Whenever someone decides to take the initiative to restore a car, it requires a serious commitment. I have seen too many people begin work and never finish. The successful car restorer chooses a car that fits his/her personality and budget, and follows the job through to the end. One must have a love for the process as well as the product, or the project will be rushed and end up to be worthless. I learned this tedious process when I was just fourteen years old, barely able to perform the difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks that are required to complete a show car.
I would not recommend taking the steps I did my first time, so I will outline the best method I have learned through experience. Most restoration projects are simple vehicles to begin with, so it isn’t very difficult to know what’s what. For those of us who don’t know all the tricks or don’t like to write things down I think a book is very helpful. I recommend one from the Chilton’s Automotive Guide series. These guides are available for almost any car, so finding one for your project should not be a problem. They feature blown up diagrams of the complicated systems of the car like the distributor, under-dash wiring, and engine internals.
This can be very helpful in those frustrating times when there are parts strewn from wall to wall in no particular order. Mine was an integral part of the process on my 1969 Chevy project. Most people who are new to the project car scene tend to begin the project with cosmetics such as paint, interior vinyl and carpeting, and chromed accessories. This will not pay off in the end. The place to start is with the engine and suspension. In doing this at the beginning, you will minimize the chance of damaging expensive cosmetics and having to redo your work unnecessarily.
For example, I was doing some major engine work after my car had been painted, and a slight shift of the hydraulic engine lift spelled disaster for a section of my newly coated fender. If the suspension components of your car are badly worn, consider replacement. A good way to check for broken or worn components in the front suspension is to lift the frame of the car until the front wheels leave the ground; then put one hand on each side of the tire and try and move it back and forth in the same motion that the steering mechanisms turn it. If it moves more than a quarter of an inch in either direction, the main bearings should be replaced.
As far as the other components in the front as well as the back, a visual inspection for breakage is all that is needed. A-arms, control arms, and pivots should all be re-packed with a high quality lithium grease, and detailing the undercarriage with some rubberized undercoating and flat black paint will impress people at the car shows. The shock absorbers on certain antique cars can be very rare, so if you are lucky enough to find a set it is a good idea to get it if the original shocks are bad. My Chevy is a popular project car, and shocks were easily obtained.
A 1935 DeSoto Airstream like the one my father is restoring could require some searching, however. When you bounce the car up and down and let go, the car should only bounce one more time. If it bounces two or more times, the shocks should be replaced. The engine is the heart of every car. This is where most car restorers get creative and express their desire for power. Of course, if you are following the true definition of restoration you will make everything look and function as it did when it left the factory. It is not uncommon, however, to add and improve a few things under the hood.
Engines vary so much from car to car that I will not talk about them all. Most restorable cars from the 1930’s to the 1950’s had in-line six cylinder engines, with an intake on one side and an exhaust manifold on the other. They were very simple and reliable, but options for updating them in a project car are few. During the 1960’s, the V-8 gained a lot of popularity as the American ‘muscle car’; was born. The small block Chevrolet V-8 is the engine to get if you want to keep your options open. There are endless possibilities for carburation, exhaust, ignition, cooling, and transmission compatibility.
These engines can generate anywhere from 150 horsepower to a stout 800 ponies with the help of nitrous oxide fuels. For the common enthusiast, an aluminum air intake and a four barrel carburetor combine to make the perfect upgrade. This is the path I took, increasing the horsepower of my 307 cubic inch V-8 from 200 to around 245. If oil is passing by the pistons into the firing chambers and being exhausted in the form of blue smoke, rebuilding the engine is a good idea. This process is not as difficult as it might seem, but there are many specialty tools required like an engine hoist, piston ring pliers, and a cylinder reamer.
It is a good idea to have it done professionally if the tools are not readily available. I was lucky enough to have the garage space and tools to complete the job myself, but I would only recommend this if you have a lot of time to spend on your engine. The more time that is spent on the engine the better the project will be in the end. Once the mechanical systems of the car have been completed, the interior (passenger compartment) is the most logical step to complete next. The cloth that lines the roof is called the headliner. If it is in good shape, you are already half done.
Replacement of the headliner requires the removal of all interior moldings around the doors, windows, and floor. When the new one is clipped into place, a misting with a spray bottle of water will cause the material to tighten as in evaporates (believe me, it makes a huge difference). If the seat covers do not have any holes or serious fading problems, a coat of protective sealant should make them look like new. If not, they can be replaced easily with a set of upholstery hog rings and pliers. Removal of them is required, however. While the seats are out of the car, the carpeting and sound-deadening material can be replaced.
Make sure you take the time to position and cut the carpet perfectly and glue every part of it into place. You will be thankful later when you try and slide the seats back in, especially if you don’t have an extra set of hands to hold the carpeting in place with the Seattle and bolt cutouts perfectly aligned. If the dashboard is cracked or faded, a terrific solution is a dash cap. These sell for about fifty dollars and slide over your existing dash perfectly. This is an inexpensive and easy way to restore the dash to a like-new appearance.
Mine installed in about five minutes with some silicone adhesive and some weights to hold it down. A few trim pieces and some touch-up paint will complete the interior. Now the artistic part of the project begins. I say artistic because if you do not enjoy shaping and smoothing the body panels on the car, you will never make it through the job. Most bodywork can be done with some body filler, an orbital sander, and some patience. Gaping holes and rotted panel mounts must be handed over to a professional, who will either replace the panel or reconstruct it with fiberglass resin.
Special attention must be paid to the window channels underneath the molding where rust usually takes its toll. I did all of the basic reconstruction on my Chevy’s panels. If you are willing to tackle the gaping holes, a fiberglass matting with a coat of resin on each side will create a rock-hard repair. The final smoothing and straightening had to be professionally done, but I saved a lot of money just by covering the holes. When the body is complete, it is a good idea to dip into your pocket and pay a professional to spray a perfect layer of paint on the car.
This will finish off all the work you have done and it will transform the car’s appearance drastically. Painting a car is an extremely delicate art, and equipment such as a spray booth and compressors are absolutely necessary to do the job right. After putting on a good set of tires and wheels that have been painted and polished and adding a few more personal touches, your project car is ready to drive. I went to a car show in Hershey, Pennsylvania and picked up a set of four 1973 Buick wheels that resembled the 1969 Chevy’s. A little polish and touch-up paint made them look like new.
If you buy used wheels, pay very close attention to the edges to make sure there are no irregularities to cause a vibration at high speeds. Common sense is the only thing you need to refer to when picking up used parts. If the time is taken to do each step correctly, the result is phenomenal. The work is never done, however. An antique is always in need of attention and maintenance, and you cannot afford to let your restoration work and money go to waste. These projects have proven to be some of the most rewarding hobbies in my life, as well as for countless other people who enjoy hands-on work and a thrilling driving experience.