The term ‘restoration’ has a broad meaning when used to describe the process of making a car ‘like new’. It may mean taking a car as-is, fixing everything that is broken, and making it a good driver – we call this a survivor. It may mean tearing a car down to every single nut and bolt, cleaning and refinishing everything, and putting it all back together – we call this a ‘nut and bolt’ restoration because it is torn down to every nut and bolt.
We have a saying in the restoration business, “You can restore a car many times, but it can only be original once”. This is why survivors are very popular right now and are sometimes demanding a higher price than fully restored cars. I’ve done both, but I think full nut and bolt restorations are the most fun.
The process I am going to describe in the next few articles is that of doing a complete mechanical restoration. The body work is being left out, as that is not my area of expertise. The pictures will be from my Cobra restoration, but you could be restoring a Yugo – it doesn’t matter, a car is a car. A survivor restoration can be thought of as normal auto repair, albeit more expensive. Sometimes the car are cleaned spotless, other times the restorer feels the dirt is part of the ‘patina’.
Since these are large projects consisting of thousands of parts, you need to have a proper project plan. The first and most important part of any restoration is to gather information. You need to do a thorough documentation of what you have and what works and what doesn’t work. If there is anything missing, you’re going to need to find it – that may be difficult if it is a rare car.
The next step is to tear down the car. Documentation is the key to success with any restoration. With the advent of digital cameras there is no excuse for not take tons and tons of pictures. With the Cobra I took over 6000! I used a DSLR camera for that one, but honestly the camera in your phone will suffice. I have my phone setup so my pictures are automatically uploaded to my dropbox account and I can access them immediately from my PC.
Teardown is done at a large bench, about waist high. I sometimes lay down butcher paper to help contrast the parts. The black rubber we have on our benches doesn’t allow enough detail to show up.
I try to break down everything as sub-assemblies. That way it makes more sense going back together. For example, a brake caliper can be laid out and photographed without taking up too much space. The individual parts are placed in Ziploc bags labeled with the sub-assembly written in sharpie.
From here, the body and the mechanical bits are separated. The body goes to the body shop and the mechanical parts are cleaned and prepped for refinishing. The cleaning that we do is very labor intensive and is key to keeping the car as original as possible. Any damage done to the surface finish of a part diminishes its originality.
For example, a bolt gets nicks and cuts on the surface of the metal during its manufacture and during its installation. If you use a bead blaster to remove dirt from the bolt you are destroying the surface finish as the beads pummel the surface of the metal, altering the microscopic landscape.
Because of this, we use nylon brushes only to remove dirt. That’s a lot of scrubbing and we keep a lot of people employed doing it but in the end it’s worth it. If I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s if you rub something long enough it will eventually become perfectly clean.
After everything is perfectly clean, you need to decide how to refinish them. Certain parts get painted, certain parts are bare metal, certain things get plated. The key to originality is to re-plate in the original process. The original processes vary depending on manufacturer and the time period the car is from. The Cobra had many of its metal parts plated in the silver-cadmium process. Due to the toxicity of cadmium, auto manufacturers no longer use this process so you need to find a plater who has the facility to do this. Re-plating in a different process such as zinc-dichromate can lead to loss of points at Concours D’elegance car shows.
After everything is refinished, any parts that were found broken have been replaced, and the bodywork and paint is done, it is time to assemble. I use folding table covered either with butcher paper or moving blankets to lay out my parts. Platers don’t care about all the bags you used to separate all your bolts, nuts, and other hardware. Everything is just thrown in one box.
This is where the pictures taken during teardown come into play. A tablet computer works great for pulling up pictures when doing a restoration. I lay out the parts, hardware, etc. of the sub-assemblies on the table and make sure everything matches what I had during teardown. If your pictures are detailed enough, you can see those tooling marks in the hardware and put it back exactly where it came out. This helps add to originality.
I use a two step process to put the car back together. First, I test fit everything. I assemble the entire suspension – but every nut and bolt is left purposefully loose. I do that to make sure I have everything I need and that there are no stripped threads, etc. After everything is mocked up I tear it down, lay it out, and start over. This time I fully tighten the fasteners as well as adding grease or sealant where necessary. The assembly is now good as new.
This process prevents damage from repeated assembly/dis-assembly cause when things don’t fit right. Trust me, things will not fit right at first. Tightening and loosening repeatedly will mar the finish of the freshly plated fasteners and is to be avoided.
So after everything is assembled you have a perfect car, right? Wrong. This never happens and this is where most restoration shops stop. I can’t tell you how many so-called ‘perfectly restored’ cars have come through my shop that didn’t run well (or at all), the brakes pull, and the electrical system almost completely inoperable.
This is an area our company shines. We make sure every single system in the car is 100% operational before the restoration is delivered. Most cars are restored by body shops. Body men are not mechanics and thus cannot be expected to get the car mechanically perfect. That is why we have both a team of body men and a team of mechanics. The body men make it look perfect, the mechanics make it work perfect.
This process is called ‘sorting’ and is a great deal of what my career has consisted of. Finding someone who is good at electrical work is rare and significant time is spent working on electrical systems. Finding someone who can tune these engines is also extremely difficult (as expressed in a previous article). Once everything is working and the car drives perfectly it is said to be ‘completely sorted’.
At this point, take lots of pictures because she’s a beauty. Nothing is more striking that a perfectly restored classic car and they are definitely a work of art. From here the car should be enjoyed. Either on display at shows or out on the open road.
I fear that the ability to properly restore a car is going to be lost. In the automotive repair business, it is no longer normal to repair anything. Everything is replaced in modules. Back in the day, if you had a bad alternator your mechanic fixed it. If the brushes were bad, he replaced them. These days the entire unit is replaced. I can’t take a modern technician and just drop him into this line of work. He will not be able to fix anything.
The best I can do is find someone who has an extensive education as well as experience out there troubleshooting. The mechanical righty-tighty-lefty-loosey of tearing down and re-assembling a car is easy and comes with mechanical aptitude. The real trick is in the sorting and you need someone who really knows what they are doing.
I hope to pass on what I have learned in the industry someday. Now all I need to do is talk a school into letting me do it.