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Tips for Bringing a Vintage Car Back to Life for Do-it-yourselfers; Restoring Classics with less Hassle

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Updated October 31st, 2020

Written by
Shaun Fyffe
Author
Reviewed by
Greg Fowler
Car Mechanic

Restoring a vintage car to its former glory is a labor of love for classic car enthusiasts.

It requires hours of hard work, tracking down parts, and potentially significant sums of money spent on repairs.

Most car owners would agree, though, that the sacrifices are worth it when the car is finally ready to hit the road.

You don’t have to be a mechanic or even a hobbyist able to bring a vintage car back to life.

You also don’t need to break the bank!

How much is it going to cost?

I’ve outlined the options below:

 Full restorePartial restore
Do-it-yourself (DIY)$10,000 to $30,000$5,000 to $12,000
Out sourced$30,000 to $70,000$10,000 to $15,000
Show room ready$50,000 to $200,000$25,000 to $85,000

After restoring a few cars of my own, I compiled a list of tips that have helped me make the most of my car restoration projects.

I’m confident that these tips will help you successfully restore the car of your dreams.

I’ve been able to restore an old muscle car for less than 10K, it wasn’t perfect, but it still turned heads! 

Find your vintage car

Before you start looking for a vintage car to restore, you need to ask yourself a few key questions.

How much time and work are you willing to commit to restoring the car?

The amount of money you are willing to spend upfront on the car?

How much money are you willing to spend on restoring the car?

The answers to those three questions will help guide you to purchase the right car for your needs.

If your time or future budget is limited, you may look to buy a partially restored car.

1998 Nissan 240SX

A 1998 Nissan 240SX is an excellent car for beginners to do a little practice restoration. It is cheaper than most, and the parts are readily available.

That way, you’ll still be able to take pride in fully restoring your classic car without needing to make sacrifices in your schedule or monthly spending.

If time and your future budget are of no concern and you want to get your hands a little dirty or don’t have the money upfront to buy a partially restored vintage vehicle, you want to look for a complete restoration project.

At this point, you’re probably overly eager to buy your vehicle and get started on its restoration.

While it is tempting to make an impulse purchase, you’ll regret it down the road.

If you haven’t joined an online or local community specializing in car restoration or started reading magazines dedicated to restoring classic cars, now is a good time to start.

Here are some of my favorites:

The more research you do before buying a car, the fewer headaches you’ll have when you actually start restoring it.

Once you’ve done your research, and you feel confident that you are ready to begin the journey of restoring a vehicle, you’re ready to start shopping.

Where to shop for vintage cars?

Shopping for a vintage car has certainly gotten easier than it once was.

Countless websites specialize in the sale of old vehicles.

Consult with your online community to determine which car dealer website is the best for the vehicle you want to restore.

Where are some of the best places to shop for older vehicles?

SiteBenefit
eBay MotorsExcellent site to find cars for beginners.
CraigslistYou are able to find gems in Craigslist.
ClassicCars.comA lot of vehicles are from dealerships, but still worth checking out.
HemmingsConsidered a favorite for all types of classic lovers.
SearchTempestA site to search ALL of Craigslist and Ebay.

If you prefer to keep it local, ask a trusted mechanic if they know any mechanics specialized in vintage vehicles.

There’s a good chance that mechanics specializing in restoring vehicles will know who is looking to sell their vintage car.

They will also know what local dealers to avoid due to shoddy business practices or high prices.

Plan your restoration project

Once you’ve decided on a car to buy and restore, it’s time to plan out your restoration project.

The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out where you are going to restore the vehicle.

Do you have enough space on your property to use as a dedicated restoration area?

If not, you may need to contact some local mechanics or friends to determine if you can rent space in their garage.

Be aware, though, that renting garage space will be quite costly.

Once you’ve got your vintage car and secured a workspace, there are a few decisions you’ll need to make.

First, you’ll need to inspect the car and take note of the parts that need to be replaced.

Don’t buy parts before you need them. This could save you a ton of money. 

You’ll want to plan out a monthly schedule with short and long-term goals to help keep you focused without being overwhelmed.

Finally, you’ll want to establish what your restoration budget looks like.

Whatever you think your budget should be, add about 25% to that number.

Below are planned costs with actual budget:

Planned Cost Actual Budget
$10,000$12,500 - $13,000
$20,000$25,000 - $26,000
$30,000$37,500 - $39,000

With every car restoration I’ve done, I have gone slightly over budget every time.

It’s the nature of the beast!

As you disassemble the vehicle and start work on your car, I suggest you take pictures and detailed notes as you go.

These pictures and notes will come in handy when ordering parts and figuring out where any spare nuts or bolts are supposed to go.

Where can I go for help when I’m restoring my vintage car?

One of the best places to go is YouTube.

You can find anything related to vehicles there.

Outside of YouTube, here are some of my favorites:

Whether this is your first time restoring a vehicle or your hundredth, you are bound to need help or have a question related to the project.

The worst thing you can do is avoid asking for help.

Hopefully, you’ve already found a car community online.

Without a doubt, there is probably somebody else that had an issue or question similar to yours at some point.

These online communities are the perfect place to get advice from others that share your passion for cars.

Find your parts

With a budget in mind, I recommend deciding how authentic you want your restored vintage car to be.

Before shopping for parts, figure out what parts must be original.

With any luck, you’ll be able to use some of the car’s existing parts.

Look up tested techniques to clean parts.

You might be surprised at how many you’ll be able to reuse.

Cleaning and reusing parts will help free up your budget for more original parts.

While you could buy all your needed parts upfront, I’d advise you to purchase them as you go.

You never know what deals you might find as you go through the process.

Where can I find parts to use when rebuilding my vintage car?

Most car enthusiasts would agree that the first place you should check for parts is in a classic car parts catalog.

The two most common classic car parts catalogs are Year One and Classic Industries.

While those catalogs are excellent resources, there are a wealth of car part dealers online.

AntiqueCar.com, Kanter Auto Products, and eBay Motors are all highly regarded places to buy parts.

I also recommend checking with your online car community.

Below is a list of places to buy parts:

 ProsCons
Year OneLeader in ordering old car muscle car parts.Starting to slack according to reviews.
Classic IndustriesExcellent site to order parts.Long delays for some parts.
AntiqueCar.comGreat for really old vehicles. Can be a delay when ordering parts.
KanterExcellent site to order parts for 40s, 50s, and 60s vehicles. Complaints of sending parts that don't fit properly.

Some of the best deals I’ve gotten on original vintage car parts were from fellow enthusiasts in my online community.

You’ll probably find the cheapest parts from local car salvage centers.

It’s always worth a call to one of these centers to determine if they have any vehicles similar to the one you’re restoring.

Remove and restore the Engine

In just about every restoration project I’ve undertaken, I’ve had to do some work on the engine.

Rarely will you find a vintage car needing restoration that has a fully working engine?

Search for old vehicle parts on eBay.

If there is any vehicle component that you’ll want to keep 100% authentic with original parts, it is the engine.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places online that specialize in selling original parts for car engines.

How can I save money on engine restoration?

The easiest way to save money on rebuilding an engine is to do it yourself or DIY project.

Before you can disassemble and rebuild the engine, you’ll need to remove it from the car.

Engine removal is a lot easier than it sounds, and by doing it yourself, you’ll save as much as $450 from your allotted restoration budget.

The engine removal process typically takes about four to six hours.

When that is complete, the next step is to tear the engine down.

If this is your first car restoration project, I’d recommend seeking assistance from someone who has done it before.

Or jump to YouTube for advice. 

The last thing you’ll want to do is make a mistake when restoring the engine.

Below is an approximate cost to rebuild certain engine types:

Type Engine RebuildCost
Rebuild without problems*$1,200 - $3,500
More expensive car engine rebuild$4,500 - $8,500
Restoration rebuild older vehicle$6,500 - $10,500
Classic car engine rebuild$7,500 - $12,500

*typical modern vehicle 10+ years old

Additionally, do not cut corners at any point, as any savings you’ll get by taking shortcuts or skimping in the process will cost you a lot more down the road.

Get rid of the rust

Don’t be surprised if your car restoration involves some sort of corrosion or rust removal.

If the corrosion isn’t too bad, you can probably get away with sand-blasting or acidic rust treatments.

Amount of rustCost
Minor rust$40 - $200
Intermediate rust$200 - $1,000
Major rust$400 - $2,500
Rust on older car$400 - $3,500

However, areas with significant rust damage will need to be removed and replaced by welding in new metal plates.

Give your vintage car a new paint job

Once the rust is removed and your vehicle is ready to run, it’s time to give it a fresh paint job.

Most car enthusiasts would agree that using original colors for the paint job is key to any restoration project.

How much does it cost to get the original paint job?

I’ve found the average cost for an original paint job is from $4,000 to $10,000.

It is going to depend on the quality. 

Original paint colors are especially important if you plan to sell the vehicle in the future.

Below are approximate costs for paint jobs by vehicle type:

TypeCost
New vehicle$2,500 - $5,000
Used vehicle$2,000 - $5,000
Car restoration$4,000 - $10,000

Can I do the paint job myself?

You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

A professional paint sprayer should almost always do vintage car paint jobs.

With that said, you can save money on the paint job by doing the necessary prep yourself.

Prepping your car to be painted is a fairly simple process.

In short, you’ll need to apply upwards of four to five coats of primer, wash the car, wipe it down, sand it, and brush it down.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to bring it to a professional to be painted.

At this point, you’re ready to begin the vintage car restoration project you’ve been dreaming about.

Be patient throughout the process and enjoy every minute as you bring your classic car back to its former glory.

Shaun Fyffe

Shaun Fyffe

Shaun is an auto insurance expert with ten years of experience as a researcher and content writer. He's fluent in Spanish, teaching it plus AP computer science at Nyack Public Schools in New York. He has a B.A. in Spanish, B.S. in computer science from Florida State University, and an M.A. from SUNY New Paltz.

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