So, you want to buy a restoration project. Excellent, sounds fun! What should you be looking for?
The first thing is to decide what you want to end up with, do you want a concourse winning car or do you want something nice and shiny to drive around on weekends?
The next thing is what skills and equipment do you have? The more you can do yourself the cheaper it’s going to be, labour is expensive and I’m assuming you won’t be charging for yours. If you don’t have any tools or at least some basic mechanical skills then maybe you should be looking at a car that’s already restored. Dropping a worn out old car off at a shop and picking it up when its finished is going to be expensive…
The next is what car do you want to have? If it’s your first classic car then I suggest something that has readily available and reasonably priced parts. You’ll be buying a lot of them and if you’ve chosen a coach built Italian exotic from the 30’s it’s going to be a whole lot harder and more expensive than if you choose an MGB! But make sure you choose a car you love, there’ll be times when it’s really hard and frustrating and you need to have an exciting end goal in mind.
It’s getting harder and harder to find good restoration candidates, they’re still out there for sure but I’m seeing a lot of cars that previously would have been regarded as too bad to restore. They’re turning up now as there’s fewer options than there used to be.
There’s two schools of thought here -“I’m going to be replacing everything so it doesn’t matter what condition the car’s in” and “The better car I start with the better the end result” As always there’s truth to both of those. If possible, buy a good honest car to start off with. Fixing old, poorly done repairs costs a lot more than repairing original rusty panels. An original car in appropriate condition for its age will always be cheaper to restore and give you a better result than trying to correct problems from a previous poor restoration.
The other big thing is to buy a complete car if possible. Even if you’re extremely familiar with a particular model of car it’s almost impossible to look at a pile of parts spread out on someones shed floor and know for sure that you’re actually buying a complete car. It’s also so much easier to assemble a car that you pulled apart than trying to guess what that random bracket you’ve pulled out of a box is. Does it even belong on this car? Who knows…
If you can, try and take an expert to look at the car with you (if you’re reading this you know someone who offers that service!) It’s amazing the things that can be picked up at a glance. For example if you lift up the door seal on an MG Midget or Austin Healey Sprite then the top of the sills should have two layers of metal and they should be spot welded together, if you see three layers held together by gobs of weld then it’s most likely had a new sill welded on top of the old, rusty sill. This is very common and not good! However, if you’re looking at a sidescreen Triumph – TR2, 3 or 3a then it should have four layers of metal. It’s important to know what you’re looking at.
Looking at the seams can be a good gauge of how much panel replacement or patching has been done. Open the doors and look at the edges of panels, are they really thick? ie. covered in filler or are the lapped flanges covered up with filler? You can tell a lot looking here. It’s easy to make the outside bits look good, try and look inside and underneath at panel edges, you’ll learn a lot.
Rust repair and bodywork can soak up an amazing number of hours, I think you’re better off getting a car with a good body and not worrying too much about the mechanicals, you’re probably going to be replacing most of that anyway. Most old cars tend to be relatively simple mechanically and are within the abilities of a competent DIY person.
Then make a plan for what work you can do yourself and what you’ll need to farm out to professionals. It’s unlikely you’ll have the equipment or skills to do engine machining or paint the car in modern materials so you’ll probably have to farm that out. It’s amazing though how much you can do on these old cars with simple tools and patience and you’ll save a lot of money doing so. If you’ve chosen the right restoration candidate you’ll find that there’s a wealth of information out there about it, books, forums, clubs etc can provide a big help during the process. Sometimes people on forums love to overcomplicate things but they’re nonetheless a good resource. I’m a big fan of the “Original” series of books, they provide a good reference when you’re trying to make something correct or work out what part goes where. I’m not saying they’re all perfect but they’re certainly a good help.
With the advent of classic registration it’s very cheap to run a classic car now and the satisfaction of driving a car you restored or had a big hand in restoring is unmatched. Just do your research and get as much info as you can before you jump in.