on that bodywork and paint. These old cars were made of metal which means that most of them are suffering from severe rot and rust. Luckily, if you cannot find the replacement parts you can use fiberglass patches to restore the body.
Re-chroming the bumpers is easy enough to restore them to like-new condition. Finding headlights, tail lights, and other body parts can be a challenge but it is not impossible. For the paint, unless you have a setup that will allow you to do it yourself, bring it to a local body shop.
These final steps to restoring an old car are the most fun. This is where you really get to see your project come together. This is where you get to put on all the finishing touches.
Step 6: Putting Your Car on the Road
Following all the steps to restoring an old car will end with you putting your car on the road. You will need to connect with an auto insurance agency that will work with you to get the coverage that you need.
You need car insurance, but you do not need run of the mill car insurance. There are policies that are written especially for classic cars. You will want to put full coverage on the vehicle and it is not quite as easy as you think.
Automotive insurance terms can be a little difficult to navigate online when you are dealing with a classic car that has been restored. Typically, older cars do not warrant full coverage, and therefore insurance companies do not offer the coverage. You have to meet face to face with an agent.
You will also have to provide photos of the vehicle, report upgrades that you have made, and maybe even add a car cam or security system to help assure the insurance carrier that you are doing your part to protect this valuable asset.
Once you have your classic car insured, you will have to register it. Some states offer “classic tags” for vehicles that are only going to be used for things like car shows or for other limited use. It can save you a few bucks on the registration.
The steps to restoring an old car are well worth it. It is a lot of work, but it is truly a labor of love. With a little research, willingness to learn, and a commitment to the process anyone can follow the steps to restoring an old car. Enjoy your new ride.