This article is the first of a series that discusses the car dude’s retirement dream – building or restoring a dream car for going for ice cream with your best girl/guy on Saturday evening. Look for a new article every few weeks.
I have heard it over and over for decades, mostly from folks who have a retirement date in sight. The “car hobby” is big today. Cable and satellite TV are full of “do it yourself” car shows, including classic car auctions. These feed our dreams.
There are many classic cars from which to choose, but most choose a car from their past – a vehicle that is meant to recapture a memory, a time, a place. But this time, the car would be better than the one that is remembered. A six-cylinder Mustang turns into a Mach I. A rusty Camaro will be pristine. A Plymouth Satellite was really a Road Runner at heart. And that step-through Honda 50? A Harley.
Some will shop the ads and maybe even an auction or two for the restored car, but that takes a lot of money. Many want the joy of ownership, but also the pride of restoring their dream themselves. And gee – I’m retired, so what else am I going to do?
So what does it take to find, restore and drive that memory?
Obviously, the first task is deciding what to restore. While it may seem like a simple choice, there are a lot of variables to consider. How easy will it be to find what you want? What will it cost? What will it be worth when restored? Will it actually be drive-able when complete? And most importantly, will it be safe?
The internet has been a lifesaver for car restorers everywhere. Between parts suppliers and internet forums, you can learn anything you need online. So research, as important as it is, becomes a rather simple task – and time-consuming.
For this blog, we are going to restrict our discussions to cars from the sixties and early seventies – the kinds of cars that we had before we knew we were HouseSpouseLife-ers. While a popular choice is muscle cars, we will also talk about some of the more eclectic brands and styles, including sports cars and other unusual vehicles.
Memories have a tendency to block the bad and accentuate the good. My first car was a 1964 VW Bug that used more oil than gas. It boasted 40 horsepower when new, but many of those horses left the pasture a long time before. I had a great time with that car, and when I see a restored early Bug, I wax nostalgic…but I wouldn’t want it back, even restored.
Cars back then were much simpler – simple technology, simple wiring, and simple mechanics. Only expensive sports cars had fuel injection – when was the last time you rebuilt and set up a carburetor? Or points? Or set timing? All these things are done automatically today by computer.
So choosing the car has to involve a realistic accounting of your own skills. Even if you acquire a car that is already restored, can you keep it in top condition? If not, are there local mechanics who are familiar with this brand, model and vintage? And do you have the funds to pay these specialists?
Next is to decide if 1) you have a place to store your baby and 2) do you have a place with the tools and equipment needed to do a restoration – or even just complete basic service? And what about a place for spare parts – you will need them. Without appropriate space, your project will be dead before you even start.
Finding the Car
Once you have made your choice, it’s time to hit the pavement and start your search. Craigslist, Ebay, local car clubs, car forums, and other online resources are all good places to look for your dream. But if you are buying at distance, remember that you have to factor in shipping costs to the purchase price. Also remember that nothing beats seeing the car first-hand. If you find a car that is eight states away, go ahead and get in the car or buy a plane ticket and go touch it. That’s right – go get in front of the car and look it over yourself. Not that anyone would lie to make a sale, but expanding on the positives should be expected.
The internet and the local car club is full of stories of cars that looked great in the photos but turned out to be horrible once the shipper arrived with their prize. Rust is a big, expensive deal, and rust covered with Bondo and paint is worse. Seeing the car first-hand is worth the cost of transportation to and from.
If you are restoring – and buying a “project” – get the most complete car you can find, even if the parts don’t work as designed. Determining how part A fits into part B is very important, much easier if you actually take it apart. And some parts are “NLA” – no longer available, which means that finding replacements will be difficult and expensive, if you can find them at all.
CarFax isn’t available for cars built before 1981. There are other resources online for checking histories on older cars, arranged mostly by brand. Don’t be surprised if you cannot find a history on your car of choice.
Once you have chosen your new toy, planning the restoration is key to success – both financially and otherwise. Here is what commonly happens…you plan your restoration to be a “driver” quality car. When looking over the car, some of the parts, trim and interior as well as the paint and other finishes may look fine. So you set your budget to reuse parts that came on the car, like bumpers, trim and upholstery.
Then the restoration begins. The fresh paint looks great, but when those old bumpers with the dull-ish finish are mounted, well, they look terrible. So you order new bumpers. Cha-ching. The new bumpers look great, but the chrome trim on the fenders is a bit knacky. New trim comes by UPS. The headlight bezels and grille don’t match the newness of the trim. Then there’s the cloudy corners in the windshield. And those two small cracks in the padded dash. And the carpet. And the engine could use those aluminum valve covers and air cleaner. Next thing you know the budget is shot, and the timeline is two or three times what you thought it would be. Your three month “freshening” has turned into a two year restoration. And you have a lot of explaining to do about the budget.
So, should you go all-out on the restoration? That is the decision that you need to make at the beginning, and you need to stick to it. It is hard to do. But remember too that you will find things that need to be repaired or replaced outside of your budget. An otherwise well-running engine is found to be in need of a complete rebuild. The brakes are not working well and need a complete overhaul. The wiring harness has been cut and spliced beyond recognition, so nothing works.
To avoid surprises, get an expert to help you evaluate your project. I’m not talking about an enthusiast, but a real expert. Find someone who will help you make sense of the project, help you plan, and act as a “go-to” person when you find yourself over your head.
So fill in the blank – “When I retire, I want to restore a ___________.” Good luck and have fun!
For those of you who are saying, “When I retire, I want to build a _______” from the kit car world, we will address that in an upcoming article! Check back often!
Special thanks to HouseSpouseLifer Paul who served as the inspiration for this article. Paul has recaptured his youth with the restoration of a 1973 Dodge Challenger, a “quick” refresh that turned into a two-year restoration. But his beautiful black Challenger 340 Rallye is a great car!
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Kevin, Christal, Jerry & Barbara